Catastrophe can feel the heat of London burning at her back, and the sound of explosions echoes all around her. She draws comfort from Knockout’s steady presence at her side as they walk towards the woman who’s turned Catastrophe’s whole world upside down. The Agency has been everything to Catastrophe since she was a child. Until Arsyn came along.
At eight years old, Catastrophe had run away from her foster home and determined that naturally, pick-pocketing was the the obvious way to survive in the long-term, if she wasn’t just going to have to go back in a few hours, metaphorical tail between her legs.
Unfortunately, it turned out teaching yourself to pickpocket wasn’t as easy as Oliver! had led her to believe, and the first person she tried it on caught her at it red-handed. In her defense, she might have had slightly more success if the first person she’d chosen hadn’t been Luna, but what can you do.
Luna grabbed her wrist and raised an eyebrow, not looking mad, which is what Catastrophe would have expected, so much as amused.
“Well then, what have we here?”
Gathering her wits, Catastrophe tried to pull her arm free, but Luna merely tightened her grip.
“Relax, kiddo, I’m not going to hurt you.”
“So let GO!” One more determined yank and Catastrophe was free. In fact, she’d gone flying, and hit the ground, hard, where upon she’d promptly - and embarrassingly - burst into tears.
“Aw, geez.” Luna had rolled her eyes and fished around in the offending purse for some Kleenex. “Dry up, kid, it’s not that bad. C’mon, where are your folks? Are you lost?”
Catastrophe seized the opportunity, leapt to her feet and bolted. And that might have been the end of it if she hadn’t bolted straight into Justice.
“What’s this, Luna? Are you recruiting?”
“Well I would, if she’d talk to me. You know she actually got her hand inside my purse before I noticed her?”
Justice looked down at Catastrophe. “Huh. Promising. So kid, you got someplace better to be?”
“Not...not really.” Catastrophe shrugged, hiding her rising interest in the pair. After all, she figured she could always run away again.
“Well, how about we teach you how to pick pockets without getting caught?”
Turned out getting caught was the best thing to happen to Catastrophe pretty much ever. Learning how to avoid it in the future… that was just the icing on the cake.
By the time Arsyn came along, Catastrophe barely remembered a life before the Agency (or a time when she wasn’t called Catastrophe), and if she was honest, had gotten used to her position as Headmistress’s top field operative - with Knockout a close second, of course. Knockout, who had turned up just weeks after Catastrophe, and had been by her side ever since. Knockout, who had also run away from home and also been picked up by Luna and Justice. (They’ve always liked that they have that origin story in common.) They’ve been best friends ever since Catastrophe was assigned the task of showing Knockout the ropes.
Lots of girls (and some boys too, and even a few undecideds, though rather less of both of those) had arrived since then, but none of them really made all that much of an impact, let alone threw everything quite so far out of whack as Arsyn did.
Combat and weapons training was a standard part of the routine at the Agency. Kids who had spent more time in normal school than Catastrophe had said it was like the equivalent of gym class, except there was a lot more of it, and it was a lot more fun.
Knockout and Catastrophe had been sparring partners since basically forever, and by the time Arsyn showed up, their matches usually attracted quite a crowd. It had been a long time since said crowd did anything but celebrate a particularly good punch or kick, though.
The crowd was yelling and cheering as Catastrophe lined herself up; she had Knockout on the ropes this time, she was sure of it, when suddenly one voice cut through the rest - “Your footwork is sloppy!” She ignored it, focused on Knockout, but then - “And stop dropping your left hook!”
And that’s when Knockout stopped dead, causing Catastrophe to do an awkward twirl in an effort to pull a punch she’d fully been expecting Knockout to dodge. Knockout, momentarily distracted, turned to face Arsyn, and called out, “Hey, new girl, what gives?”
Catastrophe quickly recovered her footing, and put her hands on her hips, projecting her best “I meant to do that all along” cat air, before joining Knockout in eyeing the interloper disdainfully.
