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Redana’s laughter is innocent, guileless, even now. It’s a laugh bursting through a smile— but not Apollo’s smile. The difference might be that Apollo’s smile is satisfaction at the beauty of the world, but Redana’s smile is an almost baffled joy at how the world can be so beautiful as to have fussy, gleeful, irreplaceable Praetors in it. It is a loud smile that tastes of sunlight, and her laughter is like, perhaps, a bough of golden bells being shaken.

“Of course! Please, Bella, help me!” How many times had that been said between them? Often. How many times had it been said in that light, joking tone? Perhaps never. “I need, um… they’re part of a shrine to Uncle Poseidon! Just imagine! Sharks in priestess outfits, carefully guarding a shrine to Polychromatikí, even as more crowd up around its foot, a whole herd of sharks. A flock of sharks? A swimming of sharks!”

She swings the sharks in her arms back and forth, and ducks her head down to give one a little kiss. “There! Now they’re all mine! Thank you, Bella!”

It really is a shame that she wouldn’t think to blackmail her Praetor, isn’t it? Imagine all the concessions she could win by threatening to reveal such a secret to Vasilly! Truly, she’s in desperate need of a spymaster to help her leverage her secrets appropriately. She’s hardly acting like the future Empress of humanity should.

And is that such a bad thing?

Look at her as she squeezes sharks to her sides, balances a shark on her head, starts looking for some more bags to carry— “Oh, Bella! Look! A thousand tickets for a chest!”

It’s the same size as the one that was on the Anemoi. Not that Redana ever saw it. Maybe she’ll never know about the chest that was assigned for her down in the depths of the ship, after what happened on Baradissar. A box for shutting a girl inside and then sitting on. No room for her to stretch her limbs, no way for her clever eye to see out, no hope of escape from her extremely thorough confinement.

“And if we get some straps, the kings can ride on top! And— oh, look, Bella, Bella, it’s got wheels! Little wheels! Right there! And there’s a button! Bella, we have to know what the button does! We’ll go mad if we don’t ever find out what it does, I know we will! But… how are all of us going to get a thousand more tickets?”

(By all of us, she is including the sharks. As if they’re going to pipe up with an idea for how a princess and her maid, or a praetor and her pet, or two girls who might get up to some embarrassing business behind a tent later, might just be able to win a thousand tickets with their help.)

And she looks to Bella, because Bella always, always has a clever idea, or asks a question that makes you realize what you need to do. There’s nobody like Bella for helping her through thoughts, not in all the worlds.
It’s her.

Maybe it’s possible that Jade does it on purpose. (But the goddess is still, her hands slack, leaving Dolly to engage her core, remaining in the lotus in mid-air, not making a fool of them both.) Or maybe Jade does it without even thinking about it. That’s an interesting thought, isn’t it? Maybe she sees things the way that people present them to her. Effigies, symbols, offerings: what if the gods see their hearts and their meanings instead of what’s really there? (Her heart is racing, her nose twitching, her eyes wide, her thoughts racing on a fraying line.) Maybe it’s because of that, the reality of the simulation, didn’t Mio Counters || Ten Knife talk about that in his Dialogues… maybe that’s why Dolly’s staring at herself down there.

Herself, if she was a grinning pirate draped in charms, her curls in a loose explosion of a ponytail, golden tags on her ears, flaunting, smoldering, confident, grinning, did she say that already, one arm locked in a massive stone gauntlet, stomach just a little more toned, face just a little prettier, right, or maybe it’s just the, it must be how Jade looks at her, besides, it’d be very presumptuous of her to think she’s that pretty, right?

Then, suddenly, Jade breaks her silence and laughs. Her hands tighten their grip, particularly around her chest, where she is jealously kneading.

”Oh, oh! You little darling~!” A lift of one hand to the cheek. Erys Bander can only see slate-stone and her helm. She is as she presents herself. Dolly is soft under her hands. Dolly is quivering under her hands. “You came properly dressed for ravishing!”

JADE! JADE?! JADE?!?!

Dolly clenches and lets out a strangled squeak. She can’t help but turn her head from one way to the other, despite Jade trying to hold her head still. Who? They’re all watching, aren’t they? The pirates and her crew and her Angela and Ksharta and her big sister probably!! And just because! Just! It’s hot when, when it’s, when everybody could, but what if Jade just, what if she keeps talking…!!

Keeping them both up in the air is suddenly a tangled tapestry of knots and strings, like combing the hair of Macheka. She leans the squirming Dolly back— pinches her for being difficult— and tumbles out of the air. Almost perfect. No one will notice. Stop trying to be small, Dolly! Do you not see the figure before us? How perfect she is?

The only way to meet this is to beat her at her own game. Shoulders back, Dolly! Sway those hips!

