I slammed my fist into the wall. The sickening crack of my own bones breaking echoed down the alleyway.
Stupid fucking thug dodged my blow. How dare he? Didn’t he know who I was? With a thought, I willed my power into action, filling my hand with a warm tingle that reknit my bones and snapped my skin back into place. With a growl, I pushed further, to tear claws from my fingers.
My next swipe was decisive.
Blood splashed over the pavement.
It dripped down my claws, but I cast the man’s vitae aside with a sharp swing, splattering the white-paint brickwork that surrounded us. The very same brick building these criminals had been trying to break into, probably to steal, or to loot, or to vandalise.
I turned, focussing my sharp eyes on the next thug in line. She was backing away, but too busy staring at her fallen comrade to pay attention to the fight. “Y’know,” I quipped. “If you’d spent less money on Starbucks and Netflix, maybe you could have afforded to learn some situational awareness?”
I danced to the side, ducking into a spin to put as much force behind a kick as possible. The brick went flying, clipping her on the side of the head. She and it struck the ground in concert.
My powers hadn’t taught me how to fight, but they had amped my strength and reflexes up so far that that hardly mattered. I’d been a brawler as a kid and I was a brawler now, only with ten times the force behind every blow.
“Oh. And you probably wouldn’t have had to resort to crime, huh?”
I flipped open my phone and called it in.
“Yeah, uh, and I stopped another burgulary over in Saint Pauls last night, too.”
I was sitting on a rusted metal chair so uncomfortable that only the tingle of miraculous power kept me from needing to get up and stretch my legs. “Dangerous one, too, I think. They looked like they were really ready to fight.”
“I see.” The man at the other side of the desk looked over at the computery thing to his side. He must have been forty-something, maybe early fifties, with greying hair, a bushy mustache decorating his upper lip, and an impending sense he was moments away from talking about ‘kids these days’. He tapped a few keys on his keyboard with a clack clack clack. “Okay. What else?”
“I couldn’t find anything else.” I glanced away. “I was out every night, but ever since the Powers in Policing Act passed it’s been harder to find—”
“I just need the answer, Grace, it’s a checkbox on the form, I can’t put anything else in.”
I picked at the little hole in my top. Well. The hole in my top. “I didn’t find anything else.” I could feel my heart twisting as I spoke the words. I was fucking superhuman. I could tear everybody in this room in half without breaking a fucking sweat. I shouldn’t need to deal with this shit. Every two weeks without fail, having to report in to these fucks. If I missed an appointment, there went my stipend. If they missed an appointment, it was my problem too. I should just get up and tear this place in half.
Then what? Get a Knighted Constabulary breaking down my door? I could grow claws, bulk myself up, change my shape in almost any way I could want, so long as I could understand well enough how it worked, but none of that would do shit against anointed armour. Miraculous my biology may have been, but I still had to follow biological possibility. I couldn’t face down the Royal Guard.
I gritted my teeth and looked back at the kind, sympathetic face of a civil servant.
“When you came to us, you agreed to a claimant commitment, Grace. Three violent crimes prevented per calendar week and at least fifty hours of searching. Those were the requirements you set out. I’m sorry, I’m going to have to put you on sanctions.” He smiled the understanding, ostensibly apologetic smile of somebody who didn’t give two fucks what happened to people like me. You know the one. It’s only people like him who don’t.
“I— That’s bullshit!” I exclaimed. “What do you want me to do, lie? If there’s nothing happening, there’s nothing to stop!”
Fuck, why did I even need to do this? I’d had a good job, before. Before I developed powers and suddenly my attitude was ‘intimidating’ and my suggestions weren’t ‘being a team player’. Firing somebody over their powers was supposed to be a crime, but it was my word against theirs and they had the lawyers.
“Have you considered travelling further out? You could also look for crimes that aren’t quite your preferred type. I hear there’s a lot of drug use these days, and many of my other ’cules have been using the new—”
His voice faded into a blur. I’d had the speech before. I left with blood rushing in my ears, before I risked starting to spill it.
Nobody ever suspected the small black cat. Even if somebody had noticed me—which was unlikely, given the lateness of the hour—the sight of a cat prowling around early morning harbourside was commonplace enough to be unworthy of note.
Oh, right, and that cat was me. Nature’s tiny little predators were a perfect choice for a superheroine who needed to get around without making a scene.
Anyway, I’d only just arrived when my lack of sleep betrayed me. I yawned, a soft miaow apparently loud enough to catch my prey’s attention. Shit. I could make my biology do just about anything I understood, but there were a dearth of good public domain research papers on what exactly sleep did. Without knowing what I had to fix, making myself immune to sleep was far too risky. Unfortunately, a twenty three hour day hit me as hard as it would anybody else.
Ugh. They were coming over. I backed up a couple inches and bared my teeth, raising my tail in the universally understood language of fuck off. They turned back, but only to signal another one of the gathered goons loitering outside the bank.
Not a branch, I mean—nobody robbed banks in the year of our lord twenty twenty two, you’d maybe get twenty k and you’d definitely get a criminal record—but a big office block filled with, as far as I knew, nothing interesting. Just papers and computers. Probably that was interesting to somebody, I guess. I still had complicated feelings about offices. I used to work in one, before— Well, that was in the past, and I had to look forward now.
Where was I? Right, office buildings. Papers, computers. Silent alarms, too. I’d been getting ready for bed when the notification had come in, and at this point my reflexes were well trained. I’d hit the accept button in the app before I’d even had a chance to read the details. It was either that or surrender yet another crime to Southern Belle, and quite frankly she could get fucked for all I cared. She didn’t even need the money, she just did this for fun. Bitch. Didn’t she realise we couldn’t all live off of our business empires?