Arsyn looked back at them both coolly. “What? You can’t take a little constructive criticism?”
Knockout crossed her arms. “Sure, but I don’t recall anyone asking you for any.”
Arsyn shrugged. “Whatever, I was just trying to help.”
Catastrophe took a moment to properly look at the newcomer. She was well muscled, and covered in sweat and bruises - she looked like she’d just come off better in a bout of her own. Catastrophe was starting to think that maybe this girl meant business, maybe they’d overreacted a touch. She flicked a glance at Knockout, trying to subtly indicate as such. Knockout sadly ignored this latest attempt at telepathy and barrelled right on. “Well, another time don’t bother,” she huffed, and turned her back on Arsyn. “So, where were we?”
Shooting another quick, apologetic glance Arsyn’s way, Catastrophe squared up and turned her attention back to Knockout.
Catastrophe doesn’t remember just when her relationship with Knockout slipped from friendship into something… else. She doesn’t have a word for it, exactly; romance is way too cute, girlfriends is right out, and whatever they are, it’s certainly not lovers either. Knockout is just Knockout, and she and Catastrophe are a pair, like Yin and Yang or something.
She doesn’t remember when it started, but she couldn’t imagine her life without it. Knockout is her sparring partner, her backup in the field, the person she turns to for comfort. The Agency, for reasons only Headmistress knows, is a lot like a boarding school, right down to the dormitories. Knockout and Catastrophe have been cramming themselves into one or the other of their single beds since basically forever.
That’s another thing that changed when Arsyn came along.
It took Catastrophe a long time to identify what she felt for Arsyn. It was nothing like her feelings for Knockout, which, she maintains, is why she took so long to figure it out. At first it was mostly profound irritation, because Arsyn wouldn’t just give it a rest already. Despite Knockout’s best efforts, Arsyn still kept showing up at all their fights (and it was JUST Knockout and Catastrophe’s fights, mind), and still kept yelling out advice, no matter how much, after that first time, they both studiously ignored her. She always seemed to be at the gym at the same time as Catastrophe, always being so much better than any newcomer had any right to be, even one who got recruited after acing a simulation training day at Langley.
But if Catastrophe found Arsyn irritating, it was nothing compared to Knockout’s intense dislike of her.
As ever, it was Knockout’s feelings that helped Catastrophe sort out her own, in the end. This is how they’ve always worked, using each other’s reactions to understand the world around them better.
Catastrophe had thrown herself down on Knockout’s bed one day, still sweaty from her workout.
“Argh. I’m so sick of the new girl. Why is she always in the gym at the same time as me? Every day? What is her problem? It’s not like I even go at the same time every day!”
Knockout budged up slightly, rolling her eyes. “I’m so sick of hearing about how sick you are of Arsyn. Can’t we talk about something else? Anything else? Just ignore her.”
Catastrophe propped herself up on her elbows to get a better look at Knockout. “You, sick of complaining about Arsyn? Since when? What gives?” She grins, teasing. “You jealous?”
But Knockout hadn’t smiled back. She’d looked down at the floor instead. “Well...what if I was?”
“Wait, what? Of WHAT? She drives us both crazy.”
“Cat...I don’t think she drives you crazy quite the same way she drives me crazy.”
Catastrophe stared at Knockout for a bit, nonplussed. Then...well, then the penny dropped. “...Oh.” Catastrophe grabbed the nearest pillow to cover her face. “OHHHH.”
Knockout didn’t say anything.
“Wow, I am such an idiot.”
“So… what happens now?” Catastrophe asked from the safety of her pillow. She still couldn’t bring herself to look at Knockout.
“Well… Why does anything have to happen?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, why does anything have to change with us? Is there a rule that says you can only…” Catastrophe didn’t have to look up to know Knockout was waving her hand in their accepted shared sign that means ‘whatever we are’, “one person at a time?”
