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DENEM: Campground by the forest. Eli’s waiting

Lynn snapped the phone shut, leaning back against the door of her room. Something about her was prickled by that, something she could not fully identify. A part of her thought this might be a set-up - after all, the no cameras of the woods cut both ways, and with the commotion of Homecoming, it would be a while before anyone noticed two missing teenagers. A part of Lynn considered not going, of barring the door shut with her desk chair and enjoying a small lake's reserve of tequila by herself, not risking any mutilation by lizard claws or elbows to the nose or having to blow herself through the wall of a kitchen again.

But the rest of her knew the opposite was true - if she squirreled away and this wasn't a sting, she was going to look like a bitch, especially after she gave her word she'd be there. And looking like a bitch was worse than looking dead. Lynn dropped her bag on the bed and reread the message one more time. Eli - well, Lynn called her Denzel - was alright, but she was a bit confused. Why were they out there? This had to be some kind of party? That tracked. Lynn ran herself through the scenarios and was able to talk herself down from the nerve-jump jitters she'd worked herself up to a moment ago. It's just a party, Lynn told herself. And if it's a sting, you will turn that campground into fucking Nagasaki with all the liquor in your bag.

Lynn took off her work clothes, markedly turning away from the Promise-issued mirror in her room as she did so. Lynn threw the apron, black jeans and t-shirt into the corner, yanking the no-slip tennis shoes off and throwing them still tied to the other side. Lynn went to throw on normal clothes but paused for a moment. Through the window (which Lynn kept shuttered, and slathered with a thin film of vaseline, so as to detect intrusion) she could hear the roaring music of the whole station set to party. The pretty dresses. The make-up. The glimpse of the patrons in the front of house she'd seen had all been dolled up too.

Lynn walked over to her dresser and opened it up with a grunt. Of course they'd given her the one that jammed. It had only been a week and a half ago she had actually put her clothes away in the dresser as opposed to living out of her duffel bag. Excepting the last year and a half of her life, it had been a while since she'd been in one spot long enough to really really settle. Lynn rummaged through her things. "Fuck," she muttered, remembering. The mall. Damn him, she thought, thinking of Archie inviting them, Archie grabbing her, Archie making a butcher's fuckery of the whole afternoon. She'd meant to get clothes and hadn't. She had thought she might...well Keaton was always put together, and...

Lynn kicked the dresser and rubbed at her forehead for a moment. Then she glanced back in and pulled out one of her two pairs of jeans, electing the one which had the most material still intact. She grabbed a t-shirt and turned -

There was a woman in the corner of her room.

"Bitch!" Lynn screamed, cocking back.

She blinked. There was nothing. She walked over, throwing her arms to catch someone invisible. Nothing. No noise. She rubbed at her eyes and looked again, her heart thundering in her ears. It - fuck. It was a shadow. She'd - her hair, it glowed, it cast shadows sometimes, and she'd thought for sure was...

Lynn leaned back against the dresser for a moment, breathing, her hair and skin glowing like the bellows of a forge as she did so. Lynn threw her clothes to the ground and sat down at her backpack, fumbling with the zipper for a full thirty seconds. "Motherfucker," she muttered, finally managing to grasp it firmly and pull it apart. She wasn't going to lose her shit the day she got told the funniest joke of her life. She unscrewed the bottle and took a deep, long pull. The tequila burned running down her throat - one of the few times Lynn had ever felt something burn, and oh if she didn't love it - and gurgle in her empty stomach. She screwed the cap back on tight, not wanting to dowse her bag in Jose Cuervo. Lynn stood back up and grabbed her jeans up off the floor, sliding into them with utter ease, back pointedly to the mirror. She threaded her belt through the loops and cinched it tight before looking back at her other clothes. She had like three workout tanktops, a handful of ratty t-shirts, her hoodie. Lynn elected for the most presentable of the t-shirts - a black and yellow Wu Tang Clan shirt, and wriggled into it, slinging her backpack over her shoulder. She left her hoodie on her bed - Lynn had no intention of fighting anyone tonight, and if someone vomited all over it, she'd have to. Lynn walked into the bathroom and washed her mouth out with water and mouthwash for a moment before heading out, hair still bound back in its work-required ponytail. She locked the door behind her and made her way toward the campgrounds.

Lynn kept reminding herself of the Gary news, which was just beautiful, but it seemed like the gold-happy feeling that had filled her up a few minutes ago was shaken. Lynn wasn't sure why, and it was pissing her off. She was just trying to get trashed, and somehow that was proving too complicated. Along the way, Lynn passed a few roaming packs of would-be Homecoming kings and queens, whose photo ops she interrupted with no semblance of remorse. Rich fuckers, Lynn thought. Still, Lynn buried how annoying all their stupid shit was, and when she saw ATVs of cops roll past she buried the cold twisting feeling in her spine she got each time she saw the Promise's security, and when she passed the people sitting on the patios of restaurants she buried how hungry she felt. Lynn had blown her cash on the liquor, and figured that she was going to be hungry regardless, so she might as well be hungry and drunk.

After a few minutes of buoying herself with the mental image of Gary trying to talk his way out of an ultimately fatal ass-beating, Lynn stepped into the trees, letting one hand fall back to her backpack, fingers gripping the zipper. The woods were quiet, and Lynn was all to aware of how close she was to where she'd found the doll. She listened intently. The light was from firelight, something Lynn knew instinctively even before her eyes could pick up on the flickering campfire, and she could hear people talking about schoolwork, which wound her down. "Thank God," Lynn muttered, more relieved she got to just party than relieved it wasn't a set-up. That would've just been a headache. Lynn walked through the trees, the lantern next to her head flaring briefly as she stepped into the campfire. Lynn recognized a grand total of two people there, which was something of a mixed blessing, but it felt a little more mixed than blessing at the moment.

"What's up," Lynn said, reaching into her bag and, for the first time in her life, doing something that was unambiguously going to win people over and make them like her. She pulled out two full handles of tequila. She had limes and salt in her backpack, and even some beers, too. Lynn felt it was discourteous to not have a 40 oz, even if it had been two years since she'd had one. "Who wants tequila?"