I blinked rapidly, snapping back to the present as two fingers tapped against the top of my head. I realised I’d gotten distracted, yet again, and I’d been snuck up on. “You okay, kitty?” the goon asked, giving my skull another quick tap. I glanced past them only to find the entrance to the building was now being covered by another couple of goons. So much for sneaking in. I stared up at the one bothering me for a moment, then hissed. Go away. I was busy.
“Uh-huh. C’mon, kitten, let’s get you some food.” They reached out, grabbing me. I yelped and tried to wrestle out of their grip, but before I could get anywhere they had the scruff of my neck between a forefinger and thumb and I just…
My power did let me take some shortcuts, I figured. I didn’t need to know everything about how a creature worked, just enough for something else to fill in the gaps. The religious lot would tell you it was God helping you along; the Tories were adamant that it was the Queen’s Grace; but there was near universal—and unanimously ignored—agreement among miraculous biologists that powers just tended to dig into the subconscious.
There were some research papers on that in the public domain. Studies on the exceptionally abled, but with brain damage, or who’d been intensely traumatised, or who’s worldviews had changed significantly since they’d Embodied. All ended up suggesting that there was a statistically significant link between how somebody’s power worked and how they, y’know figured it should work. Southern Belle’s instructions were always interpreted how she expected them to be because she had a lifetime of getting her way without having to work for it. Arktis Verge’s lasers didn’t bend when going through water because he was a fucking idiot. Shadow Huntress—that’s me!—’s animal shapes worked like the animals did because I had expectations of how animals behaved. I wasn’t as good at exotic creatures, and I was kind of afraid of dogs and hedgehogs, but I could do cats pretty well.
At least, that’s the theory. I’m just a cat, not a scientist, what do you want from me?
Anyway. Point is, the moment their fingers grabbed me by the scruff I felt my limbs all falling slack. I was pretty sure I should be more concerned about it than I was, too. The person picked me up, cradling me in one arm while keeping a tight grip with the other, and I realised I was a tad stuck.
The disguise of being just a cat only worked if I behaved like a just a cat, right? The moment I broke character I’d lose the element of surprise. So, there I was, trapped in a cage of expectation. If I broke free, they’d know it was me and they’d alert whoever was inside the building. If I got another four star rating I’d lose first refusal on local jobs, which essentially meant getting nothing but the gruntest of grunt work. No thank you.
“Aww!” one of the guards cooed as I was carried over. “He’s a cutie! Can I get a picture?”
“She, I think,” replied my captor, giving me a quick squeeze. “No collar, though. Must be a stray. Seemed terrified when I went to say hello, right froze up an’ everything. Claire said there was a break room inside we could use? I wanna go see if I can get this poor thing something to drink. It seems so cold and lonely.”
“Oh aye, Abby, finding the first excuse to skip guard duty again?” The guard rolled her eyes, but opened the door. “Fine, but I want that picture when you’re done.”
The goon holding me—‘Abby’—slipped through into the building and the door closed behind us. Well. That was one way to infiltrate a crime scene. Now I just needed to slip away from Abby—was that short for Abigail? Probably. That was a nice name. I’d considered that for my own name, but, I liked Grace too—and figure out what was going on in here.
For that, though, I’d need a moment to myself. We travelled down a corridor, and then another, and— At some point I realised I’d gotten distracted trying to figure out what perfume Abby was wearing. I could have sworn I recognised it. Something with strawberries? Unfortunately, by the time I’d realised, I also had to realise I was lost. These old office complexes were laybrinthine, and I couldn’t risk an altercation with a minotaur.
Abby backed into a door, twisting the handle with her butt and pushing it open with her shoulder, and we emerged into the most boring room I’d ever visited. Beige walls dotted with beige posters informing me of such delights as office policy on personal calls (no), chatting (also no), and family emergencies (definitely no). Chairs with auras that seemed to suck the life out of me just from thinking about sitting in them. A fridge that looked like it hadn’t been cleaned out since the Emergence.
Abby knelt, finally letting me loose. Thankfully, instincts kicked in before I’d had time to think, spinning me around in mid air so I could hit the ground feet first. Not thankfully, the door had one of those little smooth round knobs for a handle and my paws would not open one.
Curse you, interior design trends from the—I glanced around the room and tried to guess at its age—mid-1830s. I’d get the better of you one day.
I looked around, hoping for a backup option. Hmn. There was a vent! Excellent! I loved vents. Vents were great. All the best buildings had vents. It had a little metal grating covering it, but very few ventilation systems had “human-intelligence cat deliberately trying to get inside” as a seriously considered threat model.
I leaped! My second favourite part of being a cat, after curling up in a sunbeam. Up onto a chair, then to a table, then over to one of the walls with my claws unsheathed. I landed halfway to the ceiling, kicked off again, and scrambled up on top of a horrible looking coffee vending machine. From there, up onto the row of cupboards that lined one of the walls. I sauntered the last few feet and stared down the vent, looking for some aspect of it that’d give if I applied enough force. The screws were small, they’d probably shear right off if I could get a claw under the grate.
“Where did—” Abby grumbled from behind me. “Oh, kitty! C’mon, I turn my back for five seconds! How did you even get up there, love? Come on, down you… uh… Oh!”
I looked back just in time to catch the business end of a broom being raised to my level. Abigail carefully pushed me off. I yelped, grabbing onto the handle to avoid falling into the sink below—full of cold, used washing up water! Eugh, the thought of getting soggy crumbs on my coat chafed. I hissed, then began shuffling down the broom handle as quickly as I could. I’d show Abby what I thought of this behaviour. She’d pay for this betrayal.
Or I’d try to make her pay, anyway. I reached out to swipe her across the nose, but she waved the broom hard enough I lost my grip and fell. I tried to turn to land on my feet, but she snatched me out of the air, gave me a quick hug while I was too disoriented to respond, then set me down in front of a bowl of milk.