“She is, after all, my Bride. How daring, Erys Bander! It must have been the defeat of Ksharta Talonna that convinced you.” What if they kissed? Her body, and Dolly’s body, sized for each other at last. “But if I were to treat you in all ways like I treat her, well—“


Giant Dolly suddenly charges, massive fist pulled back and ready to send them both flying. She just stares at herself, eyes wide, heart about to explode, and then Jade spanks her, hard, and pushes her into a jump over her own head, heel on her curls, shoving her forwards, even as she lands neatly behind, and uses the butt of her lance to—

J A D E

—lift her own skirt. Her own skirt. On camera. For everyone. To see. And. And. And.

Was everyone seeing the skintight spandex underneath, or just her??? Because. Did they? Did they? At industrial size? As part of?? They couldn’t! They wouldn’t! This is just! Jade!!!

Jade whistles. How cute. Though, seeing it cling to this pirate-Dolly, almost soaked through with sweat… perhaps cute isn’t the right word. No. Definitely isn’t.

“—they would have to cut the feed, wouldn’t they?” Or maybe they wouldn’t. Imagine them, those Banders, watching as she mounts a defeated mecha frame, gets her hands all over her Dolly-in-effigy, shows them that she can match any of them in how to treat a beautiful, incomparable girl.


Her suit clings to her, Jade working her over until between the sweat and the hands she might as well be wearing nothing at all. There is no time for her to stop; if she holds still a minute too long, her double will grab them and start wrestling, and she remembers the briefing, they’re going to lose, and they’ll be, she’ll be bullied by herself, and that.

If that awakens anything in her she will have to have very awkward conversations with Jade, and do not imagine her being you, Dolly, do not imagine those intense eyes in your face, hearing your goddess’s purr out of your own mouth, you have a fight to not lose!

The lance is the key. Keep her at a distance, use precision. Undo her defenses piece by piece. Twist charms free; sever corded braids; loosen the curves of the armored plating. And give the world a teasing look, let them wonder, let them stare, let them yearn to be as treasured and adored as her Dolly, greatest of all Hybrasilians, most beautiful of priestesses.

Let them ache to be the prize of a goddess.


Jade has her duck in close, under a sweep, and reach up, and— wait. Jade. You. Those strikes. They were calculated, not misjudged at all. Jade. Jade. Jade!!

She almost flinches away.

Instead, she closes her hand, and closes her eyes, and feels the roar of the fire inside of her, like it’s just had half a peat bog dumped into it, as she dances away, trailing behind her

her own

top

”Much better~! Why not flaunt your treasures, oh my little priestess-in-training? You may as well try to hide Smoking Mirror and Heart-of-Fire!”

It’s not like she’s actually. See. Because. This is just how Jade sees things. Really it’s just the front of a mecha. Nothing is really bouncing and jiggling freely. People would have to imagine… what she and Jade can. see. right in front of them.

If only the whole world could see, and pay her honor, and make her an idol in their shrines to the glory of Smokeless Jade Fires!

She leans Dolly’s head in to the rippling canvas and breathes in deeply. “Ah. If only you smelled as finely as she does. But I will help with that, priestess-in-training. I will heap your head with oil and perfume, and I will feed you the freshest fruits, that your exertion will be all the sweeter. And how you will produce it!”


jade jade jade jade jade why why she you just and Angela and you’re not even the one making her rise up onto her tippytoes as if for a moment she thought you were actually trying to make her, and, how can she fight like this, Jade, how?!?

Now is the difficult part. All her blows have been light, kissing things, and the cuts on the skin of her false-bride shallow. But she will have to…

No. She can’t. Even knowing it is Erys Bander, she cannot defeat this false-bride with a spear thrust. Her invincible heart roils and rebels at the thought. No. Impossible.

Which leaves only, somehow, the cords. Which will only work if she can exhaust Erys Bander first, leave her without the strength to strain against them.

Which means she will have to make Dolly dance longer than her twin can. Which means she will have to push Dolly to her limits. Not even being caught once. Making a fool of this priestess in disarray, over and over and over again, untouchable, too quick to be brought in close.

Are you ready, Dolly? You can do it. You can do anything. Because you are the choice of the goddess. Defeating your twin will be as nothing to you.

I love you.


Her thighs are burning. Her cheeks are throbbing. There is nowhere safe to look, and Jade has her leash pulled taut. Her adrenaline is a constant rush through her system. Her legs are wobbling. She can’t keep doing this. She can’t!

(But Jade believes she can.)

Parry! Cartwheel! Thrust! Dodge! Spank! Jump! Spin! Smack!

(It’s like her marathon sessions with Jade. The kind that lasted all weekend back home.)

She’s got to do this.

For Jade.

And because she is the best Dolly!