Eli and Keaton were both standing next to each other, like some kind of denim Voltron. She was going to need a better nicknaming system. Lynn walked up, getting a read on the group. Eli was grabbing onto her literally and figuratively. Eli looked like she knew everyone here; Keaton knew only Eli. It made Lynn like Keaton a smidge more, but that may have been the warm cloud that was starting to seep into her mind. "'Sup sluts," Lynn said. She blinked. Maybe Eli's friends were squares. Eh. Oh well.

Lynn pulled a spoon out of the sudsy water of the dishwashing sink of El Vaquero. It glowed red in her bare hands. She threw it in the rack with the others, then resumed scrubbing. In the front of house, traditional mariachi music flowed from the speakers. In the back, rap reigned supreme.

Dinners were always busy, and Lynn was grateful for that - she was trying her absolute hardest to stay as busy as possible these last few days. Keaton had told her about the meeting after she left, and it had left Lynn with questions, questions that spun in her head and birthed more questions, like drinking saltwater when you were lost at sea. The faceless men were anywhere, in Lynn's mind, lurking in the shadows, right behind her as she showered, as she washed dishes, as she slept. Well, as she tried to sleep. Lynn had not found it easy to rest lately. There were things waiting for her. The noose was growing tighter around their necks, and Lynn's feet were starting to twitch. They don't know yet, Lynn thought. The ghostfuckers don't know what we know. Not yet. If they did, we'd be dead.

She put a plate on the rack. When was the last time she'd slept a full night? Her mind struggled to remember as the music blared and the angry shouting matches of line cooks and waiters flared up. Lynn kept scrubbing. Scrubbing was simple. For a few hours, Lynn could rack up some cash and not think.

"Despacia," Ignacio shouted at her, dropping a pile of dishes beside her.

"Tírate a tu mama," Lynn shouted back, shoving them into the scalding water. Tonight was Homecoming. What a fucking joke. She and Keaton were fairly confident nothing would go down tonight, in terms of explosions, or terrorist attacks, or four dead, gone, Salamandra's skull against the wall or anything else. Lynn was grateful for that, but the alternative irked her almost as much. Someone would want to invite her to something, she was sure - potentially Archie, the thought of whom still made her stomach twist. He's a fucking fool, Lynn thought, scraping a plate clean. Big, dumb puppy. Why did he grab me? Any other woman would've tased her ass or pepper sprayed him. Why would you grab me from behind? Damn you. Lynn had resolved to bury him. Hanging around him was only going to get her killed by the lizard or get someone else hurt. It happened every time. But there was something more that twisted at her, gnawed along with the leech-like questions that latched on and wouldn't let go. Something like flowers. Something like coming after her when she stormed off. Why'd he follow me? And why'd he grab me?

Lynn shook her head and kept working. She certainly wasn't going to any Homecoming dance. No one had asked her, which was whatever. She didn't talk to enough people to really be a candidate. How did that even happen, anyway? Lynn had stopped going to school before dances happened back on earth. What was even the point of one? Beyond that, there was something about dresses and makeup and pictures that made Lynn squirm in her skin. It made her think of sisters. Lucy's kid would be three or four by now. What if it was a para. That'd be fucking rich.

"Cordelia Lynn Holmes." Lynn stopped cold, steam pouring off her skin. She turned and looked at the bag next to her, staring down at it. Lynn turned off the water and knelt down. The voice, female and mechanical, repeated itself.

"What the fuck do you want?" Lynn asked. She could've sworn she turned it off. She...she could've sworn she did. Lynn could remember turning it off. Had she? Hadn't she? Lynn was forgetting things lately. Her grades were slipping. Who gives a shit, Lynn told herself. You'll be dead by Christmas. Lynn opened the bag after wiping her hands dry on her apron, which draped down to her ankles despite being the smallest size they had. She unzipped her bag and pulled out her phone, turned on.

Cara paused for a moment in agitation. "I have important news for you, from back home."

Lynn stared. "Is this some kind of game?"

"I only give unsolicited alerts in the event of disasters, emergencies, or personal tragedies. Your case worker requested that you be informed that your foster father, Gary Wendell Rogers, has passed away."

Lynn stared down at the phone, dumbstruck. "...what? Are you fucking with me, Carol?"

If it were possible for a machine to bristle, perhaps Cara would've. "No, Miss Holmes. He passed away three days ago."

"How?" Lynn asked, feeling something like a big warm cloud rising up inside her, swirling up into her face and pulling at her cheeks into a big wide grin. "Oh, Carrie, you gotta tell me how. C'mon."

" may find the circumstances of his demise traumatic, or - "

"Oh like I can't google the obituary anyway, just save me the hassle."

"...he was violently stabbed in prison by the other inmates. Initial reports indicate it was a crude form of justice meted out by the others. I am sorry for your loss."

"I'm not! Thanks, bitch!" Lynn turned the phone off and threw it back in her bag, turning back to the sink. Lynn giggled. She started to full-on laugh. "Holy shit," Lynn said, her eyes watering as she keeled over the sink. "Oh holy shit, this is like Christmas come fucking early." Lynn, cackling, took her shift break, laughing too hard to light a cigarette out by the dumpsters behind the restaurant. "Oh holy shit, I'd forgotten he was even in there," Lynn wheezed. If Archie thought his hand got burned he should've seen that fucker's. Hah! Lynn's break ran five minutes over. I will buy Cara a drink or set her up with a nice lamp or USB stick or something for this. Oh Christ this is hilarious.

Lynn finished her shift as inefficiently as possible before pulling aside Ignacio. She handed him a roll of cash and he returned with two full bottles of tequila, which Lynn dutifully shoved into her bag, throwing her hoodie back on. He eyed them, and then Lynn, thin and short, a hesitant look creeping over his face.

"¿Cuantos años tienes, chiquíta?"

Lynn grinned. "Demasiado para Gary!"

Ignacio cocked his head in confusion, but Lynn did not particularly care if anyone else got the joke. She was still reeling from the punchline. Lynn left the restaurant out back, pulling out her phone and half expecting Cara to say something bitchy. For once, the thoughts of the Promise and Salamandra and Che and everything were slipping from her mind. She was weary from work and riding the high of hearing about a good old-fashioned ass-kicking. Lynn scrolled the wheel down to Keaton's number and punched out a quick text.