I turned up my nose. Embarassing. I wasn’t going to drink out of a bowl. I was better than that. I wasn’t going to drink it. It was normal to stare this hard at things you weren’t going to engage with.
The thing was, though, I was hungry. I wasn’t skipping meals or anything, I’d just decided to go without dinners as a cost-cutting exercise. It was financial planning. Alas, my animal snout smelled things so much more than my human one ever had, and something about the smell was just divine.
Or, and hear me out here, maybe I was just starving.
It wasn’t embarassing if I was a cat, I decided. I leaned in and began to lap at this bowlful of ambrosia, rumbling softly. Full fat, just like I liked it. Fuck me but I’d been hungry, hadn’t I? After a few moments I felt Abby’s hand on my back, slowly stroking down my fur with a firm, gentle pressure. I’d hiss at her later, I guessed, and continued finishing my meal. I was busy.
It was just liquid, though. It was still a lot better than nothing, and I found myself grateful, but a proper meal would have been nice. My stomach still rumbled. My nose sniffed of its own accord, alerting me to food. I raised my head and found myself immediately assaulted with a potent scent. It drew my gaze up and around to the gooey little chunk of—
I closed my eyes and breathed deep—
Spiced and flavoured soy? Something vegetarian, anyway. I sniffed deeper, smelling the slightly acrid afterscent of industrial processing, and the much sweeter tangles of Abby’s perfume mixing with her natural odor. It was a nice scent. After a few moments of getting lost staring up at the woman, I eventually spotted the open pouch of vegetarian cat food lying next to her. She held the chunk out for me.
I was supposed to be a wildcat. I didn’t take food from humans! But… I was really bloody hungry, y’know? I was pretty sure my local’s idea of a “meal deal” cost more every week, and the portions only shrank. Plus, cats burned through a lot of calories on a hunt.
I snuck forward, careful, careful, then batted it right out of her hand. It bounced off of the floor and I pounced, devouring it in two hungry bites before she could think about taking it away from me. Fucking gods it was delicious. Why had I never tried this before? Decent cat food was so much cheaper than good human food. It felt like the spices were specifically formulated to drive me wild. That may actually have been the slogan on the packet. Speaking of the packet, I dived for it. One of Abby’s hands warded me off while a second redirected me with another chunk, pulling my attention towards the closer food. I went in to bat it free, but she was ready for me, and pulled it back.
“Nuh-uh, kitty. Play nice.” She held it out of reach, staring me down until, reluctantly, I sat back on my haunches and waited. Ugh. I shuffled awkwardly, staring up at my prize, mouth slightly parting in readiness.
After a few moments, the offer was extended once more, and I feasted. After that, the rhythm established itself quickly. She’d hold out a few chunks in her palm, and I’d eat them while she lavished me with calming strokes and pets. At some point I ended up in her lap, I’m… not entirely sure when. It was… weirdly pleasant, but maybe I would have thought that about anybody who fed me something more filling than a cardboard and sandpaper baguette.
I was going to escape after she was done feeding me. I was, I promise, but the thing is that a whole pouch of cat food felt like quite a lot after an eighteen hour fast. It wasn’t even my biomatter, so my powers were useless here. I really didn’t want to move. I didn’t fall asleep, though, even though like I said I hadn’t slept for twenty two hours. It was a food coma, which is completely different.
Abigail slowly lowered me onto my side, curled up in her lap, and used a pair of fingers to slowly lull me to sleep.
I woke to a sudden bump. The familiar sound of moving vehicle rumbled in my ears and in my chest. I perked up, but a moment later the hand atop my head pushed me back down. I should have slipped away, I knew, but the hand smelled like Abby and she had my whole head in a gentle hold, with a thumbnail gently scratching behind my ear. I settled down, because…
It’d just been a long while since I’d had a hug, y’know? Abby was a criminal, and I was going to have her put into one of Her Majesty’s gaols, but she was also warm and smelled nice and cared about me.
Or, at least, the cat I was pretending to be. Gods, why was I still here? I needed a plan. I’d royally fucked up the job, but it seemed Abby wasn’t ready to put me out on the streets just yet. Maybe I could learn something. I closed my eyes to cut out the constant motion from the windows and tried to focus on listening instead.
“—what we came for, yeah. All on this little thumb drive,” somebody was saying, pitch raising at the end in something that could have been a laugh. It was hard to tell; was that a welsh accent? Something a bit unusual, anyway. Not foreign unusual, which was odd for a criminal, but I supposed a welshwoman was probably as capable of evil as any other alien.
“Please tell me you didn’t just copy incredibly important data all onto that, Sam?”
‘Sam’ definitely laughed that time. “Of course not, C, don’t worry. It’s all uploaded; Liz is probably already elbow deep in code figuring out how to analyse it all already. We stuck to the plan, don’t stress about it, it all went perfect.”
Another bump in the road set me squirming. Potholes weren’t exactly uncommon around here. I could probably have figured out where we were from the pattern, but I didn’t think I could recognise it in a van. I’d never learned to drive, and honestly I really didn’t like the things. I shied deeper into Abby’s lap, earning a coo, a scratch under the chin, and a deep feeling of personal safety.
I hated cars. Vans. Busses were kind of okay, I guessed, but smaller vehicles made me so uncomfortable. They were just constantly loud, with the sound of wheels on the road fighting with the engine, and everybody shouting over the top of the cacophany. I hated it. That much noise just stressed me out.
“Do you even know if it’s house trained?” asked a voice. Whoever ‘C’ was. Was that Claire? Whoever’d been guarding the doors had mentioned a Claire. Maybe she was in charge around here
I startled. Oh, heck. They were probably taking me right back to their lair! Re–sult! Not just stopping a crime, but taking down their whole operation? That’d get me back at a five star average fo-sho. Maybe even onto the partners list, and then I’d get called in for the real stuff!
