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Last episode of 2015! Thank you for all your continued support, and the kind reviews I've been seeing around the web! I hope 2016 is kinder to you than 2015, whether you had a great 2015 or a terrible one (or an okay one, like I did).

Print and ebook versions of
Wonder City Stories available! Find links to sites where you can buy them at judemclaughlin.com!

A Man Does What He Can; A Woman Does What a Man Cannot

"Guys," Nereid said into the general hubbub of the Young Cosmics meeting room. The loud conversations—particularly from Mercury holding court—continued unabated. "Guys?" she said again.

Sophie looked over at her and raised her eyebrows. Mercury was playing his boyfriends Gemini and Deflector off against each other in some sort of flex-off. Gemini had just done his power trick, making his two muscular brown arms into four, and Deflector was peeling his shirt off to reveal his pale but muscular chest. Vector was egging them on, to the annoyance of her girlfriend Meridian, who had not just turned away, but turned her entire wheelchair toward a conversation with Tin Lizzie, giving the gayboy display the cut direct. Wildstar, their featureless mask off for a change, revealing their androgynous tan face and short black hair, was chatting with Citizen Pain. Pay was giving Nereid side glances of attentiveness, but was also trying to be polite to Wildstar, their newest member. Wire was leaning back in her chair, arms crossed, one foot braced against the edge of the table, scowling at her boot, with her blue forelock drifting distractingly across her face.

Irritation bloomed and spread inside Nereid, making her feel like her skin was stretched taut with fury. Why did they elect me commander if they had no goddamn intention of paying attention to me? She fumed in silence for a few more moments, until Deflector was reaching for his belt, apparently to drop trou, and the anger exploded into her vision. She came to her feet, slammed both hands on the tabletop, and bellowed, "This meeting of the Young Cosmics will come to order."
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We're at about 10 more episodes to the end of volume 3! (Don't hold me to that exact count—the episodes keep changing under my feet.)

Are you folks who asked for alternate delivery forms able to better use the EPUB and/or PDF for reading? How are they working out?

Journey to the Sky

"Affirmative, Houston, lifting to orbit on my mark," Sophie said into her headset. For the people in the cockpit and passenger area of the Cosmic Orbiter, she tapped the large digital countdown clock above her head.

Nereid helped Lady Justice arrange her launch restraints and settled into her own couch next to Vector.

"Hey, your armband's slipping," Vector said, and reached over to slide the star-spangled black armband up to Nereid's bicep.

"Thanks," Nereid said, clicking her restraints into place. "The new costume material is really slippery."

"Still, it converts with you more easily, right?" Vector said.

"Yeah," Nereid said, running a hand over the knee of the blue-and-green washed material. "I don't have to think about it as much. Less nudity on the battlefield is good, right?"

Vector grimaced, and Nereid was immediately consumed with guilt for saying something typically stupid, having her own flashback to the horrible day a few months before when she, Sophie, and Pay had to rescue the team from an alien-enhanced pheromone-producing sociopath. She said, "Sorry."

Vector patted her hand. "No, it's okay. I… it just sneaks up on me sometimes. But if I can get to joking about it, that's good, right?"

"It's not something to joke about," Nereid said, squeezing her hand. "And it was thoughtless of me. I'm sorry."

Vector sighed. "It's not like it was a battle or anything anyway."

"Mark!" said Sophie. "Lifting now."

The engines revved up and the white noise flooded through the cabin. Nereid leaned over to say to Vector, grateful for the noise, "The therapist didn't work out?"

Vector shook her head. "He didn't… really understand. Not para. Or, um, queer."

"I know someone really good," Nereid said. "If she can't take you, she can recommend someone as good."

"Really?" Vector gave her a bleak look. "It… would be nice to talk to someone."

Nereid knew the feeling, and regretted that she hadn't really been talking to her teammates lately. She'd been focused almost entirely on keeping Sophie going day-to-day, making sure she ate and slept at a minimum, and dragging her out of the lab when she could. She wasn't feeling like she had a girlfriend so much these days as someone she had to keep boosting back up onto a tightrope of functioning. She understood why Sophie was so depressed, she knew why Sophie kept punishing herself by working obsessively, but… it was taking everything Nereid had to keep doing it. And she couldn't just walk away. And… yeah. Time for therapy again for herself, at least.

Nereid gave Vector as much of an affectionate headbump on the shoulder as she could, given they were pinned in their seats by the acceleration. "Let's go out after this," she said. "You pick where. We both need it."

Vector looked so grateful that Nereid felt nearly sick with guilt. They hadn't gotten off on the right foot when she joined this team, but then again, Nereid hadn't gotten off on the right foot with anyone on the team except Pay, and she'd very nearly fucked that up too. But she had been quietly admiring Vector for a long time for the fact that she was maturing out of her stupid little mean girl phase into someone Nereid actually liked. It sucked that it had taken that horrible day to really make Nereid admit to herself that she liked Vector.

The acceleration abated and Sophie announced, "We're in orbit. We'll have some more accelerations when we need to alter our course, but for now, you all can unlatch. I'll let you know when you need to strap down again."

Nereid was very impressed by Lady Justice's familiarity with zero gravity. She knew she shouldn't have been; Lady J had been with the Gold Stars for so many years and they'd had so many outer space missions, after all. But it was startling and beautiful to go from watching Lady J limping awkwardly in Earth gravity to seeing Lady J navigating around the cabin gracefully, with just a few touches here and there. Without gravity to pull on the wrinkles in the veteran's face, too, Nereid could imagine what Lady J looked like as a young woman (live—she'd seen all the photos, of course).

Sophie gestured for Nereid to follow Lady J into the Orbiter's cargo bay, and turned away to discuss something with Mercury.

Nereid found moving in zero gravity easier to cope with if she thought of it as swimming. In fact, she'd floundered hopelessly until she figured out how to think of it that way. She just had to remember that she was not helped by friction here. She didn't move nearly as effortlessly as Lady Justice, but she did manage to follow her down the center tunnel of the ship and into the rear bay.

Lady J was hovering next to the cylinder that held Jane's body, one hand resting on its surface. When the door cycled shut, she looked up and smiled at Nereid.

"Thank you ki… all for helping with this," she said, the smile returning the wrinkles to their proper places.

"Sophie and I, at least, totally understand why you want to do this," Nereid said. "I hope someone will do it for me when I go."

Lady J's smile stuttered a little at the corners of her mouth. "I hope that's a long way off, Pacifica."

Nereid laid a hand on Lady J's shoulder. "Me too. I just… I think someone should do it for all the Class 10s. So no one tries to dig us up and, I dunno, clone us."

"A lot of people who aren't Class 10s have had that done, you know," Lady J said, looking back to the cylinder. "I'm mostly worried about keeping her out of the government's hands. Any government's hands."

"Yeah, she was a one of a kind," Nereid said. "Power-wise, I mean. I know she was as a person."

Lady J nodded, her face sad. "It's hard, not having her to see any more. Even when she wasn't all there, you know, at least I saw her, could talk to her—even if she didn't understand all the time, even if all she talked about was whether the lights stayed on all night, or what the weather looked like out her fake window. Everyone else is gone now. It's just me."

"You're not alone," Nereid said, thinking of Ira and Andrea, and all the other Forgotten Heroes, and still knowing that she was saying something for the sake of saying it, because she couldn't understand right now.

Lady J smiled. "I know, honey. Thank you."

They stayed there for a long time, it seemed, hanging in middle of the chilly cargo bay, Nereid holding Lady J's shoulder, and Lady J touching Jane's high-tech coffin.

Sophie's voice crackled over the speakers, "Please make sure the satellite is prepared for deployment. We'll be starting maneuvers to station-keeping position in half an hour." Code for them to get on with their secret mission. Nereid silently cursed the cockpit recording devices mandated for all para spacecraft.

Lady J reached up and squeezed Nereid's hand with the hand that had grown chilly against the metal cylinder. "I guess that's our cue to load her up, right?"

"Yes," Nereid said, "and Pay should be along in a moment to help."

He came through the door at just that moment, smiling broadly and beautifully as usual. "Indeed, here I am!"

The three of them unstrapped the coffin and gently angled it across the bay to the new satellite that the Cosmics had gotten permission to put into orbit. Pay opened the hatch to the main body of the satellite and pulled out the modular transmission equipment. Lady J and Nereid slid the coffin into place, and it fit neatly, just as Sophie had calculated.

Lady Justice lingered for a second, touching the end of the coffin, then pushed herself backward. Pay shut the hatch as gently as he could, spun the fastenings into place, and activated the hidden alarm that Sophie had fitted to this compartment.

As the three of them floated toward the door, Pay said, "I still do not understand why Doctor Thomas could not simply fly her up herself."

"Ruth is under a great deal of government scrutiny all the time," Lady J said. "As Jane was herself. If they saw her leaving planet with a body-sized item, they could put two and two together, and there might be repercussions for Ruth personally."

"The government really wants Jane's body," Nereid said with a shrug. "Everyone does."

"You have explained it before, Nereid, you and Brainchild," he said, "and I still do not understand why these people are so interested in violating common American death taboos. I mean, I do indeed understand that they do it, but I do not understand why. It is difficult to understand these motivations."

"You have never spoken a truer word," Lady J said, patting him on the back.

Back in the cockpit, Sophie was playing one of the songs her friend Gogo had released on the underground online communities during what was now being called the Psychepirate Occupation (oh, the way the media picks up someone's Twitter contents and runs away with it with no citation—apparently Sophie knew the woman who started calling it that). This was one Nereid hadn't heard more than once or twice, with the chorus, "Arrest, Retry, Fail," running through the background.

Mercury and Gemini were chatting with Sophie, while Vector worked the navigation console, probably running the last calculations for maneuvers. Wire had her back pressed to a support pillar, staring out at the starfield moodily. She was fiddling with the black starry armband with her flesh hand; her metal hand—the beautiful shining prosthetic Sophie built for her—was tapping out the rhythm of the song on the plastic of the pillar.

Lady Justice settled back in her seat, and Pay went to see if he could help Vector (he'd been coaching her on translating her innate understanding of motion to numbers), so Nereid drifted over to Wire.

Wire glanced up at her from under her weird floating blue forelock (Nereid could never figure out how she did that) and grimaced in greeting.

Nereid leaned against the wall nearby and said, "Long time, no chat."

Wire shrugged and looked away. "All this paperwork with Mr. Moneybags… hell, I mean Michael… to retroactively get us government-approved to be Gold Stars deputies and whatnot has been eating my schedule."

"The government is still kicking up a fuss about that?" Nereid said. "I thought—" she dropped her voice just under the crashing chorus of the song "—Lady J was legally allowed to do the deputizing."

"She is, but one of the government nitpickers who doesn't like paras has discovered that Gemini is technically a minor," Wire said, rolling her eyes ceilingward. "Apparently, some parts of the government are still refusing to acknowledge that time travel happens."

"This is what you get when people who failed high school science run the technology committees," Nereid grunted.

Wire shrugged again, a little too vehemently, as the motion propelled her away from her pillar. She grabbed onto it with the metal hand and pulled herself back against it. "So, anyway, Michael's lawyers are working on getting Gemini declared an emancipated adult with alternate-dimensional standing, and we're working with the Gold Stars to get certified. Whichever happens first will get us off the hook, because the Gold Stars can just declare military necessity for Gemini."

"Wait, they can use minors as long as there's military necessity?" Nereid said, outraged.

"Only for para minors with Class 4 powers and above," Wire said.

Nereid gave her a dubious look and Wire said, "Yeah, I know. One of the Jane Liberty Laws from World War 2. Passed to retroactively make Jane's enlistment good."

"Oh, I didn't think of that," Nereid said. "Still, it's kind of… terrifying."

"Legal ways to make a para child army?" Wire said. "Oh, yeah. It only got used once that way, I'm told, to make the 'Liberty Girls', this little pack of underage bulletproofs who were all supposed to be Jane's sidekicks."

"Maneuvers in five minutes," Sophie announced, killing the music.

Everyone assumed their seats and strapped in, and there wasn't much talking as they waited for the final approach. Sophie concentrated intently on her controls. Vector was seated at her console, hands at her sides, sweat beading on her forehead as she used her powers to make microscopic changes in their kinetic energy and direction.

Finally, Sophie locked down her console with a loud click and said, "All right, opening cargo bay. Satellite deployment shortly."

People unstrapped again, and Lady J went to the window overlooking the cargo bay doors. Everyone but Sophie ended up drifting over there with her.

The robot arms of the cargo bay lifted the satellite out—almost reverently, Nereid imagined. The solar panels opened like flower petals, blooming from the skeletal supports and sprawling into an array that dwarfed the orbiter. A tiny (relative to the solar array) American flag deployed beneath the array, on their side of the satellite.

Lady Justice came to attention and saluted, and the rest of them watched in silence as Jane's penultimate resting place glowed to life as they turned the curve of the Earth and came into line with the sun's rays.

None of them would see the final disposal of Jane's body. The Ultimate would come here on her next space jaunt, first angling out to get away from the monitoring devices that usually followed her, then removing the coffin from the satellite and… taking it somewhere. Nereid guessed that she was going to toss it into the sun, or somewhere else it would certainly be destroyed and wouldn't contaminate anything.

The cargo bay doors shut and the orbiter rolled slowly away from the satellite, acceleration so gentle that Nereid hadn't even noticed it. Lady Justice wiped her eyes with a handkerchief, and Wire was blinking suspiciously hard. No one said anything, just returned to their seats.

There was really nothing to say, Nereid thought. Things could be said at the memorial in a few weeks.

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We alllllmost made it to 10 comments, so I'm posting early in the week. If we can actually get 10 comments by Friday, I'll post a second episode. Let me know you're reading!

The Rabble Are Roused

"Oh, my god," Sophie said, staring at her screen. "The fucking Internet is going crazy."

Ivy opened her laptop and flipped through several windows. "My Twitter feed is nuts. People are talking about the broadcast, things that have been happening, the mod squads. Damn, Sophie, you streamed it into the BBC broadcasts too?"

"They're not very secure," Sophie said. Nereid squeezed her shoulders and Sophie looked up at her with a faint smile.

"I'm seeing it on Chinese and Japanese news outlets too," Ivy said.

"Al-Jazeera's got it," Simon said from behind his laptop.

"Okay, okay, we're stars," said Mercury impatiently. "Can we go do something now?"

Vector turned from the local troublespotting monitors with wide eyes. "Um, yeah, I think so."

"What's up?" Wire said, walking over.

"Riot in the business district," Vector said. "Assaults on men in black in the college district. Guys, I'm getting trouble lights all over the city."

"Let's split up and cover more ground," Mercury said, pacing.

"Michael forbade us to split up," Wire said tiredly.

"What's he going to do if we save more lives this way?" Mercury demanded.

"Cut us off without a penny," Wire said. "He'll do it, too."

