I’m going to die. I tried to focus on anything other than the burning in my chest and side. Chloe’s athletic backside had proven a nice distraction for a while, but I’d long ago reached the point where even that wasn’t enough. “I- done.” I stopped, folded over, and held my knees as I sucked air into my lungs as fast as they would let me.
FrustrationDemand. A shadow stopped over me. “It’s only been a mile! You can do better than that!”
I looked up at her; she was going with purple hair today, though her Japanese facial structure hadn’t changed for weeks. I closed my eyes and tried to call on whatever willpower I could find. She’s right, I should be able to do better.
DefensiveSupport. “I think he’s doing pretty good, myself.” Chloe’s small hand rested on my shoulder, opposite from where Cecelia stood.
DismissiveAnnoyance. “No, you’re fine, don’t give him a pass.”
As nice as it was of Chloe to come to my defense was, it only made me feel more pathetic. Not quite as much as my so-called physique did, but I wasn’t the sort of person who welcomed coddling. I preferred Cecelia’s bad cop routine, if it helped push me to try harder. “Okay, I’ve got my breather. Let’s go for mile two.” Before I think about how stupid that sounds. I forced myself upright.
Chloe stepped in front of me. ProtectiveAnger. “No, you dumbass. It’s ninety out, and that’s before the humidity. I’ve been running since I was six, and I’d be ready to call it quits if my powers didn’t make me fireproof. How long does it take to recover from heat stroke, doctor?” I could not imagine a more sarcastic use of the word ‘doctor’ being possible.
RespectImpressedDesire. It wasn’t hot enough for heat stroke to be probable as long as I kept hydrated, but even heat exhaustion could take days to recover from. Either way, I was close enough to the point of diminishing returns that it wasn’t worth the argument. “Yes, ma’am.” SatisfactionFinal. I looked around. “I’ll just take a break under that tree over there. Practice turning my metal into a rotary fan.”
AmusementLove. “Well, as long as you’re getting some practice in.” She floated up and gave me a kiss on the cheek, then turned to Cecelia. “Want to get that spar session going? I know I can take the big, tough enemies, but I need more practice against the tricky ones, and I think I have a plan.” ShameDetermination. “Can’t rely on the two of you to keep saving me.”
Translation: Cecelia to save her. I just served as a big, dumb distraction.
Cecelia didn’t take her eyes off Chloe. “Sure, let’s get to it. I’ve got a couple anti-flier tricks I want to test.”
“Okay, I’ve got an idea of my own.” I put one hand on Cecelia’s shoulder, and the other on Chloe’s. I changed their costumes to pure liquid state, then went to work restructuring the fluid by etching tiny patterns with my mind. I did my absolute best to ignore the fact that at touch range, with this much concentration, I had a full map of both girls’ figures which was both more and less than touch. With any luck, they wouldn’t notice.
SmugAmused. Cecelia smirked at me, perhaps even encouraged the metal to press a bit tighter than it needed to in choice areas. Correction: with any luck, Chloe won’t kill me.
CaptivationShock. “It’s so beautiful.” On the plus side, Chloe was too fixated on her armor to notice. She took flight, then did a three dimensional twirl to examine all the patterns she could create.
“Something I’ve been doing to improve fine control.” I couldn’t see her armor, only the workout clothes underneath. What I’d done was add ripples so small they were almost invisible to the naked eye, inspired by those cheap moving hologram cards I only ever saw in old movies. I’d hoped to work out some kind of trick with the technique, but in the end I only succeeded in creating rainbow reflections, like those on the back of a CD. My camera showed it was pretty enough, but I couldn’t think of any combat applications, and it was too slow to be practical. “Takes a lot of concentration to keep going.”
Cecelia seemed to be having fun teasing me, by flexing her leg and thigh muscles beneath the metal. “Thank you for your hard work, then.” She clenched her buttocks. “So, now that you’ve got it on us, what are you going to do with it?”
“Emulate combat damage.” I focused on thinking with the tactical part of my brain, rather than the teenage boy parts. Like I had to do when Keith’s older cousin decided she wanted to game with us; until she found a boyfriend and ditched us like we were nothing. Fuck, summer’s almost over and I haven’t talked to any of them… I am a complete sack of shit. Feeling like an asshole, it turns out, is an excellent distraction. “We know the two of you can’t do real damage to each other, right?”
