AEGIS, Karu–and Lia surprisingly–all instantly fell to the ground, completely pinned by whatever metal they were made of, wearing, or carrying. Saga seemed mostly immune, still lying on the ground with her feet pointed towards the magnet, propped up on her elbows to watch the catfight, but I saw her eyes go wide and she held herself oddly as the magnet worked.
“If we can’t be reasonable and talk about things, then we’re doing it this way,” I shouted at the others while they ate dirt. “Are we all ready to have a reasonable discourse about our fucking feelings now?”
Karu said something that sounded suspiciously like ‘fuck you, Ashton’ into the dirt.
“Ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow,” said Lia. “Athan, turn it off, ow!”
I went to her side and saw the problem. She was being pinned by all the random gear in her pockets and sewn into her slipskin. Some of it, on her back, was crushing into her spine. I unbuckled a couple belts and bandoliers, and they snapped to the ground around her, still leaving her pinned, but not being actively crushed.
“I said turn it off, not undress me, you…you aardvarking moose!”
“Sorry, Lia. You’re stuck there until these two are ready to talk.”
Saga, meanwhile, sat perfectly still holding herself. I wondered if she was having a similar issue, and took a step forward to check.
[NOPE. I’M FINE.]
Everyone winced at her shouting, except AEGIS.
“Saga, you sure–“
[YEP. STAY OVER THERE. I’M FINE.]
“Ow, jesus,” muttered Lia.
Karu shouted something which sounded like ‘kindly have that mind-fucker shut up’ into the dirt. With her visor on, she was probably having the worst of any of us.
I took the hint and left Saga alone, heading back to the two fighters in the dirt. I turned on a small blade to cast some light over the two.
It looked like AEGIS was straddling Karu at the time the magnet came on, and Karu was pinned on her back with AEGIS on top of her. It was not dirt that was muffling Karu’s speech, but AEGIS’ chest.
Uh, this was a little more awkward than I was intending. I grabbed AEGIS, and with a hefty pull sideways combined with a momentary dip in the magnet’s power, had them both lying side-by-side on their backs.
“Of course she would be so unrealistically proportioned, she designed the body herself to be nothing more than a common slut!” Karu shouted once finally free of AEGIS’ cleavage.
“A common slut? So like you, then? Because of everyone here, I’m apparently the only one not getting some from Athan.”
“Um, hello? Gross.” Said Lia.
“I said ENOUGH!” I kicked up the power for a second and saw each of them wince as the magnet drove them further into the ground. “Can’t you get along for a single minute without trying to kill each other even when you’re all fucking stuck to the ground?”
“Oh, he comes to lecture us about proper behavior? I find this amusing. Do tell, Ashton, tell each of us how we should behave.”
“Well, for starters, stop all trying to run away from your goddamn issues, and stop trying to kill each other. Is that so hard?”
“I wasn’t attempting to run away, you asinine dunce,” Karu shouted into the sky. “I was attempting to leave to give myself up.”
“You what?” shouted AEGIS.
“As I was attempting to tell you before your juvenile assault, you are right–though only in this very limited circumstance, as far as I can discern. I am an outsider to this once-peaceful community, and my presence has wrought untold havoc. Rather than suffer you all further continued harm…excepting of course the Exhuman bitch and the rogue AI, whose suffering I honestly quite relish…I was going to leave and surrender to the XPCA.”
“That’s crazy, even for a psycho like you. They’ll kill you,” AEGIS said, looking at her sideways from being unable to move her head.
“My coming here to begin with was a mistake, and my faults were my own. If that is my penance, I shall pay it. There is no need for you all to suffer my fate.”
“Such a goddamn noble know-it-all!” AEGIS spat. “You just think Athan’s going to do it, don’t you!”
“Do what?” I asked.
“Be silent. This does not concern him except that he is suffering at my actions, and will be spared by my actions. Now Ashton, let me go. I have crimes to atone for.”
“Bro, I am super uncomfortable in this position, but do not dare let her go. She will fly away the second she gets up.”
“I know,” I said. My mind was racing. I had no idea what to say or do. In a lot of ways, I agreed with Karu. She was the one who came and messed everything up for those of us living here in peace, but she was also our friend, and we chose to take her in.