"What's the fucking move? I've got us hooked up. Tonight we are CELEBRATING."

Lynn figured she'd pass the word along to Eli if she wanted. She'd hung with Eli a few times, mostly in Keaton's presence. Was Eli cool? Debatable. Lynn still didn't trust Keaton, but, you know, maybe she relied on her somewhat, or sometimes enjoyed being around her, but she didn't trust her, because trusting someone was how you got fucked over. It was just that when Lynn thought of who she wanted to hang with tonight, Keaton happened to be the first, but that was solely because they had to keep up pretenses if Ebony and Ivory were stalking them, or the Promise wanted to know why they kept meeting up. Nothing more. And Eli was just like, another alibi.They were both...Lynn didn't know. They were older, and...sometimes Lynn thought about them and it was like thinking about the dresses and everyone she'd passed on the way here, tall and long-legged, faces contoured like fucking marble sculptures, with her smoking a cigarette and pulling back her flickering hair in a lazy band. But those times seemed fewer and further between. Especially tonight. Tonight, Lynn was getting fucking annihilated.

Lynn grinned - wider. She hadn't stopped grinning in an hour. It was a crime to not share good liquor. Tonight they were going to pour out a whole ass handle. If Arianna showed up, Lynn would buy her a round. She pulled her phone back out and punched out, "You know what, bring Eli." Lynn would pour a shot for anyone who wanted one tonight. Fish, Denim, Breakfast Club, maybe even that Paw Patrol ass cop.

And Archie? Or Natalie?

Lynn hesitated, a brief stutter-step in her bouncy walk back to her dorm. She...she wasn't sure about that. But it didn't matter. Fuck it. She earned this.

Lynn sighed. The air shimmered as it left her mouth. "Fish. 'Cause you're new." She stared at him for a moment. Yeah he's never been to juvy. "Fuck it. Fish because you looked like one flopping around down there." Gen moved a notch higher in Lynn's book by disengaging her grip from him quickly but subtly. Finally someone on this station who isn't drowning in feelings. Spoons would've held my hand and tried to do a palm reading or something. Keaton might've done something similar, she figured, but it would've been coded as a question, as a beat-around-the-bush, not-asking-what-I'm-really-asking type deal. Lynn could respect that. It was still annoying, but didn't bother Lynn as much.

Lynn took a step back, adusting the bag over her shoulder. She opened her mouth and closed it for a moment, gears whirring in her head. This guy was clearly trying to get back in shape. Lynn could respect that. His time on that treadmill, even factoring in lost time for faceplanting, wasn't exactly an Olympic qualifier, but everybody started somewhere. Not working with super speed here, I'm guessing. He dressed like he came from money, but he didn't have the douchebag swagger that usually accompanied it. That did strike Lynn as interesting. He was tall, and in Lynn's experience, that skin complexion usually got the baby factories open for business, but he didn't have that confidence about him. The OJ glove probably counteracts it. Not asking why he wears it, though. With my luck it'll be the last thing his dead mother gave him and then I have to talk about that for thirty minutes. So Fish had self-confidence issues. Lynn felt reasonably confident on the call about him being a virgin. For a brief moment, unbidden, Lynn wondered if Archie was a virgin, and the thought was gone as soon as it came. She shook it out of her mind. What did that have to do with anything?

There was something more here, though. She couldn't put a finger on it. He just seemed jumpy. Not a dick, which was a welcome surprise, and not interested in needless emotional bullshit, which was also pretty chill in Lynn's book. She'd throw him a bone. "Hey, you - " Lynn paused, again, trying to figure out a way to put the words together that wouldn't make this guy feel like a bitch. Lynn knew her way around a gym, as it was one of the few leisure activities permitted in juvy, and Lynn had taken to getting as strong as she possibly could. Given her frame and the diet in a parahuman juvy, there was a remarkably low ceiling to that endeavor, but she'd tried nonetheless, her frail arms hammering out push-ups or shadowboxing in her room when rec time was cancelled. Rec time getting cancelled was pretty frequent. Lynn was only sometimes to blame. "You don't really look like you know what you're doing, no disrespect," she added quickly, as if that somehow made the sentence courteous, "So if you want me to show you around or something I will. But if not, that's cool. I'll be over there." Lynn nodded and walked away. Keaton would've known a better way of handling that. She remembered the first time she'd tried to bench press, unassisted by her powers, and the way the bar had pushed her arms straight down to the bench and dug into her chest, Lynn wheezing to lift it back up. In a rare moment of humanity in that place, one of the girls had snorted, lifted it up off her, and mercifully kept it to herself. Lynn tried to pay things forward. She didn't like being in debt to people - so this way it was like she was smudging that debt away.

Lynn sat down in front of the punching bag, cinching the wraps on her hands tighter and letting her fingers dance for a moment. Lynn never really bothered with pussy stuff like stretching or warming up. Practically speaking, she didn't need it - Lynn's powers could correct a sprain or pulled muscle relatively easily - but it was largely because she thought it looked completely ridiculous. Lynn got into position, weight dancing from one foot to the other. When she moved, she was lighter than she should've been, even for a girl her size - she almost seemed to float as she bounced, drilling out quick jabs into the bag. There was a faint smell of burning polyester, but Lynn was doing her best to keep her heat down as low as she possibly could, and as a result it was fairly minimal. On the ground beside her, an iPod whose history of ownership was best left unquestioned bellowed out turn-of-the-millenia rap and hip-hop, and Lynn soon fell into its rhythm, dancing and ducking and striking. Lynn had little in the way of real form boxing training, but seemed to have a vague idea of what she was doing, and learned at least the fundamentals passably well. Her head stayed on a constant bounce, her hands flashing back up to her face after she struck the bag. After thirty minutes or so, her clothes dripping with sweat, she gathered her things and moved over to the free weights. Someone with less concern for self-preservation may have giggled at the sight of the barely five foot girl struggling to reach up and grab some of the heavier plates, but perhaps may have stopped giggling as she effortlessly slid them onto the bars. Lynn stopped and looked at the plates for a moment, panting.

"What the fuck is this kilogram bullshit?" Lynn muttered.