[Smokeless Jade Fires squeaks a 10 to Fight with Erys Bander. She would like to gain another String, inflict a Condition, and take Erys’s protective charms (and dignity).]
“What’s the matter, leadbeans? Did you think yourself so terribly clever in your cloak of air?” The thrill runs hot through Smokeless Jade Fires, the constituent parts of her feeding the promise of praise and glory back into herself like a loop of altars, like the sacrifice made to itself. “As if you could hide your stench~!

The penultimate missile roars to its fated end. The roar of it slams into her like the wind rolling off the wave-breakers. She cackles, and then, for everyone to see—

Jade guides her into the cartwheel. She closes her eyes and ignores the vertigo. If she stopped to think about the calculations that Jade is running to keep her from blacking out, how much strain she is putting on Jade’s body, how many jaws must be dropping at this display of careless power and control, or how Jade pushes her to arch her back, to curl her toes, to make this achingly sensual— well, she’d fall over. So she doesn’t. She breathes deep into Jade and closes her eyes and feels the stretch of her body, the way that Jade’s fingers dig ever-so-carefully into her skin, the reaching for the final missile/thunderbolt/knife while she’s upside down, and she smiles even though nobody can see her. It’s a small, blissful smile, and Jade’s finger traces the shape of the lip over the top of its confinement, because even in this moment, while the goddess is pulling off an incredible stunt, she knows who she’s doing it for, and if a slight waggle of the head forward risks disrupting the delicate balance, well, a curl of the tail is counterbalance enough.

And Smokeless Jade Fires slams the final missile home so hard that by right it should catch on fire. The metal of the warhead should burst into roaring flame like dry autumn tinder and tear open the shrieking sky. And while it falls like a meteor, Smokeless Jade Fires is already cutting the thrusters, laughing wildly, clinging closer to Dolly so that she will—

—follow Jade’s lead oh Jade oh Jade oh Jade they’re fallllliiiiiinggggggg why do you want her down like thissssssss but she does it anyway because even though she wants to make a (muffled) scream she knows that Jade has a plan, needs her to land—

—driving the lance into the earth, which splinters and sparks under its tip, and spinning around it, building momentum for the lunge. “I can smell you from here, girlthief, pirate, [river ogre; caiman]!”

The cord wraps around the left wrist of [The unrelenting grip of the stone goddess Dishai], sparking and burning and half-lost amid the feedback of being hit by the thunder of the sky, and low, almost loping, cord dragging from her idol’s wrist, Smokeless Jade Fires cuts around to the right, fast as thought, taking the corners hard, leaping on the last as she pulls it taut, spinning, letting the momentum slam her hip into the pirate’s mech, and impossibly, its own strength used against it, [The unrelenting grip of the stone goddess Dishai] staggers back, pinned against a wall. Its tenfold plating smokes, its shields useless against the missile, its baffling nothing to the wit of a goddess; its arm crushes its own chest, its ionic fist resting against its own cheek. Smokeless Jade Fires grinds her idol against this mountain, holds the cord taut, reaches up and grabs one ear, drags that thick-girdered head to one side. Her arm fits in the hollow of the curve, the neck and the shoulder. She pushes Dolly forward, feels the shiver, grins unseen.

And she sniffs.

J A D E.

“There is nothing I cannot catch,” she stage-whispers. Let everyone hear. Let everyone witness. “Your girl’s heart betrays you; it stinks of your pride, your desperation, your…”

Dolly’s mortified whimper, wide-eyed, imagining everyone watching as Jade rubs her crotch up against the big, strong, bossy, rude pirate, is unheard by everyone except the goddess herself. Her grip on the increasingly strained cord trembles.

Lusts.” Her claws dig, slowly, inexorably, into the war-plating. Feel it, Erys Bander. Feel yourself claimed like a weak-kneed, mewling ocelot. “And you thought you could creep about like a mouse? That I needed visuals on you? That you could trick me into your traps?” She clicks her tongue, like a reproving mother.

”Jade! The cord!” That’s not what comes out of her bulging cheeks, but it’s as close as she can get, feeling the strain of keeping the Crushing Grasp in place. Jade won’t let her look away. She’s climbing this pirate, this PIRATE of all things, of all professions, like a tree, and even if it’s not the same, very, flustering, to, think, about, doing, this, to, pirate, it’s still—

a power fantasy. An absolutely impossible, absolutely mind-melting, absolutely mortifying, absolutely hot power fantasy, thinking that she— small, curvy, not-a-trained-pilot she— could. do this. to a woman like that. could be brave enough to hump her mecha in front of cameras, sensual, in control, tamer of wild (musky) pirates just kneeling at her feet and admitting they know they’ve lost to her.