“It is a she, Claire, and…” Abby coughed. “Admittedly I’m not sure, but, but—” I felt hands wrapping around my torso, just under my forelimbs. I was lifted up and placed on display for everyone. “Look at her! Look at her coat! She’s beautiful, but she’s so unkempt! And scruffy! And she must be starving, she was so eager for food! And no collar, so, y’know, she’s a stray! This isn’t even catnapping! Free cat! Can I keep her? Please? Pretty please? You know I’ve been wanting a pet.”
I opened my eyes to look up at Claire.
At Styx. My arch enemy and the queen bitch behind my current lacking Instacrime rating.
I tried to keep my cool, I really did, but this wasn’t the first time we’d met and the time before had left me in the hospital. I gave it a ninety percent chance she’d seen the security footage and knew exactly what my cat form looked like. This was a real, first rate supervillain. Out of my league, but fuck her.
I felt my power throbbing through my veins, curling around my bones. It blurred my vision and filled my ears with the sound of my own beating heart. I could be fighting in half a second. Surely I could take her if it was a surprise, in an enclosed space? She wouldn’t be expecting me. It maximised my advantages and devastated hers.
The problem was, of course, that I was in a moving vehicle filled with other people. I could almost certainly take one woman, but Styx was a gifter, capable of granting invulnerability to others. I had no idea what ‘invulnerable’ actually meant to her, but I did know it had seriously thrown off my plans last time.
My arch-nemesis smirked down at me. “She’s cute. What’s she called?”
“I was thinking Sphynx,” Abby replied, without skipping a beat. “Sticks with our theme, and—” She coughed, then pulled me back in for a one-armed hug with her spare hand pressing my head into her chest, which also flattened my ears and stole the rest of the conversation away. I had to admit it was a relief, there was so much noise in the van that it had been overwhelming, but this way the only thing I needed to hear was Abby’s heartbeat thump-thumping into my ear.
Maybe she’d sensed my discomfort. She kept me there for the rest of the ride, head pressed into her chest while her other hand slowly stroked, reminding me that I was safe and nothing was going to hurt me. She probably didn’t know why it worked. She wouldn’t have been stroking me like that if my cover had been blown. I really was safe here.
Unfortunately, the journey was almost over, and I only got a few blissful minutes. Abby kept me close even when the van finally stopped, carrying me out. She held on tight, which I had to admit made sense. My behaviour so far indicated that I’d run if I could. They didn’t know that I was exactly where I wanted to be: Styx’s lair. I was gonna trash her whole operation, all because nobody ever suspected the little black cat.
The four or five occupants of the van made their way into what looked like a pretty nice house, maybe even a small mansion. We must have been somewhere on the outskirts of the city. I wasn’t totally sure where exactly. It was too nice an area for me to get to regularly, that was for sure. They had a garden. A well maintained one. God dang, I wasn’t sure I’d ever touched an actual garden.
The next few minutes were blur, folks unpacking their van and bringing papers, files, hard drives, and all manner of other things inside while Abby and I watched over them. That part was nice too. It was like spying on them, except I didn’t have to do any of the work. I just got held in place where I could watch intently, trying to will myself to remember the details later.
I wouldn’t, but, y’know. I had to try.
Once the loot had been properly organised—it was kinda cute that they had labelled boxes for ‘blackmail material’ and ‘(stolen) cat photos’ next to each other—Abby had apparently had enough. She headed for the bathroom, and I wondered if this was my moment. She surely wouldn’t take me in with her.
As the bathroom door clicked shut behind me, I realised that was exactly her intent. She carefully put me down into the bathtub, then busied herself organising various products. Seems like maybe she just wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle for a bit? I definitely related to that. People could be a lot, and sometimes I needed to be the only person in the room for a while too. I carefully clambered up the side of the bathtub—needing several tries, thanks to the smooth ceramic—and miaoed up at her, earning a quick ruffle and a smile.
“Gosh, you’ve gotten friendly,” she noted. “I guess the way to a cat’s heart really is through the stomach.”
I wasn’t sure how to feel about that.
After a few more minutes of organisation, Abby turned, armed with bottles of shampoo and conditioner, and grabbed the showerhead. She was dang lucky that I trusted her, because usually anybody who dared to point a showerhead at me would get a faceful of claw. “Let’s get you all cleaned up,” she threatened, trying to scratch beneath my chin with a pair of fingers. I backed away, staring up at the instrument of torture held above. Hang on, I hadn’t agreed to this!
My clear discomfort was not enough to change her mind. Abby reached over and pulled a lever, and water shot out in my general direction. Ack! It was freezing! I yowled! I didn’t need to just take this! I did my best to get away and… entirely failed.
She was ready for everything! And the bathtub was too smooth to get a grip on! I tried to leap out, but my claws just scratched against the ceramic uselessly. I tried to climb up the side of the bath, but all it took to push me back down was a flick of the wrist to set the water’s full might on me, and I was washed back down into the tub. I wasn’t sure how long it took me to just give up, but an indeterminate amount of time later I found myself meekly sitting with conditioner all lathered through my fur and a stream of hot water cleaning me off.
It felt magical. The showerhead seemed pretty good by human standards, but in a feline form it was a torrent of warmth. Abby’s firm fingers had been almost everywhere as she’d worked the conditioner in and— fuck! That was what she smelled like! The strawberry-scent of her conditioner now wafted up off of me, too, and I smelled it more intensely with every breath. I luxuriated in the water as Abby scrubbed me clean. It was over all too quickly.
As she hung up the showerhead, she reached out towards me with a loose fist. Acting on some instinct I didn’t know I had, I shuffled forward and rubbed my cheek against it, purring gently.
