Title: More Than Human
Chapter 10a: Troubled Water, or Hey You With the Pretty Face
Rating: R/M, because they're teenagers and a good handful of them use terrible, filthy language.
Disclaimer: Pay your respect to Craig, not me.
Summary: There is no way I can make this sound original, ever. My attempt to write a believable RrB/PpG in high school fic. Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal. – Camus
Notes: Thanks to Arrows and Red and all their efforts to make something decent much, much better.
TW/CW: Sexual harassment from a faceless third party; Brick uses a derogatory slur.
More Than Human, Pt. 2 – Senior Fall Semester
October – Troubled Water, or Hey You With the Pretty Face
They could smell Citysville long before they saw so much as a skyscraper. It was as if the entirety of its population had made a commitment to smoking the cheapest cigarettes and driving the least fuel efficient vehicles. Blossom eyed the smog that engulfed Citysville's silhouette—dingily picturesque, in a way. The buildings teetered in the haze, every shade of brown and gray imaginable. They reminded Blossom of stacks of old card decks, their edges weathered velvety soft. One well placed puff of air could send them toppling.
Blossom took a deep breath as they flew towards the bridge the girls had pushed to the back of their mind for the better part of twelve years. "Buttercup."
"It's already been a week since Mike went missing. You want to help him, don't you?"
"Of course I do! I just hate that…" Buttercup gritted her teeth and groaned again. "God, why did it have to be Citysville?"
"If it makes you feel better, I don't like it either," Bubbles offered.
"None of us like that place," Blossom said quietly.
"You shouldn't have canceled your college visit, though, Blossom," Bubbles said. "Between Buttercup, me, and the boys, we'd have it covered."
"It's important to me to be there. To be here. I'm the leader."
"Oh, are you?" Buttercup said. "Is that why you say that literally every time we go out on one of these things?"
Blossom ignored her and continued, "Besides, I didn't cancel it. I just pushed it back. It's fine."
"Before or after our birthday?"
Blossom paused. Her face grayed. Bubbles stopped entirely.
Buttercup said, "Or did you schedule it on our birthday?"
"Blossom! You forgot?! It's our eighteenth!"
"I'm sorry, I just didn't—I wasn't thinking—"
"I'll say." Bubbles shook her head, blinking furiously.
"Hey," Buttercup said, sidestepping further drama and pointing. "The guys are here already."
"Good," Bubbles mumbled. "I could use a hug from someone who cares."
"Oh, come on, Bubbles," Blossom said, but she had already zipped down and landed.
Buttercup clapped a hand on her shoulder. "Nice job, Leader Girl."
Blossom gave her a look as they headed down. "Am I getting it from you, too, Buttercup?"
"Me, too? I think you mean me, always."
Their feet hit the ground. Bubbles had already burrowed into Boomer's side, pouting. Buttercup jogged over to Butch to ask how he was doing. Blossom's gaze pulled to Brick, who was staring in the direction of Citysville. He glanced over his shoulder at her, then threw his attention elsewhere.
Guess he's not keen on revisiting this place, either.
Blossom closed her eyes and took a deep breath as Buttercup said, "Let's get this over with."
"What is it about this place that's got all you girls' panties in a bunch?" Butch said, wrinkling his face and eliciting a look from Blossom. "Doesn't look like anything special to me."
"It sure isn't," Buttercup muttered, striding to the head of the group. Butch and Brick started to float forward.
"No powers, remember?" Blossom said. "There's a citywide ban on it."
"Oh, shit, this place does suck," Butch said, landing and heading for the front. Brick motioned for him to move to the back. Butch exchanged a look with Buttercup, then obeyed. Her gaze skipped over Brick as she directed her attention forward.
Brick touched down. "If there's no powers, then we should be driving instead."
"I don't want to drag the Professor into this," Blossom said sharply. "He's busy enough as it is."
"I could be driving us in."
"Six people could not squeeze into your tiny convertible."
"Oh, I would've liked to ride in your car, Brick," Bubbles said, her distress momentarily forgotten.
"It's not that cool," Boomer scoffed, squeezing her a little closer and giving his leader a glare.
"Like hell I'd let any of you in my car. I meant we could jack a…" He trailed off, catching Blossom's expression as it darkened. "Rental. We could've rented a car."
"Yes, an easy task for six seventeen-year-olds with little-to-no driving record. Buttercup, you know where we're headed? The hospital shouldn't be that far inside city limits."
Buttercup waved her sister off. "I got it in my head."
"You think they'll tell us anything?" Bubbles asked. "Even after the police have talked to them?"
"Only one way to find out," Blossom said with a sigh.
"You could've called the hospital manager," Brick said.
"It's harder to turn down a girl like Bubbles in person," Blossom said sagely.
"I am good at looking pathetic," Bubbles agreed.
"Look, nothing." Brick snorted. "You pretty much embody patheticism. Thoughit is a marketable skill." He nodded at Blossom. "Devious of you to recognize that."
"I have my moments."
"A regular Bonnie Parker," he said, and then he and Blossom paused.
"A what?" Bubbles asked. "What did you say, Brick?"
"Nothing," he said. "I was just making a joke." They resumed walking, Blossom drifting a little farther back now.
"Is that raw sewage smell, like, permanent?" Boomer asked.
"It's the river," Bubbles said, indicating the body of water they had just crossed.
"Where is this stupid thing, anyway?" Butch called out from the back. "Do you even know where you're going?"
Buttercup made a rude gesture. "Dumbass, I just said, like, five seconds ago!"
"You wanna lead, smart guy?" Brick responded stiffly.
"Here's Gallagher," Buttercup announced. She had reached the end of their block and turned around, her path obstructed for the moment by a group of guys behind her crossing to the other side of the street. "You guys going to pick it up or what? I'm practically walking by myself up here."
A very audible smack suddenly echoed in the air, and Buttercup went rigid. Butch's attention shot from her to the group of snickering guys that had just passed behind her, and Bubbles yelped as he shoved her and Boomer out of his way.
"Butch, no!" Blossom shouted as his green streak blew past her.
Buttercup got to them before he did; she snatched the closest one by the collar and fired him back across the street, where he hit the side of the building a good five feet off the ground.
"Which one of you fuckers was it?!" she screeched, throwing punches and kicks every which way. "I'm gonna rip your fucking dick off!"
Butch dove for one of them and slammed his head into the asphalt. The guy's hair was bunched up in his fist and he was getting ready to do it again, possibly another few times to let the message really sink in, but then Brick grabbed him and pulled him off.
"Don't!" Brick hissed.
"He did it!" Butch snarled, and Buttercup's head jerked in his direction. "This stupid fucking fuck!"
He wrenched violently in Brick's grip, struggling to break free. Buttercup stopped breaking other people's collarbones to come over and maybe break this one, and the rest of the guys who could still move scattered. She kicked the guy in the ribs, and judging from the snapping sound she'd succeeded in splitting bone.
"Buttercup!" Brick snapped, but had to shift his focus again to Butch, who had the unfortunate foresight to grab Blossom as she jetted forth to stop her sister.
"What—let me go!" Blossom's voice was shrill, and her eyes panicked as her attention jerked from Buttercup to Butch.
"Rip that fucker open, Buttercup!" Butch ordered, struggling to break free while holding Blossom back. Boomer dashed up to help subdue him, though it didn't seem to be doing much good.
"Buttercup, no! Don't listen to him! Butch, what is wrong with you?!"
His encouragement wasn't necessary; Buttercup had crushed the heel of her shoe into the guy's groin, her lip curling as he screamed.
"What? Speak up," she demanded, moving her heel to one of his wrists. "I can't fucking hear you!"
She smashed her foot down, breaking his hand, and he howled in pain.
"Oh, if you liked that, you're gonna love having two of 'em," she growled, and moved to pin his other hand.
A flash of pink socked Butch in the solar plexus, and he released her with a wheeze. Blossom dove and ensnared Buttercup before she could make good on her offer.
"Let me go!" Buttercup screamed, thrashing in her sister's arms.
"I'll fucking kill him."' Butch was seething as he recovered his breath. "You hear that, fucker?! I'll fucking kill you!"
"Butch! Chill!" Brick shouted, then stiffened at the sound of approaching sirens.
"Oh, shit," he hissed. Blossom froze, panic in her eyes.
Brick released Butch and grabbed Blossom by the arm to take off, ordering his brothers to do the same, but she yanked him back to the ground.
"What the fuck do you think you're doing?!" he yelled.
"I'm not running from the police, and neither are you!"
The noise of the squad car was deafening as it pulled up. The girls, Buttercup included, had halted, and stood tense. Brick grimaced and reluctantly held his arms up in a symbol of surrender. Boomer, after looking to his brother, took his cue and did the same.
A heap resembling a human body hit the hood of the squad car, wheezing for air. Butch stepped up, the glow of his glare fading as he turned it on the cops. A shadow crawled along his face as he spread his arms wide at them. "I did your fucking job for you. You're welcome."
They put Buttercup and the boys in a holding cell, away from everyone else. Blossom and Bubbles were pulled into the police chief's office to get questioned.
"Why me?" Boomer fretted. "I didn't even do anything!"
"Because you're a guy," Brick said, standing at the corner where the bars and concrete met, straining to listen to the girls' conversation with the chief.
"Buttercup's not a guy," Boomer said, pouting.
Brick tossed his head at her and their sibling, sitting together against the wall. "Look at her."
Buttercup did look the part. Her clothes were more worn than her sisters', threads frayed and shoes scuffed. Faint smears of dirt, possibly even some blood, dotted her skin. And the look on her face, the look that said "Come near me and I will fucking end you," was enough by itself.
Butch had been the one to sit first. Well, first he'd tugged at one of the bars, bending it easily out of shape, but then Brick had knocked him back and re-straightened the bend, issuing a silent command for Butch to sit his ass down. So Butch had sat his ass down. Buttercup had joined him within seconds. Neither of them had said anything yet.
Her gaze darted to his siblings for their conversation, then drifted back to her shoes. She drew her feet up onto that lousy plank that passed for a bench and hugged her knees, burying her chin behind them. Butch watched her eyes track against the parts of her body that she could see.
"I look like this and that dumbass still touched me," she muttered, voice retaining the anger she'd expressed so much of already.
Butch took in her pose, her expression. "Well," he finally said, "your ass does look good in those jeans."
She shoved at his side and grumbled, "Not fucking funny." But she hadn't shoved him hard, only hard enough to warrant putting an elbow down on the bench to push back up. He re-adjusted and brought a knee up himself.
"They're good jeans, anyway," he said.
