Vi knows these streets.
Even after a decade away, even after Silco got his hands on everything, and the chembarons, and the Shimmer; even after everything, she knows the undercity like it’s a part of her. Every nook, every cranny, every jutting pipe and blind turn. She could navigate blindfolded if she had to.
She couldn’t have said how she got them here if her life depended on it.
“Vi,” Caitlyn whispers. “This isn’t the way to the bridge.”
Vi doesn’t have to turn her head far to look at her face, the way that Cait is leaning so heavily against her. She looks...dazed. Eyes dilated and unfocused. Tear tracts drying on her face next to the drying blood from her broken nose. Like her scream as Pow—as—as the missile arced overhead had sapped the last of her strength, bled all her emotions out.
Vi shakes her head. “We can’t. Not right now. Ekko—”
“Vi,” Caitlyn repeats, and this time her voice breaks. “My mother. I don’t...I don’t know...”
You can’t see the skyline of Piltover across the water from the street they’re on now, but Vi can still see the smoke billowing up over the rooftops. Hear the faint blaring of those damned horns on the wind as every alarm in the city screams.
And she can see the fear in Caitlyn’s eyes, just as clearly as she could when they were hostages of her sister.
“I’m sorry,” she says, hopeless and inadequate. “The bridge won’t be safe, they’ll shoot before we can say a word. And you need help. We’ll lay low with the Firelights and see if Ekko knows anything, then get to Piltover as soon as we can. Alright?”
Ekko’s alive. He has to be. Vi didn't see his body on the bridge when she'd watched Silco carry her sister off, though it'd been dark and at a distance and—Vi refuses to entertain the alternative. If she does, she won’t be able to keep going. And—
And deep down she knows, that if her sister had killed their last remaining family, she would have taunted her about it at that table.
Caitlyn squeezes her eyes shut, pauses, and then gives a tight nod. “Alright.”
Who is she, who is she to ask Caitlyn to wait to find out if her mother still lives? Vi and—Vi wouldn’t have let anything in the world stop her from going to the bridge that night for her own parents, she’s spent every moment since she got out of Stillwater chasing down her sister, and here she is—
“Hey,” Vi says, even as her throat closes up in shame. “It’s—it’s gonna be alright.”
Caitlyn doesn’t respond to that, but the look on her face says it all.
At least the streets are deserted—no one wants to show their faces after something like that. They all know what’s coming. The two of them stumble along in silence another hundred yards before Caitlyn mumbles softly. “I need a minute.”
Without hesitation, Vi gently eases Caitlyn down to the cracked sidewalk beneath a shut-off neon store sign. Then she drops her remaining hextech gauntlet and flops more gracelessly down beside her. Leans back against the storefront.
Fuck, she hurts.
Everything from her fight with Sevika still throbs, especially now that the adrenaline of...that...is starting to wear off. She’s gotten used, over the years, to being in pain, to tuning it out. But the emptiness inside her right now is too much for that. Unbidden, her tongue finds the spot where she’d lost a molar. No blood anymore, but...that won’t grow back.
Like a metaphor or some shit, she thinks, with a bizarre urge to laugh.
She glances over at Cait to find she’s drawn her legs up to rest her arms on her knees, staring listlessly at them, panting. She looks completely exhausted. Her usually-perfect hair—that Vi’d internally mocked her for when they’d first met—is unkempt now, a few strands in her face that she hasn’t bothered to push out of the way.
Vi’s hand twitches in an aborted movement like—like she has any right to touch her, after everything that just happened. She looks away, then, at her gauntlet on her other side. The way that—that her sister has drawn on it. Vi’d always loved her drawings, her creativity, had daydreamed once about what she’d do if they didn’t have to spend so much time just surviving. Of being able to introduce herself like oh yeah, I’m Powder’s sister, you know, the inventor? The artist?
The neon sign flickers on above them, bathing them in the eerie purple of a blacklight. Beside her, Caitlyn sighs, long and ragged. “Okay, we should keep moving.”
Vi swallows and gets up, then turns to give Cait a hand up.
And just stands there, like an idiot, staring, as Cait takes it, letting her do all the work to stand even though she should be helping her up. As Caitlyn stands in front of her, swaying slightly, she realizes Vi is staring.
Because revealed by the blacklight, written underneath Caitlyn’s left eye in the large, blocky capital letters that are her sister’s trademark, is the word WHORE in glowing violet.
“What is it? What…”
Vi can still only stare open-mouthed as Cait’s eyes go huge, as the color drains from her face and she slaps a hand over it, stumbling a step back. “I…”
The—Vi remembers the rush of horrified dread she’d felt as her sister had wheeled Caitlyn out, the terror in her eyes, the muzzle, the crooked smiley face drawn on it, the splatter of pink and teal paint still showing on Caitlyn’s face now, but that had been one thing, this—
“Let—let’s just go,” Caitlyn says in a rush.
“Caitlyn,” Vi breathes, “did she hurt you?”
Caitlyn glances to the side, still clutching her hand to her face like she’s holding a wound closed. “It’s only paint,” she mutters, but her other hand comes up to reflexively tighten her collar, and she sees Vi’s eyes dart to follow the movement.
“That’s not what I asked,” Vi says, and—and she’s back at that table when her sister had dropped that platter in front of her and—I paid your girlfriend a visit this morning—the horrifying realization all over again that she doesn’t know, she doesn’t know where her sister’s limits are anymore, if she even has any, she doesn’t—this morning, how long was Caitlyn—
“I’m fine,” Caitlyn mumbles, barely audible, as she shrinks back against the wall. “It—it’s just paint.”
