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Megan thought, Someday, I need to just buy my own damn van and quit borrowing Zoltan's, as Watson drove The Divine Sarah, their landlord's Art Deco vintage VW bus, past the Wonder City limits and onto the winding Pennsylvania back roads beyond. Early spring was more visible here on the drizzly day, with the trees just putting out dark red buds and pale yellow-green early leaves, and a few stray daffodils popping yellow onto the landscape. I'm very nearly cleared for driving again; hell, I'm nearly cleared for getting back on public transit. I think I'm tired of being driven everywhere for a while. Since the telepathic mucking about in her head two years earlier, she'd had periodic seizures that prohibited her from driving. Since her super-strength was above Class 5, she also couldn't be on public transit when she might have a seizure—to do so endangered the public. She also couldn't be on ladders at work, and the whole thing had put a serious hitch in her informal carpentry apprenticeship. Aggressive medication and careful telepathic therapy to undo some of the damage had mostly controlled them, finally. It's been nearly six months since the last one. Fingers crossed that was the end.
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How about another detail from the novel cover? Angry Project Manager Suzanne!

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Happy sixth anniversary to us! More things to be said tomorrow; for now, please enjoy this finale for Volume 3, with its special surprise just for you all.

Everything Dies

Angelica was changing into her new dress in Madame's bedroom—carefully, carefully, so as not to muss either hair or makeup, done professionally less than an hour earlier—when she heard the commotion out in front of the house. X knocked on the door a few moments later and said, "Our chariot is here."

"Come give me a hand?" Angelica said, after struggling with her dress halfheartedly and deciding she'd rather have a handsome helper. She deserved it for dealing with today.

X came into the room. Sie was wearing an exquisitely tailored black three-piece suit and a snow-white dress shirt with French cuffs and onyx rose cufflinks. The tie was deep blue silk with a pattern of pale grey gingko leaves, and was restrained by an onyx rose tie clip that matched the links. Angelica gave a low whistle.

"You're too kind," X said with a small smile. "What can I do?"
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Sorry for the late-in-the-week posting, but this one was a hard episode to write for various reasons. (Jane's death was hard to write, but it was one of the first episodes I wrote when I started this volume, continuously editing and revising as I got closer to it.) Hope you enjoy the longest ep we've had in a few weeks.

This Neighborhood Has Gone to the Dogs

Tinkermel and Tizemt brought a levitating gurney up from the lab and a blanket, and helped Lady Justice and Madame Destiny arrange Jane's body on it.

Angelica looked up at one point during this process, after the brief and lovely taking-down of Pastor Al. Apparently living things are just really fucking around with themselves constantly, because she kept getting dizzy on her new vision/sense/whatever the hell it was Jane had thrust upon her. The gravel was restful by comparison—still teeming with tiny life, but not as… busy as human bodies.

"I brought a stasis field too," Tizemt said. "Since we don't know how long it will be before we can get her, um, somewhere appropriate."

"She's going nowhere," Lady Justice said with a grim vehemence that startled Angelica into looking up again.

Angelica and Tinkermel traded glances (she was grateful she could see his face through the haze of !!LIFE!!). Tizemt nodded. "Why don't we go into the house?" she said.

A sudden panic seized her. She was heartbroken and devastated, and felt like she should help comfort Jane's oldest friend. But every time she looked at people, the rage at what Jane had done to her welled up. Jane had been really fucking vehement about her not telling anyone until she knew what she was doing. If she went into that house, it would all come out, will she or nil she.

Her brain flailed around for something else to do, and Angelica suddenly realized there were riots in her neighborhood, and her grandmother was right in the middle of it all.

"Watson?" she said, when Watson had stuffed her cell phone into her pocket. "Can you take me to my neighborhood?"

Watson and X stared at her for a moment, blankly, then glanced after the little trail of people going into the house.

X said, "We can turn Aloysius over to the cops."

Watson said, "If we can find any that are actual cops, as opposed to paramilitary troops."

X grimaced. "That's what I like about you, Watson: your unstoppable optimism."

Angelica summoned a smile, still looking at them despite the dizzying constant shift of their bodies, and said, "Guys? I just want to see my grandmother."

Watson and X swung into the Divine Sarah, and Angelica joined them. She spent a lot of time staring at the garnet-carpeted floor or walls. The Divine Sarah might have a personality all her own, and be older than either Angelica or X, but she wasn't ALIVE in the way Angelica's new power recognized.

It was a long, brutal drive across town as the sun set and darkness slid in over the city. Some areas were clearly without power, as people sat out on stoops with flashlights and candles and maybe weapons in complete darkness. Something was burning off to the east, possibly down by the river. Masses of people surged across streets from time to time, causing Watson to jam on the brakes (and Angelica always regretted looking up at those moments—LIFE!!!111!!!). Men in black ran pell-mell away from baseball-bat-wielding middle-aged white women. (Okay, she didn't regret looking up for that one.) A group of super-types in full colorful spandex ("Supervillains. They're called The Bloggers," Watson said. "You're shittin' me," Angelica said. "I wish I were," Watson replied.) strolled slowly down the street after a panicking trio of men in black, and Watson chose another street to take.

The drive that was normally 30 minutes took three teeth-grinding, stop-starting, nerve-frazzling hours.

(Somewhere in there, they did, in fact, manage to find actual real Wonder City police and offloaded the swollen-faced Aloysius to them. Watson suggested that they fingerprint and book him while he was unconscious, as he was Faerie-touched, which made them just get on the horn with an urgent request for the Equestrian. As Watson drove the Divine Sarah away, she was smiling grimly.)

The power was out in Angelica's neighborhood, but little knots of people were standing around on street corners with 55-gallon drums that held fires, like it was the dead of winter instead of midsummer. Her stomach clenched when she saw that the groups around these fires were not her friends and neighbors, but little masses of armed white men with appalling emblems tattooed on various parts of them (like their shaved heads). One group pushed off from their "guardpost" and swaggered toward the Divine Sarah, assault rifles lazily resting on their arms.

Watson slowed to a drift as one of them walked in front of the van, and shook her head at the gestured command to roll her window down. Angelica felt unspeakably relieved that Watson's "soft butch" persona did not include so much macha as to try to talk her way past a bunch of armed racist fuckheads.

Angelica noticed that one of the guys with a gun in front of the van had something going on inside him that looked like what happened to Jane, only much smaller and less terrifyingly active. She allowed herself a tiny vindictive grimace and tried not to think about it too much right now.

The guns erected into full assault mode, and one of the men shouted, "Roll the fuckin' window down."

Watson, already humming like a struck guitar string, ran her gaze along the line. Her hands tensed on the wheel, her right thigh tightened slightly. Angelica started to slide down to the floor.

Just then two men were taken down by huge golden streaks from the darkness. The blurs of motion slowed enough for Angelica to see the glinting yellow eyes of Simon's wolf form, and to guess that the other was Ivy. The men yelled, the men around them yelled, guns slewed around wildly…

… And then a tsunami of yelping, growling golden-brown bodies poured into the scene. Half the men went down with bloodcurdling shrieks, and the other half turned and ran. The tide of lean, brown, hungry canines followed them. The men who went under weren't there when the canine-line retreated.

A few beats later, absurdly, a tiny brown dog ran through the headlights after the horde, yipping excitedly.

The three of them sat there, staring, for a long moment, before X said, "What the fuck?"

The two wolves flashed into their human forms, and Angelica clapped a hand over her mouth in a moment of terrifying vertigo. The act of transformation changed everything about their bodies in a few seconds.

After getting control of her stomach back, Angelica had to stifle her slightly hysterical laughter at Simon wearing nothing but tiny black briefs, and Ivy wearing a pair of black shorts and a bikini top. Simon walked to the driver's door, and Watson cranked down the window.

"They're all over," he said, and it wasn't clear whether he was talking about the supremacists or the dog tidal wave. "It's been a long night."