"They're, like, one of my favorite pairs. But now I have to torch them."
She didn't respond verbally, only nodded, and Butch knew Yeah, for real.
"We'll make it a ceremony. When we get back home, you go change. I'll draw up a circle and shit, whatever. And then we'll set them on fire. Poof. Up they'll go. I wonder how burning denim smells."
"Better than pot, I'd imagine."
"Bitch, shut up. You don't know what you're talking about."
She snorted, some of that anger and sadness dissipating from her face. "Yeah."
"Apparently they've been trying to catch that guy and his friends," Brick interrupted.
"Is he gonna die?" Butch asked.
"No, and thank fucking God, for your sake," his leader said darkly. "But if it makes you feel better, he needs a shitton of medical attention."
"Broken bones?" Butch asked.
Boomer was pressing his face to the bars, trying to listen himself. "I think, mostly. And, um… internal damage to… you know." He indicated the area below Brick's belt, and Brick swatted him away, glaring. Butch held a hand out to Buttercup.
"High five, sister," he crowed, and she pulled her lips in between her teeth to hide her smile as Brick rolled his eyes and went back to eavesdropping. "Come on, be proud. Don't leave me hanging."
She slapped his hand and gripped, squeezing hard. And then she just squeezed and didn't let go. Something stilled in Butch, and he watched as she shut her eyes and sighed, tilting her head down so her forehead rested on her knees and her expression couldn't be seen. She squeezed his hand again.
Finally, he gently squeezed back and muttered, "You okay?"
"I fucking hate guys," she whispered.
"Yeah," he said, involuntarily squeezing her hand again. "I know what you mean. We kinda suck."
"Yeah, but some suck more than others. Some of them deserve to have every fucking bone in their body broken. Some of them deserve to eat out of a tube for the rest of their life."
She was gripping his hand like a lifeline now, squeezing so hard it was actually almost starting to hurt, and Butch knew that there was something he could do for her, would do for her, if it would make things better. He glanced at his siblings, listening intently to the conversation going on in the office amidst the dim chatter of the station's inhabitants.
He leaned in closer to her, so close his arm pressed flush against hers and her hair brushed along his cheek.
"Do you want him to?"
He heard her breath catch, hitch. Her head rotated enough for him to meet those bright green eyes, wide with shock, before they darted to his unaware brothers and back. He could see her considering it, and then he was thinking of how easy it would be; go to the nearest hospital and walk in like he owned the place because he owned every place he walked into, or at least he did until Brick showed up, and security was always so lax at hospitals, there were only ever doctors and nurses, none of them ever good at blocking a punch when they felt like being a hero, and then he'd just pick his way through the rooms, one after the other after the other until he found—
Buttercup closed her eyes so he couldn't see her considering it anymore and shook her head, which left him at sort of a loss. He wondered, if not that, then what? What did she want? He just wanted… he wanted to help. So what was he supposed to do?
It was nice of Butch to ask, in a weird, twisted way. It made her feel like someone supported her, understood her. No, she knew, she didn't really want that, even if a part of her thrilled to the idea, wanted to jump at the opportunity. But it wasn't right, and at the end of the day she tended to believe in doing the right thing.
But it was nice of Butch to ask.
In fact, a lot of this right now was nice. Not the location or the circumstances, but just having him here to sit next to her, talk to her, and permit her to consider revenge where others would reprimand her for it. Being angry about things was part of her process. Most of her family and friends knew that about her, but Butch… he understood it.
Her grip on his hand slackened, and it took him a moment before he let go. But within the next moment she reached for it again.
Before she and Mitch had gotten together there'd been a lot of this—physical contact with each other that wasn't meant to go anywhere, that was just two people who enjoyed each other's company being close. With Mitch it hadn't involved hand-holding, just shoving and ribbing and a hand in the other's hair to mess it up. And leaning on each other, just… because. Buttercup didn't have a problem with that kind of contact, at least, not in public with people who had earned her trust. It only became a problem when that contact started to take on a more romantic edge.
Buttercup's heart didn't go off like a jackhammer in her chest as she maneuvered Butch's arm around her shoulders. It just felt nice and right and she was still feeling hurt and upset a little, so she rested her head on his shoulder and leaned fully against him. She liked how even with most of her weight on him, he didn't budge or shift to re-adjust. It was like he was made to be exactly what she needed at just the right time.
"You were right," he said, and it broke the reverie. She stared at their knees and pulled back, shifting the entirety of herself away from his warmth and closeness and soft voice.
"About what?" she asked, her eyes on his brothers as they listened at the bars.
The arm that had been resting on her shoulders hovered somewhere between being up and relaxing completely on the bench. Finally he crossed his arms and sat back against the wall, closing his eyes.
"About this place being a shithole."
Butch felt Professor Utonium's frosty, death-swearing gaze before he looked up and actually came eye-to-eye with it, and even though he and Buttercup weren't even remotely touching anymore he blanched and stiffened, straight as a board. Buttercup looked up at him in confusion, then glanced out to the bars.
"Professor?" she said. Almost sighed, really. Her voice was heavy with relief and she stood. Butch watched a little covetously as she met her father at the bars, but then felt Professor Utonium's stony glare once more and corrected his line of sight. Boomer, too, was standing rigid against the wall, fixated on the incredibly fascinating concrete floor at his feet.
The cop accompanying the Professor opened up the holding cell, and Buttercup stepped dutifully into her father's arms so he could hug her. Judging from the way she slumped into him, the physical contact wasn't unwelcome.
"What were you girls thinking?" he whispered, then, without waiting for an answer, "Come on. Let's go home."
The cop waved the boys out. "You too. Chief wants a word."
"Great," Brick muttered.
They filed into the chief's office. Brick hesitated when he caught sight of Mrs. Morbucks examining her nails. She looked up when the boys entered and smiled winsomely. Standing next to her were Blossom and Bubbles, neither of whom looked nearly as chipper. Blossom especially.
"Now I'm going to tell you what I told these two here," the chief said, his tone brusque. "We're not pressing charges. But you'd better be God damn aware that under no circumstances are you allowed to use superpowers within the city limits."
Boomer started, "But we were attacked—"
Brick kicked him.
"It's against the law," the chief enunciated, glaring at the boys. "In fact, you kids shouldn't even be here. Lookin' for your friend or whatever. That isn't your business. We got our team on it. And we don't need six teenagers coming into town making even more trouble for us. Not to mention yourselves. You'll be lucky if that guy doesn't come after you threatening legal action."
"I should've left him braindead," Butch said.
"Butch," Brick warned.
The chief wasn't amused either. "This isn't a joke, you little shit."
"Sir," Mrs. Morbucks interrupted politely, "are we done here? I think everybody's had a long day."
"I just want to make sure these kids understand what I'm telling them." The chief leveled his gaze at Brick. "Do you?"
Brick stared back, feeling sick of always having to answer to someone above him, of being spoken to and treated like he was some child, like some run-of-the-mill idiot. Enduring it from Him had been bad enough. Enduring it from lesser beings like Darius and this asshole here was near-infuriating.
"Yes, sir," Brick said quietly, working hard to withhold the bitterness from his tone.
After the Professor and Mrs. Morbucks signed their release forms, they were all herded out into their respective vehicles. Brick tried to catch Blossom's eye a few times, but she still seemed a little numb. The Professor didn't linger; Bubbles was only able to work in the briefest of hugs with Boomer before she had to pile into the station wagon and it sped off, homeward bound.
The boys' own ride home was silent. When they pulled up to their building and Butch and Boomer exited, Brick waved them on ahead and shut himself back in.
"I thought you might want to talk," Mrs. Morbucks said from the front passenger seat. "Alfred, take us on a tour of the West side. Brick, in case you're wondering, I've been out of town."
"That device we placed on you was experimental. Homecoming Night was its test run. You're aware of Professor Utonium's monster barrier for the city, of course? Pulses, frequency, et cetera, et cetera. We figured, well, if there's a frequency that repels the monsters, surely there's a frequency that attracts them as well? We'd been doing some small scale testing outside of the city, close to Monster Island, then began increasing its distance as we refined the technology. That night was our first successful test from within Townsville."
"And you didn't think it important to check with me and make sure I was okay with this?"
"The monsters weren't actually supposed to get into Townsville; the strength of the monster barrier's frequency outmatches that of our technology. Of course, we didn't expect to have the monster manifestation of a power surge get close enough to wipe out—"
"So why didn't the walking voltage spike wipe out your technology? I hit that thing head-on; your little button should've been fried."
"Oh, we built several little fail-safes into it. Spark gaps or the like; I've never had much of a head for the mechanical specifics. Anyway, with something that small, you want to take every precaution you can to protect what's inside and keep it working."
Brick stared at her. "And that's why you put it on me instead of some regular person?"
He could sense her grin. "Bingo. You could protect the technology and were protected from it yourself if something went wrong. You know if that thing exploded, it could kill somebody? I mean, literally set an average human being on fire. Lots of electrical components in that thing. Oh, our team did such a great job!"
"So why couldn't you have told me about this?" Brick growled. He didn't mean to growl, but after everything that had gone down in Citysville, not to mention the wealth of information she'd just dropped on him, well.
"And what would I have gained by telling you anything ahead of time?"
"My trust, for one," he said. And then he regretted it almost instantly.
Mrs. Morbucks turned, her previously winsome smile now dark and ominous. "I'm sorry, Brick. Am I to understand that you don't trust me?"
The remains of Brick's anger sucked away from his expression.
"After I agreed to pay your rent? After all the people I've introduced you to? After not only sharing with you some very sensitive information about our new technology, but including you in its hands-on testing? What's to stop you from running back to JS to share this news with them? Hm?"
He only watched her, unable to think of a response.
"And me, well, here I am, placing my faith in a very young man—talented, yes, but that doesn't change the fact that you are quite young—and trusting that he will be able to deliver on the promise he made to me a mere two months ago? I mean, of the two involved parties, who do you think should have difficulty extending trust, Brick?"
He glanced away without meaning to and hated himself for it. "I'm… sorry if I offended you."
"Not at all," she said, her overly casual tone implying otherwise. "It's been a long, upsetting day for you. I understand."
They reached his building again. Brick thanked her for the ride.
Buttercup stopped her packing and groaned. "What, Bubbles?"
"You should look at this," Bubbles said, holding out her phone.
"I'm kind of in the middle of—"
Buttercup huffed and grabbed at her sister's cell to glare at it. She blinked, taking in the looping gif of her (with her face blurred out) smashing her foot into the crotch of the dickhole that had assaulted her.
