Snek is a Good Boy


Part Twenty-Four: Disarming the Bomb


[A/N: This chapter commissioned by Fizzfaldt and beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]


Panacea


"Um, I'll just go and get us the food—" began Vicky, the utter coward.

"No, you will not." Aunt Sarah was usually easy-going, but her tone was ironclad this time. "I will bring your parents up here. You will stay here with Amy to face the music."

"Yes, ma'am," muttered Vicky, her shoulders slumping a little.

Aunt Sarah nodded. "Eric, Crystal, get enough burgers and curly fries for everyone. And make sure you get extra bacon for, uh, Twilight."

"Yes, mom," Eric and Crystal chorused at almost the same time, looking somewhat brighter. For all that they weren't the ones in trouble, they still didn't want to be there when Hurricane Carol struck the shoreline and commenced the carnage.

"Here," said Uncle Neil, pulling out money. "Extra fries for me. Don't be too long. We're going to want to take this somewhere more private before she starts getting loud."

"Got it." Crystal grabbed the cash and lofted up over the edge of the building, with Eric following close behind. At the same time, Aunt Sarah flew down to where Carol and Mark were waiting in the parking lot. Mark looked like he wasn't quite sure what was going on, but Carol had her arms folded and one toe was tapping on the asphalt.

This is gonna suck.


Glory Girl


Vicky took a deep breath as she watched her aunt form a field around her parents. Okay, just don't say anything stupid and let Aunt Sarah do most of the talking. Nobody had been hurt, and Ames had gotten a cute dragon out of it, and Aunt Sarah and Uncle Neil were interested in going to visit Snek's realm, so her mother wouldn't go off too badly … would she?

Behind her, she heard Twilight let out a chirp, apparently trying to reassure Amy. She sounded confident, anyway. More confident than Vicky was, right then.

The field drifted upward again, then opened to let Carol and Mark onto the roof. Carol went straight to Vicky and hugged her fiercely. "Thank God you're alive," she whispered, then put her hands on Vicky's shoulders and pushed her back out again. "You are in big trouble."

When Mark cut in to have his turn at hugging Vicky, Carol looked around with some confusion. "Where's your sister?" she asked.

"She's right—" Wrapped up in her father's hug, Vicky looked around at the shaded spot where Amy had been standing a few seconds ago. "—uh, here?"

"She was here a second ago," Uncle Neil confirmed, sounding puzzled. Turning, he looked behind himself. Despite his bulk being sufficient to conceal Amy about three times over, she wasn't there. "What the hell?"

"Wow, you really can't see me, huh?"

Vicky started violently as Amy's voice emerged from nowhere, then Amy faded into view. Twilight was still in her arms, looking very pleased with herself. It was like one of those find-the-Stranger photos, where everything looked like background detail until one tiny clue pulled the camouflaged person into the foreground.

"How did you do that?" Vicky demanded. "Did you just go invisible or something?"

"Something like—" began Amy, but was cut off by Carol.

"Explain yourself, young lady. I already told you, no dragons!" Drawing herself up, she glared at Twilight. "And what was that, just now?"

"Mom," Vicky said flatly. "Stop. There's a lot you don't know."

"Don't tell me to—"

"Carol." Aunt Sarah's tone sliced through the air like one of her lasers. "Stop. Seriously. There really is a lot you don't know, and if you keep talking like that, you're going to drive Amy away without ever knowing why."

That, at least, seemed to get through to her. Carol glared at Amy and Vicky, but she didn't speak for the next few moments. Finally, she nodded. "I'm listening."

It was better, Vicky decided, if she did most of the talking now that her mother was focusing on the two of them. "Mom, this whole thing was totally my idea. Amy didn't even want to come along until I talked her into it. So if you're going to yell at anyone, yell at me."

"So noted." Carol's nostrils flared. "That still doesn't explain why you went against my express wishes not once, but twice. I told you not to go anywhere with Snek, and I said 'no dragons'."

"No, you didn't."

Vicky looked around in surprise at Amy's voice.

"I'm sorry, but you really didn't say anything about not getting dragons." Amy looked as taken aback at her own verbal defiance as Vicky was, but she stood her ground. "And you're not taking Twilight away from me."

"Wait, wait, time out. Time out." Sarah cut into the conversation, literally throwing up a force-field wall between Amy and Carol. "Before we go any further, I do want to know how Amy just managed that. Amy, what happened? What did you do?"

Amy spent a few seconds just breathing, holding Twilight close to her while the little dragon crooned softly and ran her scaled head over the side of Amy's jaw. And from what Vicky could see, it was working; Amy was acting more confident and more self-assured than she had been for a long time. Finally, she took a deep breath and squared her shoulders.