Lynn had come to the gym to not be (as) pissed off anymore, and she had to admit through a barely bit-back laugh that she had succeeded pretty much immediately upon arrival. Hoisting the duffel bag (which seemed nearly as large as her; newly-bought with Vaquero money, and among the only passably nice things Lynn owned) higher over her shoulder, she walked over to Gen, who was lying flat on the floor, flopping like he was having a stroke. Aw shit maybe he was. Lynn figured asking if he smelled burnt toast, but most people did around her. Eh. He was moving. Flopping.

Some have slandered Lynn's good name with accusations of paranoia. Whatever label you choose to apply on her reasoned and rational vigilance, there was very little of it to be had here. The gym was populated enough that no one was going to try to put a hit on her, and Lynn figured the Promise's MO was to make things look like an accident. Namely, a large, lizard-sized accident. Beyond that, there was something so utterly pathetic about face-planting on a five mile per hour treadmill that nothing in Lynn's mind could register this guy as a meaningful threat. Lynn hoisted him up to his feet, grunting slightly. She had more strength than a girl of her size should, and her hands were warm - not uncomfortably so - under the crooks of Gen's arms as she picked him up. Big fella. Lynn looked him over. He'd been hitting the sushi a little hard. Weird fingerless glove. Maybe a power thing, but given the faceplant, maybe just a virgin thing. Lynn didn't recognize him, which was surprising, given that she assumed his parahuman ability was his skin complexion.

"Up and at 'em, fish," Lynn said. Her hair was pulled back in boxer braids she'd idly given herself on the walk over, giving Lynn something of a more pronounced hood rat look than normal. She had the hoodie cinched around her waist and as tight a tanktop as Lynn's frail frame could manage over her. On the way, she'd wrapped her hands, which was getting to be economically infeasible. Even working to keep her power as dimmed down as possible, she was burning through them with relative frequency. Lynn's solution was to wrap them with aluminum foil before putting them in the gloves, which may have provoked laughter in the gym were it anyone but Lynn doing so. She figured she would lift weights or something too. But here was a Fish flopping around out of water. "You still have all your teeth?"

Archie flinched back, and Lynn felt her features turn to steel. She wasn't about to let herself look like a pussy. Not in front of all these people. Then he turned and scampered off, his puppy tail tucked between his puppy legs, limping with a paw off the ground. There was a quick hurt, the deep hurt, the sort of Clarita and Megan hurt Lynn did not feel often but had thrown in her face every single day on this ship. It melted into anger quickly enough, and Lynn's hair and eyes began dancing again.

You stupid boy, Lynn thought, thinking Archie had to be even dumber than she was. No, she supposed - someone who trusts a fool is even more foolish. She turned and stormed away, losing herself in the crowd. Lynn was headed back to her dorm, which wasn't ideal - that's where anyone tailing her would expect her to go - but there was too much commotion and heat for her to feel safe with the doll in her backpack. Her feet carried her as her mind raced, her thoughts flickering as her eyes looked for tails in the mirrors of stores as she passed, tried to see if the faces around her appeared more than once. Mostly, Lynn was processing what she'd known from the first day.

Archie was going to die. He was a lost cause.

Either for the power he had, or for having the wool so far over his eyes it kept his fucking toes warm. Why would you grab me from behind? Lynn wanted to scream. Why would you make me hurt you? She threw open the mall doors and kept walking, smoke trailing off her ever so faintly. Archie was out. If he didn't have the smarts to handle this he was going to stumble across something big, bigger than he could realize, and run his mouth about it. Lynn didn't know what or when, but she was confident it would happen now. There are people here who kill children, she wanted to tell him. She had wanted to shout a dozen different things at him but her tongue had withered away inside her mouth. You fucking idiot // Let me get you cold water // Why would you grab me? // You have to get your shit under control, they'll give you the needle if you turn again // The burn isn't bad, I've...I've burned people worse // Archie, I can't sleep // You can't let them see you hurt, they'll only hurt you worse, you can't ever let them see // Archie did you see, at the restaurant, did you see -

Lynn was at her dorm. She fumbled with her key, wanting for one moment just to kick the door down, to kick something, to feel fucking anything. She slammed it shut behind her and locked it, then did her usual protocol of jamming her dorm-issued chair underneath the knob. Lynn leaned back against the wall, her body shaking for a moment. She was fairly confident, at least in this moment, Black and White weren't in here with her. They were back in the cafeteria. It wasn't a sure-fire bet, but it was a safe one. It was a better bet than any you'd get in Vegas. Lynn flipped her mattress over and drew out the kitchen knife she'd taken from the cafeteria. It was hard for Lynn not to take things. In her room were several stashes of of food and water bottles, silverware, extra clothes, cigarettes. Maybe tomorrow there wouldn't be any more food again.

Lynn held the blade in her hand for about thirty seconds, getting the metal red-hot. She blinked up at the smoke detector before remembering they'd disabled it on the third or foruth day after twice as many false alarms. Lynn sliced open the bottom of her cot, peeling back a hole near the foot of the bed. Not like she was tall enough for this to discomfort her, anyhow. Lynn placed the doll inside, holding it in her hand for just a moment before she did. Then she ran her hand across the synthetic material, fusing it back. You'd see it if you looked close, but it was as good to secure as she could get, and Lynn was sure if they searched her room, they'd bring along a Keaton-type who could figure it out even faster. It was all she could do.

Lynn sat on her mattress and stared at the wall, trying to puzzle out her next move. She still felt like a live-wire, from what Archie and B and W and all those other fuckers had done. Hopefully Keaton got something useful out of them, Lynn thought. She was too angry to sit still. What she needed was - Christ, she needed...Lynn picked up her phone and flipped it open, wheeling to her dealer's number.


Lynn stopped, hesitating. It was a bad idea. It was a really bad idea. She was in enough hot water with the fucking doll and B and W and God knows what else. If they got her on stuff like this it all came crumbling down. Even the Xan is too risky, Lynn told herself. It didn't change what she wanted. What -

Lynn was in the backseat of the car, no seat belt on, knees pulled up to her chin. Her feet couldn't have touched the floorboard even if she wanted them to. Beside her was her backpack, her reading assignments untouched. Lynn always felt guilty for not doing them, everyone else seemed to be able to do them, but it always seemed like she couldn't. The back door opened.

"It's time."

Lynn shook her head. "I don't...there's...can't we just go back?"