"Is that what you were doing the whole time? Filming?"
Bubbles shrugged. "I thought you might want it for posterity's sake."
Buttercup laughed, a little bitterly, and handed Bubbles' phone back. "Not exactly a moment I want to relive. Ever."
"Well, if it makes you feel better, you already have 10k likes online."
"What?! Shut up. You posted that?"
"Anonymously," Bubbles said with a grin.
Buttercup stared at her sister, half-grinning herself. Then she glanced away, chewing the inside of her lip and looking pissed off again.
"You okay? Do you want a hug?"
"Ugh, God, Bubbles—"
"I'm hugging you," Bubbles announced, wrapping her arms around Buttercup's shoulders. "It's happening. Oh no, I'm hugging you."
"You're the worst," Buttercup said, hugging her back. "The absolute worst."
"I know," Bubbles said. "But at least I'm internet famous."
Buttercup laughed as she pulled away and resumed packing. "Hey. Don't let Blossom find out you posted that shit."
"Don't worry. I'm still supposed to be mad at her about the birthday thing."
"What a jerk, huh?" Buttercup said, cradling her bag in her arms and jamming her feet into her sneakers.
"Yeah. What a jerk."
"Robin, I'm so sorry," Blossom said miserably.
Her friend smiled at her. "Don't be."
"I just…" Blossom stared out of Robin's window at her own home next door, dimly lit by the moon. "A whole week's gone by. I didn't think this was going to take this long—"
"No, I'm sorry for depending on you so much… I mean, it's not really fair, when—"
"It's totally fair," Blossom interrupted. "We help people. We save them. That's—"
"What you do. I know. And I really appreciate it, so don't apologize. You always act like these things are your fault when something goes wrong and that's not fair. You know?"
Blossom stared at her, trying to articulate what was in her head so she could get Robin to understand. Robin didn't have superpowers. She didn't have this gift that made her more capable and gave her this innate obligation to act, really act, to do the right thing. Robin, like Mike, like the rest of the city, depended on her and her sisters because they were superheroes and they could help. The rest of the world was just human. Blossom and her sisters were something more.
She sat there, trying to phrase it all in a way that would make Robin understand, when her friend's gaze shifted to the window and held there, confused. Distracted, Blossom turned to see Buttercup darting out of their window, with some mystery item bundled in her arms.
Brick blinked as he took in Buttercup on their doorstep, then called, "Butch!"
"Tell him to meet me on the roof," Buttercup said, then shot off without waiting for a reply.
"What?" Butch said, emerging from his room.
Brick sighed and jerked his head up. "Buttercup. Roof. Go."
"What the hell about?"
"I'm sorry, do I look like a fucking messenger to you?"
As soon as Butch got up there he had to go back to his room; Buttercup had forgotten to mention to bring matches. When he reappeared, matchbox in tow, she'd tossed a pair of jeans on the roof and was holding a plastic bag in one hand and a bottle of lighter fluid in the other.
"I'm holding you to your promise," she said, and it took him a second to realize the jeans on the roof were the pair she'd been wearing earlier.
He scratched his head, glancing at her lower half. These weren't bad either. "It wasn't exactly a promise."
"Well, I'm holding you to whatever the hell you want to call it, then."
He nodded at the bag. "What's that?"
Her hand clenched involuntarily around the handles, then she held it out and open to him. "Your clothes. From… that night."
Butch could see the dark red stains without drifting closer. "Oh yeah."
"I thought we could make it… I don't know, a dual ceremony. Unless you want to keep 'em, you sick fuck."
He ran his hand over the part of his body where a scar would've resided if his body had been prone to scarring in the first place. After some consideration that was mostly spent staring past the bag at Buttercup, he shook his head.
She overturned it and emptied its contents over her jeans, then doused it all with lighter fluid. Butch struck a match and held it aloft as she drifted to his side.
"You were a good pair," she said with a sigh.
He thought for a second. "Thanks for soaking up all my blood."
She snorted and shouldered him, and he tossed the tiny, flickering stick of wood onto the pile.
As they watched the little flame gradually grow into a sizable little fire, Butch wished he'd had the sense to bring some weed up to roll, or something. Something to keep his hands occupied and focus his attention on anything else but the orange light and shadows that played along her body. Maybe fire wasn't such a good idea after all.
He was staring at the center and considering sticking his hand in it, just to give himself something to do, when Buttercup sidled closer and, without warning, leaned against his shoulder.
He continued to stare at the fire and smoke without really seeing either anymore. Buttercup's shoulder pressed against his, and he would've reached an arm around her, or done something even stupider, like take her hand or… or just take her hand, but the memory of their ruined moment earlier in the day was still fresh in his mind. He didn't dare risk ruining another.
The next day the six of them, plus the Professor, were seated in the Citysville Mayor's office. The Chief of Police was there as well.
Brick was beside himself with anger at what had just come out of the Mayor's mouth. But it was Professor Utonium who spoke up first.
"That's out of the question!"
"We're trying to compromise here," the Mayor said patiently.
"They wanna help? They can help," the chief said. "But we got rules."
"Rules that could get them, get them attacked, or worse—"
"They seem pretty capable of taking care of themselves," the chief said with a shrug.
Brick couldn't help it; he scoffed and muttered, "Yeah, the whole 'having superpowers' thing helps."
"You don't have to help," the Mayor pointed out, and here the chief looked a little smug. "We just wanted to extend the offer on our terms. That ban on superpowers was passed for a reason."
Blossom reached for her father. "Professor—"
"You girls aren't even eighteen yet! There's no way I'm letting you wander around this, this—"
"Shithole," Buttercup muttered under her breath, but only loud enough for those with superhearing to catch it. Blossom issued a scathing glare in her direction.
"—city without your superpowers! Do you girls have any idea how much I worry about you as it is?!"
A long, tense silence followed the Professor's outburst, during which the girls looked at their father with no small amount of guilt and the boys shifted uncomfortably. A thought came into Brick's head that stuck and didn't let go, no matter how much he tried to push it away.
"Well," the Mayor said finally, and sighed, while the chief looked triumphant. "It sounds like you shouldn't—"
Brick's mouth had already begun to open of its own accord, but once again, someone else spoke first.
"We can do it," Boomer said, drawing everybody's eye. "I mean, me and my brothers. Just us."
Butch's eyes widened and shifted from his blond brother to their leader. Boomer blinked, and then followed suit.
"What do you think, Brick?" he asked, cringing a little. "Is that… okay?"
Brick had narrowed his eyes at him, annoyed that Boomer had spoken out of turn and, to a lesser extent, beaten him to the punch.
"Funny," he finally said, relaxing and looking directly at the chief. "I was just about to suggest the same thing." His eyes flicked to Blossom, thinking about what he had overheard the girls arguing about yesterday. "Besides, you've got that college visit, don't you?"
"No, I've already—" Blossom suddenly clamped her mouth shut, but the Professor had caught it.
All eyes were on her, save for her sisters'. She stared at the Professor, then steeled herself and said, "I already pushed it back."
Professor Utonium's hands opened and closed helplessly. "Honey, what did you do that for?"
"Because Mike's missing, and he's our responsibility—"
"Oh, cut the crap," Brick interrupted. "He isn't your responsibility—"
"I'm not arguing this point with you," she said. "Your help is appreciated, but—"
"You're forgoing your personal desires for the sake of someone else."
"Yes," she said firmly. "I'm glad you understand that."
"That was an insult. You're being ridiculous, sacrificing your opportunities and education—"
"It's just a visit! That was rescheduled! I'm not 'sacrificing' anything—"
"'Cept our birthday," Bubbles muttered, the hurt evident in her voice, and Blossom shut her eyes and groaned.
"Bubbles, please." Blossom took a deep breath, then turned to the Professor. "Mike's our friend. It's important to me to be here."
"We literally just volunteered," Brick said.
"Stop," Blossom said. "You don't get it!"
"Uh, do you all need a minute?" the Mayor asked, exchanging a look with the chief. "It feels like we should—"
"Neither do you, Blossom!" Brick snapped, because why the fuck did he even bother? "Stop playing the martyr. You can't save everybody."
Blossom ignored him and turned back to the Professor. "I'm staying." She glanced back at Brick, her gaze hard and weighted with a pain that made him uncomfortable and pushed his own eyes away. "And that's final."
Why did I open my stupid fucking mouth?
"Okay." Blossom huffed a breath, eyes sweeping Citysville Town Square, where they had gathered to enact Phase Two of their plan after a quick jaunt back to Townsville. "So. Different approach."
Bubbles radiated glee. "You. Look. So. Cute."
Boomer turned so she could get a look at the back of his borrowed leather jacket. "I gotta admit, it's not bad. How does it make my butt look?"
"Bubbles," Blossom said.
Butch shrugged his shoulders a few times, letting his letter jacket settle. "The jock side of me digs, but the rebel don't. I'm conflicted. What about you, Brick?"
"Shoot me," Brick said, his arms hanging limply at his sides.
"Really gives you guys a different flavor," Buttercup said. She sneered. "You look so wholesome."
Bubbles was pouting. "I wanted to add patches, but we have to give them back to Ms. Keane."
"I can feel brain cells dying," Brick said, regretting all his choices.
"Don't exaggerate," Blossom said, beyond irritated at her emotional response. "You look the part, at least. Did you already take the Antidote X?"
"Sure did," Butch said, then lit up. "Hey, Buttercup, arm-wrestle me."
"No, no, no. No distractions," Blossom said.
"Besides, our dad can see us from the coffee shop." Buttercup pointed to a building at the north end of the square, where Professor Utonium had holed up with his tracking equipment. "He'll kill you if he sees you touch me."
"Eep," Butch and Boomer said, backing away.
"There are probably less stupid ways to do this," Brick said.
Bubbles waved her hand dismissively. "You're just saying that because you don't like being used as bait."
"Why do we need three people for bait?" Brick jerked his head back at Boomer. "He's the only one who looks the part."
"To increase our odds," Blossom said.
"Three are better than one," Buttercup said.
"Oh my God, we're literal jailbait!"
"Butch," Brick said.
"We should split up," Bubbles said. "Nobody's going to abduct a boy out of a group."
Buttercup glanced at Butch. "But we have to keep an eye on them if something happens—"
"Great idea," Boomer interrupted, wrapping an arm around his girlfriend and turning away. "We're all on dates! Bye!"
"That's not really necessary!" Brick called after him. He turned back, glaring down at his jacket and grumbling, "We're being tracked with these stupid things, anyway."