"Twilight's bonded with me, you know this. Well, all hearth-dragons have little tricks they can do, and when they're bonded to someone, they can share that trick with them. I was scared just now, and I wanted to disappear. Twilight let me know I could if I really wanted to … so I did." She shrugged and stroked the miniature dragon almost reflexively. "I don't know how it works, just that it does. Magic's like that, I guess."

"Magic—" scoffed Carol derisively, but she shut up when Vicky shook her head and made a scissoring cut-off gesture with both hands.

"Mom, seriously. You do not know what you're talking about. This isn't some Myrddin knock-off waving his hands and doing cape tricks. I've seen real, actual magic. I've flown with dragons the size of passenger jets. What we've seen here on Earth Bet with Snek is only the tip of the iceberg. And like I said before, if you're gonna yell at anyone, yell at me. Not at Ames."

As Carol seemed to be figuring out how to reply to that, first Crystal and then Eric popped up over the edge of the roof. "We got the food!" Eric piped up, waving a bag redolent with mouth-watering odours. It certainly got Twilight's attention, anyway.

"They moved us to the front of the line," Crystal explained, brandishing another such bag. "We didn't even have to ask."

"Good." Sarah clapped her hands. "Discussion is tabled until we get home. No snide comments, no cutting remarks, and no dipping into the food. Understood?"

Despite the theatrical groans—mainly due to the last stricture—everyone understood.


Pelham Household, a Little Later

Manpower


Neil had already watched Crystal playing with the adorable little critter, so he had no particular qualms when Amy offered her to Mark to hold. Looking more than a little bemused, Neil's brother-in-law sat on the sofa with a miniature dragon in his lap, tentatively stroking her and feeding her the extra strips of bacon that had come with Amy's order. Twilight seemed entirely content with this arrangement, politely accepting the bacon and holding it with her forepaws as she crunched it down.

Seated beside them, Amy beamed as proudly as a mother showing off her new baby, in between taking bites of her now bacon-free burger. "See?" she said. "There's nothing to worry about. Hearth-dragons like people, and they're smart and empathetic."

"She's very cute too." Mark smiled down at Twilight and scratched her between the shoulderblades. She responded by emitting a friendly chirp and snuggling up to him, then continuing to eat the bacon from that position. "I can see why you're so taken by her. Just being near her makes me feel … better."

"Like I said." Amy took another bite from her burger, chewed and swallowed it. "Magic. They like being around people, and people like having them around."

"I wanna see if I can bond with one too," Crystal declared. "Uncle Mark, you should come along with us when we go there. Vicky, show him the photos."

"Wait, okay, stop. Time out." Carol had been good, Neil had to admit. She hadn't raised any objections to bringing Twilight back to the house, and she'd stayed quiet while the food was apportioned out, but now she had reached the end of her tether. "How can you be sure that's harmless?"

Vicky turned to look at her. "Because like Amy just said, she's smart and she likes people. And Twilight's a she, Mom, not a that. Be nice, okay?"

"I wasn't talking about the dragon. I was talking about the Master effect. And whatever this 'bonding' thing is." Carol gestured toward Mark. "Surely you can see it?"

"I can see that Dad's happier just holding her," Vicky said firmly. "And that Amy's about ten times as happy as she was before she went. Riley explained it to us. Hearth-dragons bond with people who suit them, and who need it. Amy needed it. They complete each other. Also, hearth-dragons are just plain nice to be around."

"All I see is a Master effect of dubious origin," Carol reiterated stubbornly. "You can say 'magic' all day long, but it doesn't actually mean anything. I have yet to see proof that it's harmless. What happens when she has to leave it behind and go to school?"

"Now you're just being rude." Amy put her hand on Twilight's back. "Vicky's already told you she's a she. And if I have to leave her behind to go to school, I will. I won't enjoy it and neither will she, but she'll understand."

"Exactly my point." Carol folded her arms. "This 'magic' is just a Master effect. I think the sooner you take that creature back to where … okay, fine, she belongs, the better for all concerned."

"No!" shouted Amy and Vicky at the same time, echoed by Twilight's indignant squawk. Vicky stood up, looked her mother in the eye, and repeated herself. "No. Not gonna happen."

Crystal stepped up alongside her. "What she said."

"I don't even want a dragon, but same here." Eric flanked Vicky from the other side. "Twilight's kinda neat. Also, what do you mean, you don't believe in magic? We all know about the giant talking snake who's eaten two Endbringers. Seriously, wow, Aunt Carol. What part of that makes the slightest bit of sense, if it's not magic?"

"No, no, she's right." Amy collected Twilight from Mark's lap and stood up. "I get it. Twilight doesn't belong here. I'll be taking her back to Snek's world as soon as I can."

