"Finished already, princess?" Jack asked, lifting himself off of the wall he'd been lazing 'bout against.
"'Course," I smirked. "ain't nothin' to it but to do it—and this one was practically beggin' me to."
Five weeks'd already gone and passed since the Bertrund job and I'd finally gotten my mitts on somethin' other than snatching up Betwixt. The guy in question was a drug dealer who'd been moving up in the world—started setting fire to houses of people he warn't too well disposed to.
Most often he'd get rival dealers or someone else I woulda been sent after eventually. But other times? He'd get drunk or get stupid or some mix of the two and up and torch the wrong place. Just so happened that this time he'd gone and torched a family who had a family who'd just happened to have the money and the means to find me.
I damn near felt bad about this one too, since it certainly looked like he warn't none too proud of what he did neither. But business warn't nothin' but itself and I warn't nothin' but a blue Blue, so that's all there was to it.
He was purple for regret.
"So did you get the proof of death?" Jack asked, tucking his hands into his pockets. I scoffed, acting all offended-like until I broke down and grinned.
"Ain't you s'posed to the smart guy? Warn't nothing he took from the house fire, warn't nothing to bring back. Pincers'll be here soon 'nough, his death'll show up in the feed and I'll get paid. Like always."
He cocked one brown eyebrow. "Someone's getting a tad overconfident, aren't they?"
"I've been doing this for years and I ain't never had a reason not to be." Jack held out his arm and I linked mine through it and we started walking back to the station.
"Now now, princess. Try not to let that monstrous success rate go to your pretty little head."
"Pah. You went and said it yourself, remember? I'm invincible."
"My own words coming back to bite me? I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. You love karma in every form."
"Every form 'cept the one that bites me in the ass." I grinned and he laughed.
"Fair enough. Got the tickets?"
"'Course." I held up the coded metal bits—paid for in full by us, but bought by another guy as ordered by Jack's finickiness. He took 'em and swiped 'em as we passed through the gateway we wanted, boarding the tram headed back towards Central.
There warn't many people on the train, but we kept to ourselves just the same. Can't attract attention if there ain't anyone looking at you.
At one point my pocket let out a loud 'chirp-chirp' like I was smuggling a bird. I pulled out the IF Net box and it warn't an update on the dealer's death, like Jack was worrying over my shoulder, but a ping from Insomnia.
Getting a ping from Insomnia was rare, 'cause even though she loved tech with everything in her eighteen year old bones, she hated sending us pings just as much. I never got a straight answer from her when I asked why, but I always had the feeling that she wanted to keep us as far away from her shiny, metal world as possible.
The gist of the ping was that she was closing in on the sneaky-sneaker from before. Turns out Bertrund was connected to some drug circles, 'stead of just trafficking ones like I thought. Trafficking dies down after you bite the head off of the snake, but drugs are a hydra; cut one head off and two more grow back in its place.
Which was bad if those two new heads were coming after us.
"That certainly isn't good." Jack worried in my ear, stealing the thought right outta my brain.
"Ain't particularly bad, neither. If she found out this much, she's closing in. We'll get the sneaky-sneaker and the world'll be back to its good, old and bloody self 'fore you can say 'capricious'."
He sent me an odd look. "Bee, do you even know what that means?"
"Not really. Just fit the need for a long-ish word is all."
"Capricious: given to sudden and unpredictable changes of mood or behavior."
"... You got a dictionary shoved up your ass?" I demanded, shooting him a look of what felt like amusement.
"No, but I have a brain shoved between my ears. That might explain it."
I scoffed. "Brains're overrated. Dictionary-words ain't gonna save your ass from a knife, instinct is."
"What if it's a very peeved scholar who can't remember the exact definition of a word? Might save my ass and other organs in that instance."
"He might stab you anyways, smart guy."
"That, my dear, would be very capricious." He grinned and I laughed and the mood was gone and lifted 'fore I even really noticed it was dark. We were getting looks and I knew we shouldn't have gone and gotten any attention, but I just didn't care.
Jack and I were just that capricious.