Che's face hardened. "C'mon. You said you'd do this. Are you a liar, Lynn?"

She didn't like his face going hard. He was handsome and he knew what to do. He was smart. He was safe. So if he was mad at her, that meant all of those things weren't true any more. Lynn wiped at her nose, sniffing. "Che, Che I don't..."

"Are you going to be weak your whole life?"

"No, I'm not weak, I just - he's huge, Che, he's even taller than you - "

Che stared at her for a minute longer, his dark eyes hard and cold. Lynn could never look at them for long. They reminded her too much of Lucy's parents, the Gardeners, the way they'd looked when they'd gotten hom from their anniversary dinner, and Lynn had turned the house's Christmas candles into one, singular candle. "It was a bad dream," Lynn had tried to say. "I got everyone out," she tried to say, but she couldn't. They had just stared.

She stared at her feet, buried under empty cans and used rigs and worn jackets. "Slide over," Che said. Lynn squirmed to the middle seat obediently, chewing at the worn bracelet on her arm. It'd been two years ago that she and Lucy and the others had gone to camp together, Lynn loving the campfires and figuring she could burn the marshmellows to get extra for herself. It had been the first time Lynn saw a sky full of stars. She heard the Gardeners were divorcing now. Lynn didn't really understand what it meant but she knew it was her fault.

" parents will wonder where I am," Lynn said. "I should get back soon."

Che closed the door. "They won't wonder where you are. They're piss drunk by now. You'll be fine until sunrise. And they're not your fucking parents. Now listen - you're right. He's bigger. He's a lot bigger. He could hurt you. Bad." Che grabbed her hand and Lynn didn't flinch, eyes wide. He reached into his pocket and flipped out his knife. Lynn's eyes widened, a flicker of light starting to glow in her pale blue eyes. Her auburn hair, messy and unkempt, stayed its natural color, bangs drooping down almost to Lynn's eyes. It made Che grin. He pressed the knife to her forearm. "Do you trust me?"

Lynn nodded, wincing and looking away.

There was a sharp pain and Lynn yelped but Che grasped her arm tighter. "No. No screaming. Look."

Lynn looked back. The cut was already cauterized, and the skin stitching itself back together.

"He can't really hurt you. I," he said, his fingers like iron in her arm, "Won't let anybody really hurt you."

Lynn nodded. "I have to?"

"If you don't, Clarita goes hungry. She goes to bed with her stomach hurting and her hands shaking." Che looked up at her. "You have to. Because he's bigger. He's almost seven feet tall, for fuck's sake. The odds are insane. If you do this, I'll buy you all the food you can eat. I'll buy you any clothes you want. Because your entire fucking life, everyone is going to be bigger than you. And you have to fight them. Or else they'll toy you around. Are you their bitch, Lynn?"

Lynn shook her head, trying to force the tears back in her eyes. "No, no, I - "

"What was the video I showed you? You remember."

"...the boxer. He could beat anybody."

"And he was a half a foot shorter than all the heavyweights." Lynn hadn't liked watching it. He'd been so angry, so brutal. But there was something about it she could not turn away from, the way he could bring grown men to the ground in one hit, the way everyone cheered his name, the money - he'd made a million dollars in thirty seconds with one good punch.

Lynn looked back out the car. "...okay. Will - " she stopped herself. Che didn't like if she asked for things.


"If I do it," she said quietly, "Will you teach me how to punch like him?" She waited, her heart hammering in her chest, somehow harder to ask the words than to think of stepping out of the car and into that room, where she could hear them cheering and shouting, drunkenly yelling. She'd be just like him. She'd be small but she would put them down.

Che grinned. "Yes. Here. I have something for you. It'll make you brave. It'll make it so it won't even hurt." He reached into his pocket and drew out his keyring, reaching into his jacket with the other. The cut on Lynn's arm was gone. Che was right. She couldn't get hurt. And if she didn't go in there, maybe somebody else had to. Che was gonna teach her. She would do this and he would take her back and then she would go to sleep and none of it would be real.

"Okay." Lynn said, pushing confidence into her voice. She wanted to be brave. Che drew out -

Lynn snapped the phone shut. She sat in silence for her room for a moment. For one vague moment, she considered doing schoolwork. "Oh, fuck that," Lynn said. She buried her Xanax deep in her backpack and changed into workout clothes. She was going to burn a hole through her bed if she sat on it any longer, angry as she was. Lynn had already racked up a fairly sizable maintenance debt, she was sure. If nothing else, punching something always cleared her mind. Lynn threw her phone and her gym clothes into a bag and slung it over her shoulder, her heart still hammering in her chest.

Yeah. Working out. That was good. That was...that was good.
Sure thing
If you need help with powers/powers limitations feel free to reach out. It is usually better to err on the side of more limitations. That also makes it more creative/a better challenge.


They wouldn't fucking get it. They wouldn't fucking get it. She'd been set up. She'd been set up again. She'd known coming into this it was a terrible idea and she let Keaton talk her into it. How foolish had she been to think Keaton was bound so tightly to her that it was smarter to keep her mouth shut than narc? I have to get clear and ditch this doll, Lynn thought, her mind feverishly trying to run through possibilities. It had to be the woods. She'd get out of range of the cameras and burn all the evidence. Lynn considered a brief foray into the bathrooms to dump her drugs, but at this point a handful of misappropriated anxiety medication wasn't going to save or damn her ass. You're still that stupid little girl who gets burned, Lynn cursed herself, rage almost to the point of tears boiling up inside her. You never fucking learn. Lynn fumbled, taking off her hoodie, red and noticeable as it was, cinching it around her waist. The black t-shirt underneath was from back home: it read Mike's BBQ.