Sophie said, rising and putting on her glasses, "I've got Cosmic Flyer 1 warming up now. I suggest we head for the riot first. Biggest casualty risk. Well," she said with a twisted smile, "biggest casualties we care about. Men in black? What men in black?"

Citizen Pain walked to the elevator door and said, "I am going out. Indeed, I will go without you if you continue to argue, Mercury. I do not care for your attitude when people are being injured."

Nereid and Sophie walked over to join him. After a moment, so did Vector, saying, "Mercury, you and Gemini can stay here and watch the monitor."

"But Ivy and Simon…" Mercury said, in between gaping at them.

"Aren't members of the Young Cosmics," said Wire, following the rest onto the elevator. "Or we can patch it into the transport. Your choice, Merc."

In the end, of course, the whole team left together, though Mercury didn't shut up with his bitching. Nereid had to wonder what Ivy and Simon were doing. Hopefully having a beer and a pizza.

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Things are starting to move along...

99 Red Balloons Go By

Sophie's eyes lit up suddenly and she pulled the microphone up from where it was draped over her shoulder. "Roger, wilco," she said, then jerked her head toward the door while looking at Nereid.

Nereid bounced up and hurried into the next room, where the rest of the Young Cosmics were sitting around nervously. Mercury's leg was jiggling so fast his knee was a blur. Vector was glaring at him in between reading something on her StarSeed. Wire was pacing, repeatedly flexing the metal hand that Sophie had built to replace the one she'd lost a few years before. Citizen Pain and Gemini were playing a game of chess.

"Showtime," Nereid said.

Mercury leapt to his feet, grinning. "Right!"

They all moved to the corner of the room, where Simon and Ivy were fussing around a small television studio they'd set up. Simon looked more normal than Nereid had seen him in a long time, with a fresh fade haircut, neatly trimmed Van Dyke, and wearing tight black jeans. Both Mercury and Gemini kept running their gazes over him with extreme interest. Both Simon and Ivy were wearing their "Puppy Patrol" t-shirts, and both were wearing necklaces with sparkling globes strung on black rattail.

"Okay, on your marks," Simon said, pointing them all onto the clean white platform he and Ivy had set up. "No one lean back against the backdrop, or it will fall over."

"Pull together," Ivy said, looking at her screen. "Pay, move a little to your right. Wire, you need to take one step forward. Gemini, close ranks behind her."

Simon flicked on the glaring white lights and moved from one to another, tweaking the positioning, then ducked forward to dot Mercury's nose with a dusting of powder. "There, okay, we just don't want you glowing like Rudolph, there, dude."

Mercury's face twisted as he tried not to sneeze. "Right!" he said again, mastering the sneeze, then crossing his arms to strike a belligerent pose.

Everyone followed suit except Wire, who fidgeted in front, rearranging the collar of her uniform to make the microphone cord more comfortable. Nereid felt silly with her arms crossed, but it took less room than putting their hands on their hips, which was the other acceptable superhero pose.

Ivy leapt up and stuck her head through the door to Sophie. "We're set here, Brainchild."

Nereid could hear Sophie telling Tizemt at Headquarters that they were ready to broadcast. Then Sophie walked into the room and stood with her screen projection flickering a few feet in front of her. She watched the screen for a moment, listening to her headset, her hand moving in the air to manipulate her screen. Then she nodded to Ivy.

"All right," Simon said. "Wire, you're on in 10, 9, 8, 7, 6…" He raised his hand and finished the countdown on fingers. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Then he pointed at Wire.

Nereid reflected that he'd learned a lot about television production during his time on the Wonderful House reality show.

They all looked into the camera Ivy had told them to look into and then Wire said, "Hello, Wonder City. Hello, World, for that matter. We are the Young Cosmics, and we are duly deputized substitutes for the missing Gold Stars. And we have something very important to tell you."

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My schedule has just gone to heck, but here I am, giving you another Wonder City just under the November wire. I hope you enjoy it!

Enter the Dragon

Nereid was surprised and pleased to open the front door of the Young Cosmics' headquarters to find X leaning indolently against the stair rail. X was wearing a hip-length double-breasted black wool coat against the spring chill, and also neatly creased grey trousers over long, slender black-and-white patent leather oxfords. X's hair was a little shorter these days than it had been when X and Nereid were first introduced by Brainchild, with a little more masculinity and a little less androgyny. Still, X was striking, handsome and beautiful at the same time, and always made Nereid's heart do a little pit-a-pat. Just a little.

"Hey," X said in a smoky tenor. "How's it going?"

Nereid smiled and stepped back from the door. "Not bad," she said, lying through her teeth because she was really feeling pretty stir-crazy, trapped in the headquarters.

X strolled into the headquarters and Nereid saw the line of tension across those admirable shoulders relax. There was something, Nereid had noticed, about their headquarters. It was palpably more comfortable, like someone turning off a white noise machine you didn't realize was running. It didn't stop her from hating being cooped up there -- the headquarters was not designed to be some sort of self-contained habitation. Sophie often described it as being built in "Soviet Brutal" style, a bizarre, ill-lit convolution in concrete and other materials designed to resist explosions and similar supervillain assaults.

"So," Nereid said, shutting the door and turning to lead X toward the flat she shared with Sophie, "what brings you to this part of town?"

"I came to ask you all for a favor," X began, but they turned the corner and ran smack into a knot of Cosmics.

Wire, Mercury, and Vector were clustered around a tall, tanned man with longish white hair that sported a heavy lock hanging dramatically over one eye, wearing an exquisitely tailored pale grey suit. Nereid had only seen the man that her team leaders called "Mr. Moneybags" a few times in her tenure with the Cosmics, but she knew him on sight anyway -- who could miss him, really?

"Ah, Nereid," he said in a low, faintly British drawl. "How are you, my jewel?"

Wire shot Nereid a frustrated glance that Nereid knew to interpret as, You have derailed him just when I thought we were getting somewhere, and then Wire exhaled hard enough to make her floaty blue forelock flip back across her otherwise closely-shorn head. Nereid smiled quickly and nodded. "Fine, sir," she said quickly, trying to sidle past them. Mercury, resplendently muscular in his tight black spandex outfit, at least, made way for her, and she thought, for a bare second, that she could get away.

"Mr. Moneybags" managed to intercept her, twining his way between Vector and Wire, who half-reached for his sleeve, but wisely withdrew her hand. He leaned against the wall in her path in a slightly predatory way and looked down at her from his always startling height. "Are you really well, though?" he pursued. "You looked a touch pale, my dear."

"I'm fine, sir," she repeated, then said, "Have you met X, sir? X, this is Michael Frost, the Cosmics' backer. Mr. Frost, this is X."

"Ah, yes, I recall you," Mr. Frost said, raising one pale eyebrow. "You have some interesting potential, you know."

"I know," X said with a tight smile. "It's a pleasure meeting you again."

Mr. Frost's attention was not long held by X, though. His icy blue gaze was turned back to Nereid before she could think of another distraction. "I don't want you becoming ill," he said.

"Sir--" Nereid clamped down on a moment of rage, bit down on a demand to be let out of confinement, and swallowed her unhappiness, giving herself quite a stomachache. She was saved from answering by her usual rescuer.

"Hello, Michael," Sophie said, somehow appearing at Nereid's elbow. "I was wondering when you'd turn up."

Mr. Frost straightened up to loom from his full height and turned to face Sophie. His expression didn't change much at all, something that had always creeped Nereid out about him. "Brainchild," he said. "Thank you for pulling them out of an untenable situation. Again." His gaze darted to Mercury in particular, and Nereid had the rare pleasure of seeing their boisterous, cocky leader wilt.

"That's my job," Sophie said, taking Nereid's arm. "Isn't it?"

"I wish you had managed the press as well," he said.

"The press isn't amenable to my style of prediction right now," she said, also taking X's arm. "Logic doesn't work very well in the current climate."

His lips compressed. Sophie's face was her most indestructable mask of cool cynicism, and the extra lenses of her glasses were fanned down over one side of her face, which Nereid always found unsettling.

Mr. Frost turned on Mercury, Wire, and Vector with cool precision. "I will make myself clear now," he said in a low, penetrating voice. "My team will not become involved in any long-term situations that will bring the gaze of the government or media down on it. These short-term emergency actions are quite enough, and I understand that it would be... irresponsible for any hero group to fail to respond to such emergencies. But there will be no pursuit of nemeses, no trips to space, nothing of the sort, and you will always respond to even small emergencies with a full team, unless waiting would endanger lives, you understand?"

Wire and Mercury said, reflexively, "Yes, sir," at the same moment.

Sophie chose this moment to silently draw Nereid and X down the hall and around the next corner into the flat.

They all exhaled simultaneously when the door of the flat was shut.

"That was about the university thing, wasn't it?" X said.

"Yeah," Sophie said, pushing off from the door and moving into the kitchen. "And more, probably, but it's hard to tell with him."

"I can never tell anything with him," Nereid said.

Sophie shrugged and said, "Humans find it hard to read Reptilian-Americans. Want a drink, X?"

"Sure," X said, sitting on an arm of the sofa.

Nereid stopped and stared at Sophie. "He's a Reptilian-American? Why didn't you tell me?"

Sophie gave her a slightly disbelieving look, and Nereid knew instantly she'd said something stupid, and could almost say, word for word, what came out of Sophie's mouth next. "Would it have made a difference in how you interacted with him?"

Nereid sighed explosively and moved around the room, turning on more lights. "No," she said, then added, in a brighter tone to X, "You said you came to ask us a favor?"

X grimaced and glanced toward the door. "I was," X sighed, "but I think that point is moot."

"Oh, was it something Mr. Frost just forbade us to do?" Nereid said, and she could feel a whole vista of hope of getting out of the building opening up before her.

"Probably," X said with an air of gloom.

Sophie brought X a tumbler of tawny liquid and said, "No."

X nodded and sipped the drink.

"You don't even know what it is yet!" Nereid protested.

"I'm not going to buck Michael on anything he just said," Sophie said, handing Nereid a similar glass of alcohol, "because he's right. Completely. Fucking. Right. This team mostly needs its nuts pulled out of the fire, and mostly by thee and me, sweetheart."

"There's something really wrong out there and I'm sick of doing nothing," Nereid started.

"Nereid, it's fine," X said mildly. "Sophie knows her stuff here."

Nereid caught some sort of look between X and Sophie, something sharp from X and something almost... guilty? from Sophie. Looking back and forth between them, she said, "What?"

X looked at her, one elegant eyebrow raised. "She knows something she isn't telling us, isn't she?"

Nereid blinked. She'd thought it was all in her own head, but if X had seen it too... "I've... thought so," Nereid said slowly.

Sophie raised her chin in a defiant look.

X considered her gravely, then shrugged. "I know you too well to try to press you. You'd rather make something up than tell us if we do."

Nereid looked down into her glass, then looked back up and said, "I trust you, Sophie."

The defiant look shattered with sudden violence and a cry that sent Sophie fleeing to the bathroom. Nereid looked at X, alarmed.

X nodded and shrugged. "She'll tell us when she can." One corner of X's rather perfect mouth curled up in a wry smile. "Or when we can squeeze it out of her."

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The Grave of Your Deserving

The Wonderful House boards were crazy with the news.

Somehow, it didn't surprise me, though. We'd never heard about Brandon's family on the show. They'd talked about Professor Canis, we had the memorable visit from Lizzie's father, Tom's aunt and uncle had come up from time to time, and Jeshri's family was always in her conversation. But not Brandon's. It seemed somehow fitting, karmically, that even his family abandoned him in the end.

Of course, it didn't seem fair that the people who had the most reason to dislike him were forced into the position of taking care of him. And of course they had to, especially after their closing video laying claim to him as "their jerk." They would have been ripped to shreds if it had come out that Brandon's body had been surrendered to the government for dissection.

I popped to a different screen and signed a half dozen petitions to do away with the Gold Stars research law. I knew that Ruth -- or someone -- would take care of me when I died, because god knows no one wants the government to dissect a Class 10 telepath. But didn't all the other paras, all the regular paras, all the homeless paras, anyone at all who wasn't quite the ideal human being, have a right to be buried with their secrets? Patriotic duty, my left asscheek.

It also didn't surprise me that the show's producers had abandoned any responsibility for Brandon along with their responsibility for payout or, you know, the safety of their "contestants". I did notice, however, that the producers tried to jump on the funeral bandwagon once it got rolling. In an interview with Simon:

WonderBlog: So will the funeral be televised?

Simon: We'll be livestreaming it for the fans.

WonderBlog: But no TV?

Simon: We couldn't reach an amicable compromise with the show's producers, who are in the best position to produce a televised version. They were interested in the funeral, but not interested in meeting any conditions, and we weren't interested in being screwed over again.

WonderBlog: Speaking of screwed over, who's paying for the funeral?

Simon: Fortunately, not us. There's a fund established by the Guardians and Gold Stars for the funerals of paras without families who die in a supervillain action.

Oh, good, I thought, at least the kids weren't going to have to cough up for the ridiculous costs of a funeral.

The livestreamed funeral was fascinating. I tuned in late (after taking practically every drug in my pharmacopeia that suppressed my powers without just knocking me out), just in time to see hundreds of fans packing into the largest room of the Weinstein Funeral Home. The camera view switched to Simon, in a tailored black suit, and Jeshri, in a somber brown skirt suit, walking out to meet Tom, who was pulling on a tweed sportcoat over a black polo shirt and khakis as he crossed the parking lot.

"You made it!" Simon said, shaking his hand.

"I couldn't let you guys face this without me," Tom said, next hugging Jeshri. "No luck with his dad though."

"What happened?" Jeshri said, and they all turned and started walking toward the funeral home.

"I stopped at the address you gave me, just outside Pittsburg," Tom said. "Parking the rig was a bitch and the neighbors all came out to stare. Upscale but older neighborhood, almost all white."

"Surprise," Simon muttered.

"Anyway," Tom said with a shrug, "I rang the doorbell. The lights were on and the TV was going, so I kept at it till he opened the door. And guys, the fumes just about knocked me the fuck over."

"Drunk?" Jeshri said.

"As a skunk," Tom said. "He was in his wifebeater and a pair of sweatpants and had about a week's worth of stubble. Looked just like Brandon would have after twenty years of partying and smoking."

"Yugh," Jeshri said.

"I'll spare you more gory details," Tom said as they neared the door. "Let's leave it at him telling me he wouldn't attend anything associated with his wife's filthy para crotch-dropping, in those words, even if it was the funeral for every backstabbing bastard para in the world at the same time. And then he mock-apologized that his wife was on the other side of the world, probably screwing someone who looked like me, when she could have been here, comforting me for the loss of my buddy, if only all paras weren't also great big homos."

"I think I'm going to be sick," Jeshri said, looking the part.

"Guess we know more about why Brandon was such a jackass now," Simon said.

"It's no excuse," Lizzie said, emerging from the doorway. "I mean, look at my dad."