She did look up, though, fighting a whole mess of emotions that seemed to be exploding inside her. “Are you serious?” Knockout didn’t bother dignifying that with a response. “OK, I deserved that. Fine. OK. How does it work?”
Knockout shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine.”
“No, no, if we’re doing this, we need to figure it out, and… I dunno, make rules, and stick to them. Or...well, OK, maybe not RULES rules, but...we shouldn’t just start. If we just charge in and do it without rules, it’s basically cheating. Even if you know about it. And you HAVE to promise you’ll tell me if it’s too hard because - ” She was rudely interrupted mid-brainstorm by Knockout throwing herself at her and kissing her, nearly sending them both flying off the way-too-small-for-two-people bed.
After she’d finished talking to Knockout, she headed back to the gym, figuring Arsyn would follow her there sooner or later. True to form, Arsyn showed up almost immediately.
“Hey new girl, we already had our weird little shared gym session for the day. You following me?”
Arsyn rolled her eyes. “Whatever. How full of yourself do you have to be to come up with something like that? Just because everyone else around here drinks the Catastrophe Kool-Aid.”
“Uh-huh.” Catastrophe deliberately stepped into Arsyn’s space, not quite up in her face, but close to it. “You just turn up at the gym whenever I do, and only show up to watch my bouts by complete coincidence, right?”
Catastrophe hadn’t been sure whether Arsyn would back off at that point, and whether she would have been disappointed or relieved if she had. She’ll never know, though, because Arsyn had taken a step towards her, closing the space between them.
“Yup. Total coincidence. You’re imagining things.”
Catastrophe stared down into Arsyn’s face, momentarily distracted with the new sensation of towering over someone she was thinking about kissing. She might be tall, but Knockout was taller. Arsyn looked up at her just as intensely, and Catastrophe honestly can’t remember who moved first, but suddenly they were kissing, and then Arsyn had her up against the nearest wall and it wasn’t a bit like kissing Knockout but it felt every bit as right.
After they had done a lot more kissing, there had been a lot of explaining about the situation with her and Knockout, and a lot of talking about how they wanted things to work.
At some point, Knockout and Arsyn had tried going on a date, to see if they could close off the triangle the three of them had started drawing, but after they’d gone out for a meal and shared a bottle of wine, they’d just ended up in the boxing ring, and left it at that. They share Catastrophe, and that’s more than enough.
All of this is flashing through Catastrophe’s mind, and it still doesn’t help her understand why Arsyn’s betrayed them. But when it come down to it, she doesn’t need to understand. She just needs to be strong enough. She thinks back to the moment of complete shock when Arsyn pitched her through that window, wiping everything blank, more painful than the impact of hitting the car had been, and steels her resolve.
She swings a punch at Arsyn, but Arsyn meets her, blocking the punch and coming in close, close enough to whisper in her ear. Catastrophe expects her to spit something insulting, or maybe to beg for mercy - but whatever Arsyn has to say, she doesn’t want to hear it.
Instead, Arsyn dodges another blow, pressing closer, until her breath on Catastrophe’s cheek makes it feel like they’re about to kiss. Catastrophe stumbles, just a little, just enough for Arsyn to lean in. But as always, Arsyn surprises her. Instead of knocking Catastrophe further off balance, Arsyn whispers in her ear. “Cat, they’re using you. The agency - they’re using all of us.”
Catastrophe falls back, and Arsyn closes again - but again, she doesn’t strike, only keeps whispering urgently. “They’ve been using all of us. I - I came back for you. To get you out. Do… do you trust me? Will you come with me?”
The Agency is the only real home Catastrophe has ever known. But Arsyn upended everything once. And now, Catastrophe has that same feeling, that drop in her stomach as her whole world realigns.
She staggers, bumping into Knockout, taking her hand. In the middle of the chaos that surrounds them, they both stare at Arsyn. Arsyn grins at both of them, and Catastrophe finds herself grinning back.
Yeah. They’re ready to do this. Together.