Sidewinder. That bastard. That rat bastard. Beating up on Val? Punching up a girl. I’ll show him a beating.
I’m outside. It’s cold. Did he just leave her in the cold? Heartless shitface. Someone’s handing me my coat. Fucking necklace is itching. I pull off the card necklace and throw it off somewhere into the red haze of people who don’t matter. Some guy in the haze catches it. There’s a couple of them, I realize, as I struggle into the coat. They’re talking.
“Well, anyway, this sure shows that the girls aren’t neffs.”
My hand flashes out, and this time nothing stops it. I punch Ball Buster right in the jaw, and he flies backward a few feet before crashing into the ground.
“Whoah, dude!” Sue is in front of me immediately, hands out placatingly. “Ease up.” Dolphin is helping Ball Buster up from the ground.
Ball Buster gets up, feeling at his jaw. “I deserved that,” he says.
“Just calm down, everybody,” Mouse says. His hands are out, too. He’s darting glances from one of us to the other.
“And by ‘everybody’, he means ‘Square,’” Ball Buster grunts. “All the rest of us are plenty calm.”
I make a move for Ball Buster, but Sue’s in the way.
Sue looks back towards Ball Buster. “Pretty sure he also be telling you to stop being an asshole, pig boy.” He looks back at me. “Look, Square, talk to us. What happened? How is she?”
I take a deep breath. “Has anyone seen Sidewinder?”
Careful looks are exchanged. “What’re you asking about him for?” Ball Buster says.
“Let’s not do anything stupid,” Mouse says, glancing up at the nearby watchtower. I feel his calm, calm, calm battering at the red haze, but it just makes me madder. “Your eyes were glowing like hell in there, if they find there’s a fight…”
“He’s probably miles outside of camp by now,” Dolphin says.
Dolphin’s barely a few inches from me when I lunge, but he manages to dodge back just in time. “When did you see him leave?” I say through clenched teeth, advancing on him. “When?”
Sue slams into me. I throw him off (he goes at least ten feet into the air), but Ball Buster grabs my parka, and suddenly it’s heavy as a rock. I rip through the coat and shove him out of the way.
“Dude, chill!” Dolphin yells.
Mouse is in front of me. There’s a screwdriver in his hand. Shit knows where he found it. I try to dodge around him, but he moves like buttered silk. The screwdriver rips through my turtleneck, puncturing my right bicep.
“Next one is going in your eye,” he says to me. “I don’t want to, but you’ll heal, and you need to get a grip.”
I pull back, breathing hard.
“Holy shit, Square,” Ball Buster says, starting to get up. “You’re some sort of crazy shit when there’s a girl—”
I charge at Mouse. He whips around with the screwdriver, and I see it coming, as promised, straight for my eye.
Flame bursts from my hand and forms the shape of a knife. My hand follows on the motion and cuts the screwdriver clean in half.
“What the …” Mouse manages to say, before I throw him aside.
I stop, and stare at the knife in my hands. A switchblade. A flaming switchblade. The glove around it has been burnt right away, with the edges curling black away from the bare palm and the knife. I can see the snow through its flickering blade. But I clench my fist, and the flame feels solid.
I focus, and another knife bursts out of my other glove. This one looks more like a bowie knife.
All the others are staring at me. “Well, guess it was bound to happen sometime,” Ball Buster says, his eyes fixed on the flaming daggers.
I ignore him. “Where and when,” I say, my eyes fixed on Dolphin. “One chance.”
“Leaving the north end of camp, half an hour ago,” he says. “But Square, listen—”
I don’t stay to hear the rest. The wind is roaring in my ears, and the camp seems to flow past me. I can’t see if the others follow, and I don’t care. Sidewinder. Sidewinder. Sidewinder.
I can’t find him. Bastard must be hiding. Fucking island is too fucking big, and it’s getting dark. No way I can let him get away.
I gather my legs under me and jump as high as I can. Night or not, the white snow still reflects the moonlight remarkably well, and it’s not too hard from the air to spot the place where the smooth white crust is broken apart in a trail of footprints. I land and take off running.
I’m going to destroy this asshole. Destroy him with my new magic fiery swords. Bring the pain. I focus as I’m running, and I feel them solidify in my hands—two flaring blades, roughly the size and shape of machetes. Their glowing red light glints off the frozen ice as I dash across the Alaskan landscape.
A dot up ahead. Sidewinder. Has to be. Already, I’m close enough to see him turning. I leap into the air and come down screaming.
Sidewinder hits me full in the chest with a burst of lightning.
It doesn’t stop my momentum, though, and I cannonball into him, sending us both to the ground, a great mass of convulsing limbs. By the time he’s managed to throw me off, I’ve got feeling back in my legs, and I whip up and around, swords at the ready.