But it’s not her. And she’s not the one in control. And imagine if everyone was watching and could see what Jade sees now. A gagged, decorated, collared slave-bride being pushed onto the mountain-sized pirate, champion of a goddess, prisoner of a goddess, beloved of a goddess, a tool of humiliation because you can’t even beat HER, let alone her goddess.

Her composure is as strained as the cord, and maybe Jade doesn’t need to make her lean in those last few feet.


“Last chance.” Smokeless Jade Fires brings Dolly’s legs up, tucks them between the two mecha, and as she snaps the cord, she trods on the face of [The unrelenting grip of the stone goddess Dishai], grinding it into the wall, which finally gives way, sends the walking mountain sprawling, even as Dolly lands neatly beside the lance.

By the time that [The unrelenting grip of the stone goddess Dishai] begins rising from the rubble of her humiliation, Smokeless Jade Fires is already rising back into the air like Nephe Fisher at the end of The Fifth Age of Battle. She stretches, languidly, the lance as much prop as weapon, carefully making sure that her flustered, adorable bride won’t pull anything. She’s doing such a good job, and she’s so worked up.

“We can still duel. You might be entertaining up here, separated from the dull earth. Or you can keep scampering around like a mouse, trying to spring your traps, trying to hide anything from me, thinking yourself many-wreathed. And then I will simply have to treat you like a mouse, won’t I~?” Her voice drips with mockery; this accusation of cowardice is hard for anyone to ignore, especially a proud, brash Bander. “Choose wisely, Erys Bander.”

[Between the boxcars and the prior Wingman, even with Insecure Smokeless Jade Fires roasts a certified 12 on the Entice.]
Redana Claudius does not know what a carnival, strictly speaking, is.

She’s familiar with parties, mostly somber affairs in her mother’s palace; she knows about gatherings of people, certainly enough. She’s been social on the Plousios with all sorts. But this is new. Performers, not for the sake of a party but seemingly for the sake of the performance, and games quite actively waiting to be played, and everywhere, an invitation to come and try, or to participate, or to test her mettle, or to sit for a caricature, or to have tasteless white corn-snacks, or to see if she can keep track of where the icon of Hermes is, or to—

“Bella, Bella, look! Oh, let’s!”

—or to heft up a hammer and take turns with Bella seeing who can ring the bell harder, until it is knocked from its high perch completely, tumbling down at their feet as both of them jump back like startled kittens, and, oh, how the tickets are heaped up in her arms then!

The bag is finely-woven, patterned in the manner of a civilization that once burned bright, one that revered Iris as their patron, the messengers who would look upon the entirety of the Plousios’s voyage as a feat worthy of their epic courier-heroes. Into it is heaped more tickets, and more prizes, and more laughter. The first caricature hugs one side of the bag, Redana’s smile shaped like a striped bean, Bella’s ears a perfection of triangles. The second is slightly crumpled, slipping underneath the towel, bearing a picture of an elegant cat and an exuberant puppy.

Tickets are fed into the latest machine, prizes from the animation dance (the floor flickering between colors and scenes impossibly fast as Dany kept time and managed to score high than the somewhat distracted Bella), as the servitor stares with wide, bright eyes at the plush sharks (some sleek, some hammer-headed, some mammoth, some palm-sized, some blue and grey, some grey and brown, some red and black).

If this was a trap, it could keep Dany here for a long, long time. There is no day and no night here, where the lights hang criss-crossed over the stalls, trapped in lamplight globes, and everywhere she turns there is something new and wonderful and new.

But the other part of the trap is who she is experiencing this with. Because even Dany’s beginning to notice that the bestest part of the whole thing, from start to finish, is who she’s getting to do this with. And as her Bella, her friend, her girlfriend, her girlfriend, makes an adorable noise under her breath as she tries to choose from the wonders in front of her for the ones that need her the most, palms pressed against the blue-white glass, Dany looks at her with an expression of adoration written plain across her sea-touched face.

This. This is what she’d wanted the whole time. This is what she’d hoped would be her reward after going to the end of the universe and back. This is what she dreamed about when she stared up at that one star, glittering like a solitary diamond, when the clouds broke. This, forever and ever, and every day after that.
Maid!

You hit the mud again hard. Your stupid mortal weakling head rings, and your lungs burn. Everything here is heavy and hard and slipping away from your small, delicate fingers.

Nearby, the cat roars her defiance against this agent of the usurping, false heavens. If she begins speaking the oldest tongue, your head might explode, having all that meaning packed inside of the useless cotton fluff of your head, like your old dolls, like the coats of your soldiers.

It is very tempting to give up. It’s not your fault. It’s just this body. It can’t be trusted. It’s a bad blade. Shoddy. Broken. Worthless. But you lift your head for a moment, anyway, blinking the rain-sodden dirt out of your eyes (only two, how inconvenient, what were you all thinking when you made these pathetic creatures)—

And she’s watching you. She’s still watching you. The witch. The priestess. The servant of Heaven. Your tormentor. Your jailer. Your challenge. The one you will overcome. The one you must overcome. Your pathetic hands ball into fists, and shake, and hot tears spring to your eyes.