Caitlyn awakes to fire in her shoulders, blurred lights dancing in the dark before her eyes, and rough patting on her cheek.
“Morning, cupcake! You have a nice nap?”
She doesn’t...react, immediately. Her head feels heavy, thoughts fuzzy around the edges; everything is dark and freezing cold, her head aches but her shoulders burn, she can’t quite...see...until she blinks once, twice, and some of the dim lights painting the blackness resolve themselves. A few splashes of color. Some geometric shapes with no clear intent or purpose. And then, abruptly, a pair of glowing pink irises mere inches from her face that she’d last seen moments before in her bathroom mirror.
Instinctively she tries to jump away, to reach over her shoulder for her—but no, she traded that away, and—and she just swings right back towards Jinx, because she’s hanging by her wrists bound tight above her head.
“Put me down!” she shouts without thinking, before immediately realizing she doesn’t know what is below her. It could be a thousand-foot drop for all she knows, how many times has she nearly toppled into the abyss in the last few days, it would be just like Jinx to take her at her word for something like this...she glances down but everything is still just black aside from Jinx’s eyes—they’d been blue before, what—
“What,” asks Jinx, glowing eyes shifting as she tilts her head in the dark. “Like a sick dog?” The understated click of an invisible gun cocking. “I can do that.”
Caitlyn’s mouth is still open, working soundless and stupid as she tries to think of some way to respond, when a sudden flare of light makes her go blind.
It’s not a gunshot.
It’s not a gunshot, though it takes her seconds longer than it should have to realize that. She’s in so much pain already—but the loud clang, the blinding light, they’re just...Jinx has turned on the lights. Too-bright industrial floodlights; they hit her like a physical blow from every direction, there’s nowhere Caitlyn can look that isn’t agony, and even squinting through watering eyes she can’t make out anything in the hard shadow beyond the lighting arrays.
It could be bare rock. It could be an arena, for all she can tell. It—forces her into stark awareness of her position. Hanging from ropes off a meathook that already have her nerves screaming, unable to do anything but wriggle, her attacker casually toying with a pistol in front of her, and—
Oh, right, she remembers, heat rushing to her face as her stupid brain catches up to itself. Jinx attacked her as she got out of the shower, so she’s still completely naked.
An exposed position doesn’t begin to cover it.
Jinx watches her struggle, and doesn’t move.
At least, Caitlyn manages to think through the hysteria she’s trying and failing to suppress, she knows there’s a floor.
Much good may it do her. She can nearly stretch her toes down enough to touch it, to take some of the strain from her shoulders. Nearly. But not quite. It almost makes the pain worse, the sight of that bare cracked cement floor just barely out of reach. An underground storage room in an old warehouse, she thinks, from what little she can make out of the space now that her eyes are adjusting to the light. Maybe an abandoned meat-packing plant. Or an abattoir.
She hastily chooses not to follow that train of thought.
“You know,” Jinx says, casually gesturing with her pistol. “Honestly. Thought getting you here would be way harder. Maybe you should ask mommy for better security?”
“I...I’ll take it under advisement,” says Caitlyn, a brainless reflex, before she shakes herself. Metaphorically, not literally; putting any more pressure on her arms right now would be...a poor decision. “How did you—what did you do to the guards?”
Or—she forcibly shoves down the cold surge of dread in her gut. No, her parents weren’t home. Mother was at work, and Dad was off making a social call this morning. Jinx couldn’t have—they weren’t home.
Jinx gives her a long, slow, condescending look. When Caitlyn doesn’t break, the girl rolls her eyes expressively toward her gun, then back. “Whaddaya think? Vi doesn’t keep you around for your brains, huh cupcake?”
Caitlyn...twitches. That’s the second time Jinx has used the nickname, she realizes, and how does… where would she have heard…
She swallows. “How…”
Jinx puts a hand to the side of her cheek in overacted mock embarrassment. “Oh! I’m sorry. Is that your thing?”
“That’s not what I—it is, rather, yes, but—how do you...did she tell you—?”
The mockingly faux-innocent expression slides from Jinx’s face, melting like candy floss, and the look that replaces it is icewater.
“Oh, no. She doesn’t tell me things like that anymore. Used to be she loved to share secrets with me, but, well, sisters, amiright? One day they’re your best friend, next day they’re gone, day after that they’re back in town but oh, don’t think to check in with little sis first, of course, too busy mooning over some topsider princess for that, maybe they’ll get to it later!”
She snarls the last word and whips her pistol around, aiming it square at Caitlyn’s chest.
Caitlyn has spoken without thinking one too many times today. Staring down the barrel of a gun, she holds her breath and trembles in pain and waits. Jinx stands there for a long moment, frozen, considering. Relaxes slightly. Lowers the gun. Caitlyn goes limp with relief.
Jinx snaps the pistol back up and fires.
Her aim is legendary, and the shot is point-blank in—for Jinx, at least—perfect visibility. Caitlyn doesn’t have time to flinch; she doesn’t have time to even close her eyes as the impact drives the air from her lungs. A good shot. Dead-center over her breastbone, the pain barely registering through the shock, the liquid burst, the flood of—
Caitlyn stares uncomprehending until Jinx’s laughter finally registers; she licks her lips, finally starting to breathe again as she tastes paint —a splatter gun, a child’s toy, she’d—it was just—
“Shoulda seen your face,” says Jinx, a poor attempt at childish disdain ruined by her too-forced smile. Caitlyn, lightheaded at her own survival, doesn’t even try to respond.
Jinx cocks her head, thinking, as she makes her leisurely way over. Watching the paint run down Caitlyn’s front like blood.