“Now, Sphynx, are you going to be a good girl for me and let me wrap you up in this towel?” Abby asked. Ah. Back to the threats. She lifted a small square of bright pink fluff. I miaoed back up, though of course she wouldn’t expect me to understa—
Fingers under the chin. Nails scratching behind my ears. In my moment of weakness, a towel wrapped me so tightly I couldn’t move. “Yeah, thought so. Cutie.” Abby giggled. “C’mon, Claire should be ready for us by now.”
Uh. Why would we be going to see her? I tried to struggle free, but the towel was wrapped tight enough there was nowhere for me to go. I wouldn’t even be able to shift my shape like this, I had no room to grow into. Abby cradled me in her arms as we wandered through their little castle. We entered into into the first room I’d seen that actually seemed to deserve the description of lair.
The lighting was dramatic. The floor was an old dark wood, while the walls seemed like metal. Racks of computers lined one wall, with trophies of Styx’s victories on another. Then, in the middle of the room, the supervillain herself. Full costume.
Okay. It was game over for the spycraft, then. As Abby was putting me down, she messed up and the towel slipped just a little, just enough for me to get a claw pointed out through the fluff. In a storm of teeth and sharpness I shredded it to ribbons and let my power loose, snapping back to superhuman form in the blink of an eye.
The room froze. I grinned. Element of surprise, bitch!
I pounced, enhanced muscles pushing me forward with claws so sharp no natural creature could have sustained them. I reached out to end her. Powers wouldn’t matter if I could make the decisive strike before she had a chance to think.
Styx stepped to the side and let me tumble past. I hit the ground in a roll, recovered, and kicked off one of the computer racks. It crashed down to the ground, forcing a wince out of poor Abby. Oh, she must be heartbroken. I didn’t have time to think about that yet. I pressed my assault and this time I forced a response. Styx reached out with an arm to knock mine aside, sending my blow wide. I growled, baring teeth.
“Night Huntress, right?” she asked, dancing a pair of half steps backwards while deflecting my fury. I was going at her like a monster, why the fuck could I not connect?
“Shadow Huntress,” I spat, going for her throat. Unfortunately, I overreached, and a sharp shove on my back had me tumbling to the floor. I pushed myself back up in an instant and was upon her yet again.
“Apologies,” Styx replied, waving one hand airily while the other fended off my attacks. “We had a Night Huntress back in Manchester, I must have gotten you two confused. Won’t happen again!” she exclaimed, cheery as anything while I tried to gouge out her eyes.
She paused halfway through a motion, apparently realising one of my strikes was going to go wide even without her help. Fuck, I was getting sloppy. Her hand came up, open palm, to strike me in the chest. I lost balance, but I’d almost recovered when she kicked my leg out from under me and had me on the ground again.
“It’d better not,” I growled, scrambling over to one of the walls and pushing myself back up to my feet. I was breathing deep, but my power kept me at top performance each and every moment. I wouldn’t slow down. She would. “You’d think you’d know your nemesis’s name.”
Along with the quip, I rushed in. I finally landed a hit, tearing a shallow line across her cheek. Finally, a break in her guard! There’d be more where that’d come from! Now, what had I done right? Why had she messed up?
Because… she was laughing? What—fucking—ever, god, how could one person be this infuriating. I pressed my assault. Unfortunately, that one hit was all I got. Even while laughing she managed to dodge or block my blows, even if only by inches, and any mistake I made was punished immediately. She couldn’t do me any real harm, but I could feel my focus slipping as I got angrier.
“My what? Honey, I’m sorry, but I didn’t even know who you were before Abby brought you to my attention.” I faltered, losing my stance. She stepped over and flicked me on the end of the nose, before dancing back out of my reach. I turned to look at Abigail, who had taken a seat at the edge of the room, watching with an intense expression.
Styx grabbed my attention again. Literally, she reached right through my distracted guard and pulled my face back around to focus on her. “But, I’ve spent the last few hours looking into you, and—” She paused, pulled a face, and moved. As I came in for a blow, she stepped aside, hand grabbing my wrist. She danced, and as I came around to strike her with my free hand, she took that from me too too, pushed me off balance, and pinned me down on the floor. I tried to fight, but I had no leverage, even with superhuman muscles. The moment she’d chosen to end it, it had been over in seconds.
“And,” she continued, hardly even out of breath, “your form is so sloppy I that doubt you’d ever get another hit in. I swear, are you just entirely coasting on having superpowers, here? Take a self defence class, please. I’m not even third dan, that was embarassing.”
I growled and tried to fight my way up, but even with just one hand she had me right where she wanted me. “Oh, fuck off. Do you know how much those cost? Not all of us can just steal our money and live in big mansions.”
“Kitten,” Abby interjected. “Be polite, please.”
I shot her a glare, but the resulting game of emotional chicken was not one I was equipped to win. I looked away first.
“What, this place?” Styx asked. “Gosh no, we got this the old fashioned way. I used to be a project manager, Abby over there did software development, et cetera.” She coughed. “’course, the last owner was a landlord who mysteriously decided to sell all of his houses for pennies after I found out he was scamming his tenants out of the money they needed to eat. Coincidence, I assure you.”
I thought of my own landlord, doing much the same to me. Hang on, it wasn’t a scam. “That’s just rent! Rent is a normal and legal thing to do! Breaking the law isn’t justified, even if you don’t like what somebody does with their property!” I complained.
“Right, right, we’ve all got to do our part to keep the status quo rolling, right?” Abby suggested.
I nodded. “Right.” Maybe I could convince her to give up her evil ways? Abby was nice. She couldn’t be a real criminal. “I know you probably think you’re in too deep, but— Both of you, if you give yourselves up you’ll get a chance to make your pleas in front of a judge. They might take pity. You could be out in ten to twenty years.”