And yet all her anger seemed to be hitting some kind of wall. Radvi had been surprised - really surprised. She'd seen a few too many shitty narc actors in her day to know when somebody was really surprised by the cops and when someone was trying to look surprised. But Anderson had called them all there, which didn't track. Had he brought Paw Patrol too? But why? Just to arrest her? I'll kill him, Lynn thought. He's sold out. She should've stayed and slugged his teeth out - but the more Lynn thought, the more that seemed to burn out as well. Archie had been starting to transform - so there's no way he could've expected those two. Could he have called the cops? Lynn's mind raced through all the avenues as she darted through the crowd, thankful once again God cursed her with her stupid little body. While she got pushed around, at least she was darting in-between open gaps in the crowd more easily. If Archie had called the cops, that still didn't track, because why would there just be one? No one else had reacted to the monochrome duo, which didn't track. Surely they would've been all over, unless -

Someone grabbed Lynn from behind and she turned to swing, to take one or two of them with her when they already stumbled away. It was Boat Farmer. He was cradling his hand, burned, she'd burned the hand, Megan curling it close to her. Lynn remembered that hand, the mark of the burn. She'd seen it...she'd seen it the very last day she saw Megan. "Christ, don't - you can't, you can't do that," Lynn said, moving over to her, pulling her sleeves up and grabbing the girl's arm through them.

"Ow! Ow, Lynn, it hurts, it - "

"I know, I know, you can't do that, okay? You can' can't sneak up on me. Not here."

Megan nodded, wincing and nodding her head. She was tough. They all were. Lynn glanced around, cursing to herself - but not aloud. She took Megan gently into the side alley, pooling up some snow in her hands and melting it with her breath and the radiant heat of her hands. She let the cold water drip over Megan's hands, the water a cooler touch of lukewarm by the time it touched the burned skin.

"That feels nice," Megan said, smiling.

The smile untwisted Lynn's stomach. "Good. I...I'm sorry. I didn't mean to. I don't...I don't mean to sometimes. It just..."

"I know." Megan nodded. "Che said to come get you. He said the deal was off."

Lynn gave her a nod, but inwardly cursed again. If there was no deal, that meant there was no hand-off for Lynn to intercept, which meant there was no fucking money that week. Lynn looked down at Megan, skinny, skinny as death, eyes wide and staring up at Lynn with her snow-water hand clutched to her chest. She rubbed at her eyes. A few more hours until the foster parents started to wonder. Enough time to get back across the city. Maybe. She could still lift a wallet, if she was lucky, or find...or find something. "Is your hand okay? I'll take you b-"

Lynn blinked. She was in the mall. Archie was hurt. Archie was hurt. She'd burned him. Christ. Get it together, Holmes, she said. You're fucking losing it. "No, no, no no no," Lynn murmured. Lynn lived in a somewhat constant state of being angry at God for dealing her such a shit hand in life, but moments like this brought it to bear. The fruit of the garden is poisoned, Che would sometimes say, and she never got what that shit meant until now. "Christ, I didn' came up and...." the doll and getting clear had melted out of Lynn's mind. She took a step forward and stopped, biting her lip. You burn everything, you stupid girl. Lynn reached her hand back and closed her eyes, taking deep, deep breaths. Her hair and eyes slowly settled down to a red. It was a brighter shade than any hair that didn't come out of a bottle, but the flickering glow that normally danced across it was scarcely noticeable. "You - are you okay, Archie? Shit. Fuck. I'm sorry, I didn't..." Damn those black and white bastards. Damn them. Damn Gennedy and this whole station. Lynn glanced around. It was always a sick joke nobody could kill her without her body stitching it up, but she could never fix anything she fucked up. "Here - you need to run water over that. I..." Lynn's voice trailed off, the words jumbled in her head and throat. I'm sorry I thought you set me up, you big dumb puppy, you don't get how fucked we all are, I'm sorry, Lynn wanted to say, to just blurt at once and rip the band-aid off, but she couldn't stop looking at his hand, and then his face.

He had the same look he'd had when Salamandra dragged him across the floor.

Bullshit, Lynn thought, eyeing New Girl. A question about the food? The fuck? Lynn stared her over, looking past her clothes and skin and features for a minute. Trying to look for sketchy shit. She looked older than Archie, and Lynn didn't remember seeing her on the shuttle up. Something's up. Something about this entire set-up was not what Lynn wanted to see, even before you threw a cop into the mix. Lynn responded with a nod instead of her name to Eli - whatever weird crap was at work here, Lynn was not going to play ball. Sure enough, Spoons looked about ready to carve this girl's eyes out, which Lynn would've paid to see on pay-per-view, especially given her lack of knowledge on what New Girl could do. She was too young to be anything other than a parahuman, so that ruled out the possibility of her being a gen one. Eh. Keaton would do the smiling and pretty talking, as per usual. Lynn didn't particularly care if New Girl liked her or not - or really, if anyone at the table did. Keaton vibing with her would've been nice for business purposes, and Archie for - flowers - some reason she couldn't really place (which in Lynn's book, meant it was either to be trusted unequivocally or was bullshit to be ignored, with little means of determining one from the other. Lynn leaned towards the latter in this case). Radvi stood there, looking pretty sheepish for a wolf. Fortunately, he was turning to leave, and the knot of tension in Lynn's stomach began to un -

Lynn was used to surprises. She'd been jumped in the street, judo flipped by a glowing escaped murderer, had a table thrown at her by a giant lizard, and been up and moving when a robot man fell from the ceilings onto her lunch table. This was beyond the realm of what even Lynn could have prepared for, and her fingers burned their way into the pretzel bucket as Black and White appeared, Lynn flaring up with shock and readiness. It was a set-up, it was a fucking set-up! Lynn curled her fist, ready to flash-fry Radvi's brain inside his skull before they slapped a collar on, before the kids were dead, before they put her in a cell with the leftover Fire Worms and Lynn was counting her teeth on a concrete floor -

He was startled too.

Lynn stayed her hand at her hip, the pretzel bucket falling to the ground as she got her other hand ready to punch, fingers dancing. Her heart thundered in her skull and she was a foot closer to Radvi than she had been a moment before. She looked down and her forearms were glowing and flickering with light, like The temperature of the room was becoming unbearable now. She was terrifying. A living elemental. She pulled her hands away from her face, revealing eyes that were so bright that they were painful to look at for long. “I’ll kill you!” - like someone else Lynn had known. Lynn's face tensed and her whole skull seemed to clench. "What the fuck is this shit, Anderson?" Lynn hissed. The two began talking, some call-and-response, choose-your-own-adventure bullshit, and the whole time Lynn's head was ringing with anger. She was sick of this. She was sick of people dropping this shit on her, sick of being the joke, sick of being the pawn they would push around the board. How long have you just been waiting around this station? How many kids have you watched get dragged into their little holding cells?