“Karu, I can’t allow that,” I said.
[There’s that dictator again.]
“Shut up, Saga. Karu, you said you thought of me like the leader of this group, and I don’t know if I am or not. But you also said, whether I was ready for leadership, I had it anyway, because people looked to me for it. Well, as the leader here, I was the one who decided we’d take you in, and the one to whom the responsibility falls when that decision goes wrong. I was complicit in our sex, and therefore responsible for tearing this group apart.”
“And therefore,” I concluded “I will not accept anyone else being responsible for all our current issues and fuck-ups but me!” I shouted. “So don’t even think about turning yourself in, or I’ll do the same and assume responsibility for all your crimes, and who do you think they’re more willing to blame, a hunter with a stellar record, or an Exhuman with a history of death?”
Lia, Karu, and AEGIS all groaned in unison. What? I didn’t think I was that bad, even if a little preachy.
“Freaking ferrets, guys,” Lia said from where she was slumped, ear pressed to the ground and chest pinned to the earth.
“He fucking said it.” AEGIS added.
“As I knew he would,” Karu sighed.
“S-said what? What the hell are you all talking about?”
“Never mind.” AEGIS sighed. “Think you can let us all up now. We’re a lost cause.”
“Indeed,” said Karu, morose.
“Though it might have worked if you didn’t push him by deciding to be a damn hero,” AEGIS sniped. Karu just sighed.
“So…we’re all ready to…be reasonable now?”
“If that’s what you call it, mister self-sacrificing leader.”
I thought for a moment and then let them go, ready to spin it back up if Karu started to make a move. Lia stretched and unzipped her slipskin with a sigh, exposing her bare back with angry red lines from zippers. The others didn’t move, Saga still holding herself weirdly, the other two still on their backs.
“What…happened?” I asked, almost afraid to say it, in case I’d break the spell.
“Nothing,” Karu said, pulling off her visor and holding it in the sky, looking at the red lines staring back at her. “We all just have some thinking to do, I believe.”
The others muttered their agreement. Nothing? Those two were ready to kill each other a second ago. And then, I didn’t let Karu go…and that was it. There wasn’t anything else. But…
My mind was blank. I looped the last few moments in my mind over and over and over, and had nothing. I had missed something.
“Lia, what’s going on?” I asked.
“You’re. An. Idiot.”
[I told you to stay away from me.]
“AEGIS, please. Tell me what happened.”
“It’s like thundertits here said. Nothing happened.”
“Thundertits? I was born with these. At least I didn’t design them specifically to allure men.”
“Then why aren’t you fighting? What happened to…everyone being so angry about everything? You all just look…depressed now.”
[You’ll find out when the compel breaks.]
“A compel? Athan, what did she do to you?” Lia said, sitting up, and almost falling out of her slipskin, clutching it to her chest.
“She said…she knew what was going on, but she couldn’t tell me without affecting the outcome, so she gave me a compel which would trigger after it was all over which would let me know what the hell you guys were being all cagey about.”
“So you didn’t sleep with her after all,” AEGIS said, with a hollow laugh. “Amazing. Amazing that somehow I still care.”
“Well, guys, it may be a little late for this all now,” Lia said, lying back down, “but the reason I brought you all here tonight was because I got a message from Taglock.”
“The ‘guy creeping around’ I believe you know him as. Wears all black slipskin, tracked AEGIS down using her own probes, generally a fantastic spy. Guy in my employ.”
“Oh, him,” AEGIS said darkly.
“Well, I still have him on retainer because Black Shark is hilariously rich. And he just let me know that his sources say the XPCA moved out today. Some kind of big invasion. Heading north.”
“My geography is a little shaky because I don’t know where I am, technically,” I said. “Are we north?”
“We’re north,” Lia confirmed.
“Yeah. So we expect them tomorrow, based on how paranoid and-slash-or thorough they are.”
Tomorrow. The word loomed over all of us like a guillotine.
“I also have…one less important announcement,” Lia said, looking at her holo. “Um, it’s 12:05, so, um…”
She fished inside her pockets, then made a face and dug around the ground for the bandoliers I’d pulled off her earlier. From one, she pulled out something small and colorful.