"What?" Vicky turned to her. "No! You heard what Cirrus said! If you're separated, she'll die of a broken heart!"

Amy jerked her chin up. "I didn't say I'd be leaving her there. I said I'd be taking her there. One-way trip."

"What? No!" Carol raised her voice. "It's a totally different world! What would you do there? You've got no idea of the culture, or … well, anything!"

"Yeah, I do. Riley said the town at the foot of the mountain would have a place for a healer. I'm sure I could find somewhere to fit in just fine, among people who don't give a damn that I've got a hearth-dragon bonded to me." She smiled tightly. "Don't worry, I'll visit, if I feel like it. I won't stay too long, though. Wouldn't want you to feel uncomfortable around Twilight."

"Dad!" Vicky appealed. "Uncle Neil! Aunt Sarah! Say something! Talk to Mom!"

"Yeah!" Crystal agreed. "If I get a hearth-dragon too, will I have to move to Snek's world to keep it?"

"You most certainly will not," Sarah decreed, stepping forward. "The youngsters are correct, Carol. You're being too harsh, making decisions without having all the information."

"Damn right." Neil didn't like throwing his weight around in family discussions, and he got along with Carol just fine, most times. But this had reached the point where he figured he needed to put his foot down. "I get it, they ran off to visit Snek's world after you told 'em not to. But they're teenagers. That's what teenagers do. We've all done things we regretted after the fact. No harm's come of it, so why are you being so hard on Amy about it?"

Carol glanced sharply at him, maybe wondering what he was referring to with the 'we've all done things we regretted' line. He let one of his eyebrows twitch upward. Yeah, we're not blameless either. Her mouth tightened as she got the message loud and clear.

"It's a Master effect." She wasn't shouting anymore, but her tone was still firm. "Even if all it supposedly does is make you happy, that's still a Master effect. Amy's our healer. From what I can see, she's addicted to it. How is that a good look for the team?"

"Really." Sarah raised both her eyebrows. "So, you'd rather Amy be unbonded and miserable than bonded and happy? And since when have we put the team's image ahead of the kids' happiness? Or have I misunderstood you somewhere?"

Ooh, burn. Neil watched as Carol opened her mouth, then closed it again. The trap was obvious, but if she avoided it, she couldn't say what she wanted to. This is why I never argue with Sarah.

"I'm saying …" Carol paused as she carefully felt her way through the words she wanted to use. "… that Masters can make their victims feel happy. Why wouldn't they? But the happiness is fake. It's an artificial emotion. Take away the Master, and there's no reason for the happiness. And then the victim feels even worse, after the fact."

Mark cleared his throat. "You do realise you're also describing any time two people make a connection and fall in love, right? They're happy because they're together. Take away the other person, and the happiness is gone. Is that happiness artificial, just because it needs the other person to make it happen?"

"I'm saying Masters hijack the feeling," Carol countered. "Love is real, but it can also be counterfeited. Heartbreaker is a prime example."

"Except that hearth-dragons aren't Masters." Amy had moved Twilight to her shoulder, from where she was watching the discussion with intense interest. Neil would not have been surprised to learn that the little dragon was understanding most of it. With her hands now free, Amy pulled out her phone and pulled up one of the photos that Neil had already seen, of a flock of hearth-dragons swirling around Vicky as she lifted off the ground. "There were dozens where we were. Vicky played with them, but she never bonded with any of them. Twilight came straight to me, and we bonded way faster than it normally happens."

"Also, it's a two-way street," Vicky added. "When they bond, they get just as attached to you as you are to them. And you get to share their magic trick, like we saw when Amy vanished."

"You have to admit," Neil noted. "That's not something any actual Master ever does. With them, it's all take and no give."

"Some Masters give their victims abilities," Carol countered.

"But how many depend on the other person just as much as they are depended on, and only bond with one person, and can't turn the bond off?" Sarah tilted her head. "Come off it, Carol. Twilight's not a Master, and you know it."

"And since when has 'being cute and cuddly' been a Master effect, anyway?" Crystal chimed in.

Carol gritted her teeth and looked at Mark. "How do you feel now that Amy's taken her pet back?"

"She's not a pet!" This time, all four teenagers said it at once; Twilight's echoing squawk managed to sound quite rude.

"She really isn't," Sarah agreed, giving Carol a disapproving stare. "Everything I've seen tells me she's an intelligent, caring person in her own right. Who just happens to be a cute, cuddly miniature dragon."

Carol wasn't backing down. "My point stands. Mark, how do you feel?"

"Um … okay, actually." Mark shrugged. "I enjoyed holding her, and I could tell she liked me, but I'm not particularly depressed now that Amy's got her back. Not more than usual, anyway."