"Must I?" Simon said.

"He's at least as big a jerk as Brandon's dad," Lizzie said, "and I, at least, try to be decent to other people." She was wearing a white blouse and pair of dark blue slacks.

Tom nodded. "You've got a point."

They hesitated outside the door, and then group-hugged.

"Time to butch up," Simon said, breathing deeply.

"Let's get this over with," Lizzie said, breaking away from the others and opening the door.

The camera switched back to the interior of the packed room. My computer system was blurring out faces except those I knew personally, so I noticed Ira and Suzanne Feldstein sitting in the front row, Ira in a crisp, bright Mister Metropolitan uniform and Suzanne in a dark burgundy suit. I saw Ruth, Olivia, and Larentia sitting together a couple of rows back, noticeably not in their more recognizable Ultimate, Fat Lady, and Professor Canis personas. The Steel Guardian was there with Sekhmet, representing for their particular teams. Brainchild, looking pale and wan, all nose and glasses, in a shirt, vest, and many-pocketed trousers, sat next to Wire, whose weirdly floaty blue forelock only briefly distracted me from the shining metal hand she flexed idly in her lap. And just as people were settling in and a man was stepping to the podium, the Equestrian and her horse (in his human form) strode up the aisle to sit with Ira and Suzanne.

The camera view then shifted to the plain black coffin with chrome trim and rails, against which leaned a small easel holding a photograph of a slightly younger, pleasantly-smiling Brandon -- probably a school photo of some sort. I could see any number of floral offerings around the coffin, including an ostentatious bunch of white lilies from the "It's a Wonderful House" producers.

The man at the podium was pastor of a local church who knew Tom (we were not vouchsafed an explanation for that). He was an uninspiring speaker -- I wished for the preacher from Mama's church, whose eloquence she always spoke of in glowing tones -- but white preachers have never particularly impressed me. I tuned out everything he said and concentrated on the images: the camera pans over the crowd (mostly young white people, I noticed), the expressions on the faces of the Wonderful House cast and crew (my system recognized Eartha the camerawoman in that group, and from her face I guessed she shared my assessment of the speaker), and the repeated switches back to the coffin.

He spoke for only about five minutes, which was a blessing, and no one else apparently cared to speak, so Olivia got up and sang "Ave Maria" in her most restrained voice, accompanied by a pianist I didn't know (and so couldn't see). When she was done, the pianist swung into something slow and somber, and Simon, Lizzie, Jeshri, Tom, Eartha, and another crew member I didn't know went forward, lifted the coffin, and carried it out on their shoulders. The crowd began to pour out the doors after them.

I walked away from the livestream while they drove to the cemetery. My computer system was excellent, but with the speed the cars were moving, it would inevitably miss blocking some people, and I just didn't need the headache. My family phone rang while I was pouring myself a glass of tea.

"Hey, Mama," I said.

"Are you watching the funeral?" she said.

"Of course," I said.

"You made yourself so sick over all that," she said, sucking her teeth in annoyance. "I can't imagine why you want to watch that horrible boy's funeral now."

"Because he's the end of the story," I said, adding three teaspoons of sugar to my iced tea. "It's about closure, Mama. He was that man's last victim."

"Well," she said, somewhat mollified. "When you put it that way. I suppose. Is that woman there?"

"Suzanne Feldstein? Yes, she was in the front row with her father-in-law," I said, sipping the tea and going through a door into one of my little parks, where I kept promising myself to start an aviary so I could have birdsong, another one of those things I miss.

"She wrote a very nice memorial to Yenaye and the other women, I thought," Mama said.

"Yes, I thought it was good too," I said, sitting on one of the wooden benches. The tone of her voice was detached, and I could tell there was a pressure of something she wanted to tell me. I waited.

"Rennie, I called you to tell you something," Mama said finally.

"What's up?" I said.

"Well, first thing, your cousin Benjamin asked me to ask you if you were serious about wanting a puppy, because he knows one that needs a home," she said. Mama doesn't like dogs, and that dislike dripped off her voice.

"Tell Ben that I absolutely want a new puppy, and he should send me photos," I said, feeling really excited for the first time in a while.

"You know him and his foolery with dogs," Mama said. "Of course he'd find you a dog. It'll have fleas, you know."

"There's medicine for that, Mama," I said, tamping down the excitement. "What else did you want to tell me?"

She fell silent. "I had one of my seeing dreams, Rennie," she said, her tone uncharacteristically hesitant.

"And?" I knew better than to say anything else at all, because she'd take it as disbelief and never tell me.

She cleared her throat uncomfortably. "I saw you alone with your dog. All alone, mind you, and not in your house." She always called the bunker my "house". I guess it made it sound less like I was locked away. "Looking out a great big window over the city." Throat-clearing again. "That's all. But I knew it was a seeing."

"Thank you, Mama," I said, feeling chilled. "I don't know what it means, but I'll remember it."

"You do that," she said, but I could tell she was gratified. I was the only one of her children who believed in her seeing dreams. I had reason to. "All right, I'd best be getting on. You take care now, Rennie."

"I will. You too, Mama," I said. "I love you."

"And I love you, girl," she said, and hung up.

When I got back to the screen with my half-glass of tea, they'd gotten to the cemetery and were lowering the coffin into the raw hole in the green earth. As I watched fans and acquaintances pass by the grave to throw flowers into it, I raised my glass. May it be sweeter for him next time around.


Note from the Author:

Renata's not the only one grateful for closure here!

Please remember to vote for WCS!

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Home From the Hill

The nurses were entirely charmed by Tam, particularly by his devotion in staying at Nereid's bedside the entire time she was in the hospital. Well, not the entire time, Nereid reflected as he pushed her wheelchair out to the waiting Young Cosmics limousine. He had always been tactfully absent -- getting food that he cadged out of the rather silly middle-aged woman who ran the hospital cafeteria -- when her parents visited. Her mother had asked about him a couple of times, but Nereid begged off talking about him or anything else. She really was exhausted and didn't feel like telling the story yet. Besides, as Tam said, she was not required to relive the whole nightmarish ordeal of Faerie for the entertainment of a bunch of voyeurs who wanted to hear about her pain.

At the car, she stood, holding his arm, and an orderly swept the wheelchair back into the hospital. Tam smiled. "At least they didn't send some old jalopy to take you home. Glad to see my girl getting the respect she deserves."

Nereid gave him a faint smile. She let him hand her into the car, where she slid gratefully onto the new-smelling leather seats. Apparently, Mr. Moneybags had coughed up for the replacement Mercury had wanted.

Tam eeled in next to her, pulling the door shut behind him. He grinned like a kid at the lush, silent interior, the little refrigerator, the tiny bar, and ran his hands over the seats and doors. "Now this is the way to travel."

Nereid put her head back against the seat and shut her eyes, feeling the car pull smoothly away from the curb. Her doze was punctuated by Tam's exclamations about this or that landmark, store, or anything else that caught his eye. She tried very hard not to be annoyed with him, remembering that he had left Earth in the 1880s, and everything must be very strange and possibly terrifying to him.

Tam nudged her awake and she realized the car wasn't moving any more. "There's people waiting," he said, and slid out of the car.

She emerged, blinking, holding onto Tam's arm, and she was immediately embraced. "Oh, Pacifica, I am indeed very happy to see you again!" Citizen Pain murmured in her ear.

Nereid hugged him back, blinking tears away. "Pay, I'm so glad to see you too."

Tam a-hemmed next to her and she recalled herself. "Citizen Pain, this is Tam Lane. He helped me find my way back after I got lost in Faerie."

Pay grinned his chiseled, impossibly beautiful grin, and a lock of his white hair fell into his eyes. He shook Tam's hand enthusiastically. "Indeed! You are welcome, Mr. Lane. We are so relieved to have Nereid back. Indeed we are."

"Well, I'm glad to have played a part in that," Tam said stiffly, glancing beyond Pay at the rest of the Cosmics.

Mercury posed with what Nereid knew to be a faux welcoming smile, his green humanoid boyfriend Tilt lurking, half-visible, behind him. Nereid noticed that Vector was growing out her blonde pixie cut, and even so, Vector still looked like a model. Wire stood to one side, her left arm in a sling, the stump neatly bandaged.

"Welcome home, Pacifica!" Mercury said. "We're awfully glad you made it back and that you're feeling well enough to get let out of the hospital."

"Thanks, guys," Nereid said, hoping the Special Moment would be over soon and she could go to bed. "Is Sophie back yet?"

Wire shook her head. "It'll be another couple of days. She was in her 'coma'--" Wire could only do scare quotes with her right hand now "--for four months, after all. She's pretty wobbly, and the Ultimate isn't taking any chances."

Nereid nodded, her one hope of the day deflated. She didn't know why she hadn't gone to see Sophie before getting discharged. She really should have. But every time she wanted to go, Tam had to go get something to eat, or sing in the lounge, or something, and she didn't really have the energy to wheel herself there.

Everyone stood there for a moment, smiling at each other.

Vector finally said, "Well, this is really awkward, so I'm going back inside."

The other Cosmics followed her promptly, except for Pay, who lingered.

Nereid inhaled and pulled herself together. "It's awesome to see you, Pay, but I'm still really beat."

"Of course!" Citizen Pain said. "We just wanted you to see that we are indeed glad you are back. Can I help you to your apartment?"

"I'll handle that, friend," Tam said, clasping Nereid's hand to his arm possessively.

Pay didn't notice any undercurrents; he just smiled and said, "Oh, indeed! I will see you later, Pacifica!"

In her rooms, Tam glanced around approvingly. "Nice place. Simple, but nice."

"The Cosmics furnished it," Nereid said. "I just, you know, live here." Her gaze fell on the stack of schoolbooks she'd bought for spring semester, still piled neatly on the edge of the kitchenette and she said, suddenly, "I hope the Cosmics got me a dispensation for missing the whole semester. I mean, I think finals are this week."

"Oh, you're in school?" Tam said, looking up from investigating her entertainment center.

'Yeah," Nereid said, biting down on the inside of her cheek to stop herself from tearing up. After a second, she added, more steadily, "This would've been my second semester. Oh, I really hope they thought to handle that. I guess they'd have to do it for Wire at least, so maybe they remembered me too."

"I'm sure it will be fine," Tam said, coming to take her hands. "You're home now."

"Yeah," she said again, forcing a smile. "And I think I need a nap." She squeezed his hands, and let him put an arm around her waist as they walked to the bedroom. "I'm sorry, Tam. Feel free to watch TV or... oh, god, you probably don't know how to turn it on. I can..." She turned to go back out.

He held her still. "It's all right, love. There's plenty of time for me to learn to do that." He started unbuttoning her shirt. "We've got all the time in the world, right?"

She let him undress her, because it felt nice to be taken care of. She let him get into bed with her, too, because it felt nice to be held and kissed. She let him do other things too, because she figured it wouldn't take too long and she didn't have the energy to argue anyway.


Note from the Author:

Between the events of last week, our upcoming November marathon of Things Taking Up Our Weekends, the stupid Snowtober storm, and the fact that we're on Hour 59 with no power at my house (*whinnnnne*), things have been hectic and stressful and I've been forgetful. I apologize for the lack of rerun posts, and I will try to get back with the program soon, but at least I can get new episodes up.

Remember to vote for WCS!

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Meddling in the Affairs of Wizards

The door in the middle of the room burst open and the tail end of an ear-shattering scream blew in.

Maelstrom stepped in front of the Equestrian. Wire stepped between the door and the device holding Sophie's spirit captive. Tam stepped behind Nereid.

A light whipped through the door and struck Wire in the chest, knocking her flat. It continued unimpeded on its path into the funnel, spiraling down into darkness.

There was a pop. And another one. And another. The pops came faster and harder, like a machine gun, and Nereid suddenly realized that the walls of vacuum tubes were shattering, making noise like champagne corks in a fire, and the lights were diving down after the first, consumed by the funnel.

The shrieking scrapes of stone on stone and the thrum and grind of the gears sped up around them.

As Wire picked herself up, a little balding man with white hair and muttonchop sideburns wearing an out-of-date suit stepped through the door, tossing aside a small device that looked like a miniature gramophone.

He stopped, staring at them all through his wire-rim glasses, first with bewilderment, then with growing rage.

"Will interference from you confounded paranormals never end?" he demanded angrily.

"I don't suppose it will," the Equestrian said, a ball of green light growing in one of her hands.

There was a crash from the other side of the doorway, and Nereid heard a familiar voice shouting, "SATOR!"

"Megan?" Nereid exclaimed, then clapped both hands over her mouth as Sator glanced at her, amused.

"Don't worry, dear," he said, removing his glasses and tucking them in the breast pocket of his shirt. "I already knew her name. Humans are so careless."

The great golden-furred wolf was, apparently, just as much a surprise to Sator as it was to the rest of them, especially given the way Simon tackled Sator squarely behind the knees, knocking the magician on his face.

"Oh, that'll piss him off," Maelstrom said, snorting flame out of his human-looking face. "Magicians are sticklers about their dignity."

Simon looked up and around at everyone, and his gaze locked on Nereid. The next moment, Nereid felt someone in her mind.

Pardon the intrusion, Pacifica, a sweet, mild woman's voice said. My name is Renata Scott, and I'll be your telepathic link for today.

Oh, thank fuck, a way to talk, Wire said into the link.

Excellent, the Equestrian said, and her mental voice was much older than her physical one.

Sator rose up from the floor in a graceful swoop, his feet well above the ground and energies crackling around each hand. "I have no patience for this," he intoned.

The dome continued to open its eye to another sky wider and wider.


Note from the Author:

HERE IT IS! Third episode for the week! Thank you all so much! Next new episode: Tuesday!

And remember to vote for WCS!

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Backstage Pass

"Sophie!" cried Nereid again, reaching for the bell jar. Tam slapped her hands away.

"You don't know what's holding her there," Tam snapped. "It could hurt you."

Nereid gave him a baffled frown, then looked around at the others. Wire was gagging and spitting nearby. Maelstrom was looking upward with a cynically mournful expression. The Equestrian was standing with fists on hips, looking up at the ceiling as well.

Nereid looked up too. The enormous concrete blocks that made up the dome were shifting and sliding around each other as the dome slowly rotated. It looked vaguely familiar, like a special effect she'd seen in a movie once. Or perhaps like one of those sliding puzzle games she played as a kid.

As the blocks screeched against each other, a small aperture began to open in the very top of the dome.

"I don't like that at all," Maelstrom said conversationally.

The Equestrian sighed and said, "Let's find out what it does before getting down to disliking it."

"Is it... some kind of observatory?" Nereid asked, watching the tiny hole iris open to reveal a strange, vivid darkness that seethed with burning stars and indigo clouds.

"I bet you a case of Guinness that it's not just for observing," Maelstrom said.

Wire punched Nereid in the arm, hard. Nereid exclaimed and looked at her teammate, feeling very injured. Wire, one hand clapped over her mouth, pointed furiously at the door in the center of the room.