Butch spoke up. "So are we doing the date thing, or…"
"No," Blossom and Brick said, simultaneously.
"It's not a bad idea," Buttercup said, stunning everyone. "Keeping eyes on the boys. Plus, it looks weird if a teenage dude's out by himself."
"Mike was out by himself," Blossom said.
"Yeah, but what if something goes wrong? What if something happens to them?"
Butch sneered. "Oh, you're worried! That's adorable."
"Of course I'm fucking worried!" Buttercup snapped, her attention flicking from his face to his torso and back. The sneer dropped.
The mild panic that had sprung up in Blossom's chest at first mention of the idea was starting to swell. She glanced at Brick, who was looking at her. He averted his gaze as soon as their eyes met.
I can't do this.
"I'll go with Butch," she announced.
Her turn to stun everyone. Butch looked as if he had actually flatlined.
"It's okay, Buttercup," Blossom said. "I'll take care of him."
"Oh, my God," Butch gasped, dropping to his knees and clutching at his chest. "I think I'm having a heart attack. Am I dying? Is this what it feels like to die of happiness?"
"Quit being such a drama queen," Brick said, already turned away from the group. "Come on, Buttercup. Let's go."
Buttercup held for a second, her gaze caught between all three of them. She met Blossom's eyes last, then finally pulled away to follow Brick.
Blossom turned back to Butch.
"What are we celebrating, honey?"
Bubbles kept looking over her shoulder at Blossom as she and Boomer got swallowed up in the throng of Halloween revelers amassing on the green and in the streets. She knew she was supposed to be mad at her, but…
"Hey," Boomer said, pointing. "They're doing a Halloween parade."
"Oh, fun." Blossom was leaving with Butch. Well, that was one way to avoid bad memories.
"That's gonna make finding this old lady tough."
They're heading to the mall.
"Then again, maybe it'll give her, like, the perfect opportunity to snatch up another guy."
Butch said something to Blossom and she jerked back, arm instinctively readying a punch. She probably wasn't gonna last very long.
"Hey! Earth to Bubbles." Boomer's hand appeared in front of her face, waving. She blinked and turned back.
"Sorry! I just. I'm. I'm worried about her."
Boomer peered over her shoulder. "Who? Blossom? I thought you were mad at her."
"Yeah, but—" Bubbles shook her head. "You know what, I'm sorry." She looked around at the vendors setting up their wares around the square; overpriced fair food and carnival games surrounded them. She spotted a man riding a bike through the crowd, peddling puffy pastel clouds of sugar. "Here, I'll make it up to you with some cotton candy."
"Cotton candy and makeouts?" Boomer said hopefully.
"Maybe later on the latter." She pulled away. "What flavor do you want?"
She grinned and hustled her way over to the candy seller.
Boomer smiled, relaxing. What a relief it was to get away from all that bickering and drama. He looked around, a little smug.
Guess the Mike rescue will have to wait for another night.
As if on cue, the crowd parted, and Boomer found himself staring Mike right in the face.
Blossom studied Butch's proffered hand, which he had extended towards her as he held the door open to the mall with his back.
"I mean, if we're dating…" Butch left the end of his sentence hanging.
She was in no mood to humor him and simply stared back, her eyes dead.
He tried another tactic. "Okay, okay. How about. Um. What date do you think we're on? First? Third? Are we at the hand-holding stage, or maybe fooled around some—"
"First," Blossom interjected. "And it's definitely a favor I'm doing for a friend."
"Hey, maybe it's a favor I'm doing for a friend."
"Then why would we even be out in the first place?"
"I don't—ugh." Butch threw his head back and huffed a breath. "Okay. Look. Seriously. We're on a date. We should at least look like it, shouldn't we?"
He offered his hand again. Blossom stared, mulling it over. He wasn't wrong. They had to look the part. As long as he didn't act… weird, or say something gross, or do something gross…
And it's not like I really know him any—
The thought ground to a sudden stop in her brain, and she almost wanted to kick herself. She couldn't believe she hadn't seen this for the opportunity it was. She didn't know anything about Butch or his circumstances, and now she could ask.
And, by extension…
But hand-holding is too much.
"I guess," she said grudgingly, and reached for his elbow, slipping her arm through the crook of it, "you have a point."
Brick tossed his head at the mall. "We could go there."
"Ugh, no. Isn't it better to split up, anyway?" Buttercup looked around, then indicated a dilapidated strip mall lining the street off the east end of the square. "Let's see what's going on over there."
Brick squinted his eyes. "A donut joint, a pawn shop, a laundromat, and a condom store. Yeah, that sounds like the hip place for a couple of teenagers to hang."
"Donuts and condoms are a winning combination," Buttercup said, and waved him along. "Come on. Or go off on your own, whatever."
"You said you wanted to keep an eye on us," he said, falling into step just behind her.
That hard green glare shot to Brick's hands for a moment. "You know what I meant, jackass."
Tension ratcheted up his spine. Oh. Yeah.
"Did you know?"
He stared at the back of her head. "Did I know?"
"That it was him. You were covered in blood when we found you guys. Did you do it on purpose?"
Heat shot through him like a bullet. He could practically hear his teeth grinding into powder; he was gritting them that hard. "Of course not. Not that it matters to you, but I was drowning in there."
"Seems like a shitty reason to tear your own brother open—"
His eyes flared and he grabbed her by the arm, twisting her around so he could say Fuck you to her face. The instant he touched her, her opposite hand was at his throat, jammed into the divot of his collarbone.
Buttercup had eyes you could cut glass on. They pierced him, sharpening at the edges as if someone had dialed the saturation too high on a television set.
"I don't owe you an explanation, you little cunt," he hissed.
Those sharp-edged green eyes narrowed. "My sister seems pretty keen on you, so I kinda think you do."
The gear-switch took Brick aback, and he blinked, his grip loosening for a second. Long enough for Buttercup to shove him away from her.
He tossed his head at her, forcing a laugh. "Did I do it on purpose? What do you think?"
She chewed on it for a long time, her reflection captured in the window of the pawn shop.
"I don't think you did," she said, finally. "But you. I don't know what to think about you."
Fuck this fake date bullshit.
He shoved past her, muttering, "That's because you don't know anything about us. Butch included."
"You know, maybe we got off on the wrong foot," Blossom said, devoutly ignoring the fact that it was because Butch had opened his mouth in the first place. "I don't know that much about you."
Butch thought for a second. "Well, I'm single, for one."
Blossom's eyes twitched as she closed them and she took a breath.
"And if you want my measurements, they're—"
"I don't—why would I even—okay. Just… the last time we knew you guys, you were, you know. With Him."
"Oh, olden times. Yeah."
"Why'd you leave?"
He shrugged. "Brick thought it was time to." His eye caught a lingerie store. "Hey, want to go in there?"
"No. So it was his idea? I mean, did you want to leave?"
"Nothing better to do. Although I guess if I had stayed, you and I could've started our relationship earlier."
Blossom could feel her eyes rolling into the back of her head. How many deep breaths had she taken so far?
Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.
"Wasn't Him… you know, upset?"
"Eh, Brick worked something out. The riddle thing. So He was mad, but, well, He couldn't do anything about it. He was pretty pissed about Boomer, though."
Blossom furrowed her brow. "Why Boomer?"
"Iunno." Butch shrugged again. "Probably because he liked to dress up and sing. Who knows."
"Where'd you guys go after?"
"What is this, Twenty Questions?"
"No, I was just… just trying to get to know you better."
"Like in the biblical sense?"
"Oh my God," Blossom groaned, unable to hold in her disgust any longer and trying to pull away.
He tugged her back, laughing. "Sorry! Sorry. Can't help myself."
"I'm pretty sure you can," she said.
He lit up. "I can help myself? Well, in that case—"
"How is it that Brick's so smart?" Blossom said, her teeth gritted.
"Brick? He's always been smart."
"Comes with the territory, doesn't it? Knowing things just pisses you off more."
"But how did he learn—did he go to school? Or did you guys go to school?"
"So how did you learn anything?"
"What is it with all these questions?" he said, and Blossom took in his expression, now stony and grim. Shoot. She'd have to try another tactic.
"I'm sorry," she said, letting a bit of remorse enter her tone. She tightened her grasp on his arm. "I was just curious."
Bubbles will be mad if you don't.
But she'd never know. She wouldn't know if he didn't say—
No. He wouldn't lie to her.
Mike had not appeared to have recognized Boomer, even though he'd been looking right at him. Instead he had walked past him, more focused on maneuvering through the crowd, his arms weighed down by shopping bags.
Boomer stared, then shouted, "Bubbles, it's Mike!" and went after him. When he didn't hear her respond, he paused and turned in confusion.
No powers and you're in a crowd. She can't hear you.
"Shit," he muttered, turning back to find he had lost the target. He pushed forward, head whipping side-to-side, and just when he was about to give up Mike's head bobbed into sight again, a considerable distance away. "Mike!" Boomer called, but his name melted into the crowd noise. Mike gave no indication that he had heard anything, just kept weaving his way through people, shopping bags in hand. He was booking it, a kid on a mission, every second carrying him that much farther away.
Boomer looked around for Bubbles, but she was nowhere in sight. And if she didn't show up soon…
Mike parted from the crowd, disappearing into an alley. Boomer swore and went after him.
Well, at least they have a tracker on me.
Brick leaned against the wall of a custom frame store, closed for business on the weekends. His feet were just outside the circle of light cast by a dim streetlamp, its color familiar. He stood a little straighter, shuffling his feet back and away from it.
He watched on with disinterest as the crowd grew in anticipation of the parade. This was stupid. How were they supposed to find this woman? The place was crawling with people and she'd have her pick of victims tonight; there were no guarantees that one of their three would be targeted. Whose brilliant fucking idea was this, anyway?
"Here for the parade?"
He looked up, half-expecting the universe to throw him a Fuck you and see an old woman standing next to him. But it wasn't. Much the opposite, in fact. She had sharp features accentuated with just a touch of makeup, and her honey-blonde hair fell in soft waves that curled strategically around her breasts. She wasn't in costume; the dress she wore had intricate lace detailing and, judging from the way it clung to her frame, had been custom-made for her.
"You looked lonely," she said, her voice sweet and sultry and… choral, oddly? He found himself instantly wanting to hear more, and yet, as good as he thought a woman looked in lace, this was not the time.
Brick dragged his eyes away from hers and held up a hand. "Lady, I'm not in the mood."