By the time we got off the tram, we were both a hell of a lot less worried that we'd been before. After all, I took down dealers all the time (like that day) and Jack was as damn good at running as he was at Running, so there really warn't nothing much to worry 'bout when we thought 'bout it like that.
The IF Net box chirp-chirped again so I dug it outta my pocket. It was another ping from Insomnia and this time I warn't nothing less than suspicious. One ping was rare enough, but two in one day leaped right on past rarity and into the good old abnormal.
I opened it just as we rounded the corner, but the message just kind of faded away as I stared through the transparent screen—a dull roaring starting up in my ears—at the cul de sac where we lived. Beside me, Jack just stopped walking altogether like someone'd hit his pause button and he couldn't find a way to get himself working again.
First thing I noticed was all the red.
It painted the white houses and green plants and it flooded the nice little cobblestones I loved like liquid rage until I warn't too sure I wanted to keep looking.
Second thing I noticed was the people—rather, what little I could make of 'em.
They were covered in the rage too, and it'd torn 'em limb from limb; milking that sweet crimson fury 'till there warn't nothing left to give.
Third thing I noticed? Warn't exactly easy to miss, standing in the middle of everything the way she was.
Jack still warn't moving, maybe hoping he was just sleeping on the tram and this warn't nothing but a nasty nightmare, but I ran forward.
"Ersatz!" I was sure it was her, 'cause of her hair and the way she held herself; like any minute she could fall into a million little pieces, never to be glued back together again. If she had, she woulda looked right at home in the mess lying at her feet. "Ersatz, girl, what've you done?" I asked, even though the answer was written on her blank face and her bloody hands.
"Bee, this isn't good!" Jack called from where I'd left him, his face a shade of white I'd hoped never to see.
"Don't you think I know that?" I shot back and didn't think to check my color. "Get the others, we gotta clear out!" He didn't take a step. "Jack, get the others 'cause I ain't gonna tell you a third time!"
He ran up to the house and I tried to ignore the splashes as he stormed through a bloody puddle instead.
"Ersatz, you gotta wake up in there, okay? We're leaving and you're coming with us." She didn't answer or move a muscle and I knew there warn't no point to it; I'd seen her get herself lost like this before and it took days 'fore she ever managed to claw her way outta her head.
The door opened and Insomnia rushed out and there warn't nothing but fury on her face. "Ain't you read the message? Get outta here—get outta here now!"
Raging fits warn't nothing new with Insomnia, but ones where she came outta her cave to deliver them were and I was fast running outta my love for the new today.
"Message? Sorry if I got a bit distracted by all the damn carnage on our street!" I yelled right back at her, though there warn't much point in volumes.
Jorn stepped outside behind Nia and there warn't nothing on his face but the gravest expression. Unfortunately, the same didn't go for his clothes, 'cause they were all splattered with the same tell-tale stain as Ersatz's.
"I tried to stop her, but there warn't much use. She'd worked herself up into a frenzy, but I dunno why. People came outta their houses to try and stop her, but she wouldn't quit. I think what was left in her snapped." He explained, but there was a rush to his words that I warn't used to. Like he was trying to get through it as fast as possible, instead of explaining in his usual careful way.
I just didn't feel like saying anything.
Well, that ain't exactly true. I wanted to say somethin' filled with wit, like 'Here I thought I was the serial killer', but I just could get the words out. They were being swallowed up by all the red.
Jack warn't nearly so hanicapped. "Bee, we have to get out of here before the Pincers come. There's no help for Ersatz now, you know she won't snap out of it."
"It is not fair to leave her behind." An accented voice protested, and I registered it as Vicky with a mite of shock—he hardly spoke to anyone but Insomnia. He was staring at Ersatz with a kind of wounded look in his eyes, like he wanted anythin' but to have to see her like that. "She is one of us. No man or woman should be left behind." He continued, just as quiet as before.
Nia's face changed just a bit at his tone, switching from the rage into something kinda softer. Sweeter. "Vicky, I know you like her, but we ain't got the means to do anythin' for her at this point. Pincers'll put her in a 'sylum, where she rightly belongs."
"Nia's right." Jorn piped up again, startin' to cross his arms but stopping when he remembered what it was they were all covered in. "She needs a doctor, Vick. Medication. Therapy. Detox. Stuff we can't give her."