"Same here," Crystal added. "I was playing with her before you showed up at Fugly's, and it was really nice, but I'm not feeling bad about it now."

"You still want one for yourself, though," Eric reminded her.

"Well, duh." She rolled her eyes at him. "Dragon. Come on. What part of this don't you understand?"

"Anyway," Sarah said, in her best 'shut up, the boss is talking' voice, "it's been decided that at least some of us are going to visit Snek's world when we get the chance. Carol, Mark, you're welcome to come along. I'm personally intrigued by the photos that Amy and Vicky took, and I want to see it for real."

"Just remember; it's not Disneyland, and the Master of the Castle is usually pretty busy." Vicky gave the rest of the team, not including Amy, a serious look. "They were gearing up to deal with a significant problem when he sent us home. So be polite and respectful, and keep in mind that this is a guy who considers Endbringers to be too low-end for him to bother having to deal with."

Neil shook his head. "I'm still having trouble dealing with that aspect. You said he collects their cores as a hobby? What do you even say to that? 'Hey, nice murder-monster collection. Got any rares?'"

Amy blinked. "Jeez, I didn't even think to look at those things when I was there. Or be scared of them. Too many other weird things to look at, I guess. And hearth-dragons to meet." She reached up to stroke Twilight's neck, and got a crooning chirp in return.

"That actually sounds like an interesting idea," Mark declared. "I would certainly be interested in meeting more of Twilight's brothers and sisters. And seeing the big dragons, of course. Did you get pictures of those?"

"One or two, yeah." Amy called up the photos on her phone. "That one's Cirrus and that one's Finesse. They're a mated pair of this particular Dragonmark. That's what they call a place where dragons live. There's others there too, see? And this one's Vicky flying with them."

"You're really going to go?" asked Carol. "All of you?"

"Well … yes." Sarah spread her hands. "We already discussed it. Violent crime's at an all-time low, mainly thanks to Snek sneaking up behind it and chomping it." She ignored Eric's murmur of 'snekking up', and Vicky's giggle. "Brockton Bay's not going to fall apart if we take one day off to explore where he came from, and expand our horizons a little."

"You discussed it. I didn't get to have a say. Neither did Mark." Carol looked stubborn.

Mark blinked. "Well, I'm in agreement with the idea. Twilight's a positively delightful addition to our team, and I agree with Sarah that we could do with taking a day off in a different dimension."

"And if I say no, it's a bad idea?"

It was Neil's turn to roll his eyes. "Then you don't come along. Seriously, Carol. What's your problem with all this? Is it because the kids snuck off? Or because they didn't ask your permission to go to a place that's probably safer than Earth Bet, and brought back a cuddly dragon?"

She set her jaw. "Make light of it all you like. I told them not to go there, and they flagrantly disobeyed me."

Vicky shook her head. "No. You told us not to go if there was any doubt we'd be able to get back. There was never a doubt. Even when Snek was taking a nap, the Master of the Castle just opened a doorway and we stepped straight through onto the roof of Fugly's. We weren't stranded. We were having fun."

"And meeting the cutest dragon in the world," Crystal amended, stepping up alongside Amy so she could skritch Twilight behind the head. Twilight, of course, approved of this attention, and of the sentiment in general.

"Carol, you know me. I don't tell you how to parent your kids." Sarah moved to face her sister. "But you're wrong here. From what Amy says, you never said not to get a dragon, and you left a loophole a mile wide with the other thing."

"They knew what I meant!"

Everyone jumped at the outburst; Twilight flared her wings slightly, but settled down again under Crystal's soothing touch.

Sarah shook her head. "Carol, for a lawyer, you're really bad at wording things for your kids. Would any lawsuit for breach of contract be able to make a case with 'they knew what I meant'? Or is it always the letter of the law?"

Neil watched as Carol's lips compressed. This was the second time Sarah had trapped her with words, and she had to be pretty pissed off about it. "… the letter," she conceded.

"Well, then." Sarah slipped her arm around Carol's shoulders. "We're planning on visiting Snek's world. You're totally welcome to come along, if you want, or not; we won't force you. But I, for one, intend to get a photo of Neil meeting a real, honest-to-goodness dragon face to face."

"And I'm going to cuddle as many hearth-dragons as I can." Crystal grinned. "If I get to bond with one, awesome, but if I don't, it won't be the end of the world."

Sarah nodded to acknowledge her contribution, then turned her attention back to Carol. "So, what do you say?"

Carol grimaced, then let out an aggravated sigh. "I suppose so. Someone has to be the adult in the room."

"Woo!" Crystal exulted, lifting off the ground and sending sprays of low-power laser-light across the ceiling. "This is gonna be amazeballs!"

Neil grinned. Truth be told, he was kind of looking forward to it himself.


End of Part Twenty-Four