I’m going to die. I tried to focus on something, anything, to distract from the burning in my chest and side. Chloe’s athletic backside had proven effective for a few minutes, 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 my body would allow.
FrustrationDemand. A shadow stopped over me. “It’s only been a mile! You can do better than that!”
I looked up at Cecelia; she was going with purple hair today, though she hadn’t changed her oriental facial structure 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, why should he get a pass?”
I wanted to appreciate Chloe to come to my defense, but coddling only served to frustrate and annoy me. It made me feel pathetic, though not quite as pathetic as my so-called physique was at the moment. I preferred Cecelia’s bad cop routine; it pushed me to try harder.
I forced myself to stand upright again. “Okay, I’ve got my breather. Let’s go for mile two.” Before I think about how stupid that sounds.
Chloe stepped in front of me. ProtectiveAnger. “No, you dumbass! It’s ninety out, and that’s before the humidity. I’ve been a runner since I was six, and I’d be ready to call it quits if my powers didn’t make me fireproof!” She pressed her hands against my chest, gentle, but with enough of her power that nothing I could do would move her. “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. “How much progress do you lose in the hospital?”
RespectImpressedDesire. Cecelia took the liberty of checking out Chloe’s backside while Chloe chewed me out.
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 knew 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. Maybe I can practice my power by turning it into a 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: rely on Cecelia to save her. I function as the big stupid fighter.
Cecelia kept her eyes on Chloe. ReluctantYield “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 focus and power, 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, then shifted her hips in a way which encouraged the metal to slip a bit deeper than it needed in choice areas. Correction: with any luck, Chloe won’t kill me.
CaptivationShock. “It’s so beautiful.” On the plus side, Chloe seemed fixated on her armor’s patterns. She took flight, then did a three dimensional twirl to examine all the patterns she could create.
“Something I’ve been practicing to improve fine control.” I couldn’t see her armor, only the workout clothes underneath. I knew from experience that what she was witnessing was a series of rainbow reflections not unlike those on the back of a CD. Tests I did with a camera showed it was pretty enough, but that wasn’t the goal I started with.
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 illusion techniques, but in the end pretty colors was the best I could accomplish. In addition, it was far too complicated to make use of in combat. “Takes a lot of concentration to keep going.”
Cecelia seemed to be having fun teasing me, by flexing her legs and thighs beneath the metal. “Fun.” She clenched her buttocks together, and I got a real-time map of every muscle’s movement in my mind. AmusedTeasing. “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. “We know the two of you can’t do real damage to each other, right?”
Chloe glanced over at Cecelia. UncertainConsideration. “Yeah, we share my forcefield, and it doesn’t work against itself.”
“Well, the new armor can track damage for you.” I took a moment to get the metal back to fluid state where I’d lost concentration on thanks to Cecelia’s teasing. “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 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?” 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 anything else. Anything else at all.
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. 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 I could while keeping both their outfits in fluid mode. 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 put her into something like a football stance, while Chloe took a guarded position in 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 upward 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 reflexes and agility 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 intimately wrapped around her, I realized that when she flew, she went up before her feet tried to push off the ground. Her power reacts just a little faster than her reflexive limb movements. 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; it never made sense to me, but 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 power, by instinct or by function, 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 her 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 it was beyond my ability to extrapolate.
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 which enveloped Chloe like a tiny lightning storm.
FearMistake. Chloe tensed, her muscles responding to the oncoming attack, then her power kicked in to fly her out of the cloud.
The storm left scars in Chloe’s armor layer. It could be argue Cecelia cheated with that attack, but that attack would have killed a normal person, or at least did the same kind of damage as being struck by several lightning bolts simultaneously.
It also cost Cecelia more than I’d expected. Her heart raced, and she seemed slower when Chloe dived through the storm cloud to get into range for a counter attack. Not enough that I expected Chloe to catch her, and Cecelia seemed confident that she was safe as well.
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 as my power traced it in full detail.
Meanwhile, Cecelia caught a wave of rocks traveling so fast that it left dents in the armor, penetrating the fragile overlayer into the actual armor plating. Even an assault rifle hadn’t been able to do that kind of damage to my armor, but Chloe did it by kicking rocks.
My sight blinded by the dirt cloud, I tracked Cecelia tumbling across the ground with my metal sense.
She rolled to her feet, then bolted 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 her 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 the armor that was their true target.
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, having expended so much power that her aura was now a dark blue. That’s the flaw in her pure mental power; unlike Cecelia, she doesn’t have a natural feel for her limits. She’ll run 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 dent she put in the ground, 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 at all. I absorbed that fragment back into the pool, and confirmed Chloe herself was uninjured.
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 until I know how hard is too hard. 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, no longer showing the stress of the battle, 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 are almost back to full in under 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.
“Well, then it was too close to call, I guess.” Still a cop out answer, but they seemed willing to give me a pass. “Besides, I think I just figured out a lot of things about how your powers work, and I need to get it all out before I start forgetting things.”