"Oh," Nereid said. Then, a little louder, "Um, everybody? The door is glowing all over and all around."

"Oh, that," the Equestrian said. "I expect that's what it's supposed to do when it unlocks."

Maelstrom stomped over, examined the door closely, sniffed it, and then pounded on it with one bony fist. When it failed to respond, he turned his back on it, lifted one leg, and kicked back at it several times.

The door remained unmoved. It was a door.

"It's sealed," Maelstrom said unnecessarily.

"I figured that," the Equestrian said. "There is, after all, no doorknob on this side."

"Does no harm to check," Maelstrom said.

"Except whoever's door it is now knows we're here," the Equestrian said, still staring up at the dome.

Maelstrom snorted. "Only if they're standing right on the other side."

Nereid stamped her foot to much less effect than Maelstrom. She pointed at the bell jar. "What about Sophie?"

The Equestrian sighed and walked over to look at the tiny figure in the jar. "Yep," she said. "Looks like Brainchild all right."

Wire, who was examining the knobs and dials on the machine, lifted her head to glare daggers at the Equestrian.

The Equestrian ignored her, as usual, and peered curiously into the funnel under the bell jar. "Hmmm," she said.

"What?" Nereid said.

"Dunno," the Equestrian said, then added, "Maelstrom, go take a look at those walls of vacuum tube thingies."

Maelstrom snorted again and slouched over. "Oh," he said as he got closer. "Oh," he said again, sniffing loudly. He tapped one glowing glass bulb in the nearest wall. It rang under his fingernail. "That glow's a human soul."

Nereid exclaimed, "All of those are souls?"

The Equestrian pursed her lips and rubbed her chin. "Well, that's a thing," she said, looking at the walls of luminescent souls, then at the funnel, then at the turning gears and opening hole in the dome.

Tam said, nervously, "They're... not for a tithe, are they?"

The Equestrian said, "I think they are, in a way."

Maelstrom spun around on his heel and stared at her. "Even a bribe this big--"

"No," the Equestrian interrupted. "Not an established trade route. I think it's a magician, trying to force the wall open. It's a good night for it."

Maelstrom replied, "It's a busy one, that's for sure. But are you referring to the Far Lands, or something further?"

"Something further, I think."

Nereid exclaimed, "Could you speak in English for the rest of us?"

The Equestrian pinched the bridge of her nose. "I think someone is trying to crack open the dimensional wall between Earth and... somewhere else... using an engine that takes souls for fuel that's stationed here, in this land, because souls can be made tangible here." She pointed at Sophie, who was drifting around inside the bell jar, apparently unable to see the lot of them. "And it's May Day on the other side, a day when the walls are thinnest."

Nereid's jaw fell open. How did they lose so many months? And... a dimensional gate? She looked at Tam, whose face wasn't registering horror so much as complete bewilderment.

Unfortunately, she didn't have time to explain it to him before the machines all around them lit up and began to emit a peculiar set of extremely irritating tones.

"What is that?" Nereid said, clapping her hands to her ears.

Wire exclaimed, "That's a modem coming online!" then turned her back, retching violently.

Nereid didn't turn fast enough -- she saw something hit the floor and scurry away, and gagged in sympathy.

The Equestrian said, "Then the connection's been made. Maelstrom, watch the door. Nereid, Wire, you know computers, see if you can figure out how to get this thing shut down."


Note from the Author:
Annnnnd if you WANT to know what's going on back on Earth with the Wonderful House crew on Thursday, I need TEN COMMENTS by Thursday morning! Otherwise you (and I) have to wait until next TUESDAY. AUGH!

Vote for WCS!

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Go West, Young Woman

"And this is Tam Lane," Nereid said to the Equestrian and Maelstrom. Wire had oddly not emerged from the far side of the horse, though Nereid could hear her moving on the trail over there. "He's been helping me since I first got lost."

"Really," the Equestrian said, staring impassively down at Tam, who smiled sweetly up at her.

"He's Victorian," Nereid rushed on. "I mean, English, from the 1880s, so he's been stuck here forever. We can take him back with us, can't we?"

The Equestrian sighed and rubbed her face. "Rescuing a human in this land isn't like picking up a stray kitten on the street corner."

"But you can do it, can't you?" Nereid said. She willed Tam silent, and for once, he decided that his silver tongue wouldn't avail him here.

The Equestrian snapped, "We'll discuss it after we've done what we came here for."

Maelstrom's large nose nudged Nereid. "You're covered in blood."

Nereid swallowed, now reminded of the mess, and was grateful when she looked down and was no longer wearing a prom gown, but her costume. The dark stains seemed to match where the blues changed shade, and she wondered if her costume was now shades of red-brown. "It was the prom," she said, unwilling to explain further.

"Ah," Maelstrom said knowingly.

"Let's move along," the Equestrian said, nudging her horse into motion. "We can chat as we go."

Nereid let the horse's butt pass her and stepped around to fall into step next to Wire. "Hi," she said hesitantly.

Wire glanced at her, and a stray beam of light from somewhere illuminated her face, composed in anger, jaw clenched, lips stitched together with thick red thread.

"Aughlgh!" Nereid said incoherently, jumping backward. "What happened?"

Wire looked away.

"Oh, that," the Equestrian said placidly. "She smarted off one time too many."

"You did that to her?" Nereid said, glancing at Tam, who shrugged as if to say, Told you so.

"She asked me to do it," the Equestrian said.

"More precisely," Maelstrom said, "she asked you to do something that would stop her from talking."

"Why?" Nereid said, unable to keep her gaze off Wire's mouth.

"You know the story," Maelstrom said, "where whenever the person said something, a frog popped out of his or her mouth?"

"Um," Nereid said.

"Well," Maelstrom went on with a disgusted whole-body shudder, "it wasn't frogs."

"There was some comment about it being something that would approve of the sewer that was her mouth," the Equestrian said, almost fondly.

Wire looked almost like she was going to make a wordless exclamation, but thought better of it.

"Rats?" Nereid suggested.

Maelstrom shuddered again. "Think more legs."

Sudden nausea seized Nereid. There was, fortunately, nothing for her to vomit. She cursed her vivid imagination.

The group strolled down the road. "We spotted a place just before we saw the fire," the Equestrian. "It's chock-full of magical defenses, and Maelstrom says he smells human soul all over it."

"Stinks of it," the horse said with a snort.

"Glad to know our souls stink," Nereid said, more than a little snippy. Maelstrom turned a surprised (for a horse) look at her, probably since she'd been relatively nice on the trip in. She was just out of cope. And she thought it was kind of weird that the Equestrian hadn't quizzed her about where she'd been yet.

The Equestrian rooted in her saddlebags and tossed Nereid a granola bar. "You're probably starving. Literally. You certainly look it."

Nereid only just managed to keep some modicum of dignity as she opened the wrapper and tore into the grainy sweetness. Maybe the Equestrian was just trying to be nice, in her weird, dysfunctional way.

The Equestrian looked at Tam. "I expect you've been eating."

"Yes, ma'am," he said, though he craned his neck curiously at the granola bar.

"All right then," she said, and snapped the saddlebag shut.

What they'd seen turned out to be a concrete and glass office building with castle-like crennelations around the top. The large flagpole in a circle of grass before the substantial staircase at the front door flew something that flapped in the night breeze. Nereid was afraid it might be something living, so resolved not to look too closely. Along and windy road stretched away from that flagpole, twining down the hillside toward them.

Nereid sighed. "Why is there so much uphill in this place?"

"It's the hard work of Progress," the Equestrian said. "Making everything a difficult climb both ways in the snow."

Maelstrom snorted. "You told me once it's because we all like to live in hills. That we have a fetish for them because they symbolize female sexuality or something."

"That too," the Equestrian said blithely, and kicked him in the ribs, a sure sign, Nereid had found, of temper.

Tam grabbed Nereid's hand and clutched it tight for the entire ascent. Nereid kept glancing at Wire, who was walking with her shoulders hunched and her head hanging miserably. Part of her longed to go try to say something nice to Wire -- it was her fault that Wire was here, after all -- but Tam wouldn't release her. When she glanced at his face, she realized he was very pale and his lips were pressed together so hard they were as white has his face.

He noticed her glance and forced himself to smile. After a moment, he leaned over and kissed her lingeringly on the neck. Their progress paused, until a pointed throat-clearing from the Equestrian made Tam jump away from Nereid like a startled cat. The two of them hurried after the horse.

Wire was staring at them, and Nereid felt a blush suffuse her face to the roots of her hair. It was a relief when they reached the front door of the building.

"No guards," Maelstrom said.

"I'll never believe that," the Equestrian said. "Do it."

Maelstrom snorted once, then again, more sonorously. He pawed the ground with one forehoof. He began to glow faintly red, and Wire jumped away from him as if she'd been burnt by standing too close.

Then the horse exhaled a blast of flame. It turned and swirled and built into a ball the size of the glass doors. Then, almost gently, he blew on the ball.

It rolled with silent majesty through the doors, leaving a neatly melted hole in its wake.

"Does it stop?" Tam asked, peering into the hole curiously.

"Where I tell it to," Maelstrom said, more than a little smug.

"Let's go," the Equestrian said, digging in her heels.

The inside of the building was far more bizarre than the outside: the walls were made of gears, big and small. You could catch glimpses of rooms and other hallways through the gaps in the gears, but not many, since there appeared to be multiple layers of gears. All of the gears were still, and Nereid suspected they were for show.

The ball of fire bobbed along in front of them as they moved through the foyer. It illuminated a giant, gleaming, metallic spiral staircase, each broad step a gigantic gear.

They paused and contemplated this construct in a long and disapproving silence.

Finally, the Equestrian leapt from Maelstrom's back. "Bloody hell," she said. "We might as well get on with this."

Her trip through this land had definitely resigned Nereid to the narratively inevitable, she thought, because she wasn't surprised at all when the gears of the staircase began to turn as soon as the Equestrian's boot touched the lowest step.

"Come on then!" the Equestrian yelled as she began to sprint up the stairs.

Maelstrom was in his human form, leaping lightly up and up. He left the fireball floating at the bottom of the stairs.

Wire, Nereid, and Tam all looked at each other. "Go on ahead," Nereid said dully. "I'm going to be slow."

Wire gave her a slightly wild look, but turned and started to run, staggeringly, upward.

"Hurry," Tam said, tugging her hand. "It's only going to speed up."

"Yeah," Nereid said, twisting her arm loose and feeling unutterably weary. "Go on."

He bounded up almost as lightly as Maelstrom.

Nereid felt like someone had turned up the gravity, but knew Tam was probably right. Still, she started her ascent in slow, deliberate steps, timing the various rotations. Some of the next steps rotated in the opposite direction from the one on which she stood; some moved in the same direction, only slightly slower or faster.

Sophie had always told her that she went about these puzzles too slowly when they played videogames together. Sometimes, Sophie would lose patience and take the controller from her. Sometimes, she'd settle for shouting instructions.

Sophie. Would they find her here? Or were they on a wild goose chase?

The gears were speeding up. Something was happening behind her, down the stairs. She heard grinding metal, felt the staircase shake.

Inevitably, she stumbled and fell, catching her foot on a tooth of a gear-step, but she caught herself on the center post. In the few seconds she faced backward, she glimpsed something huge and feline batting the fireball around kittenishly at the foot of the steps. The fireball hit one of the steps and melted right through it, resulting into another stairquake as the gears snagged. Suddenly, she had the adrenaline to follow her companions at speed.

By the time she reached the top of the stairs, the gears were starting to whirl and throw sparks. She threw herself at the landing, catching herself and shoulder-rolling to the booted feet of the Equestrian.

"About fucking time," the Equestrian snapped. "I was beginning to wonder if I was going to have to return you to your mum in a baggie."

Nereid was breathing too hard and contemplating the stitch in her side too much to answer. Besides the staircase was screaming and smoking and, really, it was all much too loud for reasoned conversation.

The Equestrian looked at Wire, who was trying to breathe hard through her stitched lips, and Tam, who was pointedly not looking at Nereid or anyone, really. She sighed, reached down, and hauled Nereid to her feet with a good deal more strength than any thin, slight, 13-year-old girl ought to have. "You did all right," she said in a more moderate tone.

Nereid wheezed and gulped, and said, "Thanks," because her mother always taught her to reward positive behavior. She pointed back down the stairs. "Big cat! With the fire!"

The Equestrian peered down the stairs and then glanced at Maelstrom. "Don't leave your toys around for the guards to play with," she said, adding, "And never set the cat on fire."

"Tsk," he said, rolling his eyes. "Geek."

Nereid was finally able to look around, and found that they were standing in a great domed room which appeared to be made of plain grey concrete cast in giant blocks. There was a door standing in the center of the room with no visible supports, a great carved ivory throne on a (concrete) dais at the far side of the room from them, and a very plain golden crown gleaming on the seat of the throne. A massive bank of old-fashioned computers lay in an arc before the throne, and several walls of glowing vacuum tubes were lined up like dominoes. An arch of the same gray blocks loomed over the throne, giant sans-serif letters picked out in gilt: HERE AND EVERYWHERE RULES THE LORD OF THE WEST.

"Oh," the Equestrian said upon reading the arch. "Another bloody pretender. They're a dime a dozen, here."

Nereid looked up. "It looks like it's about to fall on us."

The Equestrian snorted. "Probably not, but I wouldn't trust this Soviet Brutal style any further than I could throw it."

Maelstrom snorted and pawed at the slick gray floor with one booted foot. "I think you're being unfair to the Soviets. Brutal, I'll give you that."

Around the base of the dais were things like laboratory benches, and a great, ominous, funnel-shaped thing. A bell jar about two feet high dangled in the air above the funnel; inside it was a tiny figure.

Wire leapt forward, exclaiming, when she spotted the bell jar. Then she retched and staggered to one side, fumbling a pocket knife out, opening the blade, and bringing it to her mouth. Nereid looked away nervously, toward the bell jar.

She stared and ran forward a few paces. She looked back at the Equestrian. "Sophie!" she cried, pointing to the miniscule and slightly transparent figure under glass.

The door chose that moment to begin to glow, and there was a great moaning sound from the walls around them. Gears embedded in the concrete around the walls began to turn, and ponderously, the dome began to rotate.

"Well, shit," the Equestrian said, mouth twisting wryly. "And everything was going so well, too."


Note from the Author:
Just a little ostentation. For the look of the thing, really.

wonder_city: (Default)

"All right," the Equestrian said, looking down from the grassy hilltop where their road ended. "I think we'll try this city."

Nereid topped the hill and looked down at a walled city that held a number of modern-looking concrete buildings and a single mirrored skyscraper. The wall around the city was also mirrored, looking sleek and futuristic and utterly wrong.

"Why not that last one we passed?" Wire asked, glancing over her shoulder towards a more traditionally pseudo-medieval confection a few miles behind them.