"Yeah," the three in the van said in unison.

"You keep going, we'll run an escort," Simon said.

Angelica looked away in time to avoid seeing the pair's switch, and just watched the shadows in the alleyways out the side window, trying not to dig her nails into her legs or arms in anxiety. What the hell had happened to bring a fucking militia into her home? What had happened to her grandmother, her grandmother's house? Was her mother all right? What about Kit? Her other friends? The bodega? Her apartment?

They made painfully slow progress, especially since the militia had dumped debris and other barricade-like things in the streets, when they didn't park cars across them. Watson, X, and Angelica occasionally had to stop and duck because men with guns were being taken down by wolves (and at least one more iteration of the mass of little yellow-brown dogs), and there were some shots fired. (Angelica hoped the guy who owned the van — Watson's landlord? — would be okay with a few new decorations.)

Just when she thought she was going to explode, she realized Watson had taken them around a twisting way through a part of the neighborhood she hadn't seen in a few years, and the alley they had crawled along had dumped them out right in front of her grandmother's house.

Sitting on the front steps, near the street, was the lean, lanky, familiar form of Kit Castaneda. He was cleaning his nails, from the motions of his almost-silhouette in the city glow.

They pulled up in front and Angelica leaped out of the van. Kit flashed a grin and threw his arms around her.

A second later, she was sobbing into his shoulder and saying in a low voice, "Jane. She… it was awful, IS awful. Oh my god, Kit? ¿Está bien?"

He murmured, "Está bien, she's fine, honest, I've been here the whole time."

Angelica hugged him hard, and pulled away to look up at the front door. She didn't remember pulling away from him or running up the steps, but the next thing she knew, she and her grandmother were hugging and crying and hugging some more.

After Angelica calmed down—much later, it felt like—she was suddenly terrified by the idea of looking at her grandmother, actually seeing her with the new eyes Jane had foisted upon her. Was she some sort of horrible Valkyrie now who could see Death coming for someone? She kept her eyes screwed shut for a few moments, then decided she had to find out.

In the dim light of Abuelita's glassed candles—she saw various saints represented on the candle labels—she looked at her grandmother.

Abuelita was tiny, under five feet, brown-skinned with wavy iron-gray hair cut in a bob. She was wearing one of her good dresses for Sunday Mass, a short-sleeved floral print, and none of her jewelry, not even earrings. Angelica guessed that she was preparing for someone to break in and kill her — wearing her Sunday best and having hidden her jewelry under that floorboard she'd shown Angelica a few years earlier.

Most importantly, while there was a haze of life over and around her, there was no horrible knot of mutation present.

"Your young man, he is very kind," Abuelita said, mopping her eyes with one of the tissues she always seemed to have in her dress pocket. "He brought over a couple grocery bags of food from your place, and something he'd cooked before the power went out. We had a nice dinner. He's a good cook, a very good cook. For a man."

Angelica laughed, partly from the relief and partly from the image of Kit and her grandmother, calmly having dinner while the world went to hell. She went to the door to invite everyone in.

Just then, the horde of little brown dogs ran, yelping and howling, up the street. Watson and X bounded up the steps as the wave came toward them. Kit, however, calmly watched them approaching.

Angelica raised the light level without thinking so she could see what was happening. She almost shouted to Kit, but then the dogs started merging together as they got closer to him and confused her. They went from a mass of little brown dogs to a pack of lean, sandy, pointy-faced dogs that looked like skinny, grinning wolves.

The pack leapt for Kit so fast no one had time to react.

As they arched toward Kit, in the split second before impact, they shrank. Several leapt for his arms, a dozen or more for his lean torso, two for his feet or knees, and one directly at his crotch. They all vanished as they touched him, looking like they were pulled inside him. The echoes of the yelping faded away.

Then Angelica realized something about Kit: he didn't register on her new vision. There was no cloud of changing life there, no haze, no glow.

She felt like she'd been punched in the gut.

Kit turned toward them with a lopsided smile. He seemed different somehow. Bigger. Leaner. Hungrier. Happier. Sadder.

Her grandmother crossed herself and said, "Madre de Dios," just as Angelica said it herself.

Kit's smile got more lopsided and uncertain, and he gave them a rueful little wave. "Heh," he said.

The silence was very awkward.

Then Simon cleared his throat and said, "Well, I guess we know who let the dogs out."

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Thank you all so much for your assistance with Madame's fundraiser. I think I only have one Tarot reading left to get out. (I won't be posting this set.) We raised $150 for my friends, and that's pretty freakin' awesome. And now, after last week's little night-before-the-battle pause, we continue our tale. Please remember to click the banner at the bottom to upvote Wonder City Stories at topwebfiction!

How Futuristically Dystopic

"All you gotta do is sit still, girl," Tinkermel said, adjusting the padded brass headband hugging Kendis' scalp.

"I am gonna have some kinda hat head after this, aren't I?" Kendis said, irritably re-propping her crutches against the wall next to her comfy leather recliner.

"At least you keep it short?" Tizemt said, checking the gauges.

Angelica gave Kendis a sympathetic smile. "Wish I could help."

Kendis rolled her eyes. "I wouldn't be in this position except for someone deciding to make my power go off the damn charts."

Angelica glanced over her shoulder at the recliner where Jane Liberty was, apparently, napping.

"Well, it's not like anyone is gonna figure your shit out," Tinkermel said, connecting the first wire to the thing he insisted on calling the "tiara." "You got one of those subtle powers. Who's gonna test you? How are they gonna test you?"

"We're getting serious output levels though," Tizemt said with a low whistle. "Shit, I think this just might work."

"I told you it would work," Tinkermel said. "You just aren't mad enough, girl."

"I'm just not fabulous enough," Tizemt said, rolling her eyes. This was a conversation Angelica had heard them have several times now.

"Are you ready?" Tinkermel asked Kendis, looking up from his modified StarSeed's screen.

Kendis sighed and gripped the arms of the chair more tightly. "This isn't going to hurt, is it?" she asked in a small voice that surprised Angelica.

"Oh, no, honey," Tinkermel said sympathetically, patting her arm. "This is just broadcasting bigger what you already broadcast. You don't even need to concentrate, because your power is so passive, but it would probably boost levels if you, I dunno, meditated on clear mountain streams or something."

Kendis laughed a little and nodded. "Okay. All set."

Angelica went and held her hand, though, while Tinkermel threw the big theatrical switch.

Tizemt went to the wall touchscreen with all the subscreens that Angelica thought of as the Enterprise dashboard. She started flipping through screens. "We have 80% interference in the nearest parts of of the city, and about 60% interference in Staybird, along the river. 95% of the repeaters are in place and functioning."

"Thanks to the Sparklebutch Posse," Angelica murmured, and Kendis squeezed her hand.

Tinkermel picked up his cell phone and hit a fast-dial button. When the other end picked up, he said, "We're live. Break a leg."

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Materiel Girl

"And that is the last Nega Projector off the line," Tinkermel said, picking up the tiny box in his enormous hands. He spun it gently, checking the connectors.

The stacks of matte black boxes were lined up along the long lab bench in Professor Canis' Laboratory 5. Angelica, Simon, Ivy, and Tizemt, Professor Canis' lab manager, were standing around, drinking sodas, when this momentous announcement came.

Tizemt, an extremely tall, lanky woman with high cheekbones, medium-brown skin, and short natural hair, carefully set her soda can in a sink. She stepped around the bench to take the box from Tinkermel, apply a tiny bar code sticker, and scan it with a handheld scanner.

Simon leaned over to Angelica while this ritual was going on. "Where's your boyfriend?" he said out of the corner of his mouth.

Angelica smirked at him. "Kit is not, in his own words, mechanically inclined. At least not for delicate stuff. Also, he has a job this afternoon, and that's rare enough I didn't want to discourage him. Also, not my boyfriend."