"Oh, I could help with that," she said, that choir singing again. He found his eyes drifting back, unable to focus on anything but her face. He shook his head and blinked at her, suddenly irritated at the interruption, irritated at this city, at Buttercup, at Blossom, at the ridiculousness of these fucking circumstances that made him not want to talk to a gorgeous woman when she approached him.
"I am a teenager, you pedophile. Don't make me hit you."
"You wouldn't do something like that in front of all these people, would you?"
"I fucking hit hard."
"I'm sure you do."
Her long fingers stretched towards him. He grimaced.
Fine. You asked for it.
His fist was halfway to her breathtaking face when those long fingers brushed along his hand. They seemed to dance along it in slow motion, and then he felt himself buckling as his head rolled back, his eyes heavy with the weight of sleep.
That's not normal, he thought, and a wave of exhaustion swept through him, pushing out one last breath before everything went black.
Professor Utonium looked up from his table, his pencil stilling on his notepad. "Hey! Buttercup? What—why aren't you out with the group?"
"I'm not feeling it," Buttercup said, settling in the chair across from him. "Blossom and Bubbles have got their eyes on the boys and we can track 'em from here, anyway. I'd rather hang with you."
The Professor's face lit up, and she couldn't help but laugh.
"Oh my God, you're such a dork."
"No, I just! I mean, I am, but." He made this expression somewhere between a smile and a pout, then rose out of his chair. "Thanks for keeping your old man company. I'm getting another coffee. Do you want anything?"
She glanced over at the baked goods in the window. They looked like they'd been sitting there all day. She made a face and shook her head at him.
"They have hot chocolate. I could get you a hot chocolate. It's pumpkin spice season, too."
"Okay, a hot chocolate."
As he went to the counter, she swung his laptop around to check out where the boys were. Boomer and, she presumed, Bubbles, had left the square and were wandering through a residential area roughly half a mile away. She looked out the window, assessing where she'd need to run if something happened. Half a mile was nothing for her.
Brick was a few blocks away, not far from where they'd split. Butch and Blossom appeared to have gone into the mall. She propped her elbow on the table and rested her chin in her hand. Her cheek smushed into her face.
She'd considered running off to find Butch and Blossom. She was pretty sure Blossom had regretted her decision five minutes after making it. On the other hand, this was probably the only time Butch was ever going to get a date with her, even if it was a fake one.
She wondered what they were doing. Blossom tended to be awkward in regular social situations with their peers, but they were there on a mission, so she'd probably walk them back and forth, steering Butch from one teen-themed store to another. Butch had probably tried to walk them into a lingerie store.
Yeah. There was no way Blossom was going to last more than five minutes.
"Here you go, sweetie."
She looked up as she took the drink from the Professor, so she missed it: On the screen, Brick's dot disappeared, then reappeared in the next instant at the other end of the map.
"Thanks, Professor." Her gaze immediately zeroed in on Butch's dot again as she took a sip.
"So what is it about Brick that you like so much?" Butch asked, and Blossom's heart shot into her throat. She jerked away in surprise, but Butch had a firm grip on her arm. He glanced down at her. "I mean. Since we're prying and all."
"Oh come on, I'm not stupid."
Blossom's indignant anger kicked in. "Let go of me."
Butch tightened his grip. "Doesn't seem fair, you pretending to be sweet and interested—"
"We are pretending, that is the point—"
"And using me to dig into our past—"
"I wasn't using you, I was—"
"Just 'cause you couldn't get anything out of him—"
Blossom switched tactics again. She punched him in the gut.
The instant his hold loosened she tore out of it, stalking to the railing to glare at the pedestrians on the floor below them. Eventually she sensed Butch approaching, and she stiffened as he joined her at the rail. At least he had the decency to keep a few feet between them.
"This isn't about Brick," she said.
"Bullshit. Everything is always about Brick."
The undercurrent of hurt beneath all that viciousness in his voice stunned her, and she bit back her usual reprimand and chanced a glance at him. Maybe he was thinking of something that had happened when they were kids, or just their conversation up until now; she couldn't tell. All she could tell was that he was miserable, and then, like a contagious disease, it spread to her.
The weight of her last memory in this city crushed her, and something couldn't help but spill out.
"I don't know why," she whispered. "I don't. He's… he's so mean. He doesn't care about other people. Doesn't seem to. He's got such a high opinion of himself, and he looks down on everybody, and…" There was too much to say, too much that was wrong with him, too many reasons that she couldn't parse into enough words.
She clenched at the rail, almost expecting it to give under the pressure of her hands. Thank God for the Antidote X, tonight.
"But I still… I can't help it. I don't know why."
She listened to his silence as he waited for her to continue. When she didn't, he sighed and hoisted himself up so he could sit on the railing, his back to the open fall. Her instincts kicked in and she gasped.
"What are you doing?! Get down—"
He ignored her and hung upside down, his knees dangling on their side. She grabbed at his hands, still gripping the rail.
I don't know why, either, he thought.
"People are staring, you're making a scene—"
"If something happens to you, Buttercup's gonna kill me—"
Something shot through him, stopping in his throat. He hung there for a second, the blood rushing to his head. Like the vortex, except, well.
Suddenly this did seem pretty stupid. He tensed his core and sat up, jumping down. Blossom instantly pulled him away from the edge.
"Oh, thank God," she said.
He stared at his hands in hers, then looked up and smirked. "Got you to hold my hand after all."
She gaped at him for a second, then ripped her hands away and shoved him in the chest.
He laughed. "Careful! I might go over the edge again!"
"God, I wish!" she snapped, stalking away.
He forced another laugh, watching her walk away, marveling at how little it did for him now. The smile dropped off his face and he stuck his hands in the pockets of his borrowed letter jacket. He felt clumsy and useless and pathetic.
Brick had always had that effect on people. And it wasn't like his brothers were any exception.
He thought about going after her.
Fuck it. I need a smoke.
Brick came to slowly. The room fuzzed in his vision. He groaned and tried to press himself up, his arms quivering with the effort. Christ, it was like AB all over again.
A blurry face appeared, and he blinked furiously, trying to pull it into focus.
"Barely," he managed. It was a woman. Wait. What woman?
That doesn't make any sense.
He looked around, coming into himself a bit more fully. They were in a high-rise—one entire wall was windows, the city's lights twinkling below them. Brick took in the posh setting, his eyes falling last on the king-sized bed that he had woken up on, and froze.
"You passed out," she said, but her arms were framing his waist, one knee between his legs, and his gaze darted to the wall, where her shadow—
He kicked her off of him and backed away, tumbling off the side of the bed and trying to summon the strength to stand. Even the effort of getting away took too much out of him; he had to grab onto a chair to pull himself up.
"Sweetheart! Calm down!"
Brick's head snapped to the door, where he heard more voices, more commotion. Fuck, if there was more than one of these—
He gripped the arms of the chair and tried to stand, staring at her shadow: two sets of wings, rising up into the ceiling, and a serpentine, barbed tail flicking in annoyance.
"You should lie down," she said sweetly, the eyes of her human form darkening to something unnatural.
"No, thank you," he said.
The doors burst open, and his gaze was compelled by some invisible force to look. A group of four or five women hovered by the door.
Shit. Shit shit shit.
"Laurie, do you need a hand in here, sweetie?"
"Not yet," she said, that demonic gaze drilling into Brick.
"You might," another voice said. "He looks like a runner."
"More of a fighter," Laurie said. Brick's grip tightened on the arms of the chair, his gaze darting to the window and back.
"You'll never survive the fall, honey," one of the girls said.
"I'll take my chances," Brick said, then turned and threw the chair with all his might at the nearest window. It might not shatter completely, but at least he could crack it—
The chair bounced comically off of the glass and hit the floor.
"Oh, fuck off!" he shouted, before being engulfed in a wave of succubi.
Blossom sat on a mall bench, knees drawn to her chest. Normally she wouldn't have put her feet up on any public surface, but it made her feel small and gave her some semblance of comfort.
I don't know why.
She buried her head in her knees and sighed.
I shouldn't have left him alone.
She just wasn't up to this right now. Butch had been right, incredibly. It wasn't fair of her to pry and not expect him to pry back. He'd been right about the other thing, too. It hadn't been about anything else but Brick. Protecting the city was just an excuse now. And while she hated to admit it, she just didn't care about where the boys had been in the way she had before. No. She just. Just.
I wanted to know more about him.
What a stupid, pathetic girl she was.
Her head snapped up to find Bubbles standing next to her. Bubbles smiled, her expression soft. "Hey."
"Hi." Blossom put her feet down on the ground.
She obliged, and Bubbles sat.
Blossom sat still for a moment, then simply hitched her shoulders up and dropped them with a sigh.
"Was he a jerk?"
"Yeah. Well. I mean. He was himself. But I was a jerk too. Probably a bigger one."
Bubbles wiggled closer and wrapped an arm around Blossom, who leaned into the embrace automatically.
"I hate it here," Blossom whispered. "I can't stop thinking about it."
"It makes me so sad."
"I'm sorry about our birthday. I wasn't thinking."
"I'm really sorry."
"Okay, no more apologizing. I'm done being upset about it. Probably."
"I shouldn't have left Butch." Blossom lifted her head and looked around.
"We can check where they are on the tracker."
"I'm not sure." Bubbles took out her phone. "But there's good news, at least. Look."
Blossom squinted to read a text from Boomer. "'10 Sugarplastic Drive?' Where's—oh my God."
Her eyes had settled on the photo underneath his text, its subject—
"Mike, he's found Mike! Why didn't you tell me first thing?!" Blossom cried, leaping to her feet and running to the exits.
Bubbles jogged up next to her. "You looked so sad, and I figured we have a tracker on Boomer, so as long as they stay together—"
"I'm not important right now! Mike's the one missing!"
"Not anymore. And you're important, too." Bubbles' hand fumbled for Blossom's as they ran. Blossom allowed her a squeeze, then resumed her mad dash for the doors.
"Family stuff later! We have to find Boomer first! We don't even know where this place is!"
Boomer studied the wooden beams in the ceiling of their tunnel. They didn't look new, but they appeared sturdy enough to hold. Behind the wooden frame was a cobblestone wall, and he reached out to brush his hands along the bumpy surface. When he brought his hand back to his face, he could see smears of dust on his skin.
"Where are we going?" he asked Mike, not looking up. Not like there was enough light down here to see him anyway.
The light on Mike's cell phone swiveled back to Boomer for a second, momentarily blinding him. "I'm gonna introduce you to someone."
Boomer snorted. "Sounds like something a serial killer would say."
"I'm not a serial killer."
"I'll take your word for it."
