They had a working system. Ophelia worried. Naomi distracted her. On a good night, they punched people.
With a little luck, tonight was going to be a good night. Naomi leaned up against a humming air conditioning unit and listened to the sounds of the city talking around her. Clouds darkened the sky and allowed even fewer stars to gleam through than normal. Naomi had caught a glimpse of herself in the reflection bouncing off of a car's windshield earlier and seen her silver bodysuit darkened into gunmetal, her flaxen hair a softly-glittering floss around her head.
Ophelia crouched as a shadow on the edge of the building where they now perched. Her long dark hair blew forward across her shoulders and temporarily obscured her face from view. Naomi still read tension in the set of her shoulders, the sandy color of her knuckles gripping the ledge.
"Relax, O," Naomi said at last. "A watched pot doesn't catch drug dealers."
"She’s still new at this," Ophelia murmured back without looking around, the lilt of a faded Georgia accent lengthening her vowels by just a touch. She spoke too softly for the words to carry to a normal set of ears. Naomi didn’t possess a normal set of ears. "All kinds of things could go wrong." In the alley below them, a young black woman wearing a jacket two sizes too large for her walked in a pair of knockoff heels. It hurt Naomi’s heart just to look at them. As she watched, the woman wobbled hard and nearly fell before managing to catch herself.
Naomi made a tsking noise from the back of her throat. She knew Ophelia heard her through the earpieces that kept Naomi from blowing Ophelia’s eardrums out when things got rowdy. Ophelia tensed further. Much more of this, and she very well might lunge to the young woman’s rescue before anything even happened. Naomi sat down daintily beside Ophelia and dangled one leg down over the fire escape as her leg began to cramp and felt the breeze trying to move her hair from its carefully sculpted halo. Late November was coming upon them. The weather anchors were talking about temperatures in the low forties, of all things.
Ophelia flicked Naomi a glance. She turned her attention back to the girl in the alley immediately, but not before Naomi caught her mouth curling into a wry smile. "So you’re telling me I’m hovering?" she asked.
"Not in so many words," Naomi answered. "And not in the literal sense, though I'm sure you could. But your baby's got to grow up sometime, O." A dark shape just distinct enough to be a man caught Naomi's eye from one of the adjacent rooftops. "Besides, she's got her daddy watching over her, too."
Ophelia followed Naomi's sightline. The smile returned. "She’s not going to be on the yearbook staff. Give me my moments."
Down in the alley below, the young woman finally began to attract attention. A man easily double her size and age materialized from the back doorway of a pawnshop known for not asking a lot of questions and rumored to sell much more than engagement rings and hot electronics. Ophelia and Naomi had been watching it for a few weeks now, but both their night and day personas were becoming too familiar to get close. The man approached the young woman and asked a question that Naomi didn’t catch even with her superior hearing. The girl took a step backwards and tucked her chin towards her chest, doing an excellent job of looking ashamed. The man spoke again. The girl took her hands from her pockets, whether to show that she had no weapons or no money it was impossible to say. Ophelia caught her breath beside Naomi. Naomi bit at the inside of her mouth to keep from smiling.
"Not a word," Ophelia murmured.
"You're going to make a great mom someday." Naomi kicked her dangling foot slowly back and forth. Down below, the girl said something to the man that made his face turn ugly. He grabbed her hard by her upper arm. She yelped and staggered as one of her heels snapped off. The young woman stomped hard at the man’s instep and punched him in the side of the head with her free hand. She broke free, but still tottered on her remaining heel and fell hard to the cement. The man took a step back, his face turning a shade of dangerous apparent to Naomi even from four stories up. He yanked his foot back to give the girl a good kick to the ribs.
She lunged up from the pavement, caught his foot less than a second before it connected with her side, and twisted sharply. The man yelled and fell to the pavement hard. He flailed for the back of his pants.
"Pay attention," Ophelia muttered under her breath. "He's got two hands, Bonnie, you can only see one--" The man drew a gun from the back of his pants. "Damn it!" Ophelia leapt from the building, conveniently forgetting her lack of a trip line. A faint charge like static electricity made the air move; Ophelia glided like a bird of prey rather than plunging straight down. Naomi dove for the fire escape. She leapt down several rungs at a time, catching herself by the barest of margins with the tips of her fingers. Naomi’s bodysuit clung to her and shifted with the movements of her body as closely as if she had been naked. Naomi landed in a light crouch a split-second before Ophelia did. She straightened just in time to see the girl take three bullets straight to the check and fall over backwards without making a sound.
Naomi opened her mouth and screamed. Sound poured out of her and rippled the air like heat waves coming off a deserted road. The sharp, crystalline noise broke beer bottles in the dumpsters and shattered car windows up and down the street. The man shrieked and threw himself to the ground with his hands clamped over his ears, blood leaking out from between his clenched fingers. What's a pair of busted eardrums between friends? Didn’t those grow back? Naomi made a mental note to ask.
The back door of the pawnshop clanged open, noise swallowed by Naomi’s banshee wail to anyone but herself. Naomi whirled towards it. Ophelia flinched backwards in spite of her earpieces. Two extra men rushed out the door and made it two steps towards their buddy’s aid before deciding that bonds between criminals didn’t run that deep and trying to beat a retreat. Ophelia narrowed her eyes; the door slammed shut without her laying a hand on it. Naomi kept screaming. The sound drove the men back against the steel door. Ophelia sent out another telekinetic burst and clocked their heads together sharply enough to send them sliding to the ground without any sign of getting up soon. Naomi turned off the wail.
"Ooh, lookit that," she said, nudging at the first thug with the toe of her slipper. Naomi brushed against something nasty on the pavement and drew back with a grimace, but not before several packets of white powder came sliding out of the thug's pocket. "I don’t think it’s candy."
Ophelia ignored Naomi to kneel beside the fallen girl and brush her hair back from her face. A deep line divided the skin between Ophelia's eyes. Naomi didn’t need a medical license to know that an ambulance would be futile; the holes in the girl’s chest were large enough to accommodate Naomi’s thumb. That kind of hardware couldn't possibly be legal. Naomi trilled a short note when the thugs at the door started to stir, and they cringed back against the metal. The dead girl choked suddenly and lunged upwards. Ophelia leaned back just in time to avoid knocking heads.
"Hey, Bon," Ophelia said in a voice too mild for Bonnie to realize how taut and worried her expression had been a second before. Bonnie's particular special ability resided in her ability to heal from any wound in a matter of seconds; it didn’t make it any less troubling to watch.
Bonnie gulped a deep breath of air and blurted, “Son of a bitch shot me!” She lunged at the criminal in question; Ophelia put her arm out and held her back easily. Bonnie's sleek bob swung into her face and obscured her flashing eyes, her set expression. Naomi had no doubt that Bonnie was fully capable of making the thug regret his sordid, if short, life of crime the moment Ophelia let go.
Naomi heard sirens winding their way as clear as a bedside alarm going off. "Cops," she said mildly.
Ophelia dropped her arm from around Bonnie’s midsection only to offer her a hand up instead. Bonnie allowed Ophelia to help her to her feet, but immediately pulled off one of her heels and threw it at the shooter. Her aim was true; even semi-conscious, he yelped.
"Bonnie," Ophelia said in a reproving tone.
"What?" Bonnie swatted her hair back from her face and, after a second's thought, put on her most winning smile. "They're discount, I would never throw designer."
“That’s not the point and you know it,” Ophelia said. It was the DNA Bonnie might leave behind. Every day, their secrets came a little closer to the public eye, and allies in high places wouldn’t keep them save forever. Naomi didn’t say that out loud, though. She scooped up the shoe, and the three of them trotted out the other end of the alleyway just as red and blue lights filled the entrance. Paparazzi would follow shortly behind.
Bonnie took off the remaining heel as soon as they rounded the corner and dashed along barefoot without seeming to care about the grime or glass on the sidewalk. Every time she cut her foot, it healed again before she even took her next step. For her part, Ophelia wore heeled black boots that matched her leggings, jacket, and jet black mask, while Naomi dressed her feet in a pair of silver slippers that gleamed like bullets in the dim light. Bonnie watched the both of them and said, "I don't know how you don't turn an ankle." They were far enough away by now to stop without risking being tomorrow's headline. Bonnie sat down on a fire hydrant and worked a piece of green glass as long as Naomi's pinkie out of her heel. Naomi made a faint sound from the back of her throat and looked away.