"Is he still crashing with you?" Simon said, eyebrows rising.

"Yes, he is," Angelica said. "He cooks, and even does some cleaning. And he keeps Jane company when she stays there. Which does not equate to boyfriend."

"Is the security system doing all right?" Simon said. "Do you, er, need me to come by and check it?"

Angelica eyed him for a moment, then said, "You know perfectly well that you're always welcome, and if Jane isn't around, Kit is happy to step out for the evening." She kissed his cheek. "I miss you, you know."

Simon blushed a little and headbutted her shoulder. Angelica caught Ivy's gaze over his head and both of them shook their heads and rolled their eyes.

Tinkermel planted a kiss on Tizemt's cheek. "We couldn't have done this without you, sweetie," he said.

"Well, your design was brilliant," Tizemt said with a shrug and a smile, "and simple, for what it does. Scaling up and automating production was commensurately simple."

"All right, kids!" Tinkermel said, snapping on purple nitrile gloves. "Time for quality assurance!"

They all donned purple gloves and joined Tinkermel and Tizemt at the bench.

"Step one!" Tinkermel said, plucking a box from the pile. "Pick a box. Step two! Push the battery into the connector." He picked up a tiny battery from another box and pushed it into the box. "Step three! Check the monitor." He pointed to the modified StarSeeds on the benchtop. When he waved one over his chosen box, it displayed a sparkly purple icon that said, FABULOUS. "This one is good, so it goes into the good pile." He unplugged it and set it in one of the cardboard boxes on the bench behind him. "If it's not good, put it in the to-be-checked pile, there."

"We have fifteen hundred of these tinkertoys to get through," Tizemt said to a collective groan. "So let's get plugging."

Tinkermel started up his own StarSeed to boom some Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor, Pointer Sisters, and similar artists helping them along with remarkably speedy and singable disco/80s pop.

"All right!" Tizemt said several hours later, when they'd worked their way through the entire bench of boxes. "We've got a less than five percent failure rate, which I say is pretty bloody good. Now we distribute."

Angelica raised her hand. Tinkermel looked at her with a raised eyebrow and nodded imperiously. "I was just wondering," she said, "how we're going to accomplish that distribution. Because fifteen hundred little boxes, spread in a precise configuration all over this city? Is gonna take weeks with just the five of us."

Ivy, Simon, and Tizemt all nodded agreement.

"Aha!" Tinkermel said with a grin. "I have a secret plan, you see." He opened up his pink sparkly Star laptop, clicked something, and, when a low tone sounded, he snapped, "Sparklebutch Posse, Form UP!"

The other four exchanged amazed and baffled looks.

Voices started to come in over Tinkermel's speakers. "Acknowledged," said one. "Affirmative," said another. "Right on!" said a third. And then there were too many voices to parse individually.

"Eat some pizza," Tinkermel said over the noise, beaming at them. "Drink some beer. Cause the Posse is gonna take it from here."

Tizemt shooed Angelica, Ivy, and Simon upstairs. "You've been in the lab for hours and hours, and there are no windows. Go see the great outdoors while you eat."

Angelica got into the elevator gratefully. Simon leaned his forehead against her shoulder. She scritched him behind the ear absently.

"He'll thump if you do that," Ivy said.

"I know," Angelica said.

"My back is killing me," Simon whined.

"That's because you haven't been exercising," Ivy said. "All your human muscles have gone wibbly."

"No, I think it was the lab bench," Simon said.

"If that were so, Angelica's back should be killing her because she's a bunch taller than us," Ivy said.

Angelica said, "I'm pretty good at ignoring pain. After all, I wear high heels regularly. But you said that I and I noticed that my back hurts like a bitch."

"Well, okay then," Ivy said. Just then, the elevator stopped and opened onto the back hallway of Professor Canis' house.

They picked up a hot pizza from the temporal kitchen safe and a six-pack of beer and carried it all out onto the deck, where they settled down. It was a silent summer evening, just a hint of a breeze starting in the slanting golden rays after what had patently been a hot, still day. Simon took a long swig of beer and looked around.

"I hate to say it," he sighed, "but I miss Jasmine's kids."

"They're sweet kids," Ivy said. "What you don't miss is Jasmine, I imagine."

"I… actually kind of miss her too," he said, plucking irritably at his shorts.

"Well, they're doing just fine," Ivy said. "I checked on them when I was driving down from Boston. They're safely ensconced in western Mass," she said to inform Angelica, "Jasmine took them all there when she realized what was going on here."

Angelica vaguely remembered that their sister Jasmine had had a litter of wolf pups. Superintelligent talking wolf pups. She just nodded and drank her beer.

"I miss Mom," Ivy said, grimacing. "I wonder where she is."

"She's probably with the rest of the Gold Stars," Angelica said. "In that… place Renata apparently sensed them. Or something. I don't really understand it."

The siblings exchanged a glance. "Yeah, she's probably fine," Simon said. "She probably just talked too much and the aliens shoved her in there to shut her up."

Then the sound of a motorcycle engine distracted them.

"Coming this way," Simon said, standing to peer down the long driveway.

The motorcycle turned the curve at this point and roared up to the house in a cloud of summer dust. The rider parked it neatly to one side of the drive facing them, then swung off in a creak of black leather, pulling off the helmet and stowing it on the back of the bike. Six feet plus of solid muscle with an iron-gray flattop and a weather-lined face gave them a brief nod and a laconic, "Mel?"

Simon pointed at the door and said, "Through the kitchen, then turn right and the first door on the right is the elevator. Take it to level E."

There was another nod and a, "Sir," followed by a very slight smile, nod, and, "Ladies," before the rider turned to follow Simon's directions. The back of the jacket was emblazoned with the Dykes on Bikes logo—Oh, thought Angelica, trading impressed looks with Ivy, I may not be as straight as I keep telling myself—and a reflective rainbow pegasus.

And then they just kept coming, dribbling in one at a time at first, and then arriving in groups. Motorcycles stacked elbow-to-elbow in the driveway, pickup trucks lining the drive and then, with Simon and Ivy directing them, parking on the front yard. Angelica was dazzled by the metallic glitter helmets, the rhinestoned jackets, the pink and purple lights along the running boards, the glitzy motorcycle saddlebags. Every one of the riders or drivers were definitely on the masculine end of the spectrum, but oh, what a shiny spectrum it was. Most of them greeted Angelica and Ivy with some level of cheer, and all were respectful and polite to Simon.

At one point, Simon sat down, after directing a butchly horde indoors, and said, "You know, I'd seen some of these people around town at one point or other, but I had no idea that there was… this!" He gestured at the enormous variety of vehicles in his mother's yard.

"Have you been counting?" Ivy said. "Because I've been counting."

"I gave up at 74," Angelica said, mopping her brow with a handkerchief from her purse. "I have to say I've never been privileged to see such a parade of fine, fine people as I have tonight."

"The lab must be bursting," Simon said, picking up his pizza slices and eating half of it at a bite.

Ivy snorted into her beer. "All the butch is rubbing off on you, Simon."

Angelica smiled at him fondly and wondered if he wouldn't mind taking her off to his childhood bedroom for a romp.

At that moment, the door opened and a stream of dykes, bears, and othergendered/otheridentified butches began to stream out, talking, laughing, high-fiving, punching, hugging, wrestling, kissing, voices filling the night so loudly that Angelica feared briefly, ludicrously, that the aliens would overhear them. Pinks, purples, greens, yellows, satins, silks, jewels, leather, lights, and bells flashed and turned and crowded, and then the motorcycles and trucks and cars started coming to life, headlights flicking on and engines purring into the cacophony.

Then the din faded, leaving only a trickle of hearty hunks still chatting, exchanges news or phone numbers, pausing to compare paper maps to maps on phones. At last, Tizemt and Tinkermel emerged from the house, carrying their own pizza box and a six-pack of beer each.