“I could’ve done it,” she says, almost petulant. She reaches up, runs a finger down the center of Cait’s chest, smears the paint. “Serve you right. Enforcers paint the undercity all the time. Only red, though, and it’s not paint. I thought Vi would remember that, you know? But maybe I don’t know her as well as I thought.”
“That’s...that’s not true,” says Caitlyn; then, sensing disaster, hastily clarifies, “About your sister. She loves the undercity, this is her home. She’s suffered under corrupt enforcers, they used to…”
She hesitates. Vi’s torment in the bowels of Stillwater feels...vulnerable. Raw. Something that could be used to hurt her, something she might not want to become common knowledge.
So instead, she just says, “She survived seven years of the worst prison in Piltover, she...told me, about your parents. She never forgot. She barely trusts me, and I saved her life. The only reason she doesn’t hate me is that she knows I want to protect everyone. Not just...topsiders. I want to help make things right for...”
She trails off as Jinx, pointing a finger in her own mouth, makes an exaggerated gagging noise.
“Give it a rest, cupcake—”
Damn her, Caitlyn flinches again.
“—I get it,” Jinx continues, rolling her eyes. “You had years and years to be best friends with my sister without me because you’re special.” She twirls a pistol around her finger. “You’re not even that pretty.” She flicks the safety off, then back on again. “Must give, like, really good head or something.”
Caitlyn feels blood rush to her face at—she focuses on the first part. “I...n-no, I only met her a few days ago—”
Jinx gasps loudly, miming shock with a hand over her mouth. “Really? Wow. You’re way more of a slut than I thought, topside girl!”
Caitlyn glares at her, or tries to. It’s a wasted effort. The pain lancing through her chest is—different this time, deeper than the sharp agony in her lungs. The pain of tugging at a wound still raw, watching the defeat in Vi’s shoulders as she turned away.
And how stupid is it that Cait can still be wounded this way, here, now, by the memory of a girl that by her own admission she barely knows —
Jinx’s finger pokes her in the chest again, jolting her back to reality.
“Hey! Don’t you zone out on me,” she says, swirling her finger around in the paint. She makes a face, rubbing the wet paint with her thumb, then shrugs. She taps two fingers against Cait’s breast, making her jump; then, with an off-kilter grin, runs her thumb below the nipple before spinning away. Swiping a crooked smiley face in her wake.
Cait grimaces, relieved by the slight distance despite her best judgement. Objectively, Jinx is most dangerous at a distance, but…
But Jinx isn’t touching her now, and that’s...better.
“Don’t worry Caitlyn, I haven’t forgotten you. Just gotta get some better stuff. Paint gun doesn’t dry good.”
The way that Jinx says her name is…almost worse, actually. There’s the sound of...rummaging through a box? What…whatever, she’ll deal with that in minute, right now Jinx is distracted, so she cranes her head up as much as she can and tries to find a weakness in the ropes binding her. Maybe if she pulls herself up, she can bite at it…
“Ha! Good luck. Vi taught me how to tie knots, and I’m sure you know how good she is at those.”
Cait tries to glare at her again but can’t find her; settling for casting a scowl as far over her shoulder as she can, she snarls, “It’s not like that!”
A scoff from the other direction. “Sure.”
Cait whips around as best she’s able and finds Jinx standing there, unimpressed and holding up a handful of paint markers. She shakes them casually in one hand, grips a poison-green cap between her teeth, and tugs it off.
“Whatever you say,” she continues, giving Cait’s hip a light push to turn her in the air, scrawling something in bright paint along her stomach. “We all know enforcers are totally reliable, right? You’re a liar, I know what you want from her and so do you!”
Cait swallows and fights the urge to look down at herself. She doesn’t want to take her eyes off Jinx. “What are you...doing, with me?”
But Jinx’s emotional states change like—like a lightswitch, like a detonator, hard and complete, and she’s not listening anymore.
“You’re a liar,” she hisses under her breath, hands rough. The paint pens scatter on the floor as she rips the cap off another—a broad, ugly orange this time, and draws harsh lines between Caitlyn’s shoulderblades. This time she can follow the path of the marker—LIAR, jagged and dripping. “Gotta label things so you know. Otherwise, ha, you might forget what they are, right?”
Caitlyn risks a look down, and sees the first word Jinx had written across her stomach: SLUT.
It’s—writing on her like this is small, and petty, and nowhere near the worst thing Jinx could be doing, but Caitlyn feels a growl behind her teeth nonetheless.
Jinx’s eyebrows shoot up. “Oh. You don’t like that?”
Slowly, deliberately, she plucks the cap off a bright teal pen.
“Welp,” she says, popping the ‘p’. “Then you’re gonna hate this.”
She leans in, and this time Caitlyn bares her teeth and kicks—
Caitlyn bares her teeth and chambers a kick. Jinx, without looking up, pulls out a pistol with her free hand and holds it casually at her side.
“This one’s not a splatter gun,” she says, unnecessarily. She brings her gun up and casually uses it to push Caitlyn’s knee out of the way—and Caitlyn could kick her, she should, she could knock the gun from her hand, but where would that get her? No closer to freedom, her enemy angrier and still armed and—and Jinx hums to herself as the barrel of her pistol waves the brief moment of resistance away.
“Honestly,” Jinx says, sketching out her usual calling card over Caitlyn’s hipbone. “You’re such a baby. I could be doing this with a knife instead, you know.”
Hating the waver, the weakness in her voice, Caitlyn asks, “What do you want from me?”