Voices started to trickle down the corridor. Boomer tensed at first, but the conversation didn't sound ominous—much the opposite, in fact. It sounded… kind of normal?
The light on Mike's phone switched off, and Boomer automatically took a step back and braced. But Mike continued on, and as Boomer's eyes adjusted he could see the dim, scattershot glow of fairy lights illuminating the far wall.
The tunnel seemed to dead end where the lights were strung, and Mike paused to glance back at Boomer.
"Come on," he said, heading to the left and disappearing. Not a dead end. Just a bend.
Boomer wondered if being underground might interfere with the tracker.
She'll find me.
He shook out his shoulders and followed Mike.
Butch's steps echoed in the parking garage as he climbed the stairs. He struck a match off of his teeth, a hint of sulfur in his mouth as he planted a joint between his lips and lit it.
It sounded like a party outside, off in the distance. Probably the parade they'd seen setting up before they got to the mall. He took a puff and glanced to the side, eyes looking out for an empty floor where he could smoke in peace. There were a few cars scattered throughout the garage, and he could see a kid sitting in one of them by himself. Shit, some fucker was gonna get child services called on them.
He climbed to the next floor, but this was a no-go, too. Another couple of kids were standing at the wall, looking out over the city and down at the parade. Jesus, apparently the Citysville Mall garage did double-duty as a daycare center. Those kids couldn't have been more than eight.
He got to the next floor and paused.
A boy stood at the far end of the garage, staring his way.
He furrowed his brow. "Something wrong, kid?"
The boy said nothing. Didn't even blink.
Like something out of a horror movie, Butch thought. It occurred to him that he'd been climbing a while, and he looked over at the column on which the floor number was painted.
That can't be right. I came in on the second floor.
He hurried to the next floor.
No, that's not—
Another flight. P3.
"What the fuck's going on here?" he said aloud, pulling his joint out of his mouth. He turned and froze.
No cars here. Only an entire floor of kids from wall-to-wall, their pallid gray eyes fixed on him.
"Oh, no fucking thank you," he declared, and bolted back down.
"Hey, hey, hey!" Brick shoved one of them off of him, and several more took its place.
"Boy, you are deliciously frustrated," a voice hissed in his ear, and he wrenched away, but several arms held him fast and pulled him back.
God, Antidote X was a stupid idea.
Inky black eyes pierced his, upside down. The yellow slits of her pupils narrowed.
"There's someone in there," she said, disgusted.
"Yeah, no shit!" he spat. At least until they started sucking the life force out of him. Christ, demons were the fucking worst!
"Don't worry, sweetheart," she said, her lips curling. She drew close and he tensed back. "We'll get her out of there."
Boomer rounded the corner, ready to be jumped, ready to get stabbed at, or shot at, or possibly electrocuted? Maybe?
Instead he was met by a middle-aged woman in a bathrobe holding a cat.
"Hello," she said, a charming smile alighting on her face. Boomer was momentarily starstruck.
"Hi," he said. The white cat in her arms twitched its ears, and the movement disturbed the near-translucent fabric draped on the Classical sculpture that was her body. "Um." He pulled his eyes away, looking around. Her underground home was decorated lavishly, but tastefully. While it had never made much of a difference to him, they'd been on enough missions that he could just barely tell what was cheap and what was expensive.
Whoever she is, this lady is loaded.
The thought jarred his mind to the task at hand, and he asked, "Who are you?"
That smile was radiant. The cat leaped to her shoulder as she extended an arm."A welcoming hostess."
Okay, I guess we're not using names.
He took her hand."Then I am. Um. A confused guest?"
Her laughter had the character of honey sliding down the inside of a jar. That silk smooth hand left his. The cat jumped back into her arms, and she held it out to him.
"Be a dear and entertain the kitty, would you?"
"I, uh." Before he could protest, the cat was in his arms, its green eyes burning into his. He blinked and looked up. "I don't know anything about—"
"You'll be fine," the woman said, waving a hand as she walked away. "Boys, is my bath ready?"
Mike and two other boys had appeared at the far doorway. "Yes, ma'am."
"Thank you," she said, touching a hand to Mike's cheek as she walked past.
Boomer's eyes went wide. The other boys were teenagers, too.
She has to be—
The cat interrupted him by pawing at his face, and he blinked.
"Sorry, kitty. Uh." He looked around for a toy. The cat pawed at his face again, and he looked down. Kitty was staring at him, and as soon as their eyes met, it started to purr.
The thrum of it vibrated against him, a sweet, hypnotic buzz, and he felt something inside him melt.
"Aww," he said, and reached to tickle its chest.
"When did Brick get so far away?" Bubbles said, eyeing the map as they packed the Professor's gear.
"Let's figure that out later," Blossom said.
"We'll head to Sugarplastic," Buttercup said, indicating herself and Bubbles. "It's walking distance. Blossom, you and the Professor should take the car and go get Brick."
"Me? Why me?"
Buttercup had to raise her voice over the noise of the parade as they made their way outside. "I'm not in the mood to deal with that douche right now."
"Buttercup," the Professor said.
"Be careful, you two," he said, giving Bubbles a kiss on the head and Buttercup a squeeze.
"You too," Bubbles and Buttercup said in unison as they urged Blossom into the car.
"Girls, where on Earth have you all gone?"
Brick stopped struggling for a second. I know that voice.
"In here, Lilith!" one of the flesh-eating monsters chirped, and it slammed into Brick like a freight train.
"Oh, no." He groaned and went slack.
"Giving in, are we?" one near his cheek purred.
"Could you just start eating me?" he said. It was far preferable to dying of humiliation.
The door pushed open. "Gosh, you girls must have something good. You didn't even finish these guys out—"
The room flashed for a second, as if it was being engulfed in flame, then immediately converged to a single point at the room's entrance. Brick allowed his gaze to be pulled to the figure at the door.
The Mother of Demons gasped, a delighted smile curling onto her face.
"Brick! Is that you?"
He pulled his lips tight, an approximation of a greeting as the demonic horde turned their heads from their leader to him in stunned confusion.
"Hi, Aunt Lilith."
After her bath, the woman re-emerged in a nightgown. Five or so boys complimented her on it almost immediately, then resumed their various chores. There was sweeping and dusting happening around Boomer, and the clinking of glass as one boy mixed her a drink.
The clinking seemed out of place, and Boomer wanted to look up and see where it had come from. But the kitty was demanding attention. He couldn't bring himself to do anything else.
It tilted its chin up, eyes tapering in pleasure as he scratched its neck. Then it angled its head so his hand could migrate to an ear.
A dreamy smile curled onto his face. What a good kitty. What a good, soft kitty.
Now the head, a voice said to him, from somewhere, and he obliged.
Not the back. The forehead.
"Sorry," he murmured, and adjusted course.
The cat's purring filled his head, a near deafening drone.
Brick stared at his reflection in his coffee as Lilith chittered the usual grown-up platitudes reserved for small children. The rest of the ladies had cleared the room, though a few of them lingered by the door, eavesdropping.
This is so embarrassing.
"I haven't seen you in ages! Gosh, you're all grown up now."
"Not quite. I'm seventeen. And it's only been, like, five years. How does that translate to 'ages' for you? Haven't you lived since the dawn of time or something?"
The succubus shrugged, her dark hair slipping across her shoulders and wings like water cascading over a falls. "You can't help but lose track of the time when you live that long. Everything gets all jumbled up together. How is your Father?"
Brick had known the question was coming, but cringed at it anyway. "The same," he bit out.
"We're not due to catch up for a while yet. Is He still—"
"I don't know, actually," Brick said, unable to manage even a second more of this. "We're… kind of on the outs right now. He's mad 'cause I left a few years back. Me and my brothers."
She tittered, the sound like ringing bells. "That's so human."
"What, the leaving?"
"I'm surprised He let you."
"Yeah, well. He wasn't exactly… happy about it."
"And Boomer went? Goodness, I'd never have imagined it. They were a pair—"
"He wasn't happy about that, either."
"What a simple boy he was. Very sweet, though. He used to sing all the time—"
Brick grunted, trying to find a way out of this conversation.
He twisted to find one of the succubi hovering behind him, her hand extended. "Sorry for attacking you. I'm Nancy."
Brick took her hand. "Is that a direct translation?"
Nancy looked at Lilith. "A comedian, this one."
"Oh, you should meet his brothers."
"You have brothers?" a voice from the doorway asked.
"Do you have pictures?"
"Of course not," Brick snapped. "What teenager carries pictures of his brothers around?"
"Lilith, do you have pictures?"
"I'll show you when we get home," Lilith said, turning her attention back to Brick. "We're on vacation for another two weeks."
He screwed up his face in disbelief. "In Citysville?"
Lilith smirked. "It's a culinary vacation."
Boomer stopped petting the cat. He watched despondently as it shook itself, then scampered off, back to its owner's lap. They both stared at him, two sets of green eyes glowing.
He stood up. The woman grinned.
"Thank you," he said.
She tilted her head in a direction. "Be a dear and put on some music, would you?"
"Yes, ma'am," he said, and walked to a record player sitting next to the bar.
Why is there a bar down here?
So we can have drinks, said the voice.
Oh, Boomer thought. Of course. He started flipping through the LP's.
Brick took in the bin one of the ladies was holding out for him. It was full to brimming with cell phones, all manner of shapes and sizes. He cast a look at her and Lilith.
"Jesus. How much have you been eating?"
The woman holding the bin for him rolled her eyes. "Honey, please. We're on vacation. The calories don't count."
He picked through, located his, and pocketed it.
"Uh, thanks." He couldn't remember this one's name. Lilith had run down the line, but none of them had stuck.
Lilith watched as he powered up his phone, not even remotely distracted by the bevy of supernatural women in his vicinity.
"You know, we could help with that," she offered.
"What? The—" Brick cut off, remembering what the other demon had said. There's someone in there. "Oh. That."
"I mean, unless you want her there."
"I don't—I mean, it's not." Brick slumped, the residual exhaustion weighing on him. "I don't know."
"You're very conflicted."
"I'm dealing with it."
"Mm, and very well, at that."
We'll get her out of there. Brick didn't want her there. He didn't. At least…
"You're considering," Lilith said, and he looked up. This was ridiculous.
"The price point's a little high for me."
Lilith laughed, a pearl in a sea of black, suffocating ink. "Can't argue there. I know a woman's worth."
Butch collided with another body as he bolted down the stairs, nearly eating concrete.
The stranger clung to him, eyes wide with fear and relief. "Oh, thank Christ! Another person!"