"What?" Bonnie’s tone indicated exactly “what.” She dug about in the wound for a few more seconds, ostensibly making certain that she had gotten everything but really, Naomi highly suspected, just trying to be gross. Bonnie didn't pull her finger out for the skin to close again until Ophelia also started turning green. "Esmé told me she was going to ban me from the kitchen if I keep leaving unexplained blood stains."
"She didn't mean start doing it on public streets," a male voice said. "You know better." Bonnie straightened immediately. A man dropped down from the awning above a deli and landed without making a sound. He was black and wore his mid-thirties handsomely, complete with a flat stomach and broad shoulders that spent most of their days hiding in suits. He wore shadow tones to match Ophelia and Bonnie, with a mask stretched over his eyes and a light pack that could have held anything from a laptop to a dirty bomb strapped to his back. Between the three of them, Naomi sometimes thought that she, with her body-hugging metallics and intricate web of rhinestones glued about her eyes, was the only one who had any sense of adventure.
"Marcus," Ophelia said to her ex-boyfriend, a warm note entering her voice. He tipped his head to her and then to Naomi with a gentlemanly air. Naomi nodded back and fought down the urge to curtsy.
"You left DNA," Marcus said to Bonnie. He pointed towards a few dark spots on the pavement. Bonnie scuffed her foot against the sidewalk, tucking her chin and losing a touch of her insouciance. "Let me tell you about the time I forgot gloves while breaking into a high rise sometime." Bonnie's chin came back up.
"What are the odds that anyone will trace it back to us?" Naomi said, even though the reproof had been a light one. She felt Bonnie looking at her from beneath her lashes.
"Big enough," Marcus answered. He reached into the back and retrieved a small bottle filled with clear liquid, which he squirted across the bloodstains. They foamed white and were gone within seconds.
"You're moving into chemical engineering now?" Ophelia asked. Marcus's self-made fortune had been built upon his ability to look at almost any machine, from a tractor engine down into a supercomputer that could command military satellites, and intuitively know how to take it apart and then put it back together again newer, better.
"Hydrogen peroxide," Marcus answered. "Esmé got tired of scrubbing at the carpets."
Naomi tilted her head and listened hard. Los Angeles was never going to be a quiet city. Having come from New York herself, Naomi didn't mind in the slightest. "We're good," she said. She gestured towards Bonnie. "She did very well for someone going on their first patrol." Ophelia winced. Bonnie set her jaw.
"It was her third," Ophelia said.
Naomi shrugged. "I can't be expected to stay on top of your custody agreement all the time, can I?” She turned to go. Their car was tucked away in a parking garage nearby that didn't employ security cameras or people who asked questions, and dawn stood only a few hours away. Naomi heard Ophelia say her goodbyes to Marcus and Bonnie and then come jogging after her. Even at a hurry, Ophelia moved so quietly that Naomi would not have heard her if it hadn't been for her advanced hearing.
"What was that about?" Ophelia asked.
Naomi shook her head and felt her hair struggling to swish in defiance of the intricate latticework she had constructed before heading out for the night. "Nothing. She's not my protégé, I don't have to keep up with her training schedule."
Ophelia paused, pulled back. "Are you turning jealous on me, Naomi?" Even with the mask in place, Naomi read Ophelia as clearly as if she were the dictionary. The weight of their shared history pushed down on her in the curve of Ophelia's mouth, her dark eyes framed in black.
Naomi smiled. "Of course not," she said. Ophelia quirked an eyebrow.
Naomi heard a whine that could have been a mosquito. She hurled herself towards Ophelia without thinking. Naomi's tackle sent them both down to the pavement hard, Naomi taking most of the landing on her elbows and barely feeling the prick in her shoulder. She and Ophelia leapt back up to their feet as one person and spun towards the threat. Red taillights lit up as the car that had been sitting quietly and seemingly empty came back to life and hit the street hard enough to make the engine squeal. Naomi opened her mouth and brought up a scream…
And nothing happened. She produced a piteous moue too weak to even rise above the revving engine. A second after that, Naomi realized that the city had stopped breathing around her. By the time the car hit the corner, she could barely hear the squeal of tires.
Ophelia narrowed her eyes. Though the car was fifty yards away and gaining speed fast, it still skidded sideways and slammed against a trashcan, knocking it free from its mooring and sending refuse flying in all directions. The driver fishtailed on the sidewalk before regaining the road--Naomi should have been able to hear the thump of the tires and started breathing faster--and raced out of sight. Ophelia spent several seconds saying every one of the words she chastised Bonnie and J for using.
"Are you okay?" she asked Naomi next. Naomi swayed on her feet without answering. The world turned gray around her, and by the time it cleared again she found herself sitting on the sidewalk. The coolness of the cement radiated up into her backside and made her think thoughts about a thicker costume.
"Naomi? Naomi!" Ophelia had her by the shoulders. Her face cleared when Naomi focused on her, but her grip did not loosen. "What happened?"
"I'm not sure." Naomi fumbled at her shoulder and expected her fingers to come away bloody. No such luck. She pulled a small dart, no bigger than a bee, from her skin and held it up to reflect in the streetlights. Ophelia said the words again and rose from her crouch.
"I can catch up to them."
"No, don't--" Leave me, Naomi almost said. Her head cleared by the second. Cotton still swaddled her ears, though, and her throat--there was something very wrong with her throat, all the worse for not being painful. Naomi might feel better if it had hurt. "We know what this is." Catherine had improved on Evelyn’s research, made an injectable serum that could take someone’s powers away. It wasn’t permanent.
Ophelia still looked dubious. Naomi pushed herself back to her feet and ruined it by tumbling sideways against a car. Ophelia appeared at her side before Naomi even saw her move and slipped an arm about her waist..
"Whoa, O," Naomi murmured. "Didn't think my inner ear was that much of a special snowflake."
"Why would it be any more mundane than the rest of you?" Ophelia answered. She smiled, but not without worry lines deepening the skin about her mouth.
"Bigger problems,” Naomi said. She glanced in the direction of the disappearing car. “Let’s get back to Marcus’s, cut the head off of the snake.”
Ophelia drove her cherry-red BMW down a winding back road noticed by few of the local residents, even though Marcus lived on property that might actually be worth more than diamonds. Maybe he even owned the road itself. Naomi had never asked. She sat in the passenger seat with her elbow braced up against the window and her head resting in her hand. The sun crept over the horizon in long, questing fingers, taking the trees and turning the spaces between their leaves into motes of pure gold. Naomi might be a city girl through and through, but she understood the appeal of living out in the middle of nowhere when the view did that—or at least living close enough to still order good pho without having to look at your neighbors all the time.
As exquisite as the sights were, though, they only served to remind Naomi of what she missed. Birds, the summer insects that would have died out months ago back home, the gold-dusted leaves rustling back and forth in the light morning breeze. It made Naomi want to stick her pinkies into her ears like someone experiencing pressure dissonance on an airplane. A purely hypothetical someone, as Naomi had never actually experienced pressure dissonance on an airplane, even when she had just been raised-by-hippies weird.
“What are you thinking?” Ophelia asked from the driver’s seat. Naomi turned away from the window to find Ophelia studying her hard. Her girl was back in civilian clothes, as was Naomi herself, with her long dark hair falling in waves around her shoulders. Traces of eye-black still clung to the skin around her eyes, but Ophelia’s hasty scrubbing of earlier had turned them soft and smudgy like eyeliner. And the way the dawn light touched her skin…
Yeah, but still. No amount of moisturizer would take care of the line between Ophelia’s eyes if she didn’t watch it. Naomi reached out and rubbed her thumb into the crease until it smoothed. One corner of Ophelia’s mouth twitched up, but she didn’t stop watching Naomi. A good thing she had driven this road enough times to navigate it by muscle memory, then.
“Who, me?” Naomi asked. “Not thinking about a thing other than kicking some ass, O.”