Chloe glanced over at Cecelia. RegretWorry. “Yeah, we share my forcefield. It’s like hitting myself until the power goes out.”
“Well, the new armor can track damage for you.” I took a moment to get the metal back to complete fluid state. “Won’t slow you down any, and even in this state it’s good armor, but the decoration layer is only a little tougher than skin.” RealizationApproval. “Cecelia, you’ll have to make sure not to take control of the armor, though. It’s far too fragile to survive a tug-of-war between us.”
“Oh don’t worry, I would never cheat.” Cecelia’s legs rubbed together a bit more than necessary when she stepped back, which caused the metal to slide in ways I hadn’t anticipated. “Are you sure it won’t be too hard on you?” I forced it back into position as soon as I could.
Nope, don’t fall for it, she’s just playing with your head. Focus on how you haven’t talked to your best, and for that matter only, friends in months because you’re a jerk.
ConcernConfusion. “Domenic? Are you okay?” Chloe drifted toward me. “If you’re not, we can just spar the normal way.”
“I’m fine, just thinking that, with how busy I’ve been, I’ve lost touched with my friends.” RegretLoss Dammit SurpriseRegret. “But that’s all my fault. Don’t let me drag you down. I’ll just sit over there in the shade and watch your sparring session.” I went straight for the tree, doing what little shapeshifting to my metal I could while keeping both their outfits in full fluid mode. Despite having upset Chloe a little, I counted it as the less unpleasant choice. At some point, I’d have to explain to explain to Cecelia that her behavior was not helpful. For now, I just made my armor into a chair.
The girls took their combat stances, with Cecelia in a low crouch that allowed her to put her hands on the ground and Chloe taking to the air. I could not have pictured more different combat styles. With my martial arts skills limited to stuff I saw on television, I couldn’t judge from a tactical standpoint, but I could develop some strategic opinions. The strategy, of course, being to defeat the opponent by doing as much damage to the other’s rainbow-metal costume as possible.
FocusReady. Cecelia moved first, with a quick charge toward Chloe that caused her to bolt into the air, out of Cecelia’s range. In this mode, I could feel both their sets of movements almost as if they were crawling on my skin. In my head, I pictured my power like those sensor points they use to model 3D characters for movies or video games.
Cecelia’s movements were pure muscle power, if far better muscles than any human possessed. Each step was physical, with all the complexity which came with it, and far too fast for me to follow. She had reflex speed on her side, that much I was certain of.
Chloe’s motions, like her combat tactics, were the opposite of Cecelia’s. Her power, much like mine, relied on the mind rather than the body. With my metal so *ahem* intimately wrapped around her, I realized that when she jumped into the air, she went up before her feet tried to push off the ground. Her power moves just a little faster than her reflexive limb movements to take her off the ground. I wasn’t certain how useful that knowledge was, but it was fascinating.
Cecelia stopped beneath Chloe, who rolled in the air to face downward toward her. Chloe’d tried on occasion to explain why she found the position most comfortable, though it never made sense to me. I trusted her to know her power better than I did.
As I watched, I got some idea of why it worked. Chloe’s feet were positioned as if she was standing rather than drifting in empty space or floating in water. Her body, by instinct or by function of power, created an imaginary ground for her to stand on.
I felt Cecelia’s power run through my metal, warping small flecks of metal. Again, the opposite of Chloe, as muscle tensed before the electricity pulsed outward in patterns far too complex to follow. I likened her to a pianist, using gestures to create music from a machine. I could sense enough to know there was a pattern, but not enough to guess what it was.
She tensed almost every muscle at once, and the flecks of altered metal burst off the surface of of her costume, into a blossoming nebula of electromagnetic energy. FearMistake. Chloe tensed, her muscles responding to the oncoming attack, then her power kicked in to fly her out of the cloud. The energy storm left scars in her armor layer. It could be argue Cecelia cheated with that attack, but having been on the receiving end of her power at low levels, that charge would have killed a normal person.
It also cost her. Cecelia’s heart raced, and seemed slower when Chloe dived through the cloud to get into range for a counter attack. Not enough that I expected Chloe to catch her, however. Cecelia felt confident as well.
SurpriseAvoid. What we hadn’t expected was Chloe to attack the environment. She planted both feet knee deep into the earth, which tore up more of my careful metalwork, then kicked forward with both feet at once. Her power seemed to behave as if she were laying on her back kicking up rather than kicking forward without bracing. It was fascinating to watch.