“Hmn!” Styx was rummaging around behind me. I couldn’t see for what, but whatever it was, it probably wasn’t good. “Begging for the mercy of the ruling class, huh? You really think that’s a viable option?”
I gritted my teeth. I was trying to help them! “It’s— I wouldn’t put it like that, but, of course! If you work with people, they’ll be more likely to want to help you. Don’t be one of the bad ones, please. You just make it harder for the rest of us.”
“Which is why you can’t afford self-defence classes and you’re so touch-starved all we needed to do to catch you was literally pick you up and take you home. Because you’re one of the good ones, huh?” Styx turned back to me and tapped my shoulder with something made of cold metal. “How’s that working out for you?”
“It’s— That’s not how it works. I know things are bad right now, what with the Recession and everything, but—”
“The recession that’s been going on for our entire lives? While the billionaires become trillionaires? Things aren’t bad, we’re just all getting robbed.”
“Y’know what, fuck you, Styx!” I exclaimed. I dare not look over at Abby. Did she agree with this toxicity? “If you put as much effort into campaigning as you do pointless evil then maybe you coudl actually change something! I know the Labour leader isn’t… great right now, but he’d be better than nothing.”
Styx laughed hard enough I actually managed to slip an arm free. Before I could capitalise on it, she casually grabbed it and hauled it behind my back again. Fuck. “The same Labour who hasn’t won an election since the Emergence? Long before either of us were born? Please. They’re a pile of liberals and centrists who gave up their ethics for votes and ended up with neither.”
“At least they’re something! What the hell are you doing?”
“Direct action, like,” Abby interrupted. “Everything we steal either goes on our upkeep or gets used for local community support. The documents we just nabbed should get us a few million in funds stripped from oil barons and… uh, regular barons, and every shilling will go straight to those who need it.”
Fuck. That was a much better answer than I’d expected. “Abby, please, you can’t buy your way out of your crimes.”
Styx snorted. “Of course you can. The rich just get fined for most stuff. Anything else goes through so many layers of lawyers that nothing serious ever gets pinned on them. You can’t buy your way out of crimes, Shadow Night, but they sure as fuck can.”
“That— That’s not right! They’re innocent, and you’re evil!”
For the first time, something actually seemed to wrinkle her unflappable resolve. I winced as she pushed down, straining my bones against their sockets. “And what is ‘evil’, Night Huntress? Is it those with power deciding that those without deserve to suffer for it? Is it those who have exploiting those who have not because they can make sure their alternative is death? Oh, was it evil when your last job fired you for being late just three days after you came out? Oh yes, Grace, I looked you up. Do you even know how cheap exclusive rights to your personal data was?”
She leaned forward, growling into my ear. “Was it evil, what was done to you? Or am I the evil one because I look at that and I say no more? Because I look at the way the many are hurt by the few and side with the former? Because every one of us gets forced into these choices every day and I’m the one who refuses? I don’t just mean powers. I didn’t even need to look up your history to clock you, Grace, shapeshifting is as trans as you can get.”
“Great work on that, by the way,” Abby added.
“I suspect you’ve got some neurodivergence up in there too, right? You drift off a lot for a kitten. By the time you embodied you were already on the losing side of a war you didn’t even know was being fought.”
“And you deserve better,” Abigail insisted. “It isn’t fair what was done to you. You don’t just have to accept it, Sphynx.”
I gulped, suddenly feeling quite naked, both literally as well as metaphorically. “Personal details are meant to be off limits,” I whimpered. It was a crime on the same level as protesting or homelessness. Don’t touch a superhero’s civilian life.
“Why?” Styx asked, running that cold metal down my back. “It just isolates us from each other. I could call you Night Huntress—”
“Shadow,” Abby corrected.
“Apologies. I could call you Night Shadow, and then you’re an enemy. We punch each other.” She reached forward and patted me on the cheek. “I win, obviously. Let’s do something more constructive instead. Call me Claire. I’m a person, just like— Well. Let’s not go that far.”
I couldn’t escape her grip, but I could snap at her hand as she brought it close. I missed, unfortunately.
“Kitten!” Abby snapped. “No biting.”
I bared my teeth, but, fuck. It wasn’t like Styx was going to give me another chance anyway. I acquiesced.
“See, I can’t just let you go, can I?”
My blood ran cold. Here it was. After all the moralising, the supervillain showed through. “That’s one hell of an evil thing to say.”
“True.” Styx laughed. “They’d execute me on the spot if they caught up to me anyway, so I may as well indulge a little, right? I need you out of my way. I need Grace Sharp gone. Do you know why?”
“Fuck you. You won’t get away with this. There’s tracking on the app, and—” Fuck. I hadn’t actually brought my phone. Cats didn’t have pockets. “Uh.”
“That’s okay, we sent somebody over to collect your stuff while I was cleaning you up,” Abby told me. They fucking what? “I’m so sorry you had to live like that. I promise you don’t have to any more.”
“I—” I spluttered. “Hang on, what makes you think that you can just do this to me?”
“Because you’re a danger, Grace,” Styx insisted, pushing me down further. I could barely even move my head. “To others. To yourself. I’ve got your records. Do you know how many people you’ve put into the hospital? Do you know how many people you’ve killed?”
I couldn’t see Styx’s expression, but I could see Abigail’s. She glanced away from me, looking down. Her disappointment stung. “That’s not my fault,” I complained. “If they didn’t fight, I wouldn’t have to stop them.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” Abby agreed, speaking softly while staring at the wall. “What else were you going to do? If you hadn’t stopped them, your heroic stipend would have gotten cut off. Nobody would give a sanctioned, trans, miracle a regular job. You’d have starved on the street, or been forced to turn to crime yourself.”