Ophelia pinched at the inside of Naomi’s elbow and finally turned her attention back to the road. Naomi rolled her shoulders and went back to watching the trees. After a few minutes of silence, Ophelia drove her car up to a metal gate almost invisible among the foliage. Though the cameras were if anything even more carefully hidden than the gate, Naomi still felt electronic eyes upon them. The gate glided open without a sound, not even rustling the leaves, and allowed Ophelia admittance to a small gravel road. They followed it until the trees gave way to a large stone mansion better suited to the East Coast old money than sunny California. Ophelia parked her car in front of the house, and they exited in order to walk up to the front door. Before Ophelia had a chance to knock, the door swung open of its own accord to reveal a small, elderly woman with vividly carrot-orange hair. Naomi blinked. So far as she knew, only Marcus monitored the back entrance.
“Esmé ,” Ophelia said politely. “Marcus got my message?”
“He told me you might be stopping by.” Esmé inclined her head with a perfect if perhaps slightly chilly politeness and stepped aside to allow Ophelia and Naomi entrance into the home. Before Naomi and Ophelia had been Naomi-and-Ophelia, there had been Ophelia-and-Marcus. Though most of the tension had bled out of their interactions with the passage of time, Esmé still found ways to make her loyalties known. “The rest of the staff has been given the morning off.”
“Ah.” Marcus kept an ever-revolving retinue of domestic staff, Esmé being the only stable point. More than once, Naomi had asked Marcus how much Esmé actually knew. More than once, Marcus had responded with a blank look and a vague answer that only left Naomi more curious than before.
“He’s waiting for you in the library with Miss Bonnie.” Esmé turned without another word, presumably trusting them to make their way to their destination without damaging themselves or any artifacts of the house along the way.
“She’s coming around,” Naomi told Ophelia confidently.
“At this rate, she’ll be giving me away at my wedding,” Ophelia answered. They continued down a long hallway decorated with an unlikely mixture of expensive art and mementos from Marcus’s youth in New York City until they reached the library, itself filled with an equal combination of first editions that would have set Naomi’s parents to screaming about the decadence of the upper classes within moments and second-hand spy novels held together with tape. Enormous windows took up most of one wall to allow in the same golden dawn light that had so fascinated Naomi on the drive in and illuminated the room’s two occupants. Marcus had changed from his head-to-toe black uniform in exchange for gray slacks and a dark pullover sweater, in spite of Southern California’s defiance of anything that could actually be considered “cold.” Bonnie sat cross-legged on the floor in jeans and a loose blouse, ignoring the couch behind her. She pecked at a handheld tablet amidst a series of growling noises and didn’t look up until Naomi and Ophelia were entirely within the room.
“Hi,” Bonnie said. She smiled brightly and flicked her hair out of her eyes. “Feeling a little under the weather?”
“Bonnie,” Marcus reproved sharply, and Bonnie tucked her chin closer to her chest for a second before raising it at a defiant angle.
“What?” she asked. “It’s going to wear off, there’s no reason to act like someone died, geez.”
“You have a birthday coming up, don’t you, Bonnie?” Naomi asked. She didn’t hear the testy edge in her voice until Bonnie’s eyes widened slightly. Naomi ordinarily tread lightly around Bonnie, mindful of how tightly she had come to cling to Marcus and Ophelia as pseudo-parents. Naomi’s head hurt, though, and she honestly wasn’t in the mood.
After a beat, Bonnie grinned. “Christmas, too,” she answered cheerily. “Don’t worry, J’s already promised to get me coal.” She hopped from the floor to the couch. Naomi took a seat on the opposite end and massaged at her aching temples. Ophelia’s concern radiated through all corners of the room like lamplight, its brightness at the moment hurting Naomi’s eyes.
“Doesn’t matter that it’s going to wear off,” Ophelia said briskly. “Matters that you were shot at all.” She lifted her eyebrows at Marcus. “Come up with anything?”
“Nothing in the past hour, no,” Marcus answered. He showed his teeth. “But I haven’t had my coffee yet. None of the usual suspects are in town, but…” Marcus raised his shoulders into the very faintest of shrugs. On him, it was equivalent to an open declaration of war.
“We don’t have very many usual suspects,” Ophelia said. She raised her boot from the floor and seemed very near to kicking the rug before remembering how expensive it was. “Damn. The one time it would really help if villains stayed as visible as the rest of us. We’re sure that Catherine is really, truly dead?”
“I saw her autopsy on a celebrity death site,” Bonnie burst in cheerily. She kept tapping at her tablet while every head in the room swiveled towards her. As the silence wore on, Bonnie finally raised her head. “Well, I’m not on one now. Marcus has me looking for weirdo crimes.” She wrinkled her nose. “I’m not sure how to tell a weirdo crime from a normal one, though, super-powered people are still probably going to want to steal the same things that normal people steal.”
“For now,” Ophelia murmured under her breath; Naomi’s pulse sped up for a moment, thinking her hearing was returning, until she realized how close Ophelia had drawn to her without her notice. Ophelia gripped at Naomi’s shoulder lightly before moving away again. “The more we up the stakes, the more they’re going to do the same.” Bonnie lifted her eyes from the tablet as Naomi brushed her fingers against the inside of her elbow, scarcely noticing she was doing it. Yes, they all had vivid recollections of what happened when super-powered people decided to combine ambition with utter amorality.
“I’ll keep looking,” Marcus said. “Or rather, Bonnie will keep looking.” Bonnie took on a faintly disgruntled expression, but did not protest. She went back to manipulating the screen of her tablet. Naomi rubbed at her temples again. The sound should have been like a gunshot. Should have been.
“I’ll see if Mindy knows where Jane’s at these days,” Ophelia said. “Maybe she’s kept in contact with some of Evelyn’s people.” She pulled out her phone and began tapping herself, presumably sending a message to Mindy. Her fingertips across the screen made no sound at all. Most people would have called Naomi’s enhanced hearing chaotic, would have been unable to distinguish the important noises from the dross and sent themselves floundering over a cliff as a result, but Naomi had been doing this since she was an adolescent. Not being able to hear, her ears and her throat both feeling as though they were swaddled like an infant, left her as exposed as a nerve. Naomi dug her fingertips a little harder into her temples to soothe the headache building there.
Someone touched her on the forearm. Naomi jumped so hard that she nearly went over the back of the couch, and she caught herself less than a second away from kicking Ophelia directly in the face. Ophelia stared at her with wide, wide eyes, but she didn’t take her hand away from Naomi’s skin. Naomi sank slowly back down to the couch cushions.
“Sorry,” she said. Bonnie watched her with open amazement from her place a few feet away, while Marcus’s face held the kind of deceiving non-tension Naomi had learned meant his brain was really whirring away at speeds most people could never hope to match. “I’m kind of keyed-up.”
“I said your name three times,” Ophelia said. She let go of Naomi’s arm at last with a short nod, as if coming to a decision. “Okay, that’s it, we’re going home.”
“I’m fine—“ Naomi started. She shut her mouth before Ophelia managed to answer that statement with the look it deserved. “I’ll be fine. In a little bit.”
“You can be home for that little bit,” Ophelia said. Naomi had a mind to argue further—the idea of Bonnie and Marcus doing all the work in tracking down whoever had taken Evelyn’s serum while Naomi sat uselessly by actually sent spikes of pain through her head in time to her headache—only to give it up as Ophelia curved her fingers beneath her elbow and tugged her back to her feet.
“We’ll keep looking,” Marcus said. Bonnie made an undignified snorting noise from her end of the couch. “You know, you don’t have to go on solo patrols any time soon if it looks like your research skills are slipping.”
“Blackmail,” Bonnie muttered in a disgusted tone. Her fingers across the tablet still started moving faster. “That’s a dirty tactic and you know it.”
Ophelia favored Marcus with the kind of smile that made Naomi see absolutely why he had fallen for her, because it was the same smile that had knocked Naomi’s legs right out from under her the first time she saw it. They left the house without seeing another soul, even the disapproving specter of Esmé .
“That was a helpful strategy session,” Naomi groused as they pulled back out onto the road and began the drive back to civilization.
Ophelia slid Naomi a glance, startled and if anything even more worried than before. “Sarcasm, Naomi?” she asked. “Not usually your purview.”
“Hmm.” Naomi fumbled about in the car’s glove compartment until she found a spare pair of sunglasses and slid them onto her face. Her headache began to abate slightly, and Naomi relaxed against the seat. “You didn’t have to leave, you know. I could have driven the car home.”