Jinx gives a disarmingly casual snort. “What? I don’t want anything from you. ”
Caitlyn’s throat closes with—fear, and loss, and fear again. “I’m a very poor hostage. She won’t—come for me. Vi, I mean, we’re not...whatever you think is between us, you’re wrong. I’m no leverage against her anymore.”
That only earns her an eyeroll. “I said this isn’t about you. I told her that, didn’t I? Yeah. I thought so.” Finishing off the loving detail of the little heart she’s drawn over the “i” in BITCH, delicate along Caitlyn’s ribs, Jinx tilts her entire body to the side and starts on THIEF, in a totally different font, on that side. “Just showing I can steal people too. Ah damn, this one’s going dry.” Another snap of a marker cap, neon pink again. Just like Jinx’s—
“What happened to your eyes,” Caitlyn blurts out. “They’re supposed to be—”
Glowing...pink…she's on Shimmer, Caitlyn is startled to realize. But—that wasn’t how Shimmer was supposed to work, the effects shouldn’t be so controlled—
She’s not prepared for Jinx to stiffen along every inch of her body. It wasn’t even—she hadn’t even intended it as a dig, she’s not stupid, she’s not going to go out of her way to antagonize the serial mass murderer holding her completely helpless. But Jinx goes rigid, breath catching, unnatural eyes wide, and Caitlyn has only a fraction of a second to realize that she has just said exactly the wrong thing.
“Shut up,” Jinx hisses, savage and violent; then, again, “Shut up!” but not, this time, directed at anyone apparently in the room. Rounding on Caitlyn again she snaps, “You weren’t there. You weren’t! And I don’t think you should talk about things you don’t understand!”
Before Caitlyn can think to respond, Jinx punches her hard in the diaphragm. Her aim is deliberate, spot on; Caitlyn involuntarily tries to double over, jackknifing, wrenching her arms and shoulders. That tiny added bit of torque nearly makes her sick; what had merely been agonizing is abruptly unbearable, she can’t scream with no air in her lungs and she can’t bear to let Jinx see her cry from the pain but she can’t help either.
Let me down, she tries to say, unable to care anymore that she’s begging, let me down, please let me down, please, I can’t—
Caitlyn is still coughing desperately for air when Jinx shoves something over her mouth.
“There,” she snarls, tightening a strap behind Caitlyn’s head, then yanking a fistfull of her hair back to force her head up. “I know it’s not Vi’s favorite way of shutting you up, but it’ll do.”
Caitlyn, muscles on fire, lungs and eyes burning, can do nothing but stare at her. And try to breathe. The gag—no, not a gag, a muzzle—is tight against her face, holding her jaw clenched, but her nose isn’t obstructed.
“Should probably get moving,” Jinx comments to no one in particular. She leans in to Caitlyn conspiratorially, not reacting when Caitlyn whimpers at the contact. “I waited so long for you to be done, you know, pining. In the shower? Is there, like, any hot water left topside? I woulda gone in and grabbed you but, like, didn't wanna get wet. Anyway. Gotta get you ready for your first family dinner.” She glances down Caitlyn’s body and back up again, matching the motion with a gesture of her gun that makes Caitlyn’s entire body flinch. “I’m sure Vi’d just love it if I left you like this, but. Piltover’s finest have to look the part, no?”
Before Caitlyn can ask what the hell she’s talking about, Jinx has crossed behind her again. There’s another brief rustle, the sound of something heavy shifting, and then she unceremoniously kicks a cardboard box into Caitlyn’s line of sight. Caitlyn, who’s shoved her rumpled uniform into a drawer instead of folding it neatly to be laundered perhaps once or twice in her life, recognizes the contents instantly.
She knows enough, now—of the undercity, of Vi and her sister’s lives—to understand that the choice of the uniform is a very bad sign.
“Yeah,” says Jinx darkly. “I think she forgets. Time to remind her, you know? What you are. What she’s choosing. Over me.”
Caitlyn shakes her head, an instinctive denial—of what, she’s not sure. No, Vi loves you, she’s chosen you every time, no, I’m not like that, no, technically I got fired, no, please don’t do whatever this is —but of course this isn’t about her, and Jinx pays no attention. She’s kneeling at Caitlyn’s feet, humming to herself as she rolls up a stocking, then another.
Then Jinx holds out one of the rolled-up stockings, gesturing for Caitlyn to stick her leg out.
Caitlyn stares at her, incredulous enough that it manages, briefly, to dominate over even the fear and the searing pain.
She expects—well, if she were capable of thinking anything but are you insane? she would expect anger, maybe, or another threat. Instead Jinx just smirks. She reaches out, places two fingers under Caitlyn’s ankle, and tips it up enough to slip the stocking over her foot. Then, slow and deliberate, taking her time, holding eye contact, she rolls it up Caitlyn’s calf.
There had been less danger in those Shimmer-altered eyes when Jinx was holding a gun on her. Caitlyn, fingers numb, the static of mindless fear building in her ears, can’t remember how to breathe.
Jinx repeats the process for the second stocking. The boots come on next; just as slow, deliberate, tightened well past the point of being uncomfortable as Jinx hums softly to herself. This time, when she’s finished, she leaves a hand behind Caitlyn’s knee, holding it steady. In her other hand she twirls a bright blue paint marker.
Caitlyn stays still, shaking in terror, fighting spasms of pain, as Jinx doodles a cupcake on the inside of her upper thigh.
Jinx tosses the paint pen aside. For a long moment, then another, then another as Caitlyn’s breath goes shallow from more than just the strain on her arms, she doesn’t move her hand.