Meanwhile, Cecelia caught a wave of rocks traveling so fast that it left dents in the armor, beyond the scratches of my fragile overlayer. Even an assault rifle hadn’t been able to do that kind of damage to my armor. My sight blinded by the dirt cloud, I could feel Cecelia roll across the ground, then bolt for a small hill in the terrain. By the time the dust settled, she was out of sight and Chloe was in the air.
Cecelia’s heart pounded in her chest, while Chloe’s body was calm, if on high alert. Both fed into one another on an emotional level, and I suppose I joined them. The fight had us all waiting for the event that would decide the victor.
GoalAnticipation ReadyAlert. Cecelia had her plan, and her muscles tensed in ‘tune’ to this new song, which crafted a strange knife from the metal of her armor. She threw the blade from the natural ditch she’d found temporary shelter in, with remarkable aim for someone who didn’t even have line of sight with the target.
SuspicionAttack. Chloe dodged even as stance changed to an offensive one. She dived straight forward, under the knife. It exploded above her, sending out a ring of shrapnel, some of which embedded itself into Chloe’s armor layer. Again, neither girl was in danger of injuring the other, but they were dishing out a lot of damage to their targets.
ConcernReady. Cecelia bolted from her hiding spot, pushing a surge of electricity… into her own legs? A pulse of energy shot out of her feet, ejecting a fair amount of mass from the armor. It gave her a surprising boost of speed, which put her above Chloe, kicking downward with a blade formed from the toe of what remained of her boot. If she was less worn out, or Chloe’s power required conscious use, it would have been enough.
Instead, Chloe rolled just enough to catch Cecelia’s foot in her hand. SurpriseVictory SurpriseDefeat. With a quick spin, Chloe threw Cecelia at the ground hard enough to generate yet another cloud of dust. The pool of metal joined the debris cloud as a splash of sparking silver. It appeared the end point of the fight, so I got up and jogged toward the pair. I wasn’t feeling perfect, but my lungs had stopped punishing me for prior transgressions.
RealizationConcern. Chloe drifted to the ground, her aura having expended so much power while she fought that it was now a dark blue. There’s a flaw in her pure mental power; unlike Cecelia, she doesn’t have a natural feel for her limits. She can find herself out of juice if she’s not paying attention. I wasn’t certain if my power carried the same flaw, but now I knew I needed to find out.
Cecelia climbed out of the small crater, exhausted but otherwise unharmed. ThrillApproval. “Not bad!”
NegationDisappointment. “I still lost.” She lifted her arm, to reveal a broken spike of metal beneath her armpit. It had pierced my fluid metal and cut Chloe’s shirt beneath. “Kill shot, if I ever saw one.”
What. I didn’t notice that blow at all. I absorbed that fragment back into the pool, and confirmed Chloe herself was uninjured. Not that I expected otherwise.
RespectDisagreement. “And that stunt with the dirt would have taken me out, if I didn’t have your forcefield.” Despite the way her heart hammered, Cecelia talked as if she wasn’t tired in the slightest. I watched in real time as her heartbeat returned to normal. It’s Chloe’s power, she’s borrowing from what’s left of the battery to boost her healing. “I felt that through the armor.”
RealizationFear. “I, umm, might need to tone it down a bit, then. I don’t want to kill someone.” UncertaintyDanger. “I’ll have to practice more until I know how hard I can go. Then again, if it had been a real fight, that stunt with the lightning you opened with could have ended it there.
“Well, maybe.” Cecelia, now showing no sign of the exhaustion she’d put herself through, wriggled in her armor in a way that reminded me of just what I was analyzing. ImpishAmused. She turned her head to me. “What do you think, Dom? Who looks like they won?”
I know this trap. “I’m gonna say the loser is the poor bastards who have to fight either of you for real.”
AmusementLove. Chloe leaned her head on my shoulder. “Total cop out answer.” The shimmer of her aura had returned to green, with a few flickers of orange lightning. They fought each other to near depletion, and now recovered in about a minute.
Is this the shared pattern Granny Greenwitch told us about? She mentioned the Knight and Dragon, or Seamstress and Soldier as possible pairings, but implied many more. I couldn’t imagine a pairing more iconic than Mind and Body. Assuming I believe the crone’s ravings in the first place.
“I mean it. I need to get it all out before I start forgetting things, but I think I learned a lot about how our powers work.”