How dare she? How dare she sit there, looking at you, so calm, so placid, so superior? How dare she look at you when you are like this? How dare she enchant you, bewitch you, wrap you up in blue chains? How dare she? How could she? How can you let her?

You don’t have a name for what’s burning inside you. The only thing close is bloodlust. Shamelust? You have to see her lose. You have to see her lose.

You force yourself up, and it’s the end of the field battles of the War all over again. Back when the gods and the dragons launched their final assault in the name of pathetic humanity. You still stood. It’s not your fault. Everyone else fled, or let their courage fail them, and the lines of command collapsed, and you, you, you had to continue fighting the next stage of the war in exile.

(In your mind’s eye, for a moment, you confuse which one of you stood there. You could not have been as small as this, not then; they could not have picked you up and thrown you like a centipede, flailing black sleeves and white lace.)

You roar. Your tiny, squeaky voice breaks halfway through. Your ears are hot and your heart hammers and you glance furiously at the priestess, who is mocking you, you know it, you know it, if she smiles at the sound that came out of you you will fall over and die, and yet you look just in case she does.

Then you launch yourself at the back of the other slave of Heaven— you wrap your legs around her massive hips, digging in with your heels— you reach up and claw at her face and you hiss and spit and what little there is left of you lets you pry the mask free. The connection between goddess and mortal snaps like a thin wire, and then it is yours. You stop to gaze at this power.

This power that you will devour.

You will metastasize within Heaven. You will be beautiful. You will turn all their schemes into disasters. They will never know that their greatest enemy has infiltrated them. You will become a queen, as beautiful and terrible as the light that was before the creation of the world. You will reign in Heaven, and make of it a new Hell for the unjust, the unruly, the ungrateful brats.

And then you are tackled and the mask is crushed underneath furry tits, pressing the breath out of you, fingers trapped under the body of a grinning, sharp-toothed, tuft-eared, hot-breathed, moon-kissed, wet-faced, beautiful, terrifying, triumphant warrior

and the heat coursing through you

the images flashing through your head

are things that the General cannot feel, but you, you aren’t him, you’re the Maid, and the Maid is blushing and stammering and feels arousal and desire and blue chains wrapped tighter and tighter about her (your) heart, as you stare at her lolling tongue and remember the awful, humiliating, aching trip back, and find yourself clenching your legs together tighter and tighter as more and more unfolds in front of your eyes, and the worst part of it all

the worst part of it all

is how much you want her to suffer it, too




Lotus!

“You cAN—“

You swallow, and strain against the ropes (which are. very well placed. just like you’d expect from a Dominion agent) and try again, shutting your eyes, as if that will save you from the embarrassment.

“You can do it!” Your voice is drowned out by the roar, by the clash, by the, the fwumph, but you’ve got to try.

Because she can! Han can do this! She saved you from Hell! She’s the strongest, most amazing dragon you’ve ever had the chance to meet!

(And. Hypothetically. If you keep cheering for her. The dragon’s paw of the Dominion might. Maybe. Just possibly. Make you. Stop doing that. Thoroughly. Which is a most unworthy thing to be secretly hoping for, Lotus of Tranquil Waters.)




Kalaya!

“We need to find the General,” she admits, under her voice. The wind chills slightly; the rain outside spatters more heavily. “Or the thing that your… friend turned him into. It’s their politics. But I’m playing them, Kal.” The strain of her voice. The flint in her eyes. The way she leans in closer, as if hoping you’ll hold her. “They just want a couple of, you know. Captives. And then they’ll help us throw out the Dominion. He’ll help us. The… up there, back there.”

Ligier,” the witch says, savoring the syllables. Savoring the power.

“This is how I help you. This is how we win. And I’m trusting you, okay?” Ven suddenly takes your hand. Draws it to her breastbone. Is close enough to kiss. “You. I want you. With me. My queen. You’re the only person I can… you’re the only person I want beside me. We can do this. Together.” Her brass fingers tighten on yours, almost painfully, pinching.

Her brass fingers.

“And we’ll have what we deserve, Kal, please.” Her voice is raw. Hoping. Yearning. She wants you, Kalaya Na.

The waitress at the stand makes to serve you your food, then sees Ven’s intensity and pretends that she forgot to fetch a plate from the kitchen.
Blue!

Synthetic fingers on a synthetic wrist. A gentle, curious stroke of a carefully designed hint-of-ulna (which, to be clear, 3V does not know the name of, and thinks it is just part of the wrist bones). A juke.