“Cute,” she finally decides, before she shoves Caitlyn’s leg away carelessly enough to send her gently swinging again, and bounds back to her feet.
She almost seems to have been distracted; she scribbles ENFORCER with a scowling face beneath it over Caitlyn’s side, JINX WAS HERE with a tongue-sticking-out face on her left forearm, PILTIE SCUM on her right, a few more all around that Caitlyn can’t quite follow. Something on her face, below her right eye; when Caitlyn tries to squirm away Jinx just laughs and holds her tighter in place by the jaw.
“Chill, this one’ll only show up with a blacklight. Our little secret!”
Jinx sets the markers aside in favor of flicking a few lines of raw color across her body, before jumping slightly as if she’s just remembered she has some kind of—some kind of plan.
“Oh! Right.” She has a grin which is far too deliberately casual, and it doesn’t reach her eyes. “You were trying to tell me that you and Vi haven’t ever, like, done anything, right? Well. Just in case you’re not lying—I wanna make sure she gets it right! One of us has to be considerate.”
Jinx crouches down in front of Caitlyn and...draws a few arrows. Starts scribbling something next to them, and—and Caitlyn squeezes her eyes shut and focuses on the rapid sound of her breath to stop herself from feeling out the words. Then she grabs Caitlyn’s hips, spins her around roughly, and does a...similar process, in the back. With more...instructions.
“There!” Jinx says, brightly. “That should do the trick! Vi never was that good at following directions, but she’ll get the picture.” She pauses. “Oh, stop crying. I’m done now.”
Caitlyn shakes her head, half-frantic, not even certain what she’s trying to accomplish. She hasn’t noticed but Jinx is right; there are hot tears escaping down her cheeks and catching on the ridge of the muzzle, the sharp hitch and catch of her breathing is much closer to aborted sobs than just pain. She wants to—wake up. For the first time, wants to believe that someone might bother coming to find her—
“Come on,” Jinx gripes. There’s no slow buildup or silent threats this time; Caitlyn is in nearly too much pain to resist at all as Jinx wrestles the dress up her body. The feeling of not-quite-dry paint against the fabric makes her skin crawl. “I’ve got stuff to do. Whole world doesn’t revolve around you, ya know?” Between one word and the next there’s a jagged knife in her hand, but Caitlyn is no longer capable of feeling fear. It’s all a shaky buzz, white-hot wires running through her spine and the rest of her cold and numb.
And the knife has barely appeared before it’s gone, anyway; a flash, a clang, and Caitlyn’s right arm suddenly drops free.
She’s not ready for it; her knees buckle, unprepared to take her weight. For a brief sickening second all her weight hangs on her left arm and she screams into the muzzle, feels it come so close to popping out of the socket, but then she gets her feet under her. It’s not much—her arms had been bound directly over her head, the angle has barely changed, but—it’s just enough, just barely.
She can just touch her toes to the ground, and even as Jinx grabs her and shoves the enforcer’s jacket over her right arm she can’t hold back a sob of relief. Her free arm is numb as Jinx grabs it, rolling a sleeve up over her own—handiwork. Caitlyn can barely feel the leather bracer being strapped into place over the screaming pins and needles. And then Jinx...pauses. Caitlyn, barely managing to keep her balance on her toes, unable even to shy away, feels dread curdle in her gut.
“Hmm,” Jinx muses out loud. “Coulda thought that one through better, couldn’t I? What’re we gonna do for your other arm? I mean, I guess there’s one way to make sure you can’t run...”
Caitlyn’s protest is—wordless, and not even because of the gag. It’s a child’s whimper, a primal wail of fear as Jinx casually presses a pistol against her knee; pitiful, pathetic, the kind of sound wrung from the throat of the pampered child of a wealthy House who thought being a good shot on a target range was the same thing as being able to fight —
Jinx shoots her a grin. And then she does fire—but over Caitlyn’s head as she cringes away, broken chain and rope falling around her shoulders as Jinx casually hits her with a leg sweep and throws her to the ground.
Her arms are—useless, numb and shaking uncontrollably, no help to her at all, and then there’s a knee between her shoulderblades as the rest of the uniform is forced into place. Jinx tightens the harness straps with harsh, vindictive yanks that make it even harder to breathe between a cement floor and the knee in her back.
“You know, it’s weird that they call these chokers,” Jinx muses, her hands briefly closing around Caitlyn’s neck as she threads it into place, before she pulls the collar as tight as it will go. “They’re not very good at it. Guess that’s topsider tech for ya. Think that’s everything, anyway. Didn’t bother digging through your underwear drawer, but hey, just another present for big sis, right?”
Caitlyn’s arms are still shaking, but Jinx has shifted her position off her back and she tries—she tries. She tries to claw her way forward, twist and grab at her captor’s gun, but Jinx audibly rolls her eyes and catches Caitlyn’s wrists in one hand. Rolls her unceremoniously onto her back.
Jinx throws thick cord around Caitlyn’s wrists like an afterthought, unconcerned; ignores the choked-off “No—!” if she can even make it out through the muzzle in the first place. When she’s satisfied with the bonds she stands and brings her prisoner with her. Like she doesn’t even notice the extra weight. What does Caitlyn even weigh, next to that minigun?
Not enough. Not enough to make any difference. Not even enough for Jinx to bother letting her stand instead of dragging her along the ground.
The hard line of shadow is impossible to see past, with floodlights still half-blinding her; Caitlyn is hurled headfirst into the void and can do nothing but close her eyes. The impact is—loud, a clatter of rusted metal and wood and leather, creaking wheels; the jarring vertigo of a sudden stop followed by a slow, dizzying tilt over she doesn’t know what—but Jinx casually puts a heel on the footrest of the chair and slams it back to the ground.