“Holy fucking shit, Square,” he says, heaving himself upright. “The hell is—”
I don’t wait. The slightest move from this guy could end me. I charge straight at him, then dodge left as he raises his hand. I catch the tail end of the shock anyway, but it’s all on one shoulder. I shrug it off and keep on. He’s carrying some sort of metal walking stick, and he raises it to block my machete as it comes down.
My sword’s made out of fire, and it just went “Clang.” This is too weird for words, and I’d be laughing if I weren’t so fucking furious right now.
There’s not enough force behind his walking stick—it doesn’t block my sword so much as deflect it, which sends my blade skimming across his knuckles. I remember my other machete and slash. He dodges right, but it still rips through his coat—even lights it on fire a little. Maybe it draws blood. I can’t see.
“When the hell did you get magic powers, man?” he says, beating out the flames.
I should probably be saying something witty and badass. I’m too mad.
He blocks my slash with his stick. Why aren’t my fucking swords cutting through that thing? They simply CLANG loudly again (seriously, what’s up with that?), and when he ducks left and swings at me, I can’t bring my sword up in time.
The metal pole slams into my thigh, and instantly my whole body is alive with pain. I double over in the snow, screaming, my swords withering away as I lose focus.
The bastard’s channeling his lightning through the pole!
I see the pole whipping down towards me again. I clear my mind just enough, and a bowie knife flickers into my palm as it shoots up to block the attack.
I’m not strong enough to actually block it. I just deflect it enough for me to sort of writhe spasmodically out of the way. The lightning stick plunges into the snow. Seeing an opening, I take a wild chance and hurl my bowie knife at him.
The knife sails past his shoulder before whisping away into nothing. Shit.
I can only just feel my legs, and they feel like jelly. Sidewinder lets go of his stick and raises his hand at me. A machete materializes in my hand as I slash at him, leaving a deep cut across his palm. He screams and dances backward, clutching his hand to his mouth. “Oh! Bastard! You cut my hand open, you crazy-ass asshole!” he says, looking at me with disbelief.
“Cry me a river,” I say, raising myself on one knee.
“Fuck you! What’s with you, going all psycho all of a sudden?”
“There are some lines you don’t cross.”
I hoist myself upright on my swords. He sees me wobbling on my feet and stops talking. He charges at me, swinging his metal pipe.
I whip up my right sword, almost falling over from the lack of balance. CLANG. Now I do fall over, tumbling into the snow, but I use the momentum and roll to dodge, slashing at his legs with my sword. I miss by a few inches, but it makes him jump back a little, enough for me to do a full-kick mount, like what they do in jiujitsu. I land, feet planted, in the snow and bring up the twin machetes in a guard stance. My breath hisses out in the frosty air.
Mad as I am, I can’t keep back a dark grin.
Sidewinder’s damaged hand is out at his side—the pain must be gone—and he’s holding the walking stick out like some sort of villain issuing a challenge. I wonder if he knows anything about sword fighting, then remind myself that I don’t know anything about sword fighting. We’re both basically winging it, here. Actually, it’d probably be smarter for him to shock me from a distance. The damaged hand mustn’t be able to send out lightning.
I charge at him, swords flashing.
You’d think, two swords against one stick—short contest, right? But Sidewinder’s stick is longer than either of my machetes. And all he needs to do is touch me with it. I have a few lucky escapes where it just brushes my arm and my entire side freezes up, but it’s a close call to beating him back until I can manage to restore feeling. The snow under our feet is beaten and chewed up. Getting slushy, too.
And I’m running out of breath.
Sidewinder’s not looking too great either, but he was walking. I ran across half an island to get to him. If it weren’t for Sue’s health-nuttery and Doc’s Code-cards, I’d probably be collapsed already. An endurance run isn’t going to end well for me.
I need to end this quick. I launch myself—actually jump—straight at him, screaming. He ducks left, but he’s missed my true goal. As I fly past, I stab my swords deep into the metal pole and twist up, letting the momentum of my leap rip his lightning rod out of his hands.
I come down in a tumble, tuck, and roll back up to a kneel position. I whip around, cracking the pole in half and tossing it to either side.
Sidewinder’s turned to face me. His eyes are wide, like he’s just understood what happened.
“Now,” I say, walking towards him. “You’re going to—”
I don’t even see him raise his hand.
My whole right side is suddenly alive with pain, and the rest of my body follows it as I crash to the snow. Damnit. I have just the consciousness to think. Forgot he could still do that.
Sidewinder’s looming over me, his shape flickering in the pulsing haze of my pain. “You absolute fucking moron!” he’s shouting. His boot rears back and kicks me in the gut, and pain explodes across my belly. Doesn’t feel shocked, just pulverized. I’m pretty sure I lifted off the ground a little with that last kick. “You positive lunatic! The fuck is with you?” Again the boot. The pain explodes again, spreading under my ribs. “I’m going to kill you!”