"You do not know that."
"Maybe he don't, but you do. I can see it clear as day on your face. You'd be purple, Vicky, if you left her behind." I found my voice, but he glared at me—most expression I'd ever seen on his face.
"I am not one of your rings!"
"But you feel stuff just the same. And you warn't be feeling nothin' but regret if you keep her from getting what she needs. So say your goodbyes and let's clear out 'fore they realize who was here." I heard my voice getting stronger with every word, the good ole Blue-power come back to save little ole Bee.
Vicky stood there for a moment, like he warn't sure whether he wanted to slap me or thank me. I hoped it was the second one, but I braced myself anyways as he walked over. But he just went right past me, over to Ersatz, takin' one of her bloody hands in his dark ones.
Then he said somethin' to her and kissed her forehead, but I couldn't make out the words. I think they were Venefican, since he was from Veneficus and all. The next words he said to her were clear as bells and I felt a two ton rock sink in my stomach as he spoke 'em.
"Be safe, Eliza."
I knew Ersatz a real long time, but the one thing I never knew was her real name. I knew Nia's and I knew Jorn, Jack and Shvcqua's names warn't nothing but their own. But Butterfly's and Ersatz's name had always been a mystery and I'd never thought 'bout it long 'nuff to ask.
Right then, I wished I had. Soon as we got a new place and settled down all over again, I'd ask the flutter-bug if she was always one.
Should've decided on a sooner goal, 'cause I should've known we wouldn't have been getting outta there so easy; we only just made it outta the street when we noticed we were in trouble again.
Once we got outta the bloodbath we were all real quiet. No one really wanted to talk—or think 'bout the fact that we'd just left someone back to be a scapegoat. Sure, I believed what Nia said 'bout Ersatz needing doctors and all, but it didn't settle with me just the same. It warn't nothing but justification for saving our own skins—and they did all need saving, for one reason or another.
Anyways, like I was saying, we made it outta the cul-de-sac pretty easily. No one ran screaming after us or branded us like convicts or nothin'. We were all too busy trying to suffocate each other with the silence and Vicky was doing the best outta all of us. I don't think anyone'd realized how much Ersatz'd meant to him up 'til a few minutes ago. Jack was looking particularly smothered.
We walked for awhile. I was pretending out I was out for a nice stroll with some buddies who'd never seen a murder scene in their lives and I guess the others were wrapped up in their own little fanciful delusions, 'cause none of us noticed what wasn't right 'till it was too late.
Things seemed to be going smoothly 'til Jorn grabbed my wrist and pulled me to a stop. I looked up at his usual scowl with a frown of my own to fight it. "What?"
"You got ears, why ain't you using 'em?" He demanded and I entertained myself for a moment with the idea of punching his gut. But when Jorn started warning you 'bout things, you threw notions of gut-punching aside and listened. So I did. I listened for a few seconds 'fore I heard it;
I didn't hear nothing at all.
Nothing was the only warning you got before they caught you and your only chance to get away and it was the only thing I hadn't been listening for.
I yanked my wrist free of Jorn's grip and grabbed Butterfly's shoulder, turning her 'round to face me. "Shimmer like a Butterfly." She stared for a moment.
"Who you stingin', Bee?"
"Ain't no one getting' stung today if I can help it, flutter-bug! So get flapping!"
"What's going on?" Jack asked, probably finding it odd that we'd stopped all of a sudden.
"We're flying, string bean, that's what!" I laughed and took off down the street, ducking into an alleyway. "North wind for me!"
"Eastern breeze!" Butterfly called out and I heard footsteps slamming across the pavement.
"Southern gale!" Jorn shouted.
"Western gust!" Vicky was the last to yell and soon we were all scattered. We warn't shouting our directions, but where we were headed. You don't get real far in the criminal world without a back-up house or nothing. Homes away from homes are the best kind sometimes, 'cause there ain't no one who knows you're there.
The alleyway was real narrow, but that was fine for me. I was skinny 'nuff to get through to one of the larger alleyways. Buildings passed real quick; subdued shades of spicy earth that blurred into toasted sand as I pressed through. All 'round the quiet continued, which meant we were in real trouble. Can't fight what you can't see or hear.