The Equestrian cleared her throat. "They're a little too experimental."

Maelstrom snorted. "They've been trying patriarchy for a while now. Makes them unpleasant to be around."

"Sounds like what we're used to," Wire said.

"Not their sort," said the Equestrian. "Remember that things here are sort of... reversed. Always reversed, really."

"The 'king'," Maelstrom said scornfully, "has a number of advisors who actually run the place while he's busy getting bug--"

"ANYWAY," the Equestrian interrupted, "this city is somewhat more traditional politically. And it's one of the more successful experiments with modern human architecture."

"What are we going to do there?" Nereid said.

"Try to find information about Brainchild," the Equestrian said, "that doesn't cost us too dearly."

Wire didn't have a witty rejoinder -- her witty rejoinders had been getting scarcer since the wedding incident -- so they started down the hill together.

As they approached the gate, which rather resembled the skin of a disco ball pegged out to dry, the Equestrian said, "Remember. Don't eat or drink anything I don't tell you to eat or drink. Don't take gifts from anyone. Don't shoplift. Don't wander out of sight of me -- not Maelstrom, me. Be so polite none of your friends would recognize you. All right?"

Both of them had, by this time, learned to simply say, "Yes, ma'am." It made life easier. She wouldn't answer their questions anyway.

Guards stood to either side of the gate, apparently male given the hang of their neat business suits and patent leather shoes. One was examining what appeared to be a cell phone, the other was mumbling self-importantly to the air. He may have had an earphone hooked over one ear.

The one caressing his phone looked up at them. "Oh, you again," he said to the Equestrian. "Come on in, I suppose."

Just then his phone said distinctly, in a tinny little voice, "Druid," and he turned his attention back to it.

Wire reached over and shut Nereid's mouth with a clack of teeth.

The Equestrian didn't even acknowledge the guard, but kept Maelstrom moving steadily toward the gate. The wan sunlight hurt Nereid's eyes as it was reflected by thousands of mirrored facets. Then the gates swung outward, admitting them to the faerie city.

"Need a taxi, lady?" one squat man with halitosis snarled at Nereid, advancing on her from his post next to a tiny yellow car that would have fit in Nereid's school backpack.

"No, thank you," she said to him, and to the hundreds of other cabbies who accosted her in the next five minutes. She could hear Wire similarly refusing service. No one approached the Equestrian.

Once they ran the gauntlet of taxicabs, they came onto a wide, clear, clean, empty sidewalk that led inexorably to the skyscraper. "Where we want to be is on the other side of the building," the Equestrian said. "Keep close."

"Why?" Wire said despite what they'd already learned about asking her questions.

Suddenly, they were in a press of people, all dressed in various sorts of modern and near-modern business gear. There were men in gray skirt suits with large, pastel 1980s bows at their throats. There were women in black suits and bowlers, carrying umbrellas and leather cases. There were male supermodels in bulky silver spacesuits covered in pockets. There were people of indeterminate gender in housecoats, with animate antennae emerging from their hair curlers and carrying tiny metal briefcases. Nereid had written off business garb as boring and monochrome, and learned very quickly that it didn't have to be.

She followed the Equestrian's stiff back in her dark green tailcoat gamely, though, elbowing her way through the throng. Nereid was momentarily bedazzled by the mirrored side of the skyscraper, though, as it showed the reflections of everyone around her as even more incredibly-dressed and fanciful-looking than they were when she looked straight at them. That businessman in the Armani-lookalike suit was a small furry humanoid with a sticky note on its forehead when seen in the mirror. That woman in the black aviator's hat and jumpsuit, landing her jetpack carefully at curbside looked like a small green fairy woman with butterfly wings in the mirror. Her own reflection remained quite mundane, to her disappointment.

Nereid looked away, feeling more than a little overwhelmed and... found herself alone. There was no sign of the Equestrian, Maelstrom, or Wire. She ran along the side of the building where she'd last seen them but they weren't there. They weren't around the corner. They weren't anywhere in sight.

Just stay where you are, Nereid told herself, trying not to hyperventilate. They'll realize any minute and come back for you. They can't find you if you start running around like an idiot.

So she waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Somewhere around the time that the sun appeared to be setting, she thought, I'm so very fucked.


From the Author:
Wonder City Stories has been nominated for the Rose & Bay Award! Voting has begun -- see this post for the fiction category. I would adore it if you voted for Wonder City. Also note that there are other categories, including webcomics, art, and "other".

I'm posting twice weekly during February. Thank you for all your comments! Please keep commenting while I come up with new ideas (or steal other people's ideas) for fan involvement. I love all your comments.

Vote for us at Top Web Fiction! Come on and click. You know you want to.

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One a' Them Mettyfors

"Come to the wedding!" sang the little birds in the branches overhead. "Everyone must come to the wedding!"

The Equestrian leaned forward and slapped Maelstrom's ears. "'I know these woods,' you said," she said. "'Just some bimorphs. No trouble at all,' you said. Bollocks."

Maelstrom laid his ears flat against his head. "It is a shortcut," he said sulkily.

Nereid looked up at the Equestrian and thought, not for the first time, how strange it was to see an expression that old on a face that young. "What's wrong? It sounds kind of nice."

"Weddings," the Equestrian said in the tone of voice people generally reserved for discussing gangrene.

Wire reached out and broke a delicate icicle off a tree branch. "Weird season for a wedding."

The woods glittered and gleamed with ice and frost and tiny sparks of snow that occasionally blew off upper tree branches like powdered sugar. The evergreens were coated with snow in the lumps generally only seen on Christmas cards. A perfect one-inch layer of snow muffled their footsteps as they made their way deeper into the woods.

"Now we have to attend," the Equestrian said, venting her ire on Maelstrom's ears again.

"We can't just give our regrets and, er, best wishes or something?" Nereid said.

"That would be rude," Wire said, possibly to demonstrate that she'd learned something from the Equestrian's frequent lectures on the necessity of politeness in this land.

"Exactly," the Equestrian said. "Let's go. The sooner we're there, the sooner it's over."

Maelstrom heaved a sigh. "They love having human guests." His ears perked up and his tone brightened. "But they should have some decent booze. And dancing. You haven't let me go dancing for ages."

"That's because you have four left feet," said the Equestrian. "I'm just acting for the public good."

Maelstrom snorted.

"So, um, is there anything we should know about, you know, what to do?" Nereid said.

"Don't eat or drink anything here," the Equestrian said. "Even if it means being rude. Because, frankly, I don't want to have to explain to your parents why I'm bringing them a ferret instead of a daughter."

"Oh," Nereid said.

The clearing was vast, and the ground was coated with snow that was hardened so that it felt like marble underfoot. Stark white birch trees stretched high overhead, coated in the remains of an ice storm, and the branches contained a peculiarly melodious chorus of birds. Down on the floor, there were long tables covered with frothy white tablecloths. The tables nearly groaned under the weight of hundreds of steaming silver platters and bowls of food. A throng of people filled the clearing, most of them appearing to be animals in human clothing, but everyone seemed to flow easily from animal to human and back again.

When Maelstrom strolled in with the Equestrian on his back and Wire and Nereid walking to either side, the crowd turned, exclaimed joyously, and closed around them. Nereid found herself pressed back against Maelstrom's shoulder by the earnest greetings of a pack of wolves in Victorian tailcoats and top hats. "Thank you," she said again and again in response to their enthusiastic compliments about her hair, her figure, her costume, her presence, her smile -- anything, in short, that they could find to compliment about her, even things they could have no knowledge of, like her kindness or grace. At least she could hear that Wire was having a similar experience on the other side of the horse. The Equestrian, however, was a silent monolith on the horse's back, glowering at everyone equally.

The wolves fell away as a large puma-woman with acres of cleavage in several square miles of heavily-corseted green satin dress advanced on the humans. A handsome young man with large, dark, sensitive eyes trailed behind her, his sculpted chest and shoulders clearly visible through his thin silk shirt. "Welcome!" she purred. "We're terribly flattered that you could attend our little... event." Nereid could swear she winked at Maelstrom, and glimpsed consternation on the face of the young man. "Why don't you come have a seat? Perhaps something to drink...?"

"Thank you, lady," the Equestrian said, "but we cannot, as you know, partake of hospitality of that sort. Though we're very glad to be able to see such a spectacular event."

"Ah, yes," the woman said, taking her young man's arm. "But surely your steed can."

The Equestrian sighed and slid off Maelstrom's back. Nereid staggered a bit as the object she was leaning against changed from solid horse to tall, slender man. He caught her, almost as an afterthought, and smiled down at the puma. "Of course I can, and I will, by your leave, lady."

The puma nodded graciously. "I hope you all will enjoy yourselves as best you can," she said before moving off with her escort. As Nereid eyed his well-built back, she noticed the large rack of antlers that crowned his head briefly.

"So who's getting married?" Wire said, looking around.

Maelstrom bowed to the Equestrian and moved off, making a beeline toward a table full of bottles that was being managed by a raven-boy. One of the wolves passed close by, paying outrageous compliments to a small, plump hen-woman on his arm.

The Equestrian ran a practiced gaze over the crowd, then pointed toward an archway of black thorny branches on which ice-carved roses bloomed. "I'd say that's her."

A slim young woman, skin pale as the snow, stood demurely under the arch. She was crowned with a sparkling tiara and wore what appeared to be a white tutu with a long, long train no actual ballerina could manage. Her bridal veil was adorned with feathers, and divided in two just below the nape of her neck, trailing behind her like wings.

"Why does she look so... human?" Nereid asked.

"She's a swan princess," the Equestrian said. "That's her thing."

Wire looked confused. "Looking human?"

"Yes," the Equestrian said. "And, if I'm not mistaken, she's got two potential husbands. That argument there." She pointed to a pair of young men who were clearly "having words" not too far from the bride-to-be.

"Wait," Wire said. "They don't know who's marrying her yet? But they've got the wedding set up?"

Nereid's attention was arrested by an enormous white construction nearby. "With a cake and everything," she breathed, admiring the seven-tiered edifice that stood alone on a round table, a wreath of ice-coated ivy around its base. It was decorated with sugar frosting delicate as chantilly lace, with swags of pale pastel fruit and marzipan on each tier. Fine sugar chains depended from the upper tiers, each adorned with a tiny confection of a golden ring. The cake was topped with a cage filigreed of spun sugar and holding a live turtledove, who preened and cooed, apparently enjoying being on display.

Wire turned to look and said, "How do they keep the bird from shitting on the cake?"

Nereid glowered and said, "This is like a fairy tale. Shit doesn't happen."

The Equestrian made a loud, harsh noise that Nereid thought might possibly have been a laugh, but it was hard to tell with her.

They made their way closer to the bridal arch. A small cat in very large cavalier boots and a blue-feathered Musketeer hat stomped past, making a beeline for the same table Maelstrom was inhabiting. He or she ordered an enormous glass of something and downed it immediately, ordering a refill as the glass hit the table. Maelstrom said something to the cat, and the cat rolled its green eyes expressively before slamming down another glassful.

Nereid heard Wire say, "Oh, excuse me," and saw that Wire and a lovely young woman in a figure-hugging black sequined sheath dress and a black feathered wrap had just collided.

"Not a problem," the young woman said huskily. "These affairs are always so crowded."

The Equestrian eyed her suspiciously and said, "Family of the bride?"

"My sister," the woman said, dabbing at her eyes with a black-edged handkerchief.

"Didn't I see you at a wedding not long ago?" the Equestrian said.

"Yes," the black swan princess said. "Oh, yes. My own wedding, no doubt. But as you can see, I am recently bereaved. It was a terrible, surprising event." She smiled brilliantly at Wire and undulated in the direction of Maelstrom.

"I expect the Carp Prince was most surprised of all by his own demise," the Equestrian muttered and turned toward the bride again, where the two suitors were remonstrating.

One was an auburn-haired fox man, sleek in a dark red tail coat, tight breeches, high polished black boots, and a high-necked, neatly-tied cravat a la Beau Brummel. The other was a taller, dark-haired wolf nattily attired in a grey Victorian morning suit, complete with high silk hat. They both leaned close to the bride, speaking low and urgently. She fluttered and blushed and looked to be thoroughly enjoying herself.

Finally, she turned and took the arm of the fox. A thin cheer went up around the clearing, and people began to drift closer to the arch expectantly. Nereid noticed several small knots of people were surreptitiously exchanging what looked like money or small jewels. The wolf stepped back, and seemed to be about to stalk away, when the fox said, "But stay, friend, and be my best man. After all, no hard feelings, what?"

The wolf snapped his jaws at the fox, but remained where he was. The fox smiled and clasped his bride-to-be close to his side. "Come, my dove, we'll have this wedding yet. Bring up the man to do the job!" he called.

There was a general kerfluffle among the attendees, and a squawk sounded from a goose woman that stood near Nereid. A smiling and rotund boar in a long brown robe, holding a brandy glass in one hand ambled from behind the goose and up toward the young couple. The goose huffed and hurried away from his self-satisfied smirk.

"Beerly deloved!" the boar bellowed. "No, wait, that's not quite right."

"It is for us!" a raven girl called from the drinks table, holding aloft a large beer stein.

"Dearly beloved!" the boar corrected himself. "We are gathered here today to see the marriage of the swan princess to her chosen prince! And a lucky bastard he is too, if I may say so." A cheer went up around the clearing, and the bride blushed.

Nereid had trouble keeping her gaze on the couple. Every time she glanced at the cake, she noticed new details, and she kept looking back to it. It was so glittery, so sparkly. Were those tiny interlinked hearts in the frosting swags? Did the turtledove really have a swing in its sugar cage?

Wire elbowed her and whispered, "What's got you so hot about that cake?"

"It's just so pretty," Nereid said, looking again. One tier's piping was made up of little pomegranates, each split open and showing seeds that were tinted the faintest pink. "Do you suppose it tastes as good as it looks?"

"Who the hell cares?" Wire said. "We're not going to get to eat it. We'll just get another of those energy bars the Equestrian keeps feeding us. I'm so fucking hungry I can barely see straight."

"And I've got lemon-flavored bars for the pains in my ass who shut the hell up," the Equestrian said. Wire flushed angrily.

"Where's the ring?" roared the boar-priest. "Who's got it?"

There was a general sort of scrum around the clearing, and the beautiful vixen who was apparently standing as the maid of honor finally rolled her eyes and produced a golden ring from her cleavage. She handed it to the wolf, who sulkily handed it to the fox. The fox thanked him loudly, which made hackles stand up on the wolf's neck. The red-headed vixen inadequately concealed a yawn behind one slender hand.

"Excellent!" the boar said. "Well, don't just stand there, put the ring on her hand!"

The fox bent and took up the swan princess' tiny hand, sliding the ring onto the appropriate finger. He looked up into her eyes and smiled. She smiled back radiantly, then turned to face the audience to receive the applause with triumphantly raised, newly beringed hand.