Butch quickly assessed him, immediately determined he was going to be completely useless, and whirled on the crowd of kids. He was really sick of running.
A swarm of gray-eyed children were advancing upon them. The dead weight was blubbering the usual nonsense about being stuck and never getting out of here and ohmygodwe'regonnadie—
"Are there any rules about punching kids?" Butch interrupted.
The dude stopped babbling, caught off guard. "What?"
"Never mind," Butch said, and started punching.
"Hey." One of the demons that had been lounging out on the balcony poked her head into the room. "That chick we saw in your head just drove up."
Brick's eyes widened. "What?" he said, unable to help himself, then mentally cursed and darted a look at Lilith. She was smirking at him. Ugh, damn it.
"Sounds like she's looking for you," the succubus said, holding a hand to the back of her ear.
Brick jumped to his feet. "I should go."
"Yes, don't keep her waiting," Lilith purred.
"Or let her come up here," Brick said sternly. "This is a room full of succubi and half-dead men. She's a superhero."
"This hotel is full of guests who spend thousands of dollars on sneakers and couldn't tell you how much a banana costs, Brick," Lilith said patiently. "Do you really think they'd just let a high school student with zero connection to the hotel or any of its guests up to the penthouse?"
"Bye, Lilith. Good catching up."
"You're supposed to call me Auntie!"
He waved her off, trying not to trip over the bodies on his way out the door. Lilith's horde paused their feeding just long enough to watch him go.
One of them said, "Bye—"
He shut the door. The horde exchanged glances.
"What a rude boy."
"You'd think he'd have some manners, considering his Father."
"He threatened to punch me when I was abducting him."
The other succubi gasped.
"Yes, he's a jerk, ladies," Lilith said, appearing at the door. "But he's also just a kid."
"Do you think she's his girlfriend?"
"Definitely not. Why else would he be so angry?"
"Girl came to find him, though."
One of the succubi jumped to her feet. "I'm gonna snoop."
The rest of them followed suit.
"You shouldn't snoop," Lilith said, with little conviction as they all assumed their human disguises.
"Well, we owe him a proper goodbye, at least."
Brick jogged out of the elevators, which opened dramatically onto the immense lobby. He could already see Blossom, busy trying to wrestle information out of the very disinterested concierge.
"You don't understand," she said, waggling her phone at him. "I have his location right—"
"Hey," he said, coming to a stop behind her. She whipped around, eyes wide.
"Hey!" She pocketed her phone and shot the concierge a glare, who rolled his eyes and busied himself with some very important standing around at the other end of the counter. "How'd you wind up all the way over here?"
"See you around!"
"Come back and visit!"
Brick cringed, not daring to turn around. Blossom furrowed her brow and leaned to the side to peek past Brick's shoulder. He didn't have to turn to know what she was looking at: A pack of strikingly beautiful women (who wouldn't mind their own damn business) peering out of an elevator and waving at Brick.
"Who are they?"
Brick waved a hand behind him, feebly. "Friends of the family."
"'Friends of the'—what were you doing up there?"
"It's a long story," Brick said. "But it wasn't our lady. What about Mike?"
"Boomer found him. Buttercup and Bubbles are heading their way. We came to get you. Hurry, the Professor's about to get ticketed."
As they left, Brick threw a parting glare over his shoulder. The girls smiled and waved, then turned to one another as the elevator doors shut.
"Terrible taste, though."
"I don't know," the one who had captured him said. "The mouthful I got when I grabbed him was pretty delicious."
"Ugh, I'm so jealous," one of them whined, playing at hitting her friend. "I wish he hadn't been a relation of Lilith's."
The elevator dinged, and the doors opened on a solitary man, who paused as he took in the box brimming with beautiful women.
They smiled as one unit at him, and he grinned back.
"Must be my lucky night," he said, winking as he entered the elevator.
"Must be," the chorus sang, their eyes darkening as the doors closed.
Buttercup paused just before they turned down the street that would take them to the nearby residential area that Boomer had texted them. She grabbed at Bubbles' arm. "Holy shit."
"What? What's wrong?"
She pointed. "Guess who."
Butch hobbled towards them, some dude clinging to his leg. "Will you two help get this fucker off of me?"
The girls dashed over. Bubbles immediately pried the stranger off of Butch's leg and coaxed him away.
"Fuckin' thank you," Butch said, shaking his leg out.
"Good timing," Buttercup said. "Boomer found Mike."
"We're heading over there now. Come on."
"Aren't you gonna ask what happened to me?" Butch said as they started jogging away.
"Did something happen to you?"
The guy they left behind screeched in fear as a costumed child walked by.
Five minutes later Bubbles was staring up at the dilapidated apartment building that sat at 10 Sugarplastic Drive, ominous in the moonlight. It seemed to sway against the night sky, looming over her. As if it were leaning in to inspect its prey.
"This side of the street looks abandoned," Buttercup said.
"Same on this side," Butch said.
Bubbles studied the directory, then punched a button at random. It didn't even buzz.
The Professor honked as he pulled up, and soon he, Blossom, and Brick had joined Buttercup and Bubbles at the door. Butch had backed up a good ten feet away, encouraged by the Professor's glare.
"Any luck?" Blossom asked.
"Not really," Bubbles said. "I think it's a puzzle. You should get in here. I don't have the right head for them."
Boomer continued flipping through the records.
Boomer grunted. He pulled one record case out, flipped it over to study it for a second, then set it down and resumed his flipping.
"What's taking so long?" the woman said.
"Hold on," Boomer said, reaching the end of the stack and starting over from the beginning. "I'm trying to find something good."
"Just put something on."
"No, it's—you need the right mood music. I have a whole philosophy about this—"
Mike stilled the feather duster in his hand and looked up. "Yes, ma'am?"
The woman gestured. "Pick a record."
Mike headed over to relinquish Boomer of his task, but Boomer grabbed the shelf and pulled it away from Mike.
"I'm almost done! I'm almost done. I've narrowed it down to, like, ten—"
"Ten?!" she cried.
"Yes! I just—Jesus, Mike, lay off—"
"I think you should play with the kitty some more," she said, grabbing the cat and stalking over.
"No no no! I'm picking, I'm picking! Let me pick!" He backed away frantically, hunching over the records protectively.
"Play with the kitty," two voices said, one high, one low, and Boomer paused. One of the boys was apparently loaded with testosterone.
"Who said that?"
"Play with the kitty," the woman said again, and the cat punctuated this with a mreow.
"In a second! Okay, Mike, seriously, stop touching me. This body is reserved for Bubbles—"
"Bubbles?" Mike stopped, his pupils dilating. The consciousness, the awe in his voice sent a frosty chill through Boomer, and he narrowed his gaze.
"Bubbles?!" The woman and cat had gone stock still, and she threw the cat aside and grabbed Boomer by the shirt, upsetting the records.
"Bubbles the Powerpuff Girl?!" she said in his face, her eyes ablaze.
He beamed. "You know her?! Yeah! She's my girlfriend!"
"What?!" the cat shouted, and Boomer did a double-take.
"Holy shit you can talk?!"
She threw him aside. "We gotta get out of here."
Boomer scrambled to his feet, still holding the record shelf. "Wait! Don't! You should, uh, hang out!"
"Boys! Start packing the valuables!"
"Yes, ma'am," a chorus of voices resounded.
Boomer grabbed at one of his record selects and hastily slid it out of its casing so he could start it up.
He managed to drop the needle and flipped the switch to hold it in place before something came flying out of the woman's head and locked around his throat.
"We could just break down the door," Butch said.
"Great minds," Buttercup said.
The Professor squinted. "Some of these are not like the others. Faraday, Planck, Newton…"
"They're scientists," Blossom and Brick said, then exchanged a glance.
"Of course you nerds would know that," Buttercup said.
"And von Heisenberg," the Professor finished. His eyebrows lifted. "Let me try something."
"Be careful, Professor," Bubbles said, and he held a finger up to gently shush her as he hummed under his breath, brow furrowed in concentration.
"Newton," he murmured, and pressed the corresponding soundless button. "Faraday. Von Heisenberg. And Planck."
As he connected with the fourth button, the locking mechanism released, and everybody turned as the door opened for them. Instead of a foyer, it revealed a dark staircase leading down.
"Well done, Professor!" Blossom said, her face illuminating with pride.
"Oh, Professor, you're a genius!" Bubbles threw her arms around his shoulders for a squeeze.
"Not a genius, honey. Just a scientist. Who listens to music occasionally."
Buttercup edged to the front and tilted her head.
"Don't hear nothing," she said, activating the flashlight on her cell. "Let's go."
"Huh," Boomer choked out as he tried to loosen the binds around his neck. "You're not nearly as old as they said you were."
Those green eyes flared. "Are you trying to get me to strangle you faster?"
Her platinum tresses were gone. In their place was a dark, writhing mass with a life of its own, one long tendril stretched towards him and wrapped taut around his windpipe.
"Don't I know you from somewhere?" he wheezed.
"Who cares?" she growled, and the binds tightened.
Boomer grimaced, then stabbed at the Start button on the record player with his shoe. If he was going to get strangled to death, he was going to have some bgm going, damn it.
The speakers popped. He realized his folly almost immediately—this record was great, but the first track was a quiet, slow starter. Shit. E.L.O. had been his second choice. That would've been some badass music to die to.
"They're at the door!" The cat came whipping around the fairy-light corner, panicked. "They'll be here any second!"
"Damn it," the woman muttered, and released Boomer so she could snatch a couple of the duffels the boys had packed for her. He hit the ground, gasping. She yanked at one of the dangling light bulbs, and the panel of wood it was attached to popped open.
"How many secret exits does this place have?" Boomer groaned, rubbing at his throat.
She snapped a cuff around her wrist and aimed her arm upwards. A grappling hook shot out of it, into the darkness.
"Wait for me!" the cat pleaded, attempting a jump.
"You're on your own, furball," the woman said, and disappeared with a whirr into the shaft.
The cat missed grabbing onto her by that much, and landed on Boomer's chest.
"Gotcha! Ow! Wait!"
The cat swiped and squirmed out of Boomer's grasp. "Attack!"
"No! Don't attack!" Boomer said, wincing at the scratches on his face. "Everybody just chill or something!"
The boys turned to Boomer and started advancing as the kitty got away.
"Oh, come on, guys," he said, thumping his arms against his sides. "You don't want to get in a fight with me."
A couple of them dove, and he sidestepped them. Another threw a very blockable punch, but without the X, Boomer had to flap his hand to ride out the discomfort.