“Yeah, but how would I have gotten home?”
Naomi turned her head and flashed Ophelia her best saucy grin. It must have worked a little, because the line between Ophelia’s eyes became slightly less deep. “You keep working on your telekinesis like it’s the latest fitness fad, won’t be too much longer before you’ll be able to fly.”
Ophelia made a dismissive noise and waved her hand. Naomi still caught her girl glancing at her from the corner of her eye when she thought Naomi wasn’t paying attention; Ophelia might be willing to play along for now, but Naomi clearly didn’t have her convinced. “I’m a good year away from being able to fly,” she said. “Two if you talk me into any more of those silly cleanses.”
“Then Marcus could give you a ride in the jet.”
“Would tear the hell out of the rooftop garden. We’re still getting funny looks over the soundproofing.”
Naomi laughed in spite of herself, putting her hand quickly against the back of her mouth in order to smother the sound. They drove in silence through the hills until trees gave way to richly manicured landscapes with high fences around them and then eventually the boxier shapes of commercial civilization, just starting to wake up from the long night. Ophelia and Naomi lived in an exclusive apartment building on Wilshire, paid for by a monthly check from Ophelia’s share of stock in her late parents' companies. The garage was cool and dark as Ophelia guided her car in, the shadows immediately soothing Naomi’s eyes and easing her headache slightly. The doorman nodded to them as they headed up. Out of long habit, he politely averted his eyes as Naomi’s hand found its way possessively into the back pocket of Ophelia’s jeans. Naomi removed her hand once the two of them entered the elevator to slump against one another, only for Ophelia to put her arm about Naomi’s waist and pull her close.
“Relax, O,” Naomi said, and put her lips against the side of Ophelia’s face. “It’ll wear off. We don’t exactly face a high caliber of villain these days.”
Ophelia made a noncommittal noise from the back of her throat even as she stopped squeezing Naomi quite so tightly. Ophelia worried. Naomi distracted her. Damnit, Naomi really could have done with someone to punch right about then.
The elevator dinged softly and admitted them on their floor, taken up almost entirely by Ophelia’s enormous penthouse. Naomi’s heels tatted against the hardwood floors, and she caught her reflection shot in a dozen different directions across chrome and silver surfaces picked out by one of the finest interior decorating services Los Angeles had to offer. That had been before Naomi and Ophelia had become Naomi-and-Ophelia, in the years when Ophelia and Marcus had still been the perfect couple and Naomi had only been to Ophelia’s place a few times as a guest.
She entered the bedroom only long enough to take off her heels and kick them in the vague direction of the closet before returning to the main body of the loft. Morning light streamed in from the huge windows; though the pink of dawn had long since faded, at this altitude there was still a softly golden cast. Naomi walked up to the window and looked down, concentrating hard. The sounds of traffic barely traveled. She grit her teeth against each other and worked her nails against the glass until they made a squeaking noise. Let Bonnie do the research on whoever had run this merry prank on her—they all had to learn sooner or later—but Naomi intended to take the reins back just as soon as the perpetrator was found. And then kick their ass soundly.
Naomi heard Ophelia moving about in the kitchen, followed by a clanging noise and a soft curse. She followed the noise to find her girl standing in the center of the large and exquisitely modern space that neither one of them used for more than making coffee and boiling water most of the time. Ophelia’s brows were drawn together so tightly that Naomi was half-way tempted to make a crack about spa days for the both of them, stat. Bowls danced in the air in a graceful circle around her, shuffling from one counter to the other. Flour drifted from one of the cabinets and tilted to pour into the largest of the bowls, didn’t quite make it. Ophelia threw out an oath fit to blister paint from the walls as a white mushroom cloud puffed up from the tile.
“We have flour?” Naomi asked. A bowl dipped and then clanked against the countertop as Ophelia’s concentration wavered. Ophelia sent her a vaguely reproachful look. Naomi grinned and ducked mixing bowls in order to reach the coffeemaker, the one appliance in the kitchen that loved her as much as she loved it. A whisk snagged at her hair as she passed under it. Though she was planning on a long, hot shower to wash all of the product from her hair, anyway, Naomi still made a disgruntled noise and batted at it. “Learn something new every day.” She reached the coffeepot, snagged a mug that Ophelia helpfully floated over to her from the air, and poured herself a cup. Naomi took a big swig, not bothering with her usual cream and sugar, and smiled as her ears popped loudly. Already coming back to her old self.
“Eggs, too.” Ophelia demonstrated by opening the refrigerator door. “And milk.” Two cartons came sailing out and only slammed into the counter a little bit before Ophelia drew them under her control again. “I was thinking pancakes.”
Naomi took another sip of coffee to hide her smile. “Thank you,” she said. “But I’ll be all right. Really. Just need to sleep it off.”
Ophelia frowned and poured milk into a bowl with rather more force than was entirely necessary, especially given that she gave up on the telekinesis and just used her hands. “It shouldn’t have happened in the first place,” she groused. “This isn’t a mugging. If we have bigger players coming in, I want to know about it.”
They probably wouldn’t get a chance to know about the Evelyns and Catherines of the world until they made their power moves, Naomi thought but did not say. Nor did she point out that she and Ophelia and Marcus, the public way they had decided to protect their city rather than waiting on 911 calls, probably played a big role in the big players coming out in the first place. It was a dark thought, and Naomi blamed it on the remains of her headache. She went to one of the cabinets in search of aspirin with which to push it away.
“Give me a few hours of sleep and I’ll go hunt them down with you,” Naomi said confidently. Ophelia flashed her a grin. At the same time, she over-tipped one of her metal bowls and sent her half-made batter splattering against the kitchen floor, cream-colored flecks arcing across the tile and making Rorschach patterns against the cabinets. Ophelia said a word that would have scandalized her if it had come from Bonnie or J.
“You have a room to practice telekinesis in,” Naomi pointed out dryly. Filled with all of the ugliest ceramics the two of them could find. Sometimes, Naomi suspected, Ophelia was less practicing her control of her powers in there and more working out her frustrations with their increasingly complicated standing in the world. “And I’ve eaten your cooking, O. It’s why we have takeout menus.”
Ophelia answered with a mock-indignant sniff. “If I can’t manage pancakes without setting the kitchen on fire, then we just need to give up on saving the world now,” she said. “Any fool should be able to handle pancakes.”
Naomi made a soft noise and hid her smile behind her coffee cup as Ophelia went to cleaning up the mess from the floor with her mind. Twenty minutes later, when the kitchen reeked of smoke, Ophelia was swearing with enough volume and creativity to make even J perk up and start taking notes, Naomi escaped into the bedroom with a laugh. She opened the windows and listened to the cooing of birds on the roof, imagining her hearing coming back already.
The alarm clock woke Naomi by trilling loudly on the nightstand, and she knew immediately that something was wrong. The alarm clock made a soft clicking sound before it began blasting in earnest, always had. Furthermore, Naomi rarely even needed to listen for that signal, as attuned as she was to the sounds of birds talking to each other as they settled in to roost on the roof overnight and the blaring of nightlife traffic starting up down below. She heard nothing. When she rubbed at her throat, she felt nothing.
Evelyn’s serum wasn’t wearing off.
Feeling her eyes widen and her breath starting to come faster in her chest, Naomi sat up and swung her legs over the side of the bed. She placed her fingers against her throat, in the hollow where her collarbones met, and pressed down. Naomi opened her mouth and tried for a short, sharp trill to match the alarm clock. A sigh emerged instead. Naomi increased the pressure of her fingers, pushing against her vocal chords until spikes of pain radiated out from her nails, and tried again. Just a little coo. Nothing big, just something to rattle the mirror on the wall and make the dogs in the middle perk up.
She did slightly better on the second try. An ugly croak fell forth from her lips, half-sob. Naomi put her hand over her mouth and hunched down on the bed.
“I can hear that all the way in the living room, how are you not—“ Ophelia entered the doorway and stopped there. Naomi should have heard her coming down the hall by the pad of her feet. She didn’t realize her girl was even there until she spoke. “Naomi, what is it?”
“It’s not wearing off,” Naomi said.
Ophelia’s face and body froze as one, her entire stance changing to become that of a predator. “What do you mean?” she asked.