"I now pronounce you man and wife!" the boar said into the tumult. "You may now kiss the bride."

The fox bent her back over his arm and kissed her. The ravens thumped the table and cheered raucously. A host of small animals, including stoats, ferrets, crows, and raccoons rushed forward to help carry the bride's train.

Nereid noticed that there was a small flock of chickadee women and several shy, twitchy-nosed young men who quietly faded into the woods around the clearing.

The puma who had greeted them reached out and seized the arm of her cervine companion warmly.

The fox swung his bride over his shoulder, despite her squeaked protests, and carried her through the arch, pursued by the train-carriers and wedding party.

The Equestrian grabbed Wire and Nereid's shoulders and dragged them backward. "What?" Wire said, staggering a little.

"Come on," the Equestrian said. "Believe me, you don't want a ringside seat at the feast."

Unseen beyond the press of people now, the bride screamed. Nereid's eyes went wide. "What's wrong? Shouldn't we help her?"

The bride screamed again, this time a high, shrill note of terror that ended in a wet ripping sound.

"Oh, my god," Wire said, green in the face.

The wolf best man stood up on a table. His face was covered in blood and he was laughing. "I got the biggest piece! I win after all!" he shouted. Ravens circled and called overhead, croaking encouragement.

The vixen maid of honor emerged from the feast, daintily wiping her mouth with a white floral napkin. She winked at the three humans and said, "You know what they say: always a bridesmaid and never a bride." She moved off to the champagne fountain.

The Equestrian halted near the cake table. "Wait here," she said. "I have to go fetch Maelstrom." And she headed for the drinks table.

Wire still looked sick. "Still wondering if the cake tastes as good as it looks?" she sneered. With a flick of her fingers, ribbons of her trademark molecule-thick "wire" spun out and sliced down through the edge of the lowest tier. "Have a slice!" She yanked on the ribbons to peel the slice open.

An empty icing shell fell away from the rest of the cake. They both stared at the hollow cake in consternation as, slowly, delicately, beautifully, it began to crumble down to its component sugar molecules. Presently, the whole cake had become a pile of sugar with a dead bird on top.

Nereid bit back a sob, knowing that Wire would only make fun of her if she let it out.

The Equestrian and Maelstrom trotted up. "Get on," the Equestrian said, seizing Wire by the scruff of the neck and hauling her aboard. Nereid clambered up behind, and Maelstrom's enormous frame surged out of the clearing and into the woods, leaving the screams, howls, snarls, and snatches of drunken song behind.

Presently, Wire said, "What the fuck was that all about?"

Maelstrom shook his mane. "Do you need it spelled out for you?" His voice rumbled through his ribcage and against their legs. "Don't fuck anyone who wants to eat you. Literally or metaphorically."

"They take their metaphors," the Equestrian said, "seriously here."


From the Author:
Tip o' the Musketeer hat to my wife, who helped me concoct this bit of dreadful fairy drama.

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

Vote for us at Top Web Fiction! Come on and click. You know you want to.

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The Fifth Destination

"Are you serious?" Wire said, shrinking back visibly from the sanguine torrent.

The Equestrian turned to look over her shoulder as Maelstrom forded the River of Blood. The viscous serum rushed around her booted legs and Maelstrom's shoulders. "This is the way in. Don't get squeamish on me so that I have to come back across and kick your ass. There's lots worse in this country, kid."

Nereid took a deep breath of the metallic-tasting atmosphere and walked into the unimpressive current. It was warm, of course. "Come on, Wire," she said with forced cheer. "At least it isn't cold."

"Fuck that shit," Wire said, planting her back firmly against the high bank behind her. "Where are the tinkly damn bells? How do they get a whole goddamn river of blood?"

The Equestrian and her horse gained the other bank and turned to look at their charges. Maelstrom sighed explosively. The Equestrian rubbed her forehead. "They just have one, all right? Didn't you do any reading about this place? Not all of the books are wrong."

"No!" Wire shouted. "Why should I? How do I know what's right? Aren't we going with you so we don't need to do research?"

"What kind of goddamn superhero are you anyway?" the Equestrian shouted back.

Nereid, wet to the shoulder with blood, clambered out on the bank next to Maelstrom. She looked down at her formerly blue costume, up at the horse -- which was, of course, spotless by now -- and gestured with one hand. The river parted straight across, even the mud at the bottom crisping up dark brown as she removed the moisture from it. "Quit bitching already," she said.

Wire's eyes got very large and she crossed the stretch tentatively, eying the surging liquid walls at either hand. Nereid could feel the weight of the Equestrian's scowl on the top of her head.

Wire slapped Nereid on the shoulder, laughed, and said, "The parting of the Red Sea!" as if it was clever.

"I hope it doesn't come back to kick us in the arse," the Equestrian said, in a tone that anticipated several kicks in the arse.

"Sorry," Nereid said, somewhat contrite, but mostly relieved to have averted yet another Wire-induced crisis.

Maelstrom turned his back on the river and started up a road. "All right," the Equestrian said, "we will follow this road. We will not follow any other road until I say that we will. You will not step foot off this road. Think of it as the yellow brick road to Oz."

"Except that it's a dirt road?" Wire said, walking up the hill of the bank.

"Stop thinking you're witty," the Equestrian said, a harsh edge in her voice. "You might be universally thought clever at home by your playmates, but here, your jokes may be taken literally, dismissed, taken as insults, or taken as reasons for hilarity. There is no way to predict how they might be received. And if you insult someone? There's practically no way I can save you. So be very, very bloody polite. As polite as you might be to your best friend's grandma. All right?"

Nereid watched Wire's face go from irritated to contrite to stubborn and sighed internally. This was so going to be a long trip.


From the Author:
My shoulder does not love northeastern snowstorms. More specifically, it does not love the shoveling of snow after northeastern snowstorms. We went out and shoveled a bit yesterday, getting the front walk and sidewalk and most of the driveway clear. But now we're faced with having to excavate the end of the driveway, plowed in most thoroughly by the city. We are not happy campers.

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

Vote for us at Top Web Fiction! It's just a few clicks! We've fallen down the list!

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Wake Up, Little Sophie

When Nereid walked into the hospital room to see Sophie, Wire was sitting in the chair next to the bed, holding her head in her hands. Just as Nereid was quietly backing out of the room, Wire looked up. Her face was pale and grim with something Nereid thought might be rage, and it twitched around the edges when Wire saw her. However, Wire pulled all the pieces of her composure back together and said, "Nereid. No need to go; I'm done here." She rose, picking up her heavy armored costume jacket from the back of the chair. She wasn't wearing her costume otherwise, just hiking boots and flannel-lined jeans and a buttondown plaid flannel over a cream-colored waffle-weave long underwear shirt.

Nereid gestured, incoherently and helplessly. "I'm sorry to interrupt..."

"No interruption," Wire said, not looking at Nereid. "I mean, there's no one here to talk to, is there?"

Nereid felt her own mouth twitch with uncertainty, then took a deep breath, slowly shifting into the room. "I wanted to talk to you about that."

Wire went on, as if Nereid hadn't said anything at all: "I talked to Dr. Thomas today. She's exhausted the experts. She even talked to some Class 10 telepath I never heard of. Sophie's not in there. She's braindead." Wire paused, one arm in her jacket, and started to laugh bitterly. "Brainchild is now Braindead," she said, still laughing, and Nereid cringed back from the shattered glass edges of that laugh.

She waited for Wire to settle back into her accustomed silence, but she kept laughing and covered her face with one hand. Finally, impatience got the best of Nereid and she snapped, "Wire, I know she's missing. We know where she's gone."

Wire froze, then peered out from between her fingers. The one hazel eye Nereid could see looked wide and crazy, and Nereid found herself backed against a wall, holding her breath. Then Wire's hand dropped and she looked at Nereid with undisguised contempt. "You somehow know something that the world's experts couldn't figure out? That the Ultimate couldn't figure out?"

"That's what I'm trying to tell you," Nereid said, and hated herself for how tiny her voice had become.

Wire was suddenly standing very nearly nose-to-nose with her. "Now you listen to me, Miss Know-It-All-Now-I'm-Class-Fucking-Nine, and you listen to me closely, okay?" she hissed into Nereid's face. "The Ultimate, the Gold Stars, the Guardians, they all say it's just like Josh Feldstein, all right? And you know what? He was in a fucking coma for ten goddamn years. His wife and father had him to even more experts than Sophie's been to, and none of them know what the fuck happened to him. All we know is that he came back, tried to destroy the city, and vanished, okay? The Sophie I... we... knew is fucking GONE, Pacifica, that's what I'm telling you, you green little diner-spawned leech. GONE."

Nereid had lost the thread of the tirade somewhere in the middle, because she could see a shining brass and steel orb floating outside the window of Sophie's window. As she watched, long... tweezers, it looked like, extended from the orb and somehow pierced the window without breaking it. The tweezer ends opened slowly and mechanically, and the window appeared to move aside, billowing and draping like a curtain over the metal arms. By the time Wire realized Nereid wasn't paying attention and looked over her shoulder, there was a glistening crystalline hexagonal surface pressed into the aperture.

There was a ringing thud, and another, and then the crystal was kicked off, a foot visible in the opening, and the cover tumbled in a noisy bell-like clatter onto the tile floor. Music blasted out of the mouth of the orb, a dramatic pop-orchestral thing with a driving beat. The foot, shod in shining brass and crystal itself, slid out and down to the floor, dragging behind a body similarly covered, topped with brilliantly platinum-bleached hair. The face turned toward them, and the eyes of the mask were iridescently faceted, facets upon facets upon facets. The smooth brass, striped irregularly with black, encased a slim throat, painfully thin torso, gracefully awkward arms, and unimpressive bosom, all atop long, slender legs that appeared to be strangely insectile in design. The metallic legs clicked on the tile. The face turned toward them. One of the eye covers slid to the side, exposing a heavily-kohled human eye. Four small, translucent wings unfolded from the back and vibrated briefly.

After looking over Wire and Nereid, who were frozen in their close-as-lovers tete-a-tete, she turned her attention to the bed, and with long, exaggerated movements, she stalked over to the side of the bed. With a gesture, she turned the music down to what Nereid took to be "background soundtrack" level. In a clear voice, she declaimed, "Oh, Brainchild! So much ego, brought so very low. My unparalleled genius has come to your aid!" She threw her arms upward and her head back dramatically, drawing polite applause from the crowd of nurses, orderlies, and other passerby from the doorway. The wings buzzed.

Wire visibly dismissed the strange vision and looked back into Nereid's face. "So what," she said, her voice at a whisper, "do you think you could possibly add to the know-how of ten goddamn years?"

Nereid's gaze kept being drawn by the woman's antics next to the bed. Now she had opened Sophie's eyes and was peering deeply into them through the insect eyepieces, saying, "You never could ask for help, you little fool, you little beast. You went up against something you didn't understand, couldn't understand, and it took you down. But you know I'm always here for you, whether you ask or not..."

Wire shook Nereid by the shoulders and Nereid looked at her. To stave off another rant, Nereid blurted out, "She's in Faerie."

Wire blinked. "What?"

"Faerie," Nereid said. "You know, tinkling bells and glitter dust and jolly songs in the woods?"

Wire's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "How do you know this?"

Nereid sighed. She knew she had to explain, and also knew she'd better make it good, because she didn't want to do this alone. But that damned woman had climbed onto the bed and was straddling Sophie's body and holding some sort of contraption over her and was talking constantly, sometimes creepily reassuring, sometimes saying things like, "You brought me back to life, you taught me how to make my own legs so I could stand on them, you taught me the way of things, I've got to be able to help you somehow..."

Wire yelled, "GoGo, give it a goddamn REST already. We're TRYING to have a CONVERSATION over here."

The woman straightened up and hopped delicately down from the bed. Her narrow shoulders went back and her chin went up defiantly. "That is Lady GoGo to you, you ignoramus. Or maybe," she said, with the tiniest giggle, antennae slowly extruding from her mask, "today I am Queen GoGo."

"What. Ever." Wire turned back to Nereid. "How?" she said again.

Nereid swallowed hard. "We went to the Dream Party and..."

"'We'? Who's 'we'?" she snapped.

"X and I..."

"Oh, fuck me, that basketcase?" Wire rolled her eyes. "You're going to believe anything she said?"

Nereid almost said, "'She'? Who's 'she'?" but her mouth said something else instead: "It's not very nice to say that about X."

"I can talk about Ehhhhhx --" Wire illustrated her mocking tone with airquotes "-- however I want. I knew her before she went all mystical and cryptic and butch."

Nereid snarled, "Don't talk about X that way, and don't fucking use a pronoun for zir that zie doesn't want used."

Nereid had never realized she was capable of channeling Simon and Ivy quite that way, but she was pleased with the result. It took Wire aback so hard that the woman couldn't speak for a moment. Into that silence, Queen GoGo exclaimed, "Oh, Sophia, I had thought nothing was beyond my powers!" She threw herself across Sophie with a gasping sob. "That the one thing had to be the restoration of your incredible intellect...!"

This served to completely discompose Wire, who half-turned to remonstrate with the woman. Nereid seized that moment to grab her by the lapels of her flannel, and yanked Wire close enough that their noses did touch. "We went to Lucid's Dream Party," she said, her mouth curling into a sneer all on its own, "and reputable sources told us that Sophie had passed through a door that leads to Faerie. The Equestrian has agreed to take us, but X can't go because of zir responsibilities. I thought I'd ask you because I thought Sophie might just be important to you. But you have one, one fucking chance to say yes or no before I walk out that door and ask someone off the goddamn street, because they might be more useful than you."

Wire gaped at her. Actually. Gaped. Nereid had to fight to keep from grinning like a loon. Knowing the Canis family had some fabulous benefits.

Queen GoGo strode away from the bed, back to the portal in the window, music increasing volume with every step. She cast a longing look over her shoulder at the bed, then folded herself back into the orb. The crowd at the doorway clapped politely again. The giant tweezers closed and withdrew from the glass, leaving no mark, and the orb sailed straight up in the air. She left the crystal cover on the floor.

Wire finally said, sullenly, "All right. I'm in."

Nereid had thought she'd be relieved to have someone else going with her. She was often wrong in her life.


From the Author:
Happy New Year! I have finished out the year on episode #13, which pleases me mightily. I hope your 2011 is full of beauty and joy.

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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So Wet Have My Sleeves Become

Nereid held up roofs with pillars of water, halted the flight of chunks of pavement, stopped water mains from gushing into the combat zone, and lifted debris according to the direction of rescue workers, all with Sophie either over her shoulders in a fireman's carry or at her feet where she could protect her. She never had a free moment to turn her over to those rescue workers.

Pavement was disrupted for a block or two around the combat site, and that meant that buildings and their foundations were likely disrupted. Within about 3 blocks of the fight, most of the buildings were badly damaged, and windows were broken out to about 6 blocks. Small, flingable objects like cars and motorcycles had been thrown around by the vibrations and pavement disruption. Santa Ana was keeping the gas mains in check, while Nereid alone was keeping the water mains from bleeding out into a downtown-coating glacier.