“I can think of much better things to see you in,” she says, with a disarming sincerity, a knife slid between two ribs. Then, hammering from cooldown, following up into a combo: “And it is now your job to figure out what they are. I want a feature presentation, Little Miss Blue.” A slow, careful pulling in. Glorious. Commanding presence. “Presented. On your knees. Later.

Because they’re still, you know. In public. Only so much you can do on stream. She’s modeled cosplay before, haven’t you seen the compilation videos? She’s been flirty (see: So I tried this BeeDee collab skin, You Lose You Cosplay I-XI, GOING APE WITH HANUMAN) and she has been ridiculous (see: So I tried this BeeDee collab skin, You Lose You Cosplay I-XI, GOING APE WITH HANUMAN) and she has been clever and charming and never particularly dominant (except for her suave Praetor Artemis purr, and she made that red contact lens work as she dragged the metal claws gently down her cheek). Which is to say: she’s setting a boundary while encouraging the behavior and also if she’s going to be inhabiting the role of a dominant it’s going to be with a teasing, simmeringly rebellious android on her knees in front of the couch, presenting a visual presentation with bullet points while 3V rests an ankle on her shoulder and winds a leash around glowing neon knuckles.

And it’s a testament to how fun Blue is presenting such a game that 3V’s even interested. Props to you, cutie. The frisson of danger, the risk of losing control and ending up dethroned, the transgressive play— that’s how you get her pulled into the promise of a scene.

She makes to stand up, and then adds, in a whisper, leaning into Blue’s ear, “And if you don’t get the answers right, there will be. Consequences.

Then she straightens up and goes over to check some shelving and make sure the board game shelf is properly sorted and also she can’t let Blue see the look of childish thrill on her face.

Gamer on the streets, roleplayer in the sheets.
There are some mechs which come to life in zero gravity. Up there, where there is no up or down, the best pilots can shed the concepts like a snake’s skin. All directions are one direction, and the only resistance is momentum. Most pilots instead hold onto to thoughts of gravity, clinging to the grid of directions, even if there are more of them in play, even if which direction is up changes from moment to moment.

It takes a miracle to bring the effortless grace of zero-gee into a planetary atmosphere. There’s been talk about a mecha called the God-Smiting Whip that can do it, alien in its movements, unmoored by what the body can do.

What Dolly and Jade are doing is not that. They hang in the air like a stormcloud, and when they walk, it is as if they are on the ground. No part of the mecha lags; gravity has seemingly no hold over them. The combined effect is alien, perhaps even unsettling, and Smokeless Jade Fires thrills in it.

The clouds caress her; the winds dig their fingers through her fur. Whenever she takes a step, she feels unseen hands holding her up. It’s like something out of a story for kittens, every time.

Jade leans her forward, then further, then further. The ground comes no closer as she guides Dolly’s hands neatly under her chin, elbows leaning on nothing.


The microthrusters in points of articulation whine, and Jade fortifies them with her will. Her consciousness expands in rings, and each of her smiles is contained within another smile. Behold. This is what her pilot, her bride can do. This is her Dolly. Are you watching, o Red Band?

“Do not think you are hidden, Erys Bander,” she purrs, thunderously. “As small as you are.” The roads are not superimposed on the world, but they strain just beneath the surface, drawn up from stygian depths by the weight of her contemplation. She is a magician. She is a goddess. She is the huntress. She knows the prey. This is her assertion.

“Stomping around in that heavy, lumpen thing. Will the mountain come to the sky?” It would be quite the jump, and foolish besides, given the advantage obviously possessed up here. “I think it must. Because—“

There is no space for thought. There is no space to warn Dolly. It is not a calculation. (At least, it is not a calculation that she is aware that she has made. Which is the point.) It is magic. It is the power of a goddess. It is the color of the green road leaching into the world.

Together, they arm and fling a missile, as good a throwing knife as any when goddesses duel. Their supply is very limited, and throwing one by hand is hardly how one is supposed to be launched, but this is a message. This is fire from heaven. This is the lightning bolt. This is power tossed carelessly, but with impossible accuracy, and how can you deal with this, Erys Bander?

It’s a lightning bolt as it leaves her fingers, and it’s also a knife, both in one. The explosion below is enough to make her flinch, but she tries to turn it into one of Jade’s nonchalant shrugs. She can’t let her goddess down. No weakness. Not in front of a big bullying pirate and that insufferable handsy girl.

“—your silly tricks and cloaks do not work on me, little raider.” Was that a flicker of cloak? Was that a shower of debris bouncing off thin air? Not a clean shot, but surely enough to put the terror of a goddess into the skulking Erys Bander. Surely. Enough to “tilt” her. To make her sloppy. To play her hand early, or make the fatal error of joining battle in the sky, where Dolly is a coiled cloud-serpent, where they have mobility the likes of which Erys Bander and her clan have never seen before.