Then it got better. Lynn listened to their speech with literal steam curling off her exposed skin, her fury a snarling dog held by a fraying leash. "Oh who wants to go first? Eat my ebony and ivory dick. You can't do anything? You're so helpless? You fucking pussies. No, fuck this, I'm not playing these reindeer games. Neither should any of you." Lynn spat on the ground. Smoke curled from the floor. "Here's my question. How the fuck did skater boy get on the station and start assaulting kids if you two have been lurking around? Where the fuck have you been when they interrogate minors without lawyers? And for two invisible fuckers, how come you haven't seen shit about the murdered professor? Was it not in your jurisdiction to save three hundred people last month? Or - " Or to tell whoever a three six zero five is that it'll be okay? To tell them they haven't been fucking abandoned and left alone? Lynn wanted to shriek, but she bit her tongue. Radvi was there. Radvi was Gennedy and every other snake who sat at their high table on the first day, crying out the laws and punishments and running when Archie had turned into a beast. Radvi would take her in if he knew what Keaton and Lynn knew. It's not worth it. It's not worth it.

Archie! Lynn turned and saw Archie was beginning to flip and stepped forward to grab him, but he had calmed himself back down. Lynn's head was still throbbing. She should've gone for him first. "The disaster is everyone in this shopping mall dying because you dipshits thought it would be a good idea to jumpscare the human T. rex." Lynn took a few steps back, shaking, but under control. She couldn't lose her shit. She couldn't give Radvi an excuse. If she gave Radvi an excuse, they found the doll, they killed her, they killed Keaton, and then they kept killing kids. They were going to kill Lynn anyway, but if she could make it a little longer, maybe they could save one or two. Maybe she gets Keaton what she needs. Maybe she gets to go a few more weeks without having to - four people - do things. She was so pissed at the nerve of these two she couldn't even bring herself to want to beat Freaky D's ass - whom Gennedy had told her was for sure dead. Either Gennedy lied to me, or he's got leaks on the inside. "No, yeah, go fuck yourselves. Even if you two were on the level, which invisible motherfuckers usually aren't, we've got no reason to trust you. You want us to cough up everything we know to the invisible bastards who need eighteen year olds to narc for them? I got here a month ago and wash dishes in the fucking taqueria. What do you think I know? How about instead I keep stopping all the shit that goes wrong on this station, and you two keep creeping around on kids. You should be good at it. You've got both fucking halves of Michael Jackson to work with." Lynn turned and stormed off, shoving someone aside as a mild exodus had begun taking place. The last time Freaky D dropped out of a ceiling, things had not gone well for the room's inhabitants and the Panda Express' denizens were responding accordingly.

Lynn turned back and grinned. "And I clocked you fuckers in the interrogation room, by the way. You're not as sneaky as you think you are." Let 'em chew on that for a minute. Lynn turned and kept walking, fingers curled into her hoodie pockets. Keaton can stay and ask questions if she wants, Lynn fumed, But this shit is a set-up. Keaton may be smarter than the rest of us put together but she doesn't know how people work. Whatever that bitch has on Archie got them here and got him to call us all over. I fucking knew it. I fucking knew it.

Keaton didn't know how to tell what people would do before they did it. She was unlucky. She'd never known a Che.

Keaton was there with pretzels, making Lynn's mind run through its typical thousand-thoughts-a-second scurry to make sense of things. Lynn had missed her - how? Was Keaton fucking with her? And offering her the pretzels was - well, Lynn wasn't entirely sure what to make of that. You had to be careful with stuff with like that. Now, Lynn owed Keaton. It was small. It was a favor. But nobody ever starts off putting the house down as collateral. You get trapped and tangled in the little stuff, and then suddenly someone needs a favor, and now there's no way out, and they've got the leverage. Was that Keaton's move? As much sense as it made to the cold part of Lynn's mind, the part that did sit-ups on a concrete floor to pass the time in juvy and swapped cigarettes with street rats, sitting on a curb, she couldn't quite square it to Keaton. Keaton had made a good point, in that now they had to show their faces. As Lynn grabbed the flickering, fiery part of her that said to get the fuck out of here, that Radvi was bad news, that there was a doll heavier than Spoons' psych dossier weighing in her backpack, but Keaton was right. She had to be cold as icewater. They'd already been spotted, thanks to Spoons, and if they scurried now, it looked guilty as all hell. Lynn hated she hadn't considered that. There's different rules here, and if I don't learn them they'll be scratching my arm with the needle looking for a vein here soon.

She knows how to play me too, damnit, Lynn thought. "Get a leg up on the cops" was a pretty tantalizing offer to Lynn, prompting a smirk at the corner of her chapped lips. And beyond all that - which Lynn was not dismissing, to clarify - Keaton had gotten her the pretzels. The line was some five minutes long. So when Lynn had split, she'd....gotten in line to get some pretzels. Almost immediately. It was a conscious, deliberate choice to acquire these pretzels. Just because Lynn mentioned them. Lynn could not recall any instance of generosity that would have merited buying these pretzels in return. Lynn did not like the idea of her destiny being chained to anyone else's - not again - and was all too aware of the hundred ways Keaton could stab her in the back. This bitch could be walking me over now to set me up, Lynn thought. She tells Radvi to check my bag and it's all over. That was what Lynn would do, if she had to knock a chess piece off the board. I'd tell him that I was forcing her to help, that I said I threatened her. And the other snakes would come slithering out the grass to say that I had, that I'd threatened them before. It made sense. For a moment, it clenched her fist in her pocket, and made her want to knock the pretzels out of Keaton's hand and walk away.

Instead Lynn took a deep breath (her hair and eyes glowed as if someone had fanned a campfire) and grabbed the pretzels. Besides, if that happens, I will burn Keaton's face so badly she'll have to wear one of those Vader suits to get someone to fuck her. They'll have to do it through those breathing tube holes or whatever.