I wished I could move enough to look away. She wasn’t wrong, I just wasn’t used to it being put so bluntly. It wasn’t my fault, because if I hadn’t done it I’d have ended up no better off than my prey. Eventually, I replied. “Yeah. It’s just human nature. If it wasn’t me doing it to them, it’d be somebody else doing it to me, so I may as well do whatever keeps me fed. I can be more gentle than whoever would replace me.”
“I’m sure that line went over great with the other bootlickers,” Styx grunted, twisting my arm a little further. I cried out, kicking at nothing in a frustrated, frustrating expression of my own helplessness. “But I don’t give a shit. You’re hurting my community, and you’re done. I’d say I was going to give you two options, but I don’t think you do well with options, do you?”
“Fuck you, you self-entitled bitch. You think you can change the world? Fuck you. You can’t change human nature. Nobody can.”
“Yeah, thought you’d say that. Anyway, you either join up, becoming an equal partner, full rights once you’re passed probation, or you don’t. You’d have to pull your weight, and we’d expect you to put some real effort in just like the rest of us. Fair warning, that’s also basically an invite to our polycule, but Abby’s taken a shine to you, so. You’d do fine.”
“I said fuck you.” I glanced towards Abigail. A shine? What did that mean? I couldn’t bring myself to swear at her too. She’d been nothing but nice to me.
Styx sighed. “Yeah, okay, it was worth a try.” She brought the small metal object down against the dangly bit of my ear. “Never got your ears pierced?” she asked. “Makes sense, I guess, it probably gets in the way of the changing, right? I don’t really care about that.”
She pulled some kind of trigger and I winced, feeling a sharp pain lance through my ear. I could have fixed it with a thought, but before I got the chance a thin piece of metal was pushed through the hole. I winced, feeling it tugging against damaged skin as Claire screwed on the clutch.
The fight left my body. Even after Claire released me I could do nothing more than push myself up to my feet. “What did you just do?” I demanded, glaring up at her, trying to will myself to attack. I tore claws from my fists and tried to raise my hand to use them, but she just took my hand in hers and lowered it back down to my waist.
Her other hand took my chin, holding it in a rough grip. I didn’t know why I let her. She grinned down. “That one’s not for me to explain, Sphynx, I have important business to attend to. Abby, dear, you said you wanted to take this one?”
“With pleasure,” Abigail purred, finally standing from her seat. She snapped her fingers, pointed at the floor in front of her feet. Tapped one foot, impatient. “Sphynx, sit.”
Her voice was sharp, dancing at the edge of disapproval without quite cutting in. She stared with a singular weight of expectation that was almost crushing. Fuck. I was so fucked. Styx had done something to me and I couldn’t figure out what.
Abby would help me, right? She liked me. She’d taken a shine to me. She’d been nice to me all day, that had to mean something, didn’t it? I crumpled, falling to my knees at her feet. In a moment, her hands were playing across my scalp, rubbing where ears would once have been. “Abby, please,” I begged. “I don’t know what she did. I’m scared, can you help me?”
Abby pressed a palm against my lips and shushed. “Styx there is harmless. She could have been a superhero,” she explained, gesturing after the departing supervillain. “She’s got nice clean powers, easily applied to your line of work. Me, on the other hand? Never had that luxury.” She drew a finger beneath my chin, tilting my face up to meet her gaze. A thumb rubbed over my lower lip, demanding. Possessive. “I restrict. I deny. I take.”
Her thumb slipped inside. I let it. She was explaining to me something horrifying. I’d thought that Styx was the threat, but I was helplessly under her power. Maybe I had been ever since she found me? It would explain a lot. I’d never stood a chance. I was just going to be her toy, and I could do nothing about it.
Fuck, why couldn’t I hate that?
“I know what you’re thinking. Not because of my power,” she insisted, “I’ve just spent a lot of long nights hating myself. I can see all the fears in your head because they’ve been in mine. It’s not like that. It’s not an easy power. It’s not mind control. I need to get something inside of you. A thumb will do—” She grinned a wry grin, though did seem to be enjoying my tongue’s worship. When had that started?— “but what I’ve found works best is a piercing.”
She tapped the new stud nestled securely in my ear. “I’d say it was a shame for you that you had to wait until now to really feel my control, but you were such a good girl for me all day long, Sphynx. I don’t think you’re going to need a heavy touch, are you? You were eager. I think you’re going to enjoy this very much.”
I stared up, eyes wide, trying to find it in me to argue. I wasn’t eager, I was just… I just needed it so badly.
Wait, fuck, that was being eager. I wasn’t. I wasn’t desperate for the affection of a bloody communist supervillain, I wasn’t, I— I was. Fuck but I was. I’d been such a good girl for her, and I’d had excuses, but what if that was all they were?
While I tried to come up with a response, her eyes roamed over my body while her free hand stroked down my hair, holding me in place while I suckled gently on her thumb. Should I stop doing that? I… didn’t want to.
She shrugged, giving up on my response. “Either way, you can’t fight me. That new piercing of yours ensures it. No fighting. No resisting. Not even any disagreement, if I got the incantations right. Maybe I’ll take it out sometimes once you earn my trust, but for now, you couldn’t bite down even if you wanted to. Could you, kitten?”
She pressed her thumb deeper, pinning my tongue to the floor of my mouth, and waited. Giving me the opportunity to fight. All I’d need to do was lean backwards. I had no reason to believe she was anything but a baseline human physically. I could tear her in half. I should.
Instead, I found myself staring up at her with wide, open eyes. I raised my hand, in large part just to prove to myself that I could move at all. I grabbed her hand, but I couldn’t pull. I couldn’t even squeeze. I just held on. After long moments of silence, I was forced to admit the truth. I couldn’t bite down even if I wanted to, and I couldn’t bring myself to want to.