The sun had long since set when the Ultimate landed next to her.

Nereid was too tired to be startled, but she did make an effort to focus on the superwoman. The Ultimate was shorter than she was, middle-aged, round, and had dark brown skin. She kept her hair in a close-clipped natural, like Simon's mom kept hers, though a little more squared-off on the sides. There were threads of silver laced through the black hair, though, unlike Professor Canis, and worn lines around the Ultimate's dark eyes. She was wearing a black and grey spandex outfit that covered all of her from the chin down.

The Ultimate cast a sharp gaze over her. "Nereid, right? One of Brainchild's teammates?"

Nereid nodded and scraped her straggling hair out of her face with one stiff, numb hand. She suddenly realized that she was freezing. She was soaking wet and shivering hard. Her brain -- which, she thought, was never sharp at the best of times -- felt like it was attempting to ford a river. "She used something to stop his winds, and then he looked at her and she just fell over. I tried to wake her, but it didn't work, so I kept her with me. Was that all right, even though it's cold? She was wearing her insulated uniform."

The Ultimate's grim face softened a little. "Just right." She bent and picked up Sophie effortlessly with one arm and extended the other to Nereid. "Let's get both of you to the hospital."

"I'm not hurt," Nereid said through teeth that started to chatter uncontrollably. "They might need me."

"They'll do all right without you now." The Ultimate carefully put an arm around her waist, and Nereid held on as they lifted into the air. "You did pretty well, Pacifica."

"Thanks," Nereid said, laying her head on the Ultimate's shoulder.

She must have slept some, because the next thing she knew, she was warm and dry and lying in a hospital bed. There was an IV in her arm.

Wire was sitting in a chair next to her, reading a book. Nereid squinted a little and saw that it was the Fat Lady's autobiography, On a Massive Scale.

When she moved her hands, she realized that a few of her fingers were bandaged. She stared at them, not comprehending.

"Frostbite," Wire said, lowering the book but leaving her thumb in it to mark her page. "Just a touch. You'll be all right in a day or so, they say."

"Oh," Nereid said, blinking at Wire. Then her brain engaged. "How is Soph-- Brainchild?"

Wire grimaced a little. "They're... not really sure what happened to her. She hasn't regained consciousness, and they can't find anything else wrong. Her EEG is... not normal. They won't tell me more than that."

The more Nereid woke up, the more wretched she felt: achy, hungry, and miserable. This news just added more misery, and she burst into tears.

"Hey," Wire said, looking concerned and leaning forward to take her hand. "Hey, don't cry. You'll get your bandages wet, and the nurses will have to change everything."

"Oh, like you care," Nereid said, not bothering to rein in the bitter edge, but not pulling her hand away either. Her muscles hurt too much. She tried to stop herself from leaking, though.

Wire put her book down, and said, "I deserve that."

Nereid looked at her, feeling a little wild-eyed. Had she ended up in some alternate reality? Her mom and dad had once; Dad didn't like to talk about what happened to him, but Mom had ended up a queen or something.

"Look," Wire said, staring down at Nereid's hand, "you did really good out there yesterday. It's all over the news. Your mom and dad have been just about fit to bust with pride." She looked up. "They're getting something to eat, by the way. I just stepped in so they could go out."

"Thanks," Nereid said. "Really?" Yesterday? How long had she slept?

"Really," Wire said. "Between you and Santa Ana, you stopped a much bigger disaster from happening. You kept the shelters from flooding in downtown, too."

"Oh," Nereid said. It had only made sense at the time to stop the water mains.

"The Ultimate said that maybe the Gold Stars need to update their files on you," Wire said. "She thinks your power is bigger than the review a year ago rated it."

Nereid blinked at that. Her rating had been a modest class 3, like her father's.

"Anyway," Wire said, "the team met, and we'd like you to stay as a permanent member." She squeezed Nereid's hand gently and released it.

The cynical part of Nereid's brain was apparently awake, because she wondered how much this reconsideration had to do with a combination of the news coverage and the Ultimate's comment. "So I'm useful now?" she said before thinking about it.

Wire had the grace to wince and blush. "I'm sorry about that."

Nereid made an effort to shrug casually and lie. "No biggie."

A silence stretched between them. Then the door opened, and Flo and Ebb came into the room.

Flo's face was wreathed in smiles as soon as she saw Nereid awake. "Sweetie!"

Ebb, as usual, was so moderate in his response as to be nearly unconscious. "Hon."

Wire got up hurriedly. "Well, I'll leave you all alone. Nereid, think about it, okay?" She flashed her charismatic smile around at the three of them and fled basely.

Flo descended upon Nereid with hugs and kisses, and eventually Ebb rubbed her shoulder affectionately. Nereid made an effort to focus on them and not think about the Ultimate, the Young Cosmics, or Sophie, and almost succeeded.


From Jude:

I think I've concluded my ChipIn experiment for now, and I want to thank everyone who donated for bonus episodes! If you feel like tossing some cash my way so I can buy a chai latte periodically, I certainly won't object. :) Please also keep commenting -- that's one of my biggest motivators! -- and clicking to vote for Wonder City Stories on Top Web Fiction, and recommending the stories, and everything else you all have been kind enough to do. WCS will continue to post every Monday as we continue the denouement of Volume 1.

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Nice Work If You Can Keep It

Nereid finally found Wire alone in the workout room. It was dinner time, and the rest of the Young Cosmics were, presumably, off doing other things. Wire was in a t-shirt and shorts, and rather than working out, she was cleaning the room. A mop and bucket of grey water stood in one corner, and the wood of the floor still shone wetly in a few places. Nereid watched her as she bent over one of the machines with a rag and a bottle of cleaner.

Finally, Wire straightened up, flipped the blue forelock out of her face, and looked at Nereid with an intense hatred that made Nereid back up a step. Wire held Nereid in her gaze like an irritated cobra for a few long moments, then said, "What do you want?"

Nereid cleared her throat and blinked. "I wanted to talk," she said, and cursed her voice for starting out so squeaky.

"About what?" Wire said, still not looking away.

Nereid fiddled with the cuff of her uniform and forced herself to keep looking at Wire. "Brainchild."

Wire looked away first, a small victory for Nereid. "What about her?" Wire said, her voice gone dull.

"I didn't know that... you and she hadn't, you know, talked." Nereid bit her lip. Ivy had told her to keep the pleading and apology out of her voice.

"Would it have really made any difference?" Wire said, polishing the chrome on the elliptical. She sounded very tired.

Nereid straightened her spine. "I don't know. I would like to think that it would have. To me, I mean."

Wire gave her an opaque look. "At least you're trying not to lie."

Nereid kept herself from rolling her eyes. "I also wanted to apologize for the way you found out."

Wire waved the rag. "That wasn't your fault. That was Sophie's. And mine. And... well, thanks, anyway."

A silence fell and dragged on for a few moments as Wire sprayed the bench press bench and wiped it down.

Nereid cleared her throat again. "Well, that's what I wanted to say. So I'll stop bugging you." She turned to leave.

"Nereid," Wire said quietly.

Nereid looked back. "Yes?"

"Your provisional membership period is up in January."

"I know."

"Start packing now."

Nereid felt the shock like the too-hard punch to the gut Wire had "accidentally" given her in training a few days ago. "What?"

Wire smiled, a twisted little smile. "The team's already met and sent our recommendation to our sponsor."

"But I never got my review or anything," Nereid protested. "You didn't tell me you were meeting." Nothing she said altered that strange smile on Wire's face. "It's in the bylaws!"

Wire spread her hands as if to indicate that she was helpless in this matter. "We didn't think the review would be helpful since you are, after all, useless." She turned her back on Nereid. "Later."

Nereid staggered out into the hall and walked blindly through the complex for a while, trying desperately not to cry. Simon had been right. Simon had been right.

She collided with X, who was just coming around a corner. X caught and steadied her with a, "Whoa!"

"I'm so sorry!" Nereid said, blushing fiercely as soon as she realized who held her by the shoulders because it was impossible not to remember Sophie's, Are you planning to fuck X?

"It's all right," X said. Today, X was wearing a burgundy velvet tailcoat over a black shirt and trousers, with knee-high black boots. After a moment, X released Nereid and took a step back, surreptitiously wiping a hand over a trouser leg. "You okay?"

Nereid realized that water had soaked through her shirt in places. She raised a hand and watched as water dripped off her fingertips. "I... I'm sorry. Did I get it on you? I'm sorry."

"You're upset." X said it without the question mark.

Nereid shook her head, trying not to shake violently enough to scatter the water she could feel running down her scalp. "It's okay. It's just, you know, Young Cosmics stuff."

X examined her for a long moment, then appeared to decide to let it go. "I wanted to talk to you anyway."

"You did?" Nereid met X's gaze for the first time, and realized that X looked worried. Really worried.

X nodded and glanced around. "Look, I can't say much, and I know you really can't do much about it, but... keep an eye on Sophie for the next few weeks, okay?"

Nereid nodded slowly.

X shrugged. "It's not much, I don't have any details, but there's something... anyway. Just, you know, be there for her?"

"If she'll let me," Nereid said, giving a shaky smile, aimlessly trying to wring out the front of her shirt.

X returned the smile. "If she'll let you." X started to pat Nereid on the shoulder, thought better of it, and gave Nereid a jaunty little salute instead. "I'm off then."

As X went into the entryway of the Young Cosmics building, X produced a burgundy circle from inside the coat and, with a flick of the wrist, expanded it into a top hat. X donned it on the way out. Nereid shook her head and half-smiled, then turned soddenly toward the room that wouldn't be hers for much longer.

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An Equal and Opposite Reaction

Nereid walked back to the Young Cosmics' base with more of a spring in her stride than there had been for a long time. It was a pretty afternoon, for November. Brainchild had helped her study for her chemistry exam, and as a result, she'd aced it. And she had a... had a... friend? girlfriend? lover? She wasn't sure.

She knocked at Brainchild's lab door, and the door slid open silently. She saw Brainchild -- Sophie, she mentally corrected -- across the room, elbow deep in some sort of mechanism.

"Hey," Sophie said.

"Hey," Nereid said.

Sophie pulled some doohickey with wires out of the guts of the machine and inspected it. Her hands were covered in black grease. "What's up?" she said. "Could you come over here and shift one of my lenses for me?"

Nereid walked over. "The right side," Sophie said. "The thickest one, yes, that's it, just a little lower. Thanks, sweetie."

Nereid felt a little shiver go down her spine and still somehow set butterflies off in stomach. "I, um, I brought you some flowers." She displayed the little bouquet, picked up on impulse at the Student Union. It had a single pink rose in the center, and was otherwise surrounded by a variety of little wildflowers in vivid pinks and blues.

Sophie blinked owlishly at the bouquet, then at Nereid. A smile slowly blossomed on her face. She jerked her head toward the workbench. "See if I have something there that you can put water in, would you? I can't really take it with my hands covered in gunk."

Nereid smiled and obediently went to the bench, searching for something muglike or vaselike. "Gunk? Is that the technical term?"

"Yeah," Sophie said, peering at the doohickey through her selected lens. "Gunk. Stuff. Whirlygig. If a superbrain says it, it's technical."

Nereid found a mug adorned with an array of blue paisley octopi. "Is this all right?"

Sophie glanced over. "Yeah. I've only had coffee in that."

Nereid took it to the sink without asking what else she used mugs for. "I was wondering," she began as she rinsed the mug out, "if you'd like to, um, go out to dinner or something tonight."

The doohickey bloomed in Sophie's hands, opening like a complicated hydraulic puzzle box. She scowled at it. "Like a date?" she said.

"Yeah," Nereid said, filling the mug with cold water and shoving the flowers into it. "But if you're busy or something..."

Sophie walked calmly over to a large box, depressed a footpedal that opened the lid, and dropped the doohickey into it. The lid fell shut with a whine and there was a muffled WOOMPH. "No, I think I just became not-busy," she said. She pressed the footpedal again and smoke trickled out of the open box.

"What was that?" Nereid said, clutching the mug and flowers.

"Something that Jet really didn't want in his motorcycle engine," Sophie said, peering into the box. "He needs to be more careful about his relationships with supervillains. Let's go."

Nereid looked around Sophie's apartment as she sprawled on the sofa, her stomach very full of barbequed spare ribs. She spotted something she hadn't seen before. "Is that an electric guitar?"

Sophie finished washing the barbeque sauce remnants off her hands and wandered into the living room. "Yep," she said, walking over to admire it on its display stand. Polished brass fittings, pickguard, and frets gleamed and the garnet body seemed to glow under the track lighting. A cable ran from the output dock to a small amp. "A luthier in Seattle made it for me. I paid him by building and installing a home sound system for him."

"Isn't your stuff covered by the Paranormal Invention Control Act?" Nereid said.

"It is," Sophie said. "But, one, I was not quite 18 when I did it, and minors aren't covered by PICA. The government doesn't seem to think that teenagers, particularly teenaged girls, can make anything worthwhile that they want to keep. And, two, I wasn't inventing anything -- I was just putting together a state of the art system." She smiled and ran her hand over the head of the guitar. "If I happened to make a few tweaks along the way, no one's raising a flag."

Sophie ambled over to the couch and flung herself down. "What would you like to do now?" she asked, grinning.

"Isn't there a usual aftermath to dates?" Nereid said.

"Well, I wouldn't want to take advantage of you," Sophie said.

"Oh, do," Nereid said.

So she did.

Some time later, they were tangled together, breathing hard, each haphazardly stroking the other's damp back or shoulder. They were precariously balanced between being on the couch and being on the floor.

The doorbell chimed.

Before either of them could react, the door opened and Wire strolled in, saying, "Sophie, I..."

She stopped, staring.

Sophie slid toward the door and leaned on her elbows on the arm of the sofa. "Hey," she said, casually.

Nereid pulled a pillow over her head, trying to become one with the sofa.

Wire, apparently, pulled herself together. Nereid couldn't see. But Wire's voice was tight. "Sorry to... disturb you."

Sophie said, "No problem. I forgot to change the permissions on the lock. My bad."

Wire said, "I was unaware that you needed to change the permissions."

Sophie said, "Huh. I thought you made that pretty clear. My bad."

Wire said, "Glad I caught you during a pause in the proceedings."

Sophie said, "Me too."

Wire said, "And what's with the pause anyway? Doesn't she have enough stamina for you?"

Sophie said, her voice turning nasty, "I'm working her stamina up. Just like I did you. What did you want?"

Wire said, "I don't remember. I'm sure it wasn't important."

Sophie said, "You should see someone about that memory of yours."

Wire said, "Sophie, I..."

Sophie cut her off. "This isn't the time or the place. And I'm not sure I want to have the conversation anyway."