Her lance lolls in mockery, as if this is not serious enough for her to have it ready and level. Jade specifically has her let the head droop, but holds her fingers tightly around the shaft. It’s a fakeout. And then they’ll, they’ll use the momentum against her? That sounds right.

“Come out~! Or shall I knock this city down around your ears first?”

A second instinct: a draw, a fling, a roar as masonry crumbles and roots are exposed. The thrill of it! She is beyond you, Erys Bander! You are her toy, her quarry, her threat to scare her bride with and then overcome! How can you hope to defeat a goddess? What a grand and intoxicating innocence!

Go ahead! Call on Dishai, see if she answers you! Let Smokeless Jade Fires show how she can consume earth and stone alike in the flames of her passion! Old hag! It is the youngest goddess who burns brightest!

Smokeless Jade Fires, invincible, inimitable, unstoppable, inexorable, glorious!

[Smokeless Jade Fires rolls a 7 to Defy Disaster with Spirit and accurately, impossibly bomb Erys Bander’s cloaked position, offering her position in the sky as collateral (and also her pride). She should be given success at a sacrifice or a hard choice.]
The picnic is postponed for tomorrow. The maid came up with such a clever little idea, prancing for her mistress, feeding her sweet cakes, seeing the sights— but the door stays closed, and the two keep their own company in that cabin until it’s too late in the false-day to wander about. There’s more lazy cuddling in there than you might expect. Or maybe you would, and it’s the catching up on years of clandestine lust that would be the surprise.

When they emerge (late) the next day, Redana is wearing something much more usual for her, all dark and just loose enough for Bella to sneak a hand in. It completely fails to hide the possessive marks all along her neck, her jawline, her skin flushed. Her choker is much more subdued, lacking a bell, but one trace of a gentle finger along it makes her knees weak, and her hair is lovingly braided. And she insisted— insisted— on carrying the picnic basket.

So here they are. Bella’s hand on her arm as they walk through this black cathedral together like courtiers showing off the latest fashions. A sword swings at Redana’s hip, but it’s little more than an affectation, the kind of thing to be unbuckled by a hungry not-a-maid. And Redana herself fairly glows.

She wants to see everything on the way, you see. She’s going to find a place with a view of the stars, backlit by that pink fire, somewhere where they can still see colors (through a brutally squared-off observation window the size of a stadium). And then? There will be a blanket spread out. There will be something bubbly from the kitchens, and sandwiches, and hard crackers with honey-clotted dip. But getting there is half the point, and so she’s half-pulling Bella along (who could, if she wanted to, pull the princess back into check, but not effortlessly) and she stares, guileless, from one cryptic anachronism to another.

“Love is war.” She laughs, almost seeming naive. Almost. “Love is, as the Magos tells me, neither war nor Elysium but a secret third thing.” Her tone is light, but she takes a step closer to Bella. “Love is one of the mysteries.” Love is trying to kill us. “Love is shaped like a star.” Love is shaped like the inside of a closet and a prayer that she’ll be safe. “Love is—“

Thank you, Bella. The princess looks around, as if the screens are going to stop their nattering on to stare at them, and receiving no sign that they are scandalizing the dead, gives that gentle palm a fluttering-eyed kiss. And that’s closer than anything she’d managed to say.
“Danger surrounds us, but won’t bring us down~ Dadadada, turning darkness to light, riiiiiight beside you, wanting to fight~”

Breakfast sizzles in a stone pan. Dolly sings, and the world around her shines all the brighter for it, notes the color of ruddy sunlight spilling from her lips, sparkling as she forgets a word but holds the note perfectly.

Jade is supposed to be planning right now, but Dolly dutifully set up cameras in the rooms, and she gets to watch her bride from the outside again, like she did on the first morning she was alive. It’s impossible to worry about the Red Banders (who will be defeated, one way or another) when her Dolly is singing again. She rests arms on a tabletop and puts her head on them, invisible but immanent, and Dolly impossibly glances back over to her for a moment, as if—

Dolly slow blinks at the way the sunlight creeps into the room on clever little paws. It helps her remember. As if her lids are the shutters of a camera, and she can keep the photograph in her heart, which stills, beats gentler, accepting her gift. And it’s more than that now. Because Jade can see through her eyes, and maybe she’s looking right now, and if you are, Jade… you think it’s pretty too, right?

Her round little face, framed by those obsidian-black curls, tangled enough to get lost in. The lace on her shoulders, white on yellow and black, as delicate as the way she touches other people with the tips of her fingers. The way that she lifts up onto her beans while she walks around alone, just like when she’s going up stairs. The confident little flick of her wrist as she tosses the stir fry to keep the browning even, and even if she’s not a chef the way that Ksharta Talonna is, she makes it look effortless, like she’s following the way that the universe curves around her.