“Here you go,” she said, and tossed it at me.
I barely had time to react, but jumped out of the way like it was a live grenade. The others blinked at me as the thing sailed into the darkness.
“Jesus, Lia. My shield, remember? No throwing things at me, ever.”
“Oh shit. I’m sorry. I’ll go get it. It’s not fragile, don’t worry.”
“What is it?” I asked as she zipped her slipskin back up and went after it.
“You don’t know? You don’t remember?”
“Remember what? I never asked you for anything.”
She laughed as she brought it back and plunked it down in my lap. It was a little lumpy round thing the size of my finger, wrapped in red paper. A present?
“Happy birthday, dude. You’re nineteen today.”
Had it been that long? I knew winter was creeping up on us, but to think it was already the end of November. Eight months and change, I’d been in exile. I realized I’d missed Thanksgiving with my family for the first time, and for some reason, that thought tore me up inside.
“Open it, stupid big brother.”
Normally, I’d go for it and rip the paper, but feeling like this might be my last present ever, I slowly, carefully unfolded every crease and undid it with as much heart as had been put into wrapping it. Finally, I got to the last few folds and a thin silver chain fell out, a small metal loop at one end, and the other end attached to whatever was still in the paper. I gently pulled it free and there, dangling from my finger was a little football charm.
“That one’s just a teaser. There’s a real one in the trunk of the crawler,” she explained. I felt my eyes well up and my mouth go dry at the same time, watching the little football glittering in the darkness, like it was flying in a perfect spiral, headed straight for the endzone.
I threaded the loop through the tough fabric of my sleeve with some effort, and finally got it locked onto the thick seam where my cuff met my sleeve, where it dangled off the end of my wrist. I didn’t have a mobile to attach it to, and here it was secure enough and out of the way enough, while still being somewhere I’d see it all the time.
“You like it?” Lia said, with a hesitant smile.
I just laughed and ploughed her with a domineering hug that made both of us fall over.
“Yes, I like it very much. Thank you, stupid little sister. You’re the best.”
“Well, I didn’t know I can’t throw a football at you, so that’s a fail, but I figured you’d like to own one at least. And you can throw it at me and I’ll walk it back to you like a loser.”
“It’s perfect,” I said messing up her hair further with a noogie.
“You should have told us,” AEGIS said. “I could have made him something.”
“Nah. I know you guys are pressed just to survive and stuff. This was just a thing.”
“Indeed. Ashton, you see there is much happiness in this world worth living for? Small moments such as these make up a lifetime.”
“Oh, let it go for now,” Lia said, grinning even as her face was a huge mess of hair. “We should probably be sleeping and preparing for tomorrow though. Gonna be a big day, yeah?”
“Yeah,” I said, feeling the moment leave us. “If it’s cool with all of you, I’m gonna stay at Saga’s with Wynn and Tate, and no, not sleep with her. I’m here, and I’m tired, and she hasn’t done a damn thing. Everyone okay with that?”
Everyone agreed even if they looked like they didn’t want to. Karu and AEGIS eventually begrudgingly took off, but Lia stayed. “I’d say we should get our drink on, but tomorrow’s a little too important for that, huh?”
“Yeah, probably. Plus I don’t really like drinking.”
“You only say that because you don’t drink enough,” she said having a swig. “Helps you sleep, you’ll probably need that,” she said, holding out the flask.
“No thanks. Hey, I’ll catch up to you okay? See if Wynn can put us up?”
“Sure. No hav-ing sex with Sa-ga!” She sang tunelessly as she trotted off.
I got up and walked over to Saga, still fully curious why she was holding herself this whole time, but also with something else on my mind.
[Hey um,] she said as I drew close. [You happen to see a zipper over there? I think you ripped mine out of my clothes…]
From the faint light shining on her from my lit sword, I could now see the zipper on her outfit, reaching from her shoulder diagonally down across her body to her thigh was pulled open. She was holding it closed at the chest and waist, but there was a lot of pale skin flashing through the gaps. She looked distinctly uncomfortable with being undressed, which ran very contrary to the assertive attitudes she seemed to have towards, well, me. I guess it was like the difference between how soft-spoken she was versus her dominating mental speech, or her booming echoing, often mocking laughter in my head, against her almost timid real-life giggle.