There’s a moment where Caitlyn could run.
She could. In theory. She could leap to her feet and bolt and hope the darkness blinds Jinx as well; hope there’s a way out in the direction she breaks, hope there’s cover. For just one brief moment, Caitlyn’s legs are free and her wrists are tied to nothing but each other and Jinx is not holding her and she could run.
All Caitlyn can manage is to shrink away from her, pressing into the rotted leather of a discard wheelchair; and in the next moment Jinx has rope around Caitlyn’s ankles. Casually kicks them together so she can’t brace herself, crossing them delicately before tightening the bindings. The tail end of the rope is looped several times through crossbars under the chair before cinching tight—so tight that Caitlyn has to lean back to counterbalance or risk falling on her face.
From there it’s. It’s over, really. Her bound hands are cross-tied between the armrests, held in her lap; Jinx casually loops a rope around her waist like a demented seatbelt, wrenches a crusty lever to lock the brakes, and Caitlyn is going nowhere without permission.
Smirking, taking her time about it, Jinx drops a stolen enforcer’s hat crookedly onto her head.
Caitlyn hasn’t even managed to make this a challenge.
And now Jinx has her helpless. Entirely. Even more, somehow, than when she’d woken. The knots are tight, expert and ruthless; she can’t find any give, any weak points. What little training she received on the force is as useless here as her marksmanship.
And Jinx is—is building to something, wants Caitlyn for something. She has no idea what the hell Vi has to do with this, but—she has to warn her, someone has to warn her, if she’ll even listen, if anyone will—is this about the Council? Because they argued against negotiation? But then why strike against Ekko, why sabotage their desperate bid for peace in the first place? Does Jinx not want the freedom of the Undercity? But Silco is supposed to be a fanatic—maybe he truly does care more about his own power, or maybe she’s slipped her leash, maybe—maybe anything, Caitlyn has no way of knowing what any of this is about anymore, it feels so personal but she doesn’t know why, she—wants to go home—
“Could just leave you here. You really don’t belong in this conversation, anyway.” Caitlyn’s head snaps up, eyes blowing wide. If she’s left like this, alone, no one even knows where to start looking—
But Jinx doesn’t seem enthusiastic about the prospect; she shrugs, turns, and flops unceremoniously across Caitlyn’s lap. Doesn’t even react to the way Caitlyn tries and fails to cringe away, her muffled grunt of pain at her hands being pinned beneath Jinx’s weight.
“You know,” Jinx starts. She casually hooks an arm up around Caitlyn’s shoulders, gripping the pauldron there for leverage. With her other hand she places the pistol on her own lap, barrel aimed at Caitlyn’s gut, and her heart skips a beat—but then she lets go of the grip and fishes in her pocket instead. “I oughta thank you, honestly.”
And then she’s holding the Hextech gemstone up in front of Caitlyn’s face. “You made it so easy to get this thing back. Honestly. Ekko’s a smart cookie, probably coulda figured out how to use it. I was worried! But then you brought it right to your boss.” She laughs, tosses it in the air, and then puts it back in her pocket. Puts her hand back around the pistol grip, finger off the trigger. “Like a good little puppet! Marcus was Silco’s for years, dumbass, why’d’ya think we got away with so much shit?”
Caitlyn, she realizes too late, is staring. Shaking her head, a tiny involuntary movement. That’s...no, that can’t...she’s lying, she has to be, it’s, it’s too convenient, too obvious, it’s, it makes too much sense, how many times did he stop her looking deeper, she should have seen the signs...
“Poor Ekko. Can’t believe he decided to trust you, but I guess Vi sweet-talked him into it. Hope my little grenade trick took care of him but eh, you never know with Ekko, he’s slippery like that. Like me!” She grins widely and clicks her tongue, lifting her pistol to casually aim at Caitlyn’s chest like finger-guns before lowering it again.
Caitlyn closes her eyes in a futile attempt to...she doesn’t know anymore. To block out Jinx’s mocking smirk, to hide her own pain, to cower away from the world and those too-bright eyes...Ekko will be fine, she thinks, convincing no one and least of all herself. Vi had seemed to believe in him, and she hadn't seen his body on the bridge, and Jinx survived that explosion even if she'd had to be carried off...but she’s not able to make herself believe it. Not anymore. Not this time. Not in middle of this nightmare.
“But! However useful an idiot you were, Caitlyn, you’re just here to, you know.” She waves a hand. “Look pretty.”
Jinx toys with the pistol, pensive, looking so much like Vi from this angle and so young it hurts—and deadly and unpredictable and far too close.
“It’ll be fine,” she says, seemingly to herself. “You’ll see. It’ll all be over soon, right? Nothing to worry about. Vi’s gonna fix it. She always does.”
Caitlyn breathes as slowly as she can, and doesn’t look Jinx in the eye, and tries not to think about it’ll all be over soon.
“Oh, don’t look like that,” Jinx snaps, suddenly irritated. “This is a good thing. Okay? This is good!”
She snatches a fallen pen from the ground, teeth bared in a snarl as she scrawls a disjointed smile over the muzzle, drawing the corners with sharp movements that go over the edge onto Caitlyn’s cheeks, ignoring her choked whimpers as she tries to pull away.
“There. Sheesh. I said not everything’s about you.” Jinx rolls to her feet and stretches, cracking her back. “You go ahead and wait here! I’ve got some stuff to set up. Don’t go anywhere! You’ll miss the party.”