That's what made mana so cool and people so dangerous.
"C'mon guys, ain't you got somethin' to say to us? I'm right here you know!" I taunted the walls as I raced on, wondering where they were hiding. "I'm who you're lookin' for, ain't I? Climbing in your windows, snatching your people up? Your soldiers, your wives, your kids? Hide 'em from the Big, Bad Blue 'cause elsewise I'll find 'em!"
There warn't any reaction I could see, but the air shifted. I'd done something to affect them, I was rightly sure of that, but they weren't chasing me yet, so I just kept running from the people that warn't following. I think a few more blocks must've passed 'fore I heard footsteps behind me. 'Stead of fear, I felt confident—when they were out in the open I could fight 'em—so I kept on moving till I reached an alley crossway, slowing down like I was trying to figure out where to go.
In the meantime, I was gathering mana 'round my fingertips, shaping it into something new; a blade.
When I heard the steps get close 'nuff I whirled 'round, arm held high and coming down, ready to cleave whoever it was in two. Then I saw who it was and chased away the mana right 'fore my hand smacked against the side of his head.
"Ow?" Jorn asked, rubbing his head.
"What you doing, idiot? Why ain't you going gale?" I demanded, ready to smack him again 'til I heard the clicking. Like little claws, snapping hungrily. Like Pincers. "Aw, dammit, get ready to run, pretty boy." I grabbed his wrist and started dragging him along, running left.
"Pretty boy?" He demanded, but kept moving anyways. "Gale road was blocked off. They're trying to block us in, Bee. Gotta move fast or fight 'em."
"Then run faster, dip! I ain't fighting no damn Pincers!"
"I'm running, I'm running! Yeesh, you're a slaver, know that?"
"If you got air to complain, you ain't running fast 'nuff!" I shot back with a glare and released his wrist. Jorn knew the paths, I didn't have to drag him along.
I dunno how long we ran, but the clicking got louder every minute; it flooded the alleyways 'till I felt like I was running on spinning gears; moving in circles. Wherever I went, there they were. Jorn got a ahead of me a few times, but I'd always catch up. We were pretty even in terms of endurance.
But, fact was, two people were easier to spot than one.
When we came to another crossway, I shoved Jorn down the left path. "Go on ahead, I'll catch up!" I waved him off.
"You got to be joking! I ain't leaving you with Pincers on our tail!"
"Jorn, you know well as I do that two people're easier to tail than one. I'll catch up with you at wind, 'kay?"
"No, not 'kay'!" He scowled, but I could've sworn I tasted a hint of worry in that face.
"What's your color, Jorn?"
The scowl softened, just a mite. "I'm clear. I'm always clear."
"Sure you ain't gray?"
"I'm clear." He repeated.
"So's that road, so beat it!" I grinned. "You'll have some blue with you soon 'nuff, so don't wait up. Shoo-shoo!" I waved him off again and this time he went, but there warn't nothing but hesitation in it. Clear my ass, he was gray as could be.
Once the alley was empty again, I turned back to face the clicking walls. "Hey Crablegs! Yeah, I'm talking to you, you no-good wall-climbing goons! How 'bout you just go back to your little cave and cry in it, you obviously ain't man 'nuff to take this little girl on! I dare you, try it!"
The clicking got louder, angrier. Maybe taunting them warn't such a good idea, but I had to give Jorn time to get away.
"C'mon then!" I shouted. "What, you worried? Island's top criminal ain't nothing but a nineteen year old girl, and you're cowering in the walls! Wanna know how I get so much work done? It's 'cause you're all so worthless you can't catch a simple drug dealer to save your life? You like that gift I left for you a few weeks back? That trafficker was a nasty piece of work, warn't he? How many of you were in his greasy pockets?" I demanded and the alleyway was flooded with the clicking.
Oh yes, they were good and angry now. Which meant they wouldn't give a damn about Jorn and the others; their prize was right here. I was dangling a carrot in front of a horse, which was all well and good. Only problem was that the carrot was me.
But I was a cruel lady and I warn't gonna give them their treat so easily, so I took back off down the alley, opposite of Jorn's path.