Tinkermel went to hug one of the motorcycle dykes before joining the crew on the deck. Tizemt threw herself into a padded chair and looked around wild-eyed. "What a bloody great crowd!" she exclaimed.

Angelica smiled and said, a little dreamily, "Yeahhh," which got balled-up napkins thrown at her by the siblings.

The last motorcycles rolled down the driveway and Tinkermel came up to take his seat, like a king taking his throne. "I told you," he said to their wondering expressions, "I got this."

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Not My Beautiful Wife

When they met for beer at the Great Caesar's Ghost Bar and Lounge, Tizemt was sporting the most magnificent afro Megan had ever seen on a real person.

"Um," Megan said, "weren't you bald three or four weeks ago?"

Tizemt patted at the astonishing outline self-consciously. "Think it's too much? I was just playing around with one of the Professor's experimental bioenhancers and, well, this happened."

"Happened," Megan said after ordering a pair of microbrew ales and a large order of edamame for the two of them.

"Well, all right," Tizemt said. "It grew. A lot. The Professor suggested the 'do. I thought it was change of pace, you know?"

"It certainly is," Megan said, running her fingers through her own short, straight hair. It was getting shaggy around the edges and needed cut, she thought. She felt a little... blue collar with Tizemt tonight. Megan was wearing a thick flannel shirt over a long-sleeved t-shirt, and jeans. Her friend was wearing a bright gold and black African print tunic and matching trousers, enormous gold hoop earrings, and a variety of bangles that jangled agreeably when she gestured. The colors were lovely against her dark brown skin. Tizemt was very well dressed indeed, and kept drawing long, interested glances from some of the black men in the mixed crowd. "If I'd known you were going to dress, I would've at least tried to keep up."

Tizemt grinned. "It was a whim. I haven't had really good clothes in a while. I'll have you know I was known as a snappy dresser back home."

"I believe it," Megan said. And much more femme than I expected, she thought. She thanked the server for the beers and the snacks, and started in on both.

"So how are things with your girlfriend?" Tizemt asked, popping beans out of the edamame pods with her teeth.

"They're not," Megan said, "if you're talking about G. She's in spandex, did I tell you?"

"No," Tizemt said, eyeing Megan's excessively casual facade. "She knew how you felt about it, right?"

"Yeah," Megan said, peeling apart an edamame pod with her fingers, "but she's apparently possessed by a ghost of a para that wants to still be a hero or something."

"Oh, ghosts," Tizemt said, taking a swig of beer. "They're bad news."

Megan nodded agreement, staring into the amber liquid in her glass. "She doesn't like being possessed. But she can't do anything about it. Because she's possessed."

"I don't like where this is going," Tizemt said.

"She as much as asked me to help," Megan said. "And so did another friend. And I think I'm probably going to."

"You know," Tizemt said, thoughtfully tapping her chin, "a friend of mine at MIT told me -- remember I was still passing as a man at the time -- that his mother had always told him to 'stay away from those white women, they'll cause trouble every time.' I hadn't really believed him at the time, but you're presenting a convincing argument."

"Gee, thanks," said Megan. "I'm not sure it's that she's white or that she's para, though."

"Oh, being para just magnifies the problem," Tizemt said. "You forget that I've spent the last couple of months with Professor Canis, listening to the various woes of her children. They're just the same stories I heard in the dorm, you know, with the added twist of superstrength, or superspeed, or the ability to read emotions. The real problem is that she's possessed by a dead woman."

"I'm trying to figure out who to talk to among the Mystikai," Megan said, rubbing her forehead.

"Why?" Tizemt said. "Why do you have to be her magical negro and save her ass? All it's going to do is get you killed."

"I'm not..." Megan began.

"All right, why do you have to be her magical person of color?"

"Um," Megan said, wilting. "Great sex?"

"Just how great is this sex?" Tizemt inquired.

"Mindblowing?" Megan said.

"Good enough to die for?" Tizemt said.

"Um," Megan said.

"Think now about what cryptic phrase you want to gasp out in your death scene," Tizemt said, rolling her eyes.


From the Author:
Apparently, my title brain really has given out, as I had to turn to my wife for today's title too. Hopefully, I will re-acquire my title brain over the next couple of weeks.

My heartfelt gratitude for the comments and donations this past week. I feel all warm and fuzzy and loved. :) I hope for the best of the holidays for you, if you celebrate any of them, and some relaxing and quiet times if you don't.

Again: I'm posting twice weekly during the month of December as a [fill in holiday here] gift for you all. If you like getting WCS twice weekly, then please comment on anything. :) If I get 50 comments over the course of December, I will post twice weekly all through January as well. If I get 75 comments, I'll post twice weekly through February. If, by the amazing work of you wonderful folks, I get more comments than that, I will come up with some even better reward.

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"How are you doing?" the Amazon asked as she helped Megan with her cufflinks.

"All right," Megan said, frowning down at her wrist, where her mother was twitching the small silver Trylon-and-Perisphere emblems into place. "I don't think I remembered to thank you for bringing my suit with you and coming in time for me to wear it to the funeral with Simon. So thanks."

"You're welcome," the Amazon said, stepping back to take in the effect as Megan shrugged into the black suit coat. Her own suit was an impeccable navy blue. At least, Megan thought, her mother had eschewed the string tie and cowboy boots she'd affected until a few years ago.

"I wasn't hurt, after all," Megan said, checking that her wallet and keys were safely in her trouser pockets.

"There are ways and ways of being hurt," the Amazon said, running a tanned hand through her very short salt-and-pepper hair. "Blue Eagle's body wasn't very pleasant to trip over, I expect."

"Well," Megan said, hesitating for a second over the memory before saying, "no."

"I understand they just found bones for the Bronze Guardian," the Amazon said, opening the door of her daughter's apartment and stepping into the hall.

"Yes," Megan said. "That and his armor." She followed, pulled the door shut, and locked it.

"Got the umbrella?" the Amazon asked. "It looks like we're in for another storm."

"Yeah," Megan said, picking up the golf umbrella from the stand in the hall. "Think all this weather is some weather villain being a jerk?"

The Amazon snorted. "Weather villains aren't likely to be this successful," she said, and went out the front door into the freezing, dank air. The sidewalk crunched under her feet, the sleet from the other day having solidified into rotten ice.

Megan saw that the sky was leaden, as it had been for the last several days, but that there was darker lead, as it were, to the west. "Guess it's going to be a white Christmas around here."

The Amazon beeped the lock on the van she'd rented and glanced casually over her shoulder at Megan. "I was wondering if you'd like me to stick around for Christmas."

Megan stopped and stared at her mother, who climbed into the driver's seat. Then Megan got into the passenger's side. "I... really hadn't expected that you'd do anything else. Than stay, I mean."

The Amazon gave her a twisted little smile, and Megan noticed the lines in her mother's face, cut into the southwest tan around her mouth and between her brows and around her eyes. "I don't want to cramp your style, kiddo," she said, starting the car. "You wanted to come here to make a life for yourself. I don't have to stick around if it bugs you."

There was a little silence as the Amazon backed the van out of the Marigold Lane driveway and Megan breathed. She wasn't really sure how to take the offer. Was her mother trying to weasel out of holiday stuff? Was there a new girlfriend waiting back at home? Another in the long string of starfuckers her mother still managed to bring home? Or was her mother being sincere about not wanting to get in the way? And one way or the other, how did she feel about doing the holidays with her mother, but on her own turf?

Pretty good, actually.

"I'd like you to stay," Megan said cautiously, "if you don't have anything pressing to get back to."

She decided that her mother's real smiles should be on the National Endangered Species List, because, like so many endangered species, they were stunning in their beauty when they crept out of the woods into clear sight.

"I'd like to stay," her mother said. They drove for a while in companionable silence.