She turns, places one hand on the massive floodlight switch, then pauses and gives Caitlyn a sudden, critical once-over. Caitlyn freezes cold.
“Hmm,” Jinx says. Her eyes burn, sick and neon, in the dark. “You know…”
The pistol jumps to her hand, and Caitlyn is looking down the barrel when it fires.
Jinx waits for the retort to stop echoing off the walls. For Caitlyn’s frantic, muffled scream and rapid-fire choking for breath in the aftermath to fade slightly as she realizes she’s still alive.
Jinx smirks, and says, “Yeah. I like it better without the hat.”
“It’s just paint,” Caitlyn whispers, but won’t meet her eyes.
Vi swallows, something sharp and hard stuck in her throat. She reaches out—slowly, more slowly than she normally does anything, because Vi has broken the fucking world one too many times by moving without thinking.
Caitlyn doesn’t flinch away, and that’s. That’s something. That has to be something.
Vi has a brawler’s hands now more than ever, but Caitlyn lets them draw her hand away from her cheek, guide the other from its death grip on her own collar. Vi runs her thumb over Caitlyn’s knuckles, trying to soothe her own shaking as much as anything else. Then, careful, so fucking careful, she guides Caitlyn’s collar open, just—a little. Just enough to see the edges of paint.
Caitlyn doesn’t...stop her. Her expression is terrifyingly blank.
Vi swallows again, and—moving slowly—laces her collar back up. Caitlyn’s only reaction is to blink rapidly, but Vi’s not an idiot. She can see how ragged her breathing is. How close she is to tears.
“I…” There’s nothing to say here. This isn’t something any words can fix, but she has to try. “Caitlyn, I am so…”
“I’m fine.” Her voice is brittle. “She didn’t hurt me, not like you’re thinking, not...badly.” She rubs a hand over her shoulder, an automatic motion. “I was—careless. If I’d been—armed, or—if she hadn’t ambushed me in the shower I could have—”
“You were—Caitlyn —”
Caitlyn’s shoulders are tense, she still won’t look up, and Vi...she’d just assumed Caitlyn had been back on duty. She’d been in uniform already, there was no reason to think anything else, why would...she doesn’t want to follow that train of thought but she’s never been stupid, she’s never hated before that she’s never been stupid, that she can’t help but understand.
For a long time they just. Stand there, under a flickering blacklight, while everything shatters around them.
Vi hears her own voice.
“I stopped you from...Caitlyn, I begged you not to shoot her…”
For the first time, life flickers in Caitlyn’s eyes. It’s raw anger, indignant and hurting and edged with—something that’s not quite hatred, but is very, very close.
“I know,” Vi breathes, and the white-hot edge to Caitlyn’s glare flickers and dies. Like she can hear Vi’s heart breaking in her throat, too. “Cait, I...I didn’t know. I didn’t, I swear I didn’t know...if I’d…”
Caitlyn’s jaw clenches as she snaps, “Don’t. Don’t lie to me.”
Vi cringes harder than she intended to.
The only thing she hates more than her own reaction is Caitlyn’s, honestly. The instant regret in her eyes, the way she half-reaches out before drawing her fingertips back. Vi...shakes herself, and steps closer. This is her mess to fix.
“I’m not,” she promises. Takes Caitlyn’s outstretched hand between her own. She doesn’t dare try more, not now, not after Powder—after Jinx—not after everything Caitlyn’s been through today. But Caitlyn clutches that contact like a lifeline so she doesn’t let go. “I’m not, I swear, I—I would never lie to you. Caitlyn. I’d never lie to you.”
Caitlyn stares at the sign’s reflection on the dark pavement.
“If you had realized,” she says, voice carefully even. “Had you known at the time that she had...that I had grievances beyond kidnapping. Would you have done anything differently? Would you really not have asked me to spare your sister?”
Vi’s automatic assurance dies on her tongue. This is...it’s not the time for platitudes. If she gives Caitlyn anything but utter honesty, here, now, there will be no coming back from it. She’s too tired and heartsick to care why that’s something she can’t bear. The world is about to burn around them. She owes this girl the truth.
“...I don’t know,” she says, voice catching. “I don’t...know.”
There’s a long silence. Slowly, some of the tension leaves Caitlyn’s shoulders. Even more slowly, she finally lifts her gaze to look Vi in the eyes again.
“That means more than you know,” she says, quiet. She tightens her grip on Vi’s wrist, then sways alarmingly.
Vi surges forward, catching her before she can do more than stumble. “Come on. Let’s...we need to get off the street.”
She hadn’t been trying to get anywhere in particular, just away; but her feet and her instincts have done the work for her. They’re not far from the Firelight enclave, now that Vi is paying attention. It’s a good thing, too. In the distance, she can already hear the occasional sharp crack of a gunshot.
And she’s dragging a wounded enforcer, in uniform. Not a great look. And not everyone around here knew Vander; even the ones who did, well, Vi’s been gone for seven years. Her name won’t be enough to save them if that shockwave catches up before they’ve gone to ground.
If the Firelights won’t let them in—if Vi got their leader killed on that bridge, if they blame Caitlyn, they’re both dead.
The enclave’s sealed by the time they get there—no shit—but you don’t grow up in the undercity without beng able to tell where an entrance used to be. Vi hefts Caitlyn a little higher. Bangs on the door. Waits. Pretends she can’t feel the world slowly pulling back to kick them all in the teeth, somewhere behind her.
Tries to think of what the hell she’s gonna tell these people, when they ask what happened to—
The hatch slides away.
“So,” says Ekko. “I take it things went bad.”