For a moment, Jade’s one day old again, and Dolly has Bioethics with Hekha Nedels in an hour, her student jacket tossed over an arm of the couch, spices lined up along the swell of a root-shaped rack, and the only name for something like her is…


“Goddess, thank you for your part in the food before me.” Dolly stretches out in the sunlight, on the balcony, resting the bowl on her stomach. Her chewing is lazy, savoring the taste of the vegetables. Not bad, Gardener.

”You’re welcome.” Jade indulges herself, gently scritches Dolly behind one ear, and even though her mouth’s full, the happy bounce of her tail is proof enough that it’s appreciated. “Eat up. You’ll need the energy for what we’re doing today.”

Swallow, lick her lips. “From above, right?” Jade’s so smart, she’s already figured this out.

”Hmm?” She rubs that ear more firmly, smiling at the way that Dolly’s leg wobbles. Keep talking, Dolly.

“Well, well, well, if we… if you pushed me, we could try being the Hawk again.” It’s terrifying, and exhilarating, and the first time Jade walked her off a cliff into open air was… well, she tried to make a lot of noise. But then they kept walking.

And then Jade made her dance.

No one can modulate thrusters like Smokeless Jade Fires. No one. As long as Dolly trusts her, they can do impossible things in the air. Unrivaled fluidity, like they’re walking on clouds, like they are a hawk with its wings spread, and the fall of their spear is the flash of its claws.

“I don’t push you,” she says. Her claws spread through Dolly’s fur, and she drags them so softly, so carefully, kneading like she’s practiced. Dolly makes an indecent mrrp-sigh. “I tell you what you can do. And then you do it. For me.“


“For you,” Dolly manages to breathe out. There. Right there. Jade Jade Jade right there. Mmmrrrrrr~

It will work. Dolly is so, so much cleverer than she thinks, aren’t you, Dolly? Nets will have to contend with gravity, and Dishai’s Clumsy Fist is a heavy beast. Come up to the sky, Erys. Let Dolly show you her dances.

Besides, Erys should get accustomed to looking up at her betters. The sooner the better.
Gym!

Let the record show, very officially, that 3V managed to bite down on that squeal. More of a squeak, really. Sure, the physical reaction of her shiver more than makes up for it, probably, what with how you can see it going all the way up her spine from the balls of her feet, but there was officially no squealing here, none whatsoever.

Distraction: the Euna Kim tangential. Euna is super sincere and she’s just as obsessive as 3V is. Was. Is? Has been known to be. Sure, her obsession is about all the ways that she can make the body do things that God never wrote into the operating manual, but game recognizes game. And don’t discount the power of being a sincere, cute dork.

Dig a little deeper. There’s the hardware connection, too. 3V got her bad girls as an upgrade, as a way to keep up, as something that she didn’t really think all the way through. Now they’re hers for the rest of forever. Can’t get the old flesh back even if you’re curious, sweetie. Even when you’re curious. But before you feel too sorry for yourself, here’s Euna Kim, all four limbs cybertronic and bionic, and she didn’t pick getting them. She just picked what she was going to do with them for the rest of her life, and she proceeded to do so, with vim, with vigor, and with an unassailable sense of cheer. How can you not like someone like that? Look up to them, even? Euna Kim is a goddamn hero and the work she does is more profound than what 3V used to do, even if her audience is smaller, her sphere of influence bounded to her tribe, her people, her domain which she rules with a mechanical fist and a bounce up to the ceiling when she’s flustered.

(You should see what her wife can do to her. Flustered her right onto her ass one time. Euna insists that she thought there was a chair there, but we know. We all know, Kimmy.)

Let the record show also that while someone was getting her knee examined and her diagnostics diagnosed, 3V slipped an arm around her smooth android shoulders. Not possessively, but in a show of solidarity, you know? Comfort. A silent reminder that 3V’s still here, still sweaty, still huffing, but here if you need something, babe.

Repaying that with Thighgate is one of history’s greatest betrayals, so let it be known.




Blue!

“You really think that’s my style, huh?” 3V smiles like Blue’s just walked into a snare (which is part of Artemis’s kit, if we’re being technical here). “Iiiiiiiinteresting. But I guess it makes sense. If you ask nicely, I suppose~”

She’s the embodiment of an emoji of a cool sheep wearing sunglasses. Bulletproof. Taking this attack and judo-flipping it back onto Blue. Insinuations, making it a confession on Blue’s part— even if Blue manages to withdraw her hand in time, she’s still up against a fierce actress who can turn on the cool in a heartbeat, when she needs to.

(Because that dress is hot and if she thinks about it too much, she’ll corpse. Goddamn lace. Goddamn bracers. Goddamn miniskirt.)
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