Fuck, she was adorable. It was the second time I had that thought today, but the first time it made her blush.
“Just find the zipper,” she said, her voice a plaintive squeak.
“How did it not pull the rest of the track off?”
“I don’t know, it’s some kind of non-magnetic composite, I guess. Just find it please.”
Looking around in the dark grass under the tree was fruitless, but I spent a couple minutes on it anyway before realizing what a waste of time it was.
“Okay, guess I’ll just magnet it,” I said. She nodded. “No psychic-speak today?”
“Don’t want to tell Lia,” she whispered.
It took me a minute, but I made myself a new magnet and swept it over the area where AEGIS and Karu had been pinned. I picked up a lot of crap, but after a couple of minutes of false starts and wondering if I was in the right area, I eventually put my hand on something small, hard, and metal, and brought in the light.
I was holding a zipper all right. Now she just had to zip up and she was set. I handed it to her and she struggled to get it on and keep her top closed at the same time.
“Um, maybe, um, turn around?” she asked breathily, her face glowing pink in the faint light.
I did, and waited, while the sounds of fabric being shuffled and pulled played out behind me, trying not to think about what was going on, or what was or wasn’t hanging out at any given moment.
“I can’t…can’t get it. I need your hands,” she said at last.
“I…is…is this a good idea?”
“It’s just a zipper. I can’t…hold it shut and get it back on at the same time.”
I took a deep breath and joined her. She was on her back, legs kicked out in front of her, horizontally in the air, one arm holding the outfit together at the breast, the other holding the zipper at her thigh. She offered it to me.
I got on my knees and took it, looking down. Of course the zipper had to start at the bottom. Almost halfway between her hip and her knee. She squirmed uncomfortably as I couldn’t stop my eyes from travelling up the open slit, catching on a thin crease of skin where her leg met the rest of her. I couldn’t see much, but could definitely confirm her claims that her entire body was hairless.
I realized I was on my knees with my head between her legs. I felt a lump in my throat which I couldn’t swallow, feeling like a vulture as I stared at her pale skin, unable to turn away.
And then, in what was probably the smartest single move of my life, I stood up.
“Where…are you going?” she asked, a little breathless.
“I’m going to give this to Lia,” I said, holding up the zipper. “I think I should have a drink and pass out. I’ll see you in the morning.”
I took two steps and then remembered I had something to say to her.
“Saga, I know you get the short end of the stick around here when it comes to me. I’ve apologized before, and I’m doing so again now, and if there’s anything I can do to make it up to you, just let me know.”
“But I know what you were doing not waking me up so the others would find us like that, and I don’t appreciate that. You’re not as good a liar as you think, at least, not to me. I’ve been inside your head too much.”
She frowned, and I felt a twinge of guilt and despair before she could shut it off.
“If you scare off the others and win by default, you don’t win. I’ll leave and nobody wins. Got it? I’m already bad enough at this without active sabotage.”
“I got it,” she mumbled.
“Thank you for all your help today. I’m sorry to bitch at you.”
“I shouldn’t have done it.”
“No, you shouldn’t have, but I understand. Just…don’t do it again, okay?”
I went back to the dorms and met up with Lia, and Wynn who had a room prepared just for us ahead of time, the thoughtful old man. I passed off the zipper and explained Saga’s plight, and she confirmed I did the right thing and nipped out for a minute to help.
I prepared the bed in the meanwhile. I wasn’t thrilled to be sharing a bed with Lia, but nobody wanted to sleep on the floor in the cold. Lia came back and gave me a thumbs-up, and then, out of the blue, I felt something brush on my mind and tiredness washed over me like I’d been clubbed over the head with it. I could really only take off my coat and stumble into bed.
The last thing I saw when my eyes drew closed was my arm on my sister’s shoulder, a tiny football dangling from my wrist, before I fell into a deep, peaceful sleep, the likes of which I never thought I’d get, with the doom looming over us and all the fucked-up events of the day.