They were warm, and salty, and Keaton had balled out. She'd gotten like every kind in there. This was the shit. This was pretty much the best food option you could get a mall, in Lynn's years of skulking around shopping malls looking for wallets that needed reappropriating. Sbarro would give you some severe problems thirty to forty five minutes after consumption, Panda Express was cold like forty percent of the time, but pretzels were steady. They were there. There was the cinnamon kind - Lynn's favorite - and then regular pretzel bites, and the hot dog ones, which were good for protein and stuff Lynn figured. Lynn glanced up at Keaton, chewing on her lip. Sometimes, when Keaton did stuff like this, or when Keaton asked Lynn how her classes were or they had their chats, it...Lynn felt dumb. Or small. Like Keaton was playing her. Like Keaton had figured something out about her. It made Lynn feel uneasy, but what Keaton had said made sense. She's fucked at this point if it goes south, Lynn said. Even if she pulls some Judas shit, she's going down too. She has to know that. Lynn did not know if she could trust Keaton - actually, she did. She knew she couldn't. But she could trust Keaton to do what was smart for her, which was continuing to work with Lynn for the time being. Even telling Lynn she was done and ducking out was smarter than snitching.

Lynn's stomach rumbled. "Thanks, Keaton," Lynn said, looking down at the pretzel bucket. A vague part of Lynn wondered when the last time someone had bought something for her was. Flowers.The same part was thinking maybe after she stayed with the group only as long as was strictly warranted, she could still go grab some more clothes or something. Just for the excuse. She had to look like the sort of square who shopped at a mall to keep her cover. Lynn missed the days when they just told her whose ass she had to go beat and not getting seen by the cops was the only important part. Christ, Lynn. One pretzel and you're standing here missing Che. Get your shit together. "I'll get you back sometime," she added quickly, cementing that this debt was recognized and Lynn was good for her word to repay it, and then Lynn was not one to be strung along unawares by this sort of thing, like the dumb fish who took a free cigarette on the first day of lockup. Lynn bit into one of the pretzels. It was likely due in a large degree to Lynn's presence, but the pretzels were perfectly warm. "Damn these are good," Lynn said, chewing. "You want some?" she offered the bucket to her.

"Let's go deal with their bullshit, I guess," Lynn said, chewing another pretzel bite. "Spoons is probably going to try and slap new girl until she's down to a 4 or 5 out of ten - " that'll take a while " - so at least we'll get a show. I'm not talking to the cop more than I have to. And neither should you." she swallowed. "At least trust me on that shit, there's nothing good from that. He's as gen one as fucking Bulbasaur - " (Lynn had never had the money for any of the newer games, as it were) - "and as crooked as Gennedy." Lynn remembered seeing him from the precinct. She had a good eye for faces. I still need to beat the ass of that Promise guy who strapped me down on the rocket up. "I say we get Spoons talking about her feelings or something or have Archie talk about boats or whatever and run him off as soon as possible. I don't want to linger here." Lynn shook her head and chewed another pretzel. "Either Gennedy's attack dog starts sniffing - and I'm on probation, remember - or another freak thing happens and one of those two flips. I don't think - " Lynn started to say she didn't think it was a coincidence that Archie's freakouts kept happening, that someone was trying to use a chainsaw to do heart surgery on the Promise, to put out a hit and kill everyone the mark ever knew just to be on the safe side, but that wasn't wise to say aloud. Not now. "Fuck." Lynn glanced up at Keaton, a look that was a mixture of annoyance and respect across her features, a few blue hairs free from the lazy ponytail Lynn had pinned back. "The shit you talk me into, Keaton. Damnit. Let's get this over with."

Until the end of her days, Lynn would still have difficulty believing that she voluntarily approached a cop at a sketch-as-hell meetup, one which had a documented narc also on the guest list, in the sort of place where they could have officers waiting at every table to pounce. At least there's no clear shot, Lynn thought. Even if there's a nullifier I've got a chance at running. Lynn approached with Keaton, doing her best to project neutrality. She had a feeling Radvi would've heard of her interrogation, and beyond that, had no desire to really be polite to him on ideological grounds. Lynn looked at Radvi and saw a mountain of the dolls in her backpack, stacked six feet high and wearing a shiny uniform. If she'd come blowing smoke up his ass, he would've known she was up to something. Beyond buying Xanax in the woods. Still, she wasn't going to piss him off needlessly and get arrested on whatever Mussolini-ass law Gennedy had put into place around here. She looked at all of them, sizing them up. Spoons looked like she needed a spoonful of something to calm her down. She hadn't seeen Boat Farmer in a bit. He looked good, Lynn thought and promptly dismissed, because what did that have to do with anything.He looked like he was about to have a panic attack, and all Lynn's instincts told her to bolt. It's a set-up and he knows it, Lynn thought, New girl's a nullifer. Just fucking run. Burn a hole through the cop's chest, see if you can take her out before she takes you. That was how it was. You had to get them before they got you. New Girl looked housebroken, too. She could see it in her stance. She was relaxed around Radvi. That took years. Were you relaxed when they fucked up, and three hundred people died?

Lynn would've considered it. But Keaton was next to her, and something about that made Lynn's runaway thoughts run a little slower, and Lynn told herself, more importantly, she was the only one that could get those kids out. If she roasted this guy today, a dozen little girls died tomorrow, needles in their arms and collars on their neck.

She looked at New Girl. New Girl looked nice. Annoyingly. Natalie did too. Something in Lynn that did not often surface - Lynn's concerns were normally survival, food, and maintaining her respect - came bubbling up. It was the uncomfortable knowledge that she was the ugliest motherfucker at this table. None of the other girl had scars or tattoos - maybe Spoons had some scars, but the kind people pitied and not the kind that made them look away from you. She was short, too, ten inches shorter than Archie and even further from Radvi. Lynn shifted her weight, eating a pretzel and thankful for the bagginess of her hoodie, that a men's XL masked the ribs poking Lynn's pale skin. Spoons had stopped crying long enough to put on perfect makeup. Lynn had never really - well she didn't have a, or - she didn't was dumb. It was for people who couldn't accept they were ugly. Lynn ate another pretzel, forcing her heart rate to go down. At the very least, Lynn had practice with a poker face. She'd had to bite her tongue a lot of times in juvy to keep from getting her ass beat, staring down any number of people she'd rather throttle than thank. The cinnamon pretzels helped.

"'Sup." Lynn said, chewing. She wasn't going to introduce herself to New Girl or Paw Patrol. Lynn took a quiet, petty level of enjoyment in that.
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