"Zoltan's having dinner for everyone in the house who doesn't have somewhere to go," Megan said. "Simon's going to his mom's, but everyone else will be there. If you'd like to come, I'm sure Zoltan would be flattered."

"I've never had dinner with a vampire before," the Amazon said.

"Well! I never thought I'd ever be able to offer you a novel experience other than childrearing," Megan said.

"Will wonders never cease?" her mother said, turning the minivan into the already-crowded parking lot.

"Mom, that's a terrible thing to ask in this town," Megan said.

"I know," her mother said cheerfully, parking the van. "You're sure you don't want to walk with the Gold Stars? I can grandmother you in."

"No, thanks," Megan said. "I'm going in the back, with the retired people and other relatives, like Simon and his Puppy Pack."

The Amazon shook her head. "You're going to bitterly disappoint the media. They're so certain you're the new me."

"I would rather face Simon's crazy-ass sister Jasmine and all her puppies than give one moment of satisfaction to that rumor," Megan said, turning away.

Her mother's laughter followed her as she headed for the back end of the biggest heroes' funeral procession in Wonder City for years. She paused to acquire her two armbands -- one black with a bronze stripe for the Bronze Guardian, and one black with a blue feather printed on it for the Blue Eagle -- from a thin, conventionally pretty white girl in a fluffy white down jacket.

Simon was leaning on his crutches, chatting with a taller, slightly lighter-skinned black man about his age, and a slightly younger, rounder, darker black woman. He waved her over. "This is my sister Ivy and this is my brother Malik," he said. "Jasmine's around somewhere with the kids."

"I'm sure we'll hear them before we see them," Ivy said, shaking Megan's hand. "It's good to meet you finally." Ivy looked just like Jasmine -- the taller, sleeker build than Simon -- but her hair was in fine, shoulder-length braids tipped with multicolored cloisonné beads that clicked together agreeably when she moved. She was wearing a light grey wool car coat over black slacks.

Malik claimed her hand next. "I understand you extracted my wild man of a twin from the mess." Malik was stockier than Simon, and had a long natural afro held back from his face with a band, as well as a narrow strip of chin spinach under his lower lip. His coat looked like a crazyquilt of various striking jewel-tone fabrics (varying from plain to patterns, full of fleur de lis and paisleys and African prints), with big pewter wolf's head buttons fastening the asymmetrical front. His well-worn jeans were neat enough under the calf-length coat.

"No, no," Megan protested. "Simon totally saved the day!"

"By biting the jerk in the ass," Ivy said, nodding. "Typical."

Malik nodded sagely. "He always was a dirty fighter."

Simon's ears were turning dark red. "Standing right here, guys." Megan noticed, in the subsequent grimace, that Simon's newly-regrown teeth were bright white.

Ivy leaned over and kissed Simon on the cheek impulsively. "I'm just glad I don't have to call you 'Stumpy' now."

Megan had only seen Simon look really angry a couple of times before. "That's rude, Ivy, and fucking ableist," he snapped, "and I'm really glad Speed Dugan wasn't here to overhear you."

Megan recalled that Speed Dugan, one of Wonder City's speedsters, had lost a leg to diabetes a little less than ten years ago. It had been big news, apparently, but she'd heard about it because her mother was one of his boyfriend's friends.

Ivy recoiled and looked contrite. "I'm sorry, Simon."

Simon continued, almost without hearing her, "And the only reason I've got both legs right now is because I'm a hypocritical jerk who didn't hold up to my principles..."

"... and got completely fucking terrified, just like any normal person," Malik said, punching Simon in the shoulder hard enough to make Simon wobble on his crutches. "I know you're angry about it, and that you're angry you're in the situation, but Mom would never have let you refuse treatment anyway."

"And that's wrong too..."

"Y'all," Megan said over the impending argument doom, "funeral? Not the place for this. We'll go back to the apartment later and have drinks, and that will be the place for it."

"Did I hear the word, 'drinks'?" a black woman nearly as tall as Megan said, strolling up.

"Tizemt!" Megan exclaimed, hugging her. "So Professor Canis let you out of the lab today."

"She couldn't avoid it," Tizemt said. "I said that as she was leaving me in the lab, I would run a few of my own experiments, and oddly enough, I found myself brought along for this historic event."

"Haircut?" Megan said, gesturing toward Tizemt's closely-shaven head.

Tizemt smiled sheepishly. "Lab explosion. Now I know why the prof keeps her hair short."

Whistles blew in the crowd, and a couple of Guardians flew by overhead, calling for silence, and calling directions. Megan gave Simon's shoulder a gentle squeeze, and he smiled tightly at her.

Megan heard the drums start with a riff that was clearly a call to attention. She recognized one of the drummers, after a moment, as one of the duplicates of Thomas Jefferson "Dozen" Baker, a handsome dark-skinned hazel-eyed man she knew from news stories as an activist for biracial, para, and veterans issues. After everyone fell silent and faced the correct direction, he started a slow beat. Megan knew that elsewhere in the crowd, his other duplicates were drumming in perfect synchronization with him.

A trumpet sounded somewhere overhead (probably, inevitably, Iris in her chin-to-toes iridescent spandex, high above, invisible in the weather), and everyone slowly started forward through the dreary freezing mist.


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Into the Wolf's Den

"Thanks for letting us borrow The Divine Sarah, Zoltan," Simon said, twirling the keys. "I just can't ask these two to cram themselves into my tiny escape pod."

Zoltan waved languidly and smiled. "She doesn't get enough driving, really. Just be careful with her." He peered a little more closely at Megan, who stood stiffly. "You look tired, dear. Still not sleeping well?"

Megan smiled and managed to keep herself from shrugging. "Well, the painkillers the hospital sent me home with work just fine for the ribs and bruises, but the itching is another matter."

Zoltan's finely-groomed eyebrows rose.

"Her back is peeling," Tizemt said. "From the plasma bolt's radiation."

"Let me know if you need moisturizer. I have a vast selection," Zoltan said, adding plaintively, "They never write about how dry undead skin gets."

They retired to the garage, where they exposed The Divine Sarah to the thin light of a drizzly day: an ancient VW bus painted vividly with murals derived from Mucha's art, laced with psychadelic fillers. The interior seats were lushly upholstered in crimson and gold, and the walls were covered with garnet shag carpeting that dated from well before anyone getting into the van was born. The windows had neatly-restrained curtains of the same colors. There was a large futon folded in the back, draped with a comforter.

Simon turned the key and The Divine Sarah roared to life promptly. The trip out of town was uneventful and mostly silent. Megan slipped into a pleasant sort of torpor, staring out at the buildings sliding past.

"Er," said Simon eventually, "there's something I should warn you about."

Megan mustered an interrogatory noise, and Tizemt sat up with interest. "Yes?"

Simon swallowed hard. "Um, well, one of my sisters kind of... went feral for a couple years. Got it into her head that she should, you know, go to Alaska and join a wolf pack and learn to hunt and stuff."

The women stared at him curiously.

"Well, anyway," Simon went on, "she came back and she brought... you see, there are... what I mean is..."

"Cubs?" Megan supplied.

"Yes," Simon said, grimacing. "And they're, um, not very good at interacting with humans. So, if you could just, you know, not really pay attention to anything they say..."

"It'll be all right," Tizemt said. "I like kids. And puppies. This'll be interesting."

Simon made a noncommittal noise and turned down a dirt road. As The Divine Sarah ambled along slowly between tall trees, Megan heard a chorus of high-pitched howls start in the distance. She peered out. A six-pack of gangly wolf cubs were chasing alongside of the van, tongues hanging out in delighted canine grins.

"There they are," Simon said grimly.

"Awh," Tizemt said, peering out the window. "They're so adorable! How old are they?"

"They're almost a year old," Simon said, "chronologically. Mentally, I'd say they're five- or six-year-olds. Superintelligent, y'see."

"AWH!" Tizemt repeated, with more googlyness.