Like a righteous wave, the clicking chased after me.
I made it a few more blocks, maybe. To the last crossway. Jorn was there, which warn't what I wanted to see. "Get outta here! Beat it, now!" I yelled at him.
"I can't! It's blocked!"
My gut sank as I looked ahead. The paths that should've been nice and clear were replaced by red brick walls, far too high for me to even think of trying to climb. We were at a dead end. Down each path that led here were Pincers, the ones on my side especially angry. And I'd led that side right to Jorn.
I had a terrible feeling that we were about to recreate the red ocean outside our old home.
But that feeling of fear gave way to a decision when I took another look at Jorn; if I was going down, I warn't gonna bring him with me. Nia was like a sister to me and Jorn was my best friend. I warn't gonna let nothing happen to him, long as I was still there to make sure of it.
"Jorn, I got an idea, but you gonna have to keep quiet for it to work. Can you do that?" I went over to him and took a seat on the ground, patting the spot next to me. He looked at me like he reckoned I was more than a little head-sick, but sat down anyways.
"'Course I can, I ain't Butterfly or Jack."
"I know that, dork. Now, I'm gonna put a bit of mana on you and you can't say nothing, no matter what. Alright? I'll magic you quiet if I gotta."
"What's the mana gonna do?"
"So long as you don't move and don't go flapping your gums, it'll make it so they won't see you. You'll still be rightly visible, but they won't notice you."
"Like a chameleon, I guess? They blend in 'till you see 'em move, get it?"
After a pause, he nodded. "Right, I got it."
"Good, then get comfy. You ain't gonna be moving for a bit, so you don't wanna be in some awkward pose or another."
"I'm fine like I am, don't worry. But ain't they gonna find it strange that we're gone so sudden? They're probably search for us."
"Nah, they ain't gonna search. So sit back and shut up, elsewise you might ruin this 'fore it's even started."
He sighed, then shut his mouth. I reached out with my mind, grabbing at the mana strands 'round him, shaping 'em and twisting 'em until they were woven into the strands covering the ground and the walls. As I was doing it, he started to fade away and blend in. I knew I was looking at him, but it was like I could see him and I couldn't at the same time.
"Alright, now you stay put. No talking, no moving, no nothing. Get it?" He didn't say nothing and I grinned. "Good. See you later, then."
With that, I pushed myself back up to my feet and took off back towards the angrily clicking alleyway, shouting more taunts along the way. "Hey ladies! You hear? There's a party going on back at my place if you're interested! Sure, the guests ain't the life of the party, but that's what the host's for, right? C'mon, I got snacks and everything, so how 'bout you leave anyone else outta this and we just go have ourselves a good time?"
The clicking got louder and louder still and I had a strong suspicion they'd just 'bout forgotten Jorn existed by then. Well, I really hoped they had.
"Is that a yes? Shoot, good thing it's a big house, huh? Hope your dresses ain't too long, we got a flooding problem in the neighborhood—nastiest puddle you ever saw!"
"Bee!" I turned 'round quick as a wink at that and saw Jorn, flickering in and outta sight as the threads fought to cling to him. "The hell you doing?" His face was panicked, outraged, terrified, pissed. More emotion than I'd seen in years.
"The hell you doing? Shut your gob 'fore they remember you're alive, idiot!" I yelled back, just as pissed. A loud crack went off, like a premature firework set off by an excited kid, and a red flower of pain blossomed on my back. I stumbled forward and started coughing.
If felt like the time I'd been so drunk I'd forgotten which pipe the beer went down.
Silent rage pooled in my hand as I coughed into it and I could only stare 'fore turning round to see where the pain'd come from. A Pincer glared down at me from a roof, his metal jaw click-click-clicking away. "Bitch was getting on my nerves" He clacked out the words, his jaw snapping with every letter.
I just kinda fell to the ground, coughing all the while. I think Jorn must've been born an idiot, 'cause I heard him yell my name again and next thing I knew, he was right next to me, shakin' my shoulders. My back felt warm and it hurt like a bitch when he touched it, but it hardly registered in my brain.
My face got hot and, after that, everything just went kinda black.