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Don't Look Too Close

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It was Arsyn's fingers she knew first. Fingers like bars of steel across her windpipe, nails sharp against her pulse. Catastrophe gasped for air. She gasped for effect. People tended to believe her at first; maybe this person would too.

"Who are you?" It was a cool, vaguely familiar voice. When Catastrophe tried to twist away, the fingernails pressed in until wetness trickled down her neck. "Not as smart as you look, then."

Her pulse raced like a jackhammer; she groped for the right words. "Someone who hates the men in masks because they took too much from me."

A pause. Light flared in the enclosed office space, across rows of computers made obsolete with time and uneven technological advance, and the fingers around her throat slipped away. Rubbing where she would have bruises the next day, Catastrophe turned.

"I've seen you before," was the first thing the woman said, and the feeling was mutual. High brows, small face, wicked eyes narrowed, a soft mouth that had been pressed into a smirk when Catastrophe sold her lipstick that very morning--a thin line now. Fate loved her; she'd seen those sharp nails and hadn't thought anything of it.

Air boomed, and the building rocked beneath them, around them. The floor tilted sideways, leaving her scrambling.

"Introductions later," Catastrophe said, dropping low. "Escape now."

The first time she saw Arsyn smile, it was during that escape, a hail of bullets at their heels. She'd shouted, Not the roof! and followed anyway, and then they were diving into the night with a grapple-hook wrapped around crumbling concrete, her heart in her throat. But Arsyn turned, a flash of teeth visible, and they landed with their lives intact. The image seemed seared in her mind long after Arsyn vanished into the night.

 

She heard of Arsyn now and then, afterwards, or saw the marks of her work; black-masked men growing thin on the streets, whispers among children playing in the guts of the city beyond the skyscrapers' shadows, pieces of evidence gone when she arrived—or laying, unhidden, on top of smiley face drawn on office paper. Catastrophe didn't know which worried her more. She did know she wasn't supposed to like it.

Slay-Z certainly thought so. Slay-Z struck down enemies from a distance and never looked back, showed softness only to the old dog who'd been hers as long as Catastrophe could remember, and she couldn't comprehend looking at the smiley face and laughing.

"Next time, I'm coming with you," Slay-Z said.

Part of her muttered a rebellious no. "If you want," Catastrophe shrugged.

They beat Arsyn to the schematics for what they'd been told was a bioweapon, commissioned to be used yesterday. Slay-Z downloaded the files onto a drive the size of her nail and tucked it into the centre of her favourite throwing star. After a moment's thought, Catastrophe left Arsyn a gift of her own: a lipstick print on stationary, propped up like a card beside the computers she crushed.

 

It became a pattern. She didn't tell Slay-Z this. She certainly didn't let anyone see her laugh when she pulled out smiley faces and, once, a lipstick print from Arsyn.

 

Another week, another rain of bullets, except this one caught in her thigh and she crumpled. A muttered curse turned the air blue even with the never ending gunfire, and even as blood seeped between her fingers down her leg, someone was dragging her behind the iron crates into cover. Catastrophe glanced up, and in another moment, the world might have shifted. In that one, she was preoccupied cursing that she didn't bring medi-lasers with her. Luna would have her head for this, assuming she made it back alive.

"I got your present," Arsyn said, kneeling so their heads were level. Her eyes danced, framed by distressingly long eyelashes; Catastrophe realized she was staring, and looked away. They both paused when the air split, shook in its very bones.

Catastrophe grabbed for her gun, waiting, but Arsyn shook her head. "I'll hold them off. Use this instead." She tossed Catastrophe a medi-laser, and disappeared around the corner with a yell. Catastrophe gritted her teeth and began the long, painful process of close her wounds, hoping the fragile seal would hold long enough for her to get back to headquarters.

When Arsyn returned, Catastrophe was standing and able to walk, though she couldn't do it without a grimace and a limp. Arsyn, on the other hand, had the infuriating grace of an uninjured fighter who moved partly for show, partly for efficiency.

"Oh, good," Arsyn said. "You can cover me."

It was a plausible explanation for why Arsyn might have helped her, or would have been if Arsyn couldn't have disappeared by herself. Catastrophe wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth. She followed.

 

For a city that only grew brighter at night (except for the slums, perpetually in the dark, electricity too expensive for anything but emergencies), there were a surprising number of places to hide. The giant corporations intent on using all that power for themselves, they did it obscured by the light, so bright it hurt too much to look at closely. Her organization did the same: life-saving technology within their well-light skyscraper, and training grounds far below, populated by women with nothing to lose and all the revenge in the world to gain. Frostbyte, clear and logical and formed of ice and ideas, didn't always agree; Catastrophe didn't always get along with Frostbyte.

Because Catastrophe knew those women, she understood something about Arsyn. She and Arsyn competed over missions, but they both fought against the same spectre of black masks, and hate or revenge was a strong incentive indeed.

(Catastrophe hadn’t always been a fighter, but she’d certainly always been a thief, and she'd learned it from her mother. Her mother, with light fingers that could make legs of lamb vanish somewhere on her person; who moved like lightning, too fast for Catastrophe to match; who named her Catastrophe after someone who had once saved their life; who worked at odd hours and came back with scraps on her arm, but never much pay.

Catastrophe would have demanded to know more, but she told herself, Not until you can take on five people and win. She contented herself breaking into apartment buildings instead, just to see if she could get away with it.

Of course, that was before the city’s nuclear reactor nearly melted down, and her mom vanished into the night. Because Catastrophe was too much Morgan’s daughter not to put two and two together, she went to the site. On the rooftop that gave the best view of people coming and going to the reactor, she found her mother’s one piece of jewellery: a ring of some material Catastrophe didn’t know. It was wrapped inside a black mask.)

When Arsyn asked for her help, she knew what her reply would be.

 

"There's a schematic of the power grid, the part none of us could get into," Arsyn said. "I can't steal it by myself. But they've never seen you before. You could infiltrate the company and let me in. We could find the files together."

"Oh," Catastrophe said, "so that's what it was." Her thigh still throbbed in reminder of what she owed this woman; the truly awful thing was, Arsyn watching with her wide eyes, her smirk changed into a smile, Catastrophe didn't even need to think of debts to know her answer.

Arsyn leaned forward. She smelled like cinnamon, smoke, a hint of something lost when family dinners around firesides went the way of families eating together at all. "There can never be enough people against them in the world."

It was never a good idea to grab hold of a maybe-enemy without warning. Catastrophe did not always have great ideas; her fingers were on Arsyn's cheek before she could stop herself. It was entirely Arsyn's fault for leaning close enough to touch, she told herself, and lingered half an inch from Arsyn's lips.

Arsyn didn't move. She didn't even seem to breath.

"I'll have to tell my superiors," Catastrophe murmured. "That's non-negotiable."

For a long, long time, Arsyn remained silent, some sort of war raging behind shuttered eyes. A question of trust, perhaps; whether details ought to be left to Catastrophe's organization, who didn't oppose Arsyn, but didn't work with her either.

(A question of blood, perhaps; whether to go for the kill when the time came, or to simply take the briefcase, schematics, and research, and vanish into the night.)

Another heartbeat--Arsyn's face shuttered. "Tell them."

Catastrophe leaned forward that final half-inch until their breaths mingled. "I will."

 

fin.