“I mean exactly what I said,” Naomi answered, and let out a short little laugh as she heard her voice shake. “It’s not—it’s not coming back.”
“It’s been over twelve hours,” Ophelia said. She crossed the bedroom in three long strides, already pulling her cell phone from her pocket. Slim and sleek, it wouldn’t be seen on the market for at least another eight months. A present from Shaw when he was trying to get into their especially good graces; Marcus had spent three days crawling over it with his own toys before he pronounced it secure. Naomi wondered which one of them Ophelia was calling.
“Little problem just became a big one,” Ophelia said grimly, and Naomi received her answer. “It’s been over twelve hours, even if it was a big dose—“ Marcus said something to make Ophelia pause. She cradled the phone against her shoulder and looked at Naomi. “Any improvement? Any at all?” Naomi shook her head. Ophelia said something blistering before going on, half to Marcus and half to Naomi, “We should have paid more attention to Evelyn’s labs instead of just destroying it.” Ophelia paused, an even deeper line drawing itself down between her eyes. “No, I know it’s not my fault, it’s the fault of the fuckstick who shot her, and I want to find them.” She hung up and turned towards Naomi, plastering a bright smile on her face.
Naomi raised her eyebrow. “I was standing three feet away, O, you’re not going to fool me with that. I’ve gone baseline, not completely deaf.”
Ophelia sighed and ran her hands through her hair. “Mindy got in touch with me today,” she said. “Jane doesn’t know anything, she says, but she doesn’t want to come to Los Angeles to say that to my face, either.” Naomi inclined her head slightly to one side. With Jane, that could be an indication of guilt, but Jane was also near-terrified of Ophelia. Naomi doubted she would show her face in Los Angeles even if Ophelia was calling her about a lifetime supply of free mani-pedis.
“We should have learned more about Evelyn’s serums,” Ophelia repeated. She pitched her voice low enough that Naomi strained to hear her.
Ophelia worried, Naomi distracted her. “This is not your fault, O.” And on a good night, they punched things.
Ophelia snapped her head up. “I know that,” she said, but her tone didn’t manage to be nearly as fierce as the one she had used against Marcus. She ran her hands through her hair again. “Okay, back to basics. I’ll go on patrol where you got shot and see if anyone remembers a car like that hanging around. You’ll—“
“Check out everywhere else we’ve been patrolling for the past few weeks,” Naomi said. Ophelia opened her mouth to protest, and Naomi held up her hand. “I can’t be a stay at home wife, O. This ain’t the fifties.”
Ophelia still hesitated, clearly torn between pushing the matter and respecting Naomi’s wishes. “Take some of Marcus’s tech with you, all right?” she finally asked.
Marcus’s tech. He didn’t have abilities like the rest of them and made up for it by being able to construct a nuclear bomb out of a paperclip and a bag of Doritos if the mood struck him. Naomi had known him for way too long to discount his abilities based upon a little old thing like being genetically normal, but it still stung to be relegated to carrying pepper spray. Her feelings on the matter must have shown in her face, because Ophelia reached quickly for her hand.
“I just don’t want you to get hurt,” she said.
“I know,” Naomi said, trying to smile. The skin on her face felt stretched too tight. “I’ll be careful, I swear.” She turned for the bedroom without looking around to see if Ophelia would follow, going on faith where once she would have been able to hear the soft pad of footsteps. Naomi reached the closet and extended her hand automatically towards the silvery bodysuit before drawing back at the last second. It seemed…wrong, somehow, to draw it on while she was broken. She reached for a dark pair of jeans instead, a black pullover sweater. No flash tonight. No glamour. That felt almost as wrong, but Naomi forced herself to pull on the clothing, anyway. Ophelia reached past her into the shared closet for her dark leggings and jacket while Naomi sat down at the vanity and began brushing out her hair. Her skin was a light porcelain shade and her hair only slightly darker, which made her deep brown, nearly black eyes stand out all the more sharply. The overall effect was that of a space alien viewed through the lens of Loubitin, which Naomi never shied away from encouraging.
Tonight, though, she needed to focus on blending in, not standing out. Naomi gathered her hair back into a ponytail, the strands almost slippery in her fingers. She watched through the mirror as Ophelia pulled her dark leggings and jacket from the closet and tossed them onto the bed—couldn’t leave the penthouse wearing them, after all. Her girl pulled on bandage dress made of a gleaming silk, red as a racing heartbeat.
“Hey, there, pretty girl,” Naomi cooed through the reflection. “I was thinking we could hit up Rio after patrolling.”
Ophelia paused in the middle of pulling on her heels. The worry line that had not left her for hours deepened visibly. “With you on the fri—“ She caught herself. “With you not one hundred percent?”
“Sure.” Naomi scrutinized her face in the mirror for a moment, decided that the dark sweater and plain hair was sad enough as it was, and reached for her pot of eyeliner. Tugging her lower lid down to make sure the line went on smoothly made for a good excuse not to meet Ophelia’s gaze. Naomi twisted her wrist as she reached the edge of her eye, flicking the liner up slightly to give herself a cat-like point. She grinned briefly at her reflection before beginning on the other eye. “Got to keep up appearances, O.”
“Mmm.” Ophelia reached past Naomi for her lipstick and painted on a bleeding red pout. Naomi glanced at her from the side of her eye and caught Ophelia staring at her with that ever-present line. She was going to make her lipstick feather if she kept pursing up her mouth like that. Naomi sighed and handed her the lip liner. Ophelia rolled her eyes and bumped against Naomi’s shoulder with her elbow.
Twenty minutes later, the two of them strolled out of the penthouse together, nodding once to the elevator attendant as he eyed Naomi up and down—she usually dressed more like a hybrid of space alien and Christmas tree than a beatnik. “I’ve been reading On the Road,” Naomi said. Ophelia tightened her arm about Naomi’s waist and made an undignified sound from the back of her throat as she struggled to hold in her laugh. They made it to the car without drawing further attention to themselves and took backstreets to a storage facility that took cash and had notoriously faulty security cameras. Ophelia changed quickly from her dress and heels into her body-hugging black leggings and leather jacket before pulling her hair back into a ponytail and sliding a slim dark mask over her face. Within five minutes, the woman of twenty minutes before had vanished into a starkly beautiful shadow, not seen unless she wanted to be seen. Naomi used what little light came through the partially-open storage door to pick out the red of Ophelia’s lips.
“I think you should take the car tonight,” Ophelia said. Though her mask hid much of her face and the shadows took the rest, Naomi read the worry in her voice as clearly as if Ophelia had written it in neon. In spite of herself, a twinge of irritation rolled through Naomi’s body.
“A BMW in some of the neighborhoods we patrol?” she asked. “Might as well put sparklers in my hair.”
Ophelia tilted her head to one side. “Naomi, I’ve had to stop you from putting sparklers in your hair before.”
Naomi stepped forward, wrapped her arms around Ophelia’s waist, and kissed her lightly on the mouth. “They weren’t lit.” She slipped from the storage unit before Ophelia could reply.
Los Angeles was a huge, sprawling city, but Naomi was well-versed in traveling it, and Ophelia kept her storage unit near their usual routes for a reason. Even on foot, Naomi traversed the distance quickly, sticking to shadows and deserted side streets out of habit. Her muscles, well-used to scaling buildings and fences, were barely even warmed up by the time she reached a neighborhood she and Ophelia typically picked muggers out of.
At least something’s still working right, Naomi caught herself thinking sourly. She reached up to rub at her throat, only to jerk her hand away as she realized what she was doing. Ophelia worried, and Naomi distracted her. Naomi could have used with a distraction or two herself right about then. You’re the one who insisted on going alone.
Yes. She had. Naomi squared her shoulders and left the shadows, jogging quickly across the street to an all-night convenience store. The kid working the counter jerked his head up quickly at the sight of her, a good reflex to have in this particular neighborhood—she and Ophelia tended to break up a lot of muggings over even less money than a graveyard shift till would call its own. The kid continued to blink at Naomi even after his initial surprise wore off; even in dark, nondescript clothing, it was fairly obvious that Naomi’s wardrobe cost more than what most of the residents of this part of town could boast. His gaze skittered over her face next, and Naomi’s heart beat just a shade or two faster for a moment, but no gleam of recognition crossed his features. Of course not. Heavy eyeliner or not, Naomi was still wearing far less makeup than her usual, and people tended to look at Ophelia far more than they did her, anyway. By design.