The boot rears back a third time. Choking with pain, I launch myself forward with a flaming stiletto and slash him across the back of the knees. His legs buckle, and he goes down with a roar.
We lay there for a bit, writhing in the snow—him clutching his leg, me holding my stomach. I’m berating myself. How could I forget he could shock people? That was the first thing he did! I was in the fight with him and Ball Buster. I was the guy who figured out he needed a metal source to target his attacks.
I think about that a bit as I struggle to my feet, still groaning. Sidewinder can’t shock people without something metal behind them. So how…?
I reach back to my right shoulder, the one he kept hitting. There’s something stuck on my back. I give it a tug, but it feels pretty firmly stuck.
“Dude, what’s your problem?” Sidewinder’s saying. He’s still clutching his leg, hissing pain through his teeth. I figure he’s learned his lesson.
“Don’t ever touch my girlfriend,” I say, tugging at the thing on my back.
“Seriously, the hell? You don’t even have a girlfriend, man.”
“Don’t ever touch Valerie again, or I swear I’ll kill you next time.”
“Valerie?” He’s sitting up now, his leg bent at the knee. “The blonde film nut? I’ve never had five words with her.”
“Never had five words with her, but you know she’s a film nut.” The thing on my back comes loose with a rip. “Right.”
“Only reason I know that is because Jackhammer never shuts up about her,” Sidewinder says. “And where the hell do you get off calling her your girl, anyway?”
I start to get a bad feeling, like I’ve been walking in the totally wrong story this entire time. “What do you mean Jackhammer never shuts up about her?” I ask, looking at him.
“Jack sneaks over to her dorm to watch movies every Tuesday. Has for about a month and a half.” He checks his leg and groans. “Damn. She said I beat her up?”
I can’t answer. I look down at the thing in my hand: a metal pin. A pair of angel’s wings coming off a diamond, fashioned out of twisted wire. Crude, like the sort of thing you make in arts and crafts.
The broach I gave Val. There’s a bit of red fabric caught in the pin, where I ripped it from the back of my turtleneck. The turtleneck I wore when I leaned close to the stretcher to hear her whisper Sidewinder’s name.
I sit down, heavily, in the snow. “Shit.”
The wind blows. The snow’s cold on my legs. All around me, it’s dark. And I hurt, everywhere.
Eventually, I look at Sidewinder, who’s just sitting in the snow, staring at me, saying nothing. “Your … leg feeling better?” I ask.
He looks at it. “Seems like it. We really heal fast, you know?”
“Yeah.” I let out a big sigh and stand up. “We should … probably get back to camp. Here, let me give you a hand.”
“Dude, I almost killed you. Let me help you back to camp.”
“Psh. I almost killed you.” Sidewinder grunts, but he still grabs my hand and lets me help him up. I throw his arm over my shoulders. We start to limp back the way we came.
“So,” he says. “You can make magic swords?”
“Apparently. Just found out about it today. Not sure how it works. It’s pretty badass though, right?”
“It’s helluva badass.”
“When’d you get that idea of using the rod for your electricity powers?” I ask. My turtleneck is ripped to shreds, and the wind is really cold.
“I started doing that after the fight. Figure, there’s not always going to be a convenient big monument around, so I should carry a bit of metal with me all the time. I zapped you on pure instinct the first few times. Just reacted without thinking. You looked fucking terrifying, man, jumping out of the darkness with your flaming swords like that, I almost shit myself…”
Turns out the girls do heal fast. Val gets out of the clinic Sunday morning, and I’m waiting in the lobby when she does.
She actually stops when she sees me. “Oh …” she says, and that’s when I know, for certain.
She never expected me to come back.
I walk up to her, and she shrinks back. The nurse next to her is staring daggers at me, but I don’t have the energy to care.
I hand her back the broach. She looks at it, then back at me.
“Why?” I say, softly.
She closes her eyes. “This isn’t how it was supposed to go at all,” she says, almost too quiet for me to hear. “The Mothers said you would be …” Her eyes open, and they’re burning with an anger I haven’t seen before. “Why were you … like this,” she hisses, soft and low. “This was supposed to be simple.”
Her eyes close, and she draws in a long breath. When her eyes open again, they’re ice cold.
“It doesn’t really matter, I suppose,” she says, looking me over almost clinically. “Don’t know why we even bothered in Pittsburgh. You’re dying already.” Her eyes meet mine, and there’s a flash of … something. “Goodbye,” she whispers.
Then she steps back, her eyes once again wide and frightened. “I … I think I’d like to go back to my room.”
“Of course, honey!” The nurse’s voice is bright, but her glare could melt girders. She watches me the entire time she’s helping Val back into the wheelchair, and mutters something to the guard at the door on her way out.
I get a last glimpse of Val’s blue eyes before the doors swing shut behind them. And finally, I realize what the name for that color is.