"Oh, god," Simon said, and brought The Divine Sarah to a jouncing halt in a large, open parking area next to a low-slung ranch house. "We're here." He held his hand back over his shoulder, palm up.

Tizemt tore herself away from the window and placed her ticket to the Fat Lady's show squarely in Simon's hand. "Thank you," she said.

Simon clutched the ticket to his chest, eyes closed, silly smile on his face. "It'll all be worth it," he said, as if reciting a mantra. He made certain that his ticket was tucked away in his wallet, and that his wallet was inaccessible in the inner pocket of his jacket.

They opened the doors carefully, since the wolf pack was capering around the bus with unflagging glee.

"Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!" one cub said.

"Wow! Wow! Wow!" a second said.

"Auntie!" a third said.

A fourth bit the third sharply on the ear. "Uncle," she said.

"Uncle!" the third said, barely cowed.

"Who's this? Who's this?" a fifth said.

"Mom! Mom! Mom!" said the sixth. "Uncle Simon's here with some really big ladies!"

There was a very real possibility that Simon would disappear under the tide of enthusiastic greetings. Megan wondered if she felt well enough to fish him out before he was trampled.

A great grey wolf emerged from the house via an oversized doggie door. "Uncle Simon doesn't often bring guests," she said.

"Hi, Jasmine," Simon said, surfacing from the wolf tsunami. "These are some friends of mine, Megan and Tizemt."

Jasmine stared at Megan with disquieting intensity. "Are you sick?" she said.

"Just a little injured," Megan said, backing off a step.

"She's taking codeine for cracked ribs and bruises," Simon said, rolling his eyes. "And the other scent is the goo we put on her back for burns."

Jasmine cocked her head. "You're in spandex?"

"God, no!" said Megan.

"She got in the way of the spaceship the other day," Tizemt said. "By accident."

"Jasmine, don't keep them on the doorstep!" a voice called from inside the house.

"Right," Jasmine said.

They passed through a mud room where towels were hung over low rails, a few pairs of adult-sized boots and shoes were lined up against the wall, and large laundry machines took up half the space. The hallway beyond had windows on both sides, connecting the mud room to the house proper, entering it via a sprawling eat-in kitchen. A tall, middle-aged, black woman, hair short and natural, was just pulling off an apron that was covered with spatters of tomato sauce and curry, as well as smears of something resembling engine oil. "Simon! Your call was such a nice surprise!" She moved to hug him.

Simon shook himself and smiled as if he were facing a customer in the Great Scot. "Hi, Mom!" he said, and dutifully hugged her.

Jasmine's claws clicked on the nigh-indestructible flooring as she walked past Megan and Tizemt into the depths of the house, tail low, head high.

His mother held him at arms length. She, like Simon, wore tinted glasses to partly conceal the familial pale amber eyes. "I like the facefuzz," she said. "Your brother will be appalled that you grow better facial hair than he does."

"He's still got the chin spinach?" Simon asked.

"Oh, yes," she said. "He'll want to kill you if you're getting chest hair too."

"Hah," Simon said, then turned from his mother to the women looming behind him. "Mom, this is Megan Amazon, and this is her friend Tizemt -- I mentioned her on the phone. Megan, Tizemt, this is my mother, Larentia Canis."

Everyone shook hands all around. Professor Canis beamed at Megan. "You look just like your mother," she said.

"I do?" Megan said, glancing down at herself.

"Well, all right," the professor said, "not exactly, but you carry yourself like her, and that's as good as looking like her to me."

"Ah," Megan said.

"And, Tizemt, I understand you're looking for a job," the professor said, smiling. "Simon, why don't you get Megan a drink and have a sit-down in the rec room while I show Tizemt around lab 5?"

Simon and Megan looked after the professor and the rather dazed Tizemt. "Sorry," Simon said. "Mom's not big on social chitchat. If there's something to do, she goes right for it."

"No problem," Megan said. "My mom's like that sometimes too."

"Really?" Simon said, rubbing the back of his head. "I thought it was just because Mom wasn't brought up human."

"Oh, no," Megan said, putting an arm around his shoulders. "There are reasons she and Mom got along. Do you want to go play with the cubs? 'Cause I can..."

"Oh, god, no," Simon said. "I'm not going to abandon you in this house." He gestured at something Megan could only assume was an industrial mixer, though it had a number of attachments she couldn't figure out. "You never know when something is going to attack or malfunction or something."

"I'm sure I can defend myself against an errant vacuum cleaner," Megan said.

"You've never seen the Vac6000XL prototype," Simon intoned doomfully. "We'd have to break out Mom's dimensional conveyor for that rescue."

There was a large, sturdy, reinforced chair that looked like it had been moved into the room fairly recently, given the discombobulation of the rest of the furniture in the rec room. Megan was glad to sit down in it, sighing and closing her eyes.

Simon watched her with a certain calculation in his eyes. "You okay?"

"Tired. Achy. It's probably a good thing the docs put me on bedrest and wrote me a note to get me out of work." Megan ran a hand through her hair. "If I have a job to go back to."

Simon collapsed in a nearby chair. "It sounds like the Captain Zip thing is getting complicated. Why don't you look for something new? I'm sure Mom could point you at someone or other. Might as well get everything we can out of the visit."

"Because you won't be back for another six or ten months?" Jasmine asked from the door. She was taller than Simon in her human form, but narrower of shoulder with her weight settled comfortably into her hips and thighs. She was sleek and dark and fierce, her hair cropped close to her scalp, and she wore a knee-length brown batiked tunic.

Simon didn't look at her. "Probably," he said.

"You know, it wouldn't kill you to visit more often," Jasmine said, settling cross-legged onto a couch. "Maybe your nieces and nephews would get used to calling you 'Uncle Simon' then."

"I'm a little tired of being a family educational tool," Simon said, staring intently at the floor.

"You wouldn't be if you'd just let Mom take care of things," Jasmine said.

"I wouldn't have to be if you hadn't explained everything to your kids in excruciating detail, instead of just saying, 'That's Uncle Simon and he smells funny,'" Simon said, glaring at her finally.

"My kids deserve to know all the weirdness in this family," Jasmine said, meeting his glare with her own.

"It's just another passive-aggressive way to tell me you don't like the way I am," Simon said, pulling off his glasses. "You don't have to keep telling me. You made yourself eminently clear on the subject the first time."

"I haven't once mentioned it since then," Jasmine said, sitting up. Megan could almost see her hackles rising.

"No, you've not mentioned it to me," Simon said, back straight and chin out, "but my sources tell me you still haven't shut up about it to anyone else."

Jasmine's lip curled. "I can talk to my friends and family about whatever I want. If I think you're going down the wrong path, there's no point telling you about it, because you'll just keep going out of spite."

"But if you can get everyone on your side, maybe you can magically make me the way you want me, is that it, oh mighty alpha bitch?" Simon said. He stood up suddenly and jammed his glasses back on. "This conversation is over. I'm going to wait in the van."

"What's going on?" Professor Canis said, standing in the doorway, forced smile on her face. Tizemt stood behind her, peering inquiringly into the room.

Simon stared at the floor in silence, hands thrust into his jeans pockets. Jasmine examined her cuticles intently.

"Jaaaaasmine," the professor said.

"What?" Jasmine snarled.

"Why are you picking fights with Simon again?" the professor said, walking into the room and standing next to Simon, one hand set lightly on his shoulder.

"He started it," Jasmine said.

"Oh, that's mature," Simon muttered.

"Kindly do not lie to me," the professor said. "It is beneath you. And you know my hearing."

"Simon isn't living like our kind should," Jasmine said, lip curling. "We have a responsibility to live the natural way."

"Our kind? The natural way? What a lot of narrow-minded, hypocritical twaddle." Professor Canis stared Jasmine down in just a few seconds, without needing to remove her glasses. "I didn't raise you to romanticize intolerance. And most importantly, you can't make Ste-- Simon's choices for him." The professor squeezed Simon's shoulder and murmured an apology.