“Hi!” Naomi said, putting on her chirpiest voice and leaning across the counter. “Could you do me a big favor?” The kid’s eyes widened slightly. Naomi took slightly different stock of her wardrobe. It wasn't that much eyeliner. “Um, I broke up with my boyfriend recently, and I kind of think he’s been following me. You haven’t seen anyone weird hanging around, have you?”
“What do you mean by ‘weird’?” the kid asked. He cast Naomi another up-and-down glance. She flicked a few strands of hair back over her shoulder and lifted her eyebrow.
“He drives a big black car,” Naomi said. “And was probably hanging out in parking lots way longer than he should have been?” The kid continued to stare at her. Naomi decided that this was all so much easier when she could just jump down dramatically from fire escapes and demand information, except that it was far more socially acceptable to make low-level criminals pee themselves than barely-legal kids with the bad luck to be working graveyard at dead-end jobs.
“Haven’t seen anyone like that,” the kid said. He tilted his head to one side and took a small step back from the counter. Great, not even in costume and she was freaking people out. Naomi did her best to smile in a winning way as she noticed a battered ATM that looked as if several people had tried to half-heartedly break into it sitting opposite the entrance. It might get a good view of the parking lot and street if someone managed to do a little tweaking. Naomi craned her neck as subtly as she was able to see if the same could be said for the security camera angled to watch the door. For the first time in nearly twenty-four hours, a genuine smile crept across her face.
“Thanks, anyway,” Naomi said. She turned to go.
“You look really familiar, though,” the kid said, and Naomi paused just inside the threshold. She turned her head just slightly and watched as the moment of almost-comprehension passed. “Did we got to high school together or something?”
Naomi managed a smile, brighter and far faker than the one she had shown seconds before. “I don’t think so,” she said. “But thanks for the compliment. I moisturize.” She left the convenience store and jogged quickly across the parking lot, turning her face away from the cameras on old instinct even though out of the silver she was nothing more than someone taking a stroll they maybe should have thought out a little better. She could have slapped herself in the forehead for not thinking about the cameras sooner. She would have to dig, and maybe even ask a favor or two of Marcus, but the gas stations riddling the street corners had to have cameras in their parking lots. Digital age, nothing went by unrecorded even if it did manage to go unremarked.
As Naomi slipped into an alleyway to start plotting out the camera locations, a shadow dropped almost directly beside her. Naomi reacted on instinct, opening her mouth and letting out a short shriek that echoed about the enclosed space and came far closer to a B-movie heroine’s dying wail than anything worthy of busting out an eardrum. Naomi rushed her presumed attacker as the pathetic sound faded away. She ducked a wild, startled swing and slammed the person against the brick wall with Naomi’s own forearm pressed firmly against their throat. The person’s head smacked up against the side of the building with a nasty sound, and they let out a flurry of curses Naomi had heard more than once from a certain hard-drinking, platinum-haired bad influence. Or for that matter, from a certain dark-haired, rarely-drinking good influence.
“Bonnie?” Naomi asked, stepping back and flexing her fingers as the tingle of adrenaline faded from her body.
The girl stepped away from the brick and probed gingerly at the back of her head. Her fingers came away red with blood; a dark stain marked the place where her head had collided. Naomi automatically began scrubbing at it with the sleeve of her shirt.
“Um, ow,” Bonnie said. She ran her fingers through her hair until it was arranged over the worst of the mess. “I think you broke my skull. You could have given me brain damage.” Marcus’s first meeting with Bonnie involved fishing her body from the Pacific Ocean without having any idea how long she had been floating there. Naomi waited in silence until Bonnie rolled her eyes and said, “It counts even if it doesn’t stick. What’s wrong with you, anyway, do you put the neighborhood potheads in Intensive Care, too?”
Naomi shifted her shoulders, feeling guilty. “Sorry.” Bonnie looked surprised by the apology, which made Naomi regret slightly having made it in the first place. She had never been anything but kind to Bonnie; Bonnie’s issues with Naomi essentially being the stepmother in the dynamic between Ophelia, Marcus, and herself were Bonnie’s own business. “Which one of them sent you to check up on me?”
“Hey, I can’t be worried by myself?” Naomi answered that with another look until Bonnie sighed again. “Jesus, taking your microphone away makes you crabby. You’ve been practicing that look from Ophelia, too, don’t lie. Marcus thought you might need a little extra oomf tonight.”
“Kind of him,” Naomi said. Bonnie crinkled her nose at her. Naomi gestured to the cameras around them. “How much has Marcus taught you about hacking?”
Bonnie shrugged. “Bits and pieces. He gets mad when my eyes glaze over.”
“Think you could get into those? If someone targeted me specifically, there’s a good chance they know where Ophelia and I hunt.” Naomi waited a beat while Bonnie tilted her head to one side and gave the cameras the long-suffering look of someone facing more boredom than their soul could possibly be expected to deal with.
“Oh,” Bonnie said finally. “You know, I think I forgot everything Marcus tried to teach me. Yep. Falling right out of my head. We still use VCRs, right?”
“You need to know these things, Bonnie.” Naomi let more of the stress from the past day enter her voice than she intended, and Bonnie jerked back immediately.
“Don’t make me tell you you’re not my real mom,” she snapped, leveling her finger at Naomi. “And you’re not getting rid of me that easily. Marcus all but made me swear in blood to keep an eye on you tonight.” Bonnie bounced onto the balls of her feet for a moment. “I offered to swear in actual blood, but he didn’t see the humor.”
Naomi lifted her eyebrow and repeated an opinion off-expressed by Ophelia. “You spend too much time hanging around J.”
Bonnie bounced again. “She’s not a bad influence on me, I’m a good one on her.” She pulled a small device from her pocket, easily mistaken for a smart phone in the hands of another teenager with overdeveloped thumb muscles, and began tapping rapidly. “Wi-fi’s awesome, by the way, most people don’t even realize how vulnerable they’re leaving themselves. This’ll be in Marcus’s servers inside of five minutes.” Bonnie didn’t seem to remember that she had been complaining about being assigned boring tech work less than five minutes before, until she raised her head abruptly and flashed Naomi a smile just a little too sharp to be real. “And don’t be getting too snotty with me about learning the boring stuff, either, I don’t see you carrying around any of Marcus’s toys.”
Naomi allowed herself a thin smile. “It would mess up the lines of the bodysuit,” she answered.
“You need to think about investing in a utility belt. Or hiding it in your hair.” Bonnie continued tapping away, making contented humming sounds to herself. Naomi wondered if Bonnie’s boisterous mood had more to do with being turned loose largely unsupervised for one of the first times, or with Naomi being knocked off-balance. Most likely a little of both.
The crack of a gunshot made Naomi jump in spite of her neutralized hearing; her body spun towards the sound automatically. To her side, Bonnie did the same as smoothly as a predator noticing prey. Neither of them spared so much as a glance for the other before they started running. Naomi had enough experience in heels playing her role with Ophelia to eat up the cracked sidewalk in long strides, even outpacing Bonnie’s gazelle-like legs. Her ponytail streamed out behind her, her heart beat faster in her chest, and she felt her mind sliding into the cool readiness that always came before a good fight in get-ups that most people would tactfully suggest required the wearer take a good dose of Thorazine and a few seasons of Project Runway.
Naomi skidded around a corner, already counting down the seconds in her head until the police arrived. If nearby residents called for help right away, if they didn’t get put on hold, if the nearest officer didn’t check the address on his in-car computer and immediately request additional aid. Running through the variables, she had plenty of time to handle the situation and vanish again even without her rhinestones, provided nothing weird happened. Jerking onto open sidewalk, Naomi paused just long enough to take stock of the situation and triangulate the sound as well as she was able in her current state. No cars or victims on the street, meaning the gunshot had to have taken place in one of the businesses or apartment buildings ringing the area. Naomi focused on windows with lights shining in them and found her attention immediately zeroing in to a convenience store with bars across the windows and fresh paint across its façade suggesting that graffiti and the store’s owner were not strangers. Naomi caught sight of two figures inside; one huddled behind the bulletproof glass barrier separating clerks from customers while the other stood in front with his shoulders squared up around his ears and the stance of someone unmistakably looking for a fight. Naomi kicked her heels off at the door and plunged ahead. He’s not holding his arm out, her mind supplied to her from the distant, back part trained by Evelyn years before to hone in on every detail for the ones that could bite her in her toned rear later. Strange to threaten someone with a gunshot and then lower the weapon immediately afterwards.