Wire inhaled and exhaled, and Nereid was sure she heard her breath hitch on a sob. "Right."

Sophie said, "See you later."

Wire opened the door. "I suppose I'll have to." Then she slammed the door, hard.

Nereid emerged from behind her pillow after a few moments of silence. Sophie gave her a quick smile and a pat on the shoulder, then went to the computer next to the door. "Computer, delete special privileges for Wire."

The computer said, in a light English accent, "Operation complete."

Sophie turned back to the sofa. Nereid was sitting up, holding the pillow against her chest, watching her. "She didn't know," Nereid said.

Sophie folded herself onto the cushions next to her. "No, I guess not. I thought she'd made it pretty clear she didn't want to have anything more to do with me."

"Don't you guys break up all the time?" Nereid said.

"We used to," Sophie said. "This felt different."

"But you didn't talk to her about it," Nereid said.

"No," Sophie said. "Look, don't let her get to you. She's just in a snit. Let's go on into the bedroom. I'm getting cold out here."

Nereid let Sophie persuade her into the bedroom, away from the awful exposure of the couch, but it took some time and hard work to drive the sound of Wire's choked sob out of Nereid's head.
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Table Scraps

"Why," Jet said plaintively, inspecting the rags that had, until an hour before, been the shirt of his costume, "do we deal with idiots like The Menagerie, while the Gold Stars get people like The Planetcrusher and Huxton Enterprises?" He, of course, looked fabulous with his dark skin and his well-earned musculature showing picturesquely through the rents and holes.

"God, I know," Vector said, looking down at her brown-splattered purple jumpsuit. "I have got to get out of this thing and get it into the laundry." Despite the additions, she still looked model-perfect with her short blonde hair and tiny body.

"Ye-ah," Mercury said, inspecting her with a grimace. His hair was always ideally rumpled despite his high-velocity combat style, and he flaunted it. "I think Macaque was aiming at you purposely."

Nereid kept putting one foot in front of the other. She'd been beat on by villains before, but this outing was particularly unpleasant. She felt like someone had taken a baseball bat to her legs and shoulders, which, she supposed, was a close enough equivalent to the Onager's hooves. There was still a lingering pain in her back where the Sloth had crept up on her and dragged her claws in a long, deep, downward blow. Tilt, Mercury's alien boyfriend and not actually a member of the team, had healed her, but she could feel the cool air against her bare skin there. She just hoped her underwear wasn't showing. She couldn't remember which pair she'd put on this morning. Surely not the grannies. Please not the grannies. Especially not the ones with the little flowers on.

She was painfully aware that she did not, in fact, look picturesque, fabulous, or perfect. She never did, but right now, she felt like she looked like a rat that had an unfortunate encounter with a steamroller.

Vector growled and glowered and stomped off into the building. Mercury followed her, manfully choking down his giggles as he whispered to Tilt. Jet rolled his eyes and trooped in too.

Wire rubbed her face tiredly. Her blue forelock was still weirdly bouyant and she'd kept her costume pristine. She and Brainchild had been quarreling since they'd received the call about the Menagerie. Wire and Mercury had decided to take the team out despite their missing heavy-hitter, Citizen Pain, who'd gone out an hour earlier and was out of touch. Brainchild had argued that the Menagerie was tough, if stupid, and going without Pay was dangerous. She'd been right, in a way, but also wrong (the Menagerie's heavy hitters were also absent), which made her temper flare. Wire was striding along as fast as she could to stay well ahead of Brainchild. She said, over her shoulder, "Sophie, no coming into the building until you get de-The-Skunk-ed."

Brainchild lifted her goggles and peered through bleary and streaming eyes at her vice-commander. "Yes, sir," she snarled. "Will you kindly provide me with the materials to build a shower out here, or do I slink into my doghouse and wait until it wears off?"

Wire sighed and looked skyward. "The 'bots can bring you your stuff. I'm off to have a soak. Getting trampled and gnawed on by the Capybara is always kind of traumatic." She didn't even look back as she nearly ran into the building after the others.

Brainchild was left standing in the courtyard, staring down at her feet, her mouth moving in some sort of internal conversation.

Nereid slowed her steps and watched for a moment. Finally, she took a deep breath and said, a little timidly, "Can I help?"

The resident inventor genius looked up, face changing from miserable to surprised to her habitual scornful expression in a matter of a second. "Well, I guess you can take the place of a water hose," Brainchild said, though it didn't really sound like her heart was in it.

"Sure," Nereid said, hoping she didn't sound too puppylike. "Can I get stuff for you?"

Brainchild stared at her hard. Finally, Brainchild wiped her eyes absently and said, "Yes, please," which startled Nereid. "I can order the 'bots to bring me the structural bits, but could you bring a couple of opaque shower curtains out?"

Nereid smiled, still hesitant. "Sure! I'll be right back!"

It was harder than she thought to find wherever the butler kept replacement shower curtains, and harder than usual to find the butler. She finally went to her own room and detached the inner plastic curtain and the outer decorative canvas curtain from her shower stall, looped them over her arm, grabbed the more tattered of her two bathrobes, and trotted back outside.

Brainchild was surrounded by a half dozen small 'bots and had already constructed most of the frame of a small, cylindrical shower stall, complete with hose and sprayer head and a square of linoleum for the floor. One 'bot with a cargo area that looked like the bed of a red child's wagon followed her around with several gallons of white vinegar in plastic jugs. Brainchild looked up when Nereid approached. "Oh. Thanks. I hadn't even thought about clothes yet."

Nereid shrugged and handed over the curtains, and Brainchild efficiently hung them on the circular pipe that was the top of her shower stall.

A few more minutes, during which Nereid shifted subtly upwind of the lemony-sharp eye-watering reek of Brainchild, finished the stall. Brainchild immediately stepped inside. "I can't stand the stink of myself any more."

Nereid blushed helplessly when she saw the pieces of Brainchild's costume tossed over the curtain onto the ground: the fingerless gloves, the faux-leather bomber jacket, the tight-fitting dark blue shirt with its sci-fi metal fastenings, the battered grey sports bra, the complicated black stompy boots, the spandex-and-pleather black pants...

She turned away before the final items came over the wall because she was afraid the blush would make her pass out by pulling all the blood from her brain.

"Okay," said Brainchild. "Screw the first gallon jug to the input valve, hold the jug upside-down, and start dumping water into the hose."

Nereid threw the bathrobe over her shoulder and fumbled her way through this process, not helped by the little red wagon 'bot that kept nudging against her ankle whenever she did something wrong. She heard Brainchild sigh impatiently, but only once.

Finally, water started coursing through the hose from Nereid's hand, working in some arcane way to pull vinegar from the jug along with it. Brainchild exclaimed when the water hit her. "Oh, hey, I was expecting it to be cold. Thanks for that."

Nereid opted not to mention that the water always came out at body temperature.

The jug emptied. Brainchild leaned out to grab a bottle of liquid soap off a newly-arrived 'bot, and Nereid had to look away again. She fumbled the empty jug spectacularly, so that it ended up about fifteen feet away, and the little red wagon 'bot beeped irritably. She attached a full jug to the valve and the 'bot beeped again and went after the empty.

"All right," Brainchild said. "I'm soaped. Flush away."

There were several iterations of this as they worked their way through the bottles of vinegar.

"God, I hope this does it," Brainchild said. "I'm freezing, and all I want is dinner. Will you come have a sniff? I can't smell anything right now. My nose is a mess."

Nereid said, "Um, sure," and hesitantly approached the terrifying bastion of nudity. She stood just outside and sniffed loudly. "I can't smell anything."

Brainchild parted the curtains. "Come closer and check. I don't want snide comments when I get inside."

Nereid really did think she was going to pass out then. Before she managed to avert her eyes down to the safety of Brainchild's feet, she'd seen everything. Everything. And her brain had somehow managed to retain all of it, and was analyzing it, and...

Brainchild stepped closer and shoved her head under Nereid's nose. "Have I got it out of my hair?"

Nereid inhaled obediently, and felt her stomach go a little wobbly with proximity. "There's... I think it's pretty much all gone. But there's a little whiff still."

Brainchild stepped back. "Well, maybe Mommy will let me in the house, and I can take yet another shower with my shampoo and stuff."

Nereid hurriedly retreated a few steps, fixing her gaze on the red wagon 'bot. "I think so. I mean, I don't really smell much on you. Um. Here!" She pulled the bathrobe from her shoulder and thrust it at Brainchild.

She heard the rustle of cloth.

"You can look now," Brainchild said, her voice regaining more of its accustomed tone. "Guess I'm pretty hideous," she added.

"No!" Nereid exclaimed. "I mean, you're not! I mean! Augh!" She had turned to look, but Brainchild hadn't belted the robe, and the view sent Nereid into a panic and another blush.

"Sorry," Brainchild said, though there wasn't a lot of contrition there. "Wire does say I've got a mean streak. Come on, let's go inside and get warm. Looks like you could do with a change of clothes too."

Nereid opened to her mouth to speak and emitted a squeak instead of the cool, suave comment she'd vaguely planned. She turned and trailed after Brainchild.

The others, it turned out, had already had supper, prepared by the butler, and were relaxing in the hot tub, watching television and laughing uproariously at something. Nereid glanced at Brainchild's face, as was surprised by the bitterness there.

Brainchild said, "When you've changed, come on to my room. I'll order pizza."

Nereid's stomach did a small flip-flop. "Oh, sure!" she said, a little too eagerly. She dragged herself back into line. "Should I stop by the kitchen and grab some drinks?"

Brainchild had started down the hall. "No, don't bother. I've got beer."

Nereid fled to her room. Part of her knew that Brainchild was being nice to her out of spite for Wire, but she was grateful for what crumbs of kindness she could get.
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Life on the Dream Team

Nereid turned the corner on her way to the Young Cosmics rec room and nearly ran down Wire, who was making out with Brainchild.

She flung herself backward to avoid an actual collision, and part of her mind reminded her wryly, You have the shittiest reflexes.

"Oh, hey, Paci-- Nereid," Wire said, stepping back and looking around, shoving her long blue forelock aside with a hand. "Sorry about that."

"Uh-huh," Nereid said, at a loss for anything better. "Is... that, you know, allowed?"

Brainchild pulled her rather complicated glasses off and polished the main lenses on her shirt. "In what sense, exactly?"

Wire focused on Nereid more intently. "Yes, please clarify that question."

Nereid cleared her throat and tried to drag her eyes away from Brainchild's cleavage. "I... I just mean, you're the vice-commander of the team, Wire. Fraternization..." She waved her hand vaguely.

"Technically not fraternization," Brainchild noted, perching her glasses on the prominent bridge of her aquiline nose.

"Sophie," Wire said out of the corner of her mouth. Then to Nereid, "There's no rule in the bylaws against it. Besides, we were together long before I became vice-commander."

"Technically," Brainchild said, "we also stopped being together before you became vice-commander. And then started again. And stopped. And..." She fastened her jacket.

"Sooophieee," Wire said slowly and clearly through her gritted teeth. "Not helping."

"Sorry," Brainchild said unrepentantly.

"Uh," Nereid said. "Sorry." She pushed past Wire and hurried toward the rec room.

Behind her, Wire said in a lowered voice, "This is why we have to be more careful, Sophie. We just freaked the newbie."

"You mean the provisional member who's cost us a few hundred -- or is it in the thousands now? -- in fines and coffee?" Brainchild said, without lowering her voice.

Nereid opened the door and fled inside.

The television screen was blaring, but no one was watching it. A couple of other Young Cosmics -- Mercury and Jet -- were sitting around, talking. In one corner, one of the boys was working out on a weight machine. She couldn't see much of him among the weights and cables.

"Heeeey, Nereid," Mercury said. He was sprawled in his chair, wearing a cropped t-shirt and denim shorts. "How's it goin'?"

"Uh, ah, just fine," she said. His shorts were very tight. "How 'bout with you?"

"Doin' okay," he said. "I heard you had to take someone else for coffee."

"It's cool," Nereid said, dragging her eyes toward the window. The nice, safe window. "She was nice about it."

"Really nice?" Jet asked. He was wearing a full t-shirt and baggy sweatpants. He didn't flex all the time the way Mercury did. "We just got notice that the last person you said that about -- you know, the bus driver? -- is suing us."

She clapped both hands over her mouth. "Oh, shit!"

Mercury waved his hand lazily. "No sweat, kiddo. Mr. Moneybags is taking care of it. Just... you know, maybe you should stop tryin' to kill yourself? It always upsets other people."

"I'm not trying to kill myself," Nereid said.

"That's not how it looks to everyone watching," Jet said.

Nereid rolled her eyes. "Well, if I could think of another way to learn how to use this stupid power..."

"I have thought of a way!" said a voice from the corner.

The young man who had been working out stood up, smiling with the right half of his face. The other half of his face was covered with bandages. He had carefully sculpted cheekbones, a crisp jawline, and a bright blue eye. The rest of his body seemed like it had been carved out of a bodybuilding magazine, and he wore a tank top and shorts that showed it all off. The skin on the left half of his body was oddly pink and shiny compared to the skin on the right half.

"Oh, hey, Citizen Pain," Nereid said. "You have?"

"Yes, indeed!" he said, making his way to her carefully. His left leg dragged a bit, and he seemed somewhat off-balance. But his smile didn't fail. "If your power teleports you away from harm, perhaps you can catch yourself in a semi-perpetual loop by jumping off a high place. Your power might continue to teleport you higher."

"Wouldn't she reach terminal velocity if she did it long enough?" Jet said, frowning.

"Yes, indeed!" Citizen Pain said, the smile never failing. "It would indeed be an excellent way to use her power if we possessed a team member who harnessed kinetic energy!"

"Er, yeah, Pay," Mercury said. "But we don't."

"Then she would indeed require a spotter who could fly and extract her from the loop eventually," Citizen Pain said. "Regrettably, I am not fully functional at this time, or I would offer to help you, Nereid."

"Thank you, Pay," she said. She thought about the nice, safe window again, rather than thinking about being carried in his arms. "You're a sweetie."

"Am I? I am indeed pleased to hear it."

"How are you feeling, anyway?" she asked.

"I am feeling well, especially since Brainchild deactivated the relevant portions of my nociceptor network." He poked himself in the left arm. "No pain at all."

"Oh," Nereid said. "Well, that's good anyhow. A real advantage to being an android. Any idea when you'll be back in action?"

"Indeed, none of us know. My self-regenerating capability has never been so challenged before." Pay shrugged with his right shoulder. "Regrowing half my body has been difficult and resource-consuming."

"I bet," Nereid said, adding eagerly, "Let me know if there's anything I can do to help."

Mercury snorted a laugh into his hand. A blush roared up Nereid's face.

"You have my gratitude, Nereid," Pay said, thankfully oblivious. "I should get back to my room now. It is time for my nutrient bath. I will see you all later." He smiled again and departed.

Before Mercury could say anything, Nereid ran out the door to the pool.


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