"I didn't mean to fight," Simon said miserably, "I just wanted to introduce you to Tizemt..."

Jasmine rose. "And introduce your girlfriend to the family?"

"I'm not his--" Megan began, rising to her feet.

"She's not my--" Simon said at the same moment.

Jasmine threw her hands in the air. "Humans," she roared, and became a large grey blur that swarmed out of the room. Her empty tunic crumpled to the floor.

The four stood in embarrassed silence.

"Well, that was unnecessary," the professor said, clearing her throat. "We just wanted to let you know that Tizemt and I have, I think, reached an internship agreement."

"I'm glad," Simon said, voice flat.

"Thank you, Professor," Megan said.

Tizemt bounded forward and shook Megan's hand, then Simon's. "Thank you both! A job AND a way home! This is SO awesome."

"Will you stay for dinner?" the professor said, a little tentative.

Megan glanced at Simon's stony face and said, "I'm feeling pretty lousy, actually, Professor." She put an illustrative hand to her side. "Alien plasma bolts take a lot out of a girl."

Professor Canis gave her an odd look, somewhere between anger and gratitude, then smiled. "Of course, I understand. But I hope the two of you will come to dinner soon. Even if you aren't Simon's girlfriend."

Megan wasn't sure if that was a joke. She laughed, hoping it was.

Tizemt thanked Professor Canis all the way to the door. At the door, however, Simon turned to face his mother. Tizemt hurriedly took Megan by the elbow and the two strolled out to the van, where the cubs immediately converged on them and drowned out anything being said in the doorway.

On the way back to the city, Simon broke the silence by saying, "Sorry about all that."

"No," Tizemt said, "I didn't know it was going to be so difficult for you. I'm sorry."

Simon shook his head.

"Families are hard," Megan said.

"Yeah," Simon said. "And Jasmine's always been kind of... dogmatic."

The other two groaned.

"Well, you're feeling better already," Megan said, leaning back in the seat.

"Can I buy you a drink or three, Simon?" Tizemt said.

"Let's take The Divine Sarah home first," Simon said. "Between the amount of booze I need and Megan's happy pills, I don't think any of us will be in any shape to drive."
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It Ain't Over Till...

Megan didn't think she'd ever been hurt this badly before. The problem with invulnerability, she reflected, fighting for breath and coughing agonizingly on the dust, is that one's pain threshold feels like it's a lot lower than other people's. Tears and dust stung her eyes. She spat out a mouthful of blood and grit, and prodded experimentally at her teeth with her tongue. Which was sore. Ow.

"Megan? Megan!" Tizemt's voice came through the rubble.

She tried to reply, but coughed instead, which brought fresh tears to her eyes. Something started to drip off her chin. Tizemt, however, peered at her through some splintered boards. "There you are. You look like hell, girl. Can you feel everything? Toes and feet and all?"

Megan nodded, wincing at the pain in neck and back. She thought about it for a moment, then decided it was entirely muscles -- strained, stretched, bruised, and battered muscles -- rather than bones.

"Okay," Tizemt said in an excellently calm voice. "Things are looking crumbly. Can you get yourself out?"

Megan caught more breath and reached for a relatively sturdy-looking piece of concrete. It crumbled as she tried to pull herself out from under the load of shattered building materials, and her movement settled more weight on her back, compressing her breathing space. She then, feeling a little like she did that one time she got confused about where up and down were in the deep end of the swimming pool. got both hands under her and tried to lift herself and everything atop her. The powdered sidewalk beneath her shifted and gave way like a snowdrift. She scrabbled a little, but she felt ominous creaking and shifting beneath her and lay still. Something settled atop her and something went crunchily painful in her side. Ah, ribs.

"No," she said in a voice so weak it didn't sound like her own.

"I'm not surprised," Tizemt said. "That blast looked like it would have made a thin red paste of me. Hang on. I'll see what I can do about levering some of this stuff off you."

There was a short-breathed forever before Megan felt some of the pressure on her ribcage relax, just a bit, just enough for the pain to ease and a little more air to come. Tizemt began cursing, colorfully -- in English -- and unintelligibly -- in another language. Finally, Tizemt called, "I can lever it up, but can't find a good way to keep it levered so I can come around and help you out."

"Can I help, gorgeous?" a deep, soft voice said.

"Uhm," Tizemt said. "Yes, please, ma'am? My friend's stuck under there."

"Sure thing," the contralto said. "Here, let me."

There was a brief shudder through the debris, and then it was steady. Tizemt came around to the porthole in the mess and laid herself down flat. "All right, I can come in about four feet and still have a grip on this lamppost with my legs. D'you think that'll be enough?"

It was enough, just. They both had long arms, though they had some reason to curse leaving the Zenobia spear behind at Copperhead's.

An incongruous vision greeted Megan when Tizemt helped her to her feet. There was a shallow crater full of powdered concrete, a pile of stuff that used to be a warehouse and its contents, dust in the air, and a complex bit of cobbled-together levering -- which mostly consisted of semi-intact structural members from the fallen building -- lifting the wreckage. On the end of the lever sat a large woman in a long, flowing black dress, her legs crossed sedately at the ankle. Her lustrous black hair was bound tightly in a bun at the nape of her neck, and she was examining the rich red of her lips in a small gold compact, which displayed her perfect red nails. She looked up as they emerged, and her smile was sunlike in the dusty twilight.

"You're on your feet!" Her voice rolled over them like velvet. "I called for an ambulance --" she displayed her phone "-- but I'm afraid they're all tied up now, what with the damage uptown and all. Most of the streets are blocked, too. I told them we'd manage somehow."

Tizemt leaned Megan against a half-destroyed stone bench, and Megan sank slowly down to it. "I think I've got some cracked ribs," Megan said, probing her sides gingerly.

Tizemt hurried over to lean on the lever. "Quit poking yourself. We'll get you to hospital soon."

The woman dexterously kept her dress from catching on the splinters of wood and other jagged projections as she hopped down. Her body was as lush and generous as her voice, all curves within and atop curves, round and soft and lovely, and her face had the sculpted beauty of a Roman matron's marble bust, with a gentle double chin and the faintest touches of crow's feet at the corners of her eyes. She walked over to Megan, produced a white handkerchief, dampened it with bottled water from her voluminous purse, and helped Megan get the dust and blood off her face.

"I don't think I've bled like this since I was five," Megan said, eyeing the reddened cloth, "when I decided I wanted to know if I could get something through my skin."

"Ow," the woman said, then leaned back to inspect Megan. "Well, you still look like hell, but scalp wounds bleed like the devil." Megan inhaled and noticed the amber resin scent rising from her benefactor's acres of cleavage. She looked up into the sympathetic liquid darkness of the woman's eyes, and instantly and thoroughly understood why Simon was so hung up on the Fat Lady.

The Fat Lady looked up at the enormous shadow over the city, pressed the handkerchief into Megan's hand, and opened her phone. "Hold pressure on that spot on your forehead." In the distance to the west, they could see another blue-white rain of plasma bolts and hear more crashes as they struck. In the fading twilight and lavender sunset, they could no longer see the tiny spandex heroes on high.

"Yes," she said into the phone, tones businesslike. "What? The fourth? Remote controlled -- have you confirmed that there are no lifeforms? Good. I've got a ten story building nearby, if you can send Meteor this way... yes. Pull everyone out."

Tizemt and Megan exchanged looks as she snapped the phone shut. "We'll have some transport in just a moment, darlin's."

Megan had caught her breath enough to say, "Thank you for your help."

The Fat Lady smiled and patted her -- very gently -- on the arm. "What're your names?"


"Megan Amazon."

"I'm glad to meet you both. I'm -- oh, here's our ride."

Meteor -- recognizable from the newspaper photos in her green tank suit and thigh-high boots and flaming red hair -- stepped over a nearby building. Megan and Tizemt stared up at her.