Naomi made it two steps into the door before the supposed gunman noticed her and then one step beyond that before she noticed the woman on the floor. Dark hair spilled loose from a clip to cover most of her face, and her hands clasped across her eyes obscured the rest. The curve of her spine, body hunching in on itself to make a protective bow, made Naomi’s stride stutter. She jerked her gaze back up to the supposed gunman just in time to see his eyes start glowing supernova white.
“Bonnie, get down!” Naomi yelled over her shoulder. She turned her forward momentum into a vault over the nearest shelf. Her ankle caught the edge of the metal. Pain shot up her leg to her knee and the shelf teetered, sending canned goods and individually wrapped medications showering down around Naomi’s head and shoulders as she landed on the other side. Naomi caught herself on hands and knees and closed her eyes tightly. A brilliant, searing light that Naomi sensed even through her shut lids flared around the store, followed less than a second later by the same tremendous cracking noise Naomi had mistaken for a gunshot moments before. Protected as she was by the shelf, Naomi’s skin still tingled all over as if in the wake of too much time spent under a tanning bed. Bonnie shrieked from the doorway.
Naomi opened her eyes again and swayed from side to side as her vision still filled with spots. She felt around her until she located one of the fallen cans and stood. Her eyes watered fiercely and turned the figure in front of her into a blur. Naomi hesitated.
The figure called her a name nice boys didn’t use to refer to women. Naomi’s hearing was still good enough to triangulate on that. She jerked her arm back and whipped the can as hard as she could. A satisfying bonk sound followed, a spray of curses coming fast on its heels. Naomi scooped up two more impromptu weapons, one for each hand, and darted around the edge of the aisle. She kept her body low and followed the path of invective as a guide to hurl another can just as the white glow began to fill the store again. Oh, good. Now she could aim by sight as well as sound. Naomi pegged the would-be robber directly between the eyes; his nose made a sound like pretzels snapping as it gave in under the metal. The curses took on a distinctly desperate and wet sound. Naomi hefted her final weapon in hand and felt her bare feet sliding in something as she raced across the floor. Must have broken something on the shelf during her jump. The clerk would just have to comp her the cost of a busted bottle of olive oil as gratitude for still having eyes in his face. Naomi reached the thug as he struggled to get back to his feet, planted one of her own directly in the center of his chest, and raised her final weapon over her head.
“Sweetheart, I wouldn’t,” she said.
“She’s got a really good point,” a voice from the doorway said. Naomi cocked her head in its direction without lowering the can. “I mean, look at her. Those are not the eyes of a sane person.”
“My eyeliner’s running,” Naomi replied calmly. “You can’t blame a girl for that.”
“You draw on your face deliberately,” J said, just barely low enough to avoid being heard by either the punk or the woman on the floor. Naomi shot her an alarmed look, and J had the grace to look at least a little chagrined as she raised one shoulder into a shrug. She had never bothered with hiding her face, either before or after picking up a high-profile probation and some very impressive friends. In a louder voice, J went on, “Surrender’s the better part of getting your ass kicked here, buddy, trust me.” Minute jets of fire shot up from the thumb of one hand and rippled across her fingers like stadium spectators doing the wave. J’s grin turned absolutely wolfish.
The punk spit derisively at Naomi’s foot; the white light started to fill up his eyes again. J whistled sharply from the doorway; the punk took his attention off of Naomi just in time to catch a dart directly in the center of his chest. He slumped, the light flickering out from his eyes as slowly as a computer powering down. Naomi took her foot away and watched him carefully.
“Marcus?” she whispered from the side of her mouth. He asked them to test his toys, sometimes. He preferred to keep away from pharmaceuticals, though. Figuring for metabolism could be tricky on the fly, and none of them aimed to be killers unless absolutely no other option presented itself.
“Nope.” J said a world within that single word. She tucked a gun barely larger than a lipstick back up her sleeve. J wore a white pantsuit that just almost looked suitable for street wear, provided one ignored the fact that her jacket didn’t button until practically her navel and she tended more often than not to decide that blouses were for other people. Her short, white-blonde hair stuck up in spikes all over her head without the need of styling products, and she had large blue eyes to balance out a jaw just this shy of being too square. Possibly because she jutted it so much. It certainly held a dangerous clench now as she stared down the unconscious punk for a moment or two longer before going to Bonnie where she had collapsed just inside the door. Naomi knelt beside the woman on the floor.
“Ma’am?” she asked softly. The woman shifted, but made no sound and kept her hands pressed to her face. Probably going into shock, Naomi realized. She replayed the way her entire body had prickled even from the smallest backlash of whatever the hell kind of radiation the punk had been able to throw out and shivered. Naomi put her hands against the woman’s wrists and pulled down gently. “Help is on the way.” She glanced questioningly over her shoulder as she said it. J nodded once and helped Bonnie into a sitting position. Bonnie’s hair flopped forward and covered her eyes, but she began to squirm and slap at J’s hands almost immediately.
“I’m fine,” Bonnie snapped. “I’m…oh, crap, I think my eyes are growing back. Oh, ew.”
Naomi winced and succeeded in tugging the unresponsive woman’s hands down from her face at last. The damage wasn’t as bad as Bonnie’s; the woman must have caught an indirect hit rather than the full blast Bonnie got knocked with. Sharp red blisters still rose up on the skin around her eyes and nose in a macabre and bloody imitation of the rhinestones Naomi used as an impromptu mask when she was officially on duty. The woman’s eyelashes were gone, her lids so raw-looking that Naomi wasn’t certain she would have been able to open her eyes if she didn’t appear to be going into shock. She threw an aghast look over her shoulder at J. J’s face didn’t hold much more color than her suit.
“MLP will be sending medical help, too,” she said.
“MLP?” Naomi asked, though she had who the first responders would be from the moment J pulled out her little gun.
J nodded, jutted her jaw harder, and stood over the punk as if she wouldn’t mind giving him a kick or two with her heavy white boots. “Can’t send someone like that to a regular prison.”
“Right.” Naomi saw the necessity of it even as she couldn’t stop herself from touching the rose-shaped scar centered in the inside of her left elbow all the same. She eased the woman back down to the floor and peeked as far over the edge of the service counter as the bulletproof glass allowed. “You okay in there?” No response.
“I don’t smell urine,” J offered helpfully. She extended her hand down to Bonnie. “How you doing, Bluebonnet?”
“I’m never eating eggs again,” Bonnie answered. She took J’s offered hand and got back to her feet, swaying a little. Naomi watched the last of several blisters suck themselves back into Bonnie’s skin like acne running in reverse. “Pizza might be a bad plan, too.”
Naomi knelt back beside the woman on the floor just as two black SUVs pulled up in front of the store. The two men and one woman who walked through the door could not have look more like government officials if they tried, making a small corner of Naomi’s mind not focused on the situation at hand weep for the future of taste. Granted, Ophelia often liked to remind her that Naomi had been fond of wearing little else than Christmas tinsel upon their first meeting, but it had still been well-fitting tinsel. Those suits just hurt Naomi’s heart.
“It’s all right, ma’am, we’re here to help,” the female official said, kneeling down beside the civilian on the floor. Her voice remained steady and kind even as her face paled upon seeing the damage to the other woman’s eyes, which endeared her to Naomi immediately. The two men, meanwhile, cuffed the punk and had him half-standing before Naomi had room to do much more than blink. They pulled him towards one of the vehicles. He began to come around at the door, his head lolling back and forth on his neck. “Blindfold,” one of the male agents said sharply. The other darted for the vehicle with such speed that his partner nearly dropped the punk entirely. Bonnie shifted her weight from one foot to the other and opened her mouth to speak until J laid her hand against her arm. Bonnie’s expression remained restless as ambulance sirens wailed down the street.
“Naomi,” she said. Naomi waited for Bonnie to protest the actions taking place inside the store, but she only pointed at Naomi’s leg instead. Naomi looked down to see the calf of her jeans painted dark with blood. She must have cracked it against the edge of the aisle shelving as she leapt over and not noticed. Turned out it wasn’t spilled olive oil she had slipped in rounding the corner, either.