The rush of relief nearly knocks Vi off her feet. She nearly drops Caitlyn in her rush to fling her arms around the only family she has left—barely manages to disentangle them in time. “Ekko,” she gasps, gripping too hard, tears finally spilling over. “I was so—I’m so—”
No one ever comes back anymore. She’d been so fucking scared of her own hope.
Frantically wiping the tears from her eyes, she stumbles back and slips Caitlyn’s arm around her shoulder again.
“Ekko,” she tries again. “My sister just started a war. Can we borrow your shower?”
It’s the stupidest thing she’s ever said, and that’s a high bar. Vi stands by it. She can’t—focus on anything else, can’t think properly, until she knows she’s done what she can for the girl who wouldn’t be in this mess if it wasn’t for her.
But it’s a hell of a non sequitur for anyone to swallow, and she’s prepared for Ekko to push back against it. She’s prepared for Ekko to push back against letting Caitlyn past this threshold at all, after what happened last time, though she doesn’t think he’s that vindictive—but it’s a reasonable thing to protest, is the problem. With the world ending, a mass murderer on the loose, everything they’ve built falling down around them, Vi’s more than ready to take some heat for prioritizing getting some lost topsider a shower.
“I have a unit that locks from the inside,” Ekko answers, without hesitation, without even blinking. Like he’s done this a thousand times before. He doesn’t even glance at the visible splashes of paint for more than a heartbeat. “One of the Firelights can stand guard if you like. Or Vi, if she’s feeling up to it. You’re safe here.”
Vi stares at him. It’s—for a moment she doesn’t know him. There’s no trace of the hyperactive genius of a little boy, she’s known that; but the grimly determined teenage warrior is absent, too, for just a minute. It’s a man’s voice, gentle and sure.
"Thank you," Caitlyn says softly.
Ekko glances over and meets Vi's gaze. He gives a little nod, a sad smile. Then, stepping aside to let them pass, he seals the hatch behind them.
Limping on a crutch, he leads them up the passageway. “There’s someone you both need to meet,” he says; then, when Vi instinctively pulls closer to Caitlyn, holds up one hand. “Later. Later, Vi. Take care of—”
There’s a low, massive concussion, somewhere in the distance. Briefly, they go still.
“...Right now,” Ekko continues, quieter this time, “Taking care of each other’s about all we can do. Look after your girl. Then we’ll get to work.”
Unable to speak around the lump in her throat, Vi nods. As they emerge into the tree clearing, Ekko points out a small out-building on the other side, then pats Vi on the shoulder before heading toward the tree itself.
Vi looks over at Caitlyn and swallows. “Do you...want me to—”
“Don’t leave me,” Caitlyn whispers.
There’s nothing to say to that. Vi’s powerless against it. She stays.
But she’s not a monster, and she forces herself to say, “I can grab one of the Firelights, if you don’t...want to be around me. I wouldn’t. I—listen, you don’t have to—if you hate me, if you just need me to leave, I won’t argue, I understand, I would never want to see me again if I were you—”
Caitlyn does finally pull away, at that; but it’s just to stare at Vi in mingled bewilderment and hurt.
“You—what are you talking about, do you...do you want to…” Her face falls. “Of course. I...apologize. You already said...of course, if you want to leave, I…”
And Vi, who’s the biggest idiot in Zaun, abruptly remembers every single word she said the last time she spoke to Caitlyn.
“I never wanted to leave.” It comes out as a whisper. She wants...she wants a lot of things, but none of them are right, so she stands there, hands in her pockets, frozen in agony. “I never wanted to leave, I just...I dragged you into this.”
“I broke you out of prison,” Caitlyn corrects, incredulous.
“You know what I mean.” Vi clenches and unclenches her fists. “Everything that happened to you, everything she did, that was all my fault, Caitlyn. She hurt you because of me, to get to me, and I...I’m not that selfish.”
“I broke you out of prison,” Caitlyn repeats, and there’s an odd strain in her voice this time. “Because I’m an idiot who didn’t know what I was doing, because I was stupid enough to think that—that I had what it took to take down the most dangerous people in the city when all I’d ever done is be a glorified crossing guard , that I could run roughshod over the law and not face consequences—it was pride, that’s all, pride and arrogance because I’m just a pampered little girl who wanted to play at being some kind of hero, and I dragged you into a confrontation with your sister just to prove that I was more than what my mother—”
She cringes and squeezes her eyes shut, breath hitching.
After a moment of Vi standing there, slack-jawed, she finds her voice. “Caitlyn…”
But Caitlyn holds up a hand to cut her off. Takes a deep breath, opens her eyes, and continues. “...But if I hadn’t done that, you’d still be in prison, just because the Sheriff was afraid of what you might say. And if—if Jinx had done worse to me for it, if she’d...if she’d killed me, I would still consider it worth it to have righted that wrong.”
And now Vi is speechless again. Because—because she shouldn’t be worth it. Because Caitlyn is wrong, she’s so wrong, because despite it all, the mirror of what Caitlyn had told her the other day was true, because in the last few days Vi has learned that despite it all, Caitlyn Kiramman has a good heart—
So after a moment of standing there like an idiot again, staring at the exhausted, deathly serious, broken expression on Caitlyn’s face, she reaches out and carefully—so fucking carefully—she reaches out and laces their fingers together.
“...Message received, cupcake,” she whispers, and for an instant there’s the tiniest ghost of a smile on Cait’s face. “Now you—you take as much time as you need to scrub that shit off. I won’t let anyone bother you.”
And now, for the briefest of moments, it’s more than just a ghost. “My hero.”