The Fat Lady said, in a voice of normal volume but unusual timbre, "Hello, there, Highpockets. I need some altitude -- can you please provide?"

When Meteor looked down at them, Megan realized that the Fat Lady had thrown her voice with her sonic powers so that Meteor could hear it, despite her rather large ear being about 80 feet above them. Meteor carefully lowered a handscape to ground level.

"Got some friends with me," the Fat Lady continued conversationally. "That building over there, I think," she added, pointing to the ten story building she'd mentioned before. She stepped firmly into the proffered palm, then paused to remove her narrow, high-heeled shoes for better balance. Tizemt helped Megan aboard, and Meteor lifted them to the building top.

The Fat Lady stepped off, dropping her shoes and sliding into them. "You two stay with Meteor. The three of you should be directly behind me, on the roof, but behind that chimney, I think." She smiled again and walked across the rooftop.

Meteor set the others down, took a grip on the edge of the roof, and began to shrink down. "She's got a LOT of control," she said, eight feet tall and hauling herself onto the roof, "but I suggest covering your ears. I've only ever heard about this, but I expect there's an area of effect or something."

They started to hear a resonant voice flying up and down broadening scales. Her voice echoed richly through the silent warehouse district, drowning out the explosions thirty blocks away.

Meteor spoke into the communicator in her collar. "She's warming up. Cue Santa Ana for impending cleanup."

"Affirmative," a tinny voice replied.

The voice got to the bottom of the scale and paused. Megan peered curiously around the corner of the chimney, hands clamped over her ears.

The Fat Lady stood silhouetted on the edge of the rooftop, spine straight, hands clasped under her abundant bosom. And then she sang again, and it was different from what came before: louder, harder, more insistent. She started at low C and belted up the scale one more time, higher and higher, every note distinct, reverberating through Megan's aching ribcage and skull.

Megan lost count of the notes, lost track of the octaves, and was suddenly aware of the peal of some immense choral high note, full of voices, piercing and awful and thunderous, held for an eternity of celestial madness.

The ship's ominous shadow shimmered, shuddered, and suddenly evaporated into a vast, spreading cloud.

Silence settled over Wonder City.

Nearby, in the aftermath of the aria, a lone window shattered its applause.

The winds rose abruptly, and the dust of the spacecraft was swept into a vortex high overhead and dragged away to the east.

The Fat Lady strode back to them across the roof. She was perspiring heavily, sodden hair curling tightly at her temples, shoulders drooping. "I hope I never have to do that again," she said, mopping her chin and nose and forehead carefully with her sleeve. "I've done it too often."

The Kosmic Klaxon sounded its all-is-well whoops.

The Fat Lady patted Megan -- not quite as gently as before -- on the shoulder. "Meteor can set you two down wherever you'd like to go, dears." She frowned and pulled something from the outer pocket of her purse. "And here, one for each of you."

Megan and Tizemt accepted a slip of paper each. Megan looked down, vaguely confused.

"Tickets, darlin'," the Fat Lady said with a tired smile. "I'm performing with my all-para troupe in Hera and Zeus. It's much nicer to hear me sing Hera than Götterdämmerung, I promise."
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Maybe It's the Beer

"I think the reason they call us 'lost' civilizations is because they have to get terrifically lost to find us," Tizemt-not-Zenobia said over her beer. "We're not lost; we know exactly where we are."

"True, true," Megan said, thumping her fist on the table.

The two of them were amusing the customers and edifying the bartender at the Great Caesar's Ghost Bar and Lounge, the closest place of intoxication they could find to the Copperhead's lair, by putting away a truly enormous quantity of alcohol.

Tizemt had insisted on stopping at the office so she could get rid of the idiotic costume and pick up her regular clothes, which did not consist of grass skirts, animal skins, beads, or bones of any sort, but rather denim and jersey knit cotton.

"And we know exactly why we're there," Tizemt added, draining her glass.

"So this explorer brought you back to 'civilization'?" Megan made the appropriate airquotes.

"As you do," Tizemt said solemnly. "He wanted to bring back a 'young man' who he could play 'Enry 'Iggins with or some such rot. I was tall for my age, and flat-chested to boot, so I passed nicely."

"So what'd he do?"

"Sent me to Cambridge, and then to MIT."

"What'd he do when he found out you weren't a young man?"

"He didn't even bother with the outraged guilt trip," Tizemt said, signaling the waiter for the bill. "His solicitor sent me a stiff little letter, accusing me of wilful misrepresentation and fraud. Cut off my allowance, tried to get me thrown out of school, and I'm still untangling the mess with my visa."

"What did the school do?"

"Well, he'd paid, so I was allowed to stay out the term and take my degree."

Megan managed to grab the bill before Tizemt, who shrugged and gave in with good grace.

"How is the visa crap going?"

"Going?" Tizemt stood up. "How d'you think I ended up dressing like a King Kong extra?"

"Copperhead's supposed to deal with your visa crap?" Megan frowned, rising as well. "He doesn't seem like he'd have, you know, the right contacts."

"Nah, his bosses are supposed to take care of it. My former patron stranded me in the States, so the UK doesn't even enter into it much." Tizemt held the door for Megan. "He claims he doesn't remember where he 'found' me, whether it was in Algeria or Mali or Niger, or maybe it wasn't there at all, but in Chad or the Sudan."

"Where was it?" Megan said, turning right at random.

"I'm pretty certain it was Algeria," Tizemt said, following her. "Though I don't know for sure, since the whole city's under some mountains. We might spill into another country for all I know."

"Ah," Megan said. "And, of course, none of the countries recognize you."

"Nope," Tizemt said, sticking her hands in her pockets. "I'm well and truly screwed. Affording airfare, much less the customs crap, on what I could make as a... well, what could I get hired to do? My degree is in mechanical engineering, but what company would hire me? I'm not exactly employable by Smar-t-Mart either."

They walked along in silence for several minutes, turning at random down another street.

"What is it you want to do?" Megan asked suddenly. "I mean, I can't imagine that you want to keep working for Cowboy Billybob."

Tizemt laughed. "I dunno, really. I haven't given it much thought. I'd like to go home but I really haven't gotten much to bring back, y'see. A degree's nothing, what's really called for is some practical experience."

"Building bridges and such?" Megan said.

"Nah," Tizemt said. "What I really need t'do is work for a mad para scientist. You know, the type that does really innovative stuff. Like Dr. Mecko, or The Atrocious Doctor Milquetoast, or Professor Canis, or someone like that."

Megan opened her mouth to say something, but was cut off by the wailing of hundreds of sirens around the city. "What the hell?" she exclaimed.

"D'you think that's the Kosmic Klaxon?" Tizemt shouted, covering her ears.

Megan's mouth made an "O" shape, and she nodded.

Night fell with a dull rumbling roar. Looking up, they saw a massive spacecraft looming over the town.

"Shit," they said simultaneously, though neither could hear the other.

"Shelter!" Tizemt shouted. "We need! to find! a shelter!"

They looked around, but there were no friendly flashing orange lights, per the city website, in the warehouse district they'd wandered into. It was about an hour past 5, and the streets were empty of the local workers, so there was no one to ask.

"Bloody HELL," Tizemt said, loudly enough that Megan could hear her. "Let's get inside, at least!"

Megan paused to look up. There were tiny spandex specks flying up from north of town to confront the massive ship and whatever was in it.

That was when the plasma beams started raining down.

"Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck!" Megan bellowed, starting to run along the sidewalk and catching Tizemt by the elbow. "No buildings! Just run!"

Tizemt ran alongside her, then abruptly dodged aside into the street. A split-second later, Megan heard the incoming blast and tried to dive forward away from it.

She was just a little too slow, and there was a second incoming bolt ahead of her anyway.

Megan thought it was really just salt in the wound for a building to fall on her too.


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