“We’ll be able to provide you medical attention and handle this mess,” the female agent said. She still knelt beside the fallen customer as she began to regain consciousness, keeping track of her pulse and making shushing sounds. Ambulance sirens wailed more closely by. “Discreetly,” the agent added as if she read Naomi’s mind. Naomi nodded once, but couldn’t stop herself from glancing at the bloody trail around the corner as she limped out the door with J and Bonnie following close behind.
“Don’t worry,” J murmured to Naomi as Naomi took a ginger seat on the bumper of one of the SUVs. The other was already gone, and its cargo with it. “I’ll make sure they don’t get handsy with the blood samples.” She winked. “And I’ll make sure the video footage from the store takes a mysterious turn for the worse.”
“Marcus is already doing that,” Bonnie replied. She tapped a few more squares on her phone and slid it into her pocket as J produced a first aid kit from the SUV. Naomi waved her off and rolled up the leg of her jeans to see the damage for herself. Didn’t look as though she needed stitches. Naomi cleaned and wrapped the wound quickly.
“Responsibility suits you,” she said, lifting an eyebrow.
J shrugged. Her jacket just barely managed to stay in place across everything needing to be covered. Naomi was impressed in spite of herself. “Beats a jail cell,” she said. “And, hey, expense account? Does not suck.”
“Where are your friends taking that guy?” Bonnie asked. A slight edge had entered her voice. J looked at her.
“Relax, Bonsuela, I’m not drinking the Kool-Aid just yet,” she said. “He’s just going to cool his heels in a very special cell of his own where he can’t fry his guards’ eyes out until a jury of his peers figures out what to do with him.” J paused. “I can’t believe I’m supporting law and order.”
Bonnie’s expression remained uncertain. Naomi reached out and touched her lightly on the forearm. Bonnie startled and leaned away, her face if anything growing more troubled. Naomi had a feeling it had more to do with Bonnie’s memories of Evelyn than her tension towards Naomi herself and decided to leave it alone.
The ambulance came screaming around the corner, finally. Bonnie and Naomi slipped around the side of the SUV and away from the streetlights with ease. J, in her brilliantly white suit, tended to stand out a little more. She went to greet the EMTs with her hands on her hips as they rushed past her and into the convenience store.
“That’s never going to not be weird,” Bonnie said. Naomi hummed from the back of her throat. “Do you think she means it, about that guy just going to a jail cell?”
“I think J is constitutionally incapable of lying, B,” Naomi answered.
Bonnie made an irritable swatting motion with her hand, as if shooing away an insect. “Don’t call me nicknames, only J gets to call me nicknames, and only because I haven’t figured out how to make her stop. And we’re all liars, or else you and Ophelia and Marcus wouldn’t use masks every night.”
“That’s an awfully cynical way of looking at it.”
Bonnie shrugged a little and wrapped her arms around herself even though she wore a jacket and the night was not cold. “I’ve seen what happens when people like us get locked away,” she said. “It makes you cynical.”
“This isn’t the same thing,” Naomi argued.
Bonnie snorted. “Everyone says that right before they do something awful,” she said. The EMTs came out of the convenience store with the wounded woman loaded onto a stretcher, an oxygen mask already affixed over her nose and mouth. An IV ran from her arm. Naomi felt her face turn hard.
“That woman’s going to be scarred for life,” she told Bonnie. Bonnie glanced in the direction of the stretcher, flinched, and became very interested in the nearest neon sign. “We’re dangerous, sometimes.”
Bonnie stopped studying the sign and set her mouth in a line that made her suddenly five years older. “Yes, we are,” she said. “You know what makes us more dangerous? Being locked in cages.”
Naomi huffed, very aware that Bonnie’s reaction to her words would be vastly different if Ophelia had been the one to say them and equally aware that to point that out at this juncture would not be a wise idea. J ambled up to them as the ambulance pulled away; her shoulders were tight despite her loose and easy gait.
“Don’t feel too sorry for him, Bon,” she said, reading Bonnie’s face. “You didn’t have to look at what he did to you.”
“I still felt it,” Bonnie said stubbornly. She picked at the sleeve of her jacket and studied her possibly-illegal phone by lieu of answering further.
“Thanks for the save,” Naomi told J.
J shrugged and very nearly did something indecent with her jacket. Naomi thought about the spare set of clothing she had stowed in Ophelia’s car, though the gash to her calf probably ruled dancing out of the question. “I was in the area,” she said. “Marcus has Bonnie lo-jacked.” Bonnie let out a scandalized noise and held up her phone as if contemplating smashing it against the sidewalk. “I’m kidding. Starshine from back there has been getting increasingly naughty for a couple of weeks now. Shaw asked me to look in on it.”
There could have been more people burned like the woman. Naomi pushed her weight from one foot to the other for reasons other than her throbbing leg. “Why didn’t Ophelia and I know about this?” she asked. “And why didn’t Shaw call us in rather than you?”
J shrugged again and idly plucked at her jacket while Bonnie stared as if already putting together a whole new wardrobe in her mind. “You and Ophelia kind of live in your own bubble,” she said. “And Ophelia is…Ophelia about the whole MLP thing.” Meaning that Ophelia barely tolerated them and only worked with them on a handful of grudging occasions in order to keep an eye on them. They still should have noticed Starshine making his rounds. Naomi frowned.
“You’re smudging your lipstick,” Bonnie pointed out.
“It’s performance art,” Naomi said. “Everything is performance art if you try hard enough.”
“I’ve got to get back, check in,” J said, jerking with her head to indicate the remaining SUV. “Being law-abiding really sucks sometimes. But I just wanted to let you know, I don’t think Shaw called me back to Los Angeles just to mop up one little robber, even if he was getting violent.”
“Sure,” Naomi said distantly. “Thanks for the heads-up. I’ll pass it on.”
J leaned in closer to Naomi. “Are you all right?” she asked. “I’ve seen you fight plenty of times. Never seen you try to brain someone with a soup can before.”
Naomi hesitated. “Little under the weather,” she said.
“She got shot with some of Evelyn’s draino-juice,” Bonnie supplied, though she at least managed to sound concerned about it.
A line drew itself between J’s eyes. “Why the hell are you out here rather than waiting for it to wear off?” she demanded.
“That’s part of the problem.” Naomi shifted her weight again and winced when her bad leg scolded her. “Do me a favor? Next time you talk to Shaw, ask him if he’s heard about any activity on Evelyn’s old channels. He might have more luck than Ophelia or I would.” Bonnie looked horrified, J merely surprised.
“Sure thing.” J rolled her eyes and gestured over her shoulder at the convenience store. “I got to go pick up some more trash along the roadside. I’ll let you know if I find anything out.” She turned away. Naomi tested her leg and decided that it hurt enough to justify calling a cab once she had gotten a safe distance away and cleaned up her eye makeup a little, not enough to justify cancelling her appearance with Ophelia. She took several steps before Bonnie collected her wits enough to follow, and then the girl grabbed for her shoulder so hard Naomi nearly did a pirouette.
“Are you crazy?” Bonnie whisper-hissed at her. “Shaw? You’re going to go to Shaw?”
“I’m not going to him for anything,” Naomi said firmly. “If MLP has resources that Ophelia and I don’t, it only makes sense to use them.” She trusted J in her promise to keep inquisitive swabs away from her blood, by virtue of burning down the convenience store and then plastering on her best innocent expression if necessary.
“You do know that they just put someone in a cage, right? Like Evelyn did.”
“Not even remotely, kiddo,” Naomi answered. Bonnie’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “Not for the same reasons, not the same people. Don’t forget that Evelyn was afraid of them, either.”
“Just because Evelyn was evil didn’t mean she was stupid,” Bonnie said. “Jesus, I thought you were some kind of hippie or something.”
“Bite your tongue, I bathe.” Naomi paused and used the window reflection in a closed shop to swipe at the skin beneath her eyes. Not too awful; she looked unlike herself enough to fool a cab driver, anyway.
Bonnie clucked her tongue. “Oh, Ophelia is going to yell,” she said, sounding just satisfied enough to make Naomi wonder why people were so determined to have children.