He cranked up the volume on the speakers. "Okay, fine. This isn't exactly rumble music," he announced to the room, settling into a fighting stance. "But I guess it'll have to do."
The lights on Blossom and Buttercup's cells bobbed as they paused in the corridor.
"I hear something," Blossom said.
Bubbles furrowed her brow, their father's hand in hers. "It's music."
Brick tilted his head. "Old music."
"Simon and Garfunkel isn't that old," the Professor said, a little defensively.
This was punctuated by a series of crashes. The group exchanged glances, then all broke into a run.
The harem of high school boys was not much of a hindrance on the combat side, but still pretty annoying. Boomer shoved a few guys around before saying, "Aw, fuck it," and began to throw a few punches of his own. He got most of them rolling around on the ground with a well-placed liver jab before an arm suddenly crooked itself around his neck and yanked him into a chokehold.
"Mike, man, for fuck's sake!"
Boomer grabbed his arm and immediately dropped, throwing Mike over his shoulders. Mike's back thwacked against the ground. Boomer pinned him and drew back his fist. The music swelled; it was the climax of the song and the energy of it pulsed through Boomer, a perfect soundtrack.
Mike lifted his head, his eyes widening in recognition, but before he could say a word Boomer punched him in the face.
"Oops," Boomer said flatly, and popped back up onto his feet. "Now where did that cat go?"
His chest soared at the sound of Bubbles' voice, and he ran for the tunnel, arms spread as wide as his grin. The group rounded the corner, and he collided into Brick.
"Gah," they said in unison, swiping each other away, and Boomer adjusted course for Bubbles.
She wrapped him up in a hug. "Oh, I'm glad you're okay."
"Me—" Boomer caught Professor Utonium's eye and froze.
"What happened here?" Butch said, taking in the room full of groaning teenagers, most of them clutching their abdomens.
Boomer filled them in as Blossom and the Professor went around checking the victims for injuries. The girls and the Professor paused when Boomer got to the woman and the talking cat.
"Sedusa was here?" Buttercup said.
Boomer snapped and pointed. "Oh! That's who that was! I knew I knew her from somewhere!"
"We know that cat, too." Blossom swept her attention around the room. "Looks like they were working together to steal all this stuff."
"But why all the boys?" Buttercup said. "Were they doing the stealing?"
Boomer shook his head. "These guys were literally just, like, cleaning and stuff."
"She was abducting teenage boys to buttle for her?" Blossom asked in disbelief.
Butch snorted. "Buttle."
"Where's Mike?" Bubbles asked.
Mike groaned from the direction of the bar in response, and Bubbles and Blossom gasped, dashing over.
"Are you okay? Can you sit up?"
"Yeah, I'm fine," he said, easing up into a sitting position with one hand held to an eye.
Blossom went investigative. "Do you remember what happened? How you got here?"
"No. I don't. At least… I don't think so? Everything's all fuzzy. Where's Robin's corsage?"
"Homecoming's over, man," Butch said. "It's Halloween."
Mike's head snapped to Butch's, his hand pulling away from his face. "What?!"
"Oh my God, your eye's all puffy," Bubbles said, leaning in and gently brushing some of Mike's hair away from his face. Boomer's skin went electric, but settled as Bubbles turned to him. "How did that happen?"
He stared for a second, then tucked his chin and pulled back, a little sheepish. "My fault. They told the guys to move on me, and I—"
"Don't worry about it," Mike interrupted, waving him off. "You did what you had to do. I'm sorry for pushing you. Or… whatever it was I did."
"You don't even remember anything," Bubbles said, her brow knit tight.
"Doesn't matter whether I remember or not. I did something, didn't I?"
Blossom took over, peering into Mike's face and gently moving Bubbles aside. "Your nose isn't bleeding, so that's a good sign. Are you seeing double?"
Boomer took the opportunity to wrap his arm around Bubbles' waist and pull her close as Mike said, "No."
"I'm sorry," Boomer whispered into his girlfriend's hair.
"No, it's… it's okay," she said, a little stiffly. "I just wish you'd been more careful."
Brick's eyes were fixed on him. Boomer stared levelly back.
His leader sighed and turned his attention to Mike and Blossom. "We better get some ice on that. You're gonna have a hell of a shiner in a couple of days." Then, without turning around, "Butch. Put it all back."
Butch, who had been surreptitiously pocketing the smaller valuables, froze. "No, man, I was just gonna. You know. Transport it for safekeeping."
"No sign of the cat," Buttercup said, emerging from the doorway leading to the bath. "But I found a whole wig collection in there. Explains how she looked eighty on the security cams."
"Let's run out and call the police," Bubbles said, prying herself away from Boomer. "We can't get any reception down here. Professor, would you help me with Mike?"
"I can walk," Mike said, but Bubbles kept his arm around her shoulders on the way out anyway. Boomer stared at them.
"What's with all the booze in here?" Buttercup said.
"I think it's an old speakeasy," Brick said.
"Where were you guys this whole time?" Boomer asked.
Butch rolled his eyes. "Mall. Where I got attacked. By a bunch of possessed ghost kids or something."
"That sounds pretty hard to believe," Blossom said.
"You realize we dealt with a magic zombie who thought you were the little girl that inadvertently killed him when we were kids, right?" Buttercup said.
Boomer tossed his head at their leader. "What about you, Brick?"
"I ran into Aunt Lilith. I got mistakenly snatched up by one of her horde to feed on. She's on vacation with her coven."
Butch's jaw dropped.
"'Coven?'" Buttercup looked at him. "What do you mean, coven?"
"I… mean a bunch of her girlfriends," Brick corrected.
"What?!" Butch shrieked. "How is it that you join a boy harem, and you get abducted by sex-crazed demons, but I wind up with the children of the fucking corn?!"
"Wait," Blossom said, frowning. "Those women were all succubi?"
"You saying you want to get eaten by sex-starved demons with your aunt watching?" Brick asked.
Butch stared at his leader as if he had just asked him the stupidest question in the universe.
"Is this place a Hellmouth or something?" Buttercup asked. She paused. "That would explain a lot."
Giving their report to the Citysville Police was a remarkably painless process. Between the standard Halloween mischief, several prank calls reporting attacks by gray-eyed children, and the seven teenage boys that suddenly needed to be returned home, the CVPD had their hands full. After Boomer gave a description of the suspect (at Brick's advice he left out the living hair and talking cat details), the department agreed to let the group take Mike home.
Bubbles piled into the car with the Professor and Mike to keep them company. Boomer rode with them, braving the Professor's icy front passenger seat.
"I'm gonna walk," Buttercup announced, and took off before anyone could protest. Butch automatically followed her. Blossom took one look at the taxi rates for Halloween and opted to walk, too, trailing behind Buttercup and Butch.
She didn't exchange any words with Brick. It caught her off guard when she glanced over her shoulder to find him following them on foot, just a few paces behind.
The sounds of celebration gradually faded, and before long they were at the bridge connecting Citysville and Townsville. She stared up at the superstructure, finding it familiar and sad.
Blossom took a deep breath and deliberately slowed. The thought that he might follow suit to maintain their distance crossed her mind, but no—he kept his pace, and within seconds she found herself matching her steps to his. Another deep breath.
"Thank you for the help."
They walked in silence for a moment.
"Sure. I mean… it wound up being kind of useless, I guess. Boomer was the one that found him."
"That's true." She clasped her hands behind her back, eyes skipping from one crack in the sidewalk to the next, on and on. "I guess I shouldn't have rescheduled that trip."
"Yeah. You shouldn't have."
She shut her eyes and tried to stave off the jolt of irritation that shot through her. God, why did he have to be like this?
"You. You should." He scratched at his head and adjusted his cap. "You should get to live the life you want. I mean, whatever, it's just a college visit. But you should, you know. It's your life. You don't owe anybody anything."
She stared at the walkway of the bridge, listening to his footfalls next to hers. She thought about Townsville, about Mike and Robin and their friends, about her father and her sisters. Graduation loomed, and beyond it, college and the inevitability of an adult life. Her adult life. It was too early for her to see where and how everything fit. Too early and too terrifying. She had only ever known a Townsville that needed her and her sisters' care. To even entertain the thought of leaving filled her with a guilt that sank into her stomach like a stone.
"You can't save everybody," Brick said, echoing a line from before, and it pulled her out of her thoughts, out of her head. "Or, well, you shouldn't feel that way."
She sighed. "We have—"
"An obligation. Right. But you shouldn't feel obligated. You didn't sign up for this. Everybody else gets a chance to choose. You should, too."
The wind picked up, ruffling the fabric of her shirt and sending her hair billowing behind her. She looked up into the night sky, wanting to disagree and, at the same time, touched that he cared enough to say it.
Townsville was approaching, the landscape of the city—her city, her home—unfurling before them. It was too early to see.
She looked at him, finally. His eyes were trained on the city as well, his face its usual serious self and his hands shoved in the pockets of a letter jacket that looked perfect on him. She wished it looked less perfect. She wished.
"You enjoy your date?"
Butch preened. "Are you kidding? We held hands."
"What? You don't believe me?"
"I think Blossom would rather dip her hands in battery acid."
"Shows how much you know." Butch bumped her with his shoulder. "What about your date?"
"Mine wasn't a date."
"We got pissed at each other and split. I hung out with my dad while Brick went—"
"Yeah, yeah, don't remind me," Butch muttered, casting a glare behind him. Blossom had drifted farther back and was walking next to his brother. His glare subsided, and he faced forward again, his eyes hitching on Buttercup's hand, bouncing on her thigh as they walked.
"So I had a great time," she said.
He stared into the distance for a second before responding. "But I got some action."
She snorted again. "Hand-holding counts as action for you? Fool, I've held your hand, too!"
Butch looked at her face. She stared straight ahead, smirking.
"Oh, shit. That means I've gotten action with two sisters!"
The smirk drooped into a groan.
"Now I just need one more to complete the set—"
"Gross," she announced, laughing as she shoved at him. "Gross and dumb."
He twisted his arms up to deflect, and her hands slid through his. He pulled away, electricity shooting through his chest.
He glanced at her hand again, now pulling at a loose thread on her jeans. He thought for a second, then looked away and crossed his arms, but that felt stupid, so he jammed his hands into his pockets instead.
He wanted to tell her that his not-date had sucked, that Blossom hadn't fit against him the same way, that he had completely forgotten about holding her hands until Buttercup had asked.
It hadn't felt the same. It wasn't the same. He wasn't even angry about it.
His hands worked at the inner lining of his pockets. Buttercup's hand continued to swing gently in time with the steady pulse of her step as they walked home.