“There’s a good girl. There’s my good girl. I’ve always wanted a pet cat,” she admitted, grin turning a little sheepish. “My parents wouldn’t let me have one, and even when I moved out I never met the right cat. Then I saw you, you sweet little rescue.”
“I’m not…” I trailed off, words dying in my throat. Right. No disagreement. “I don’t feel very sweet,” I admitted.
“Of course not,” she soothed, slipping her thumb out of my mouth. She took a moment to wipe it dry on my cheek before taking my head in two hands and holding it still. “You were a monster, Sphynx. You hurt people. People who didn’t deserve it. All to defend a status quo that hurts everyone, even you. Tell me I’m right.”
If she was telling the truth about her power—and I had no reason to distrust Abby—then she had no way to compel anything from me. ‘No disagreement’ didn’t mean ‘agreement’.
What if she was right, though? I couldn’t accept that. It would mean that everything I’d been doing for years was all for nothing. Worse than nothing! I’d been actively harmful, I’d done damage! I’d made the world a worse place, and for what? A chance at the approval of people who didn’t care about people like me? A chance to appease faceless, inhuman systems that hid accountability behind so many layers of paperwork that every single person involved in them would claim they were just following policy, and nobody actually made the decisions that hurt her?
“I’m a monster,” I whispered. “What have I done? How many people have I hurt?”
Her smile widened, twisting into a soft smirk. “Don’t you worry your pretty little head about that, kitten. Let’s focus on the things you can control.” She tapped a point on the top of my skull and gently pulled up on my pierced ear. “Be a good girl and let me reshape you.”
I winced, feeling a pain as my fresh hole chafed. “I, I can’t really do that,” I admitted. It wasn’t disagreement if I literally couldn’t. “I can’t– I need to understand how something works to change into it.”
Abigail tutted, and yanked on my ear with a little more enthusiasm. To my surprise, it moved. “Silly little kitty, thinks she can tell me how my own pet’s power works. You don’t need to understand, do you, sweetie? It’s enough that I know what I want. Say it.”
I gulped. Her fingers danced over my flesh, kneading a human ear up into a sharp triangular point. I could feel it happening. I could feel the familiar tingle of my own power, but I wasn’t in control. It was dancing to her tune now. Why? How?
“I… don’t need to understand,” I replied, realising the layers of meaning as I spoke them. It wasn’t my place to know things. She wanted a pet, not a partner. My power, apparently reacting to my sudden imposed change in worldview, flipped on its head. I no longer needed to understand the change. Abigal understood, and she was reshaping me. “It’s enough that you know what you want.”
Fuck. I was so fucked. I whimpered, feeling the pleasure of being stroked and petted right down to the bone as she worked my flesh for her own pleasure. I moaned helplessly as she pulled a thin covering of fur out of my skin, and I shivered in unstoppable bliss as she rewired my senses and gifted me a cat’s hearing. The world was so much more alive. Abby was so much more alive. I could hear her every breath. I could hear the excitement she was barely holding back.
Fuck. I was so fucked.
“Yeah, there’s my good kitty. Come, up onto my lap.” She spoke as if she expected immediate compliance. I… fuck. I’d trusted her. I’d trusted that she would keep me safe, and yet the moment she had me in her clutches she revealed herself to be the worst of them all. Even Styx hadn’t dared violate my body like this.
I crawled onto her lap because… of course I did. I couldn’t resist. I couldn’t disagree. I was hers. I couldn’t stop that, no matter how much I might want to. Sitting on her lap, I almost towered over her. She pulled a face, put a hand atop my head, and gently pushed down until we were on a more even level.
No, that was wishful thinking. Until I was shorter. She plucked whiskers from my cheeks and squeezed my irises inwards, giving me characteristic feline diamonds. A kiss on the tip of every finger stole away my claws, and as she held my hands I felt them changing, shifting closer to padded paws. I wouldn’t be opening any doors by myself for a while.
None of that compared to the main event. With a slightly embarrassed, indulgent cackle, Abby reached down to my butt and gave it a short, sharp spank. I cried out, as much in surprise as shame. What was she—
Ohhhhh. I groaned, leaning forward into her as she grabbed the tip of my tail and began to pull. Every inch was painstakingly drawn from the base of my spine, and every inch was felt. It was bliss. It was wonder. It was agony. I shook with the pressure of it, clinging to her while she filled my ears with soothing sounds.
“Yes, that’s right. That’s right. You’re doing so well. Just a little more, now, you can do it. Say it.”
“I— I can do it,” I gasped, “I can do it.”
I could do it. I could feel my body changing, matching her expectations, her desires, her knowledge. As always, my power filled in the gaps. I’d never noticed how much it did so before. I suppose it had always been doing it with my subconscious expectations. This time, it was hers.
I could feel subtle shifts in distribution of fat that nobody would ever think to make, all barely noticable, but together conspiring to change my body, my face, everything. I felt my own perception of colour shifting. Huh. Had my colour blindness never been recorded anywhere? Abby hadn’t known that. It was gone now. My muscles slackened, weakening me because Abby, on some level, figured that I should be weak. I softened, everywhere, losing my callouses and my scars.
I was hers, down to the bone, my power conspiring with hers to make me fit her preferences like a glove.
As the pain began to fade, she smiled down at me with the same kind smile she’d always shown. Fuck. I needed to find a way to fight her soon or I’d. I— Ow! “And a second sweet little stud,” she cooed, slipping another bar of metal through the hole in my other ear that of course she thought I should have, “to take away all that hate. All that anger. All those…” She ran a hand through my hair and I melted into her, whimpering gently. “Negative little feelings, sad little thoughts. You weren’t happy, Sphynx, but I’ll have you happy. You’re going to be a good girl for me now, aren’t you?”
I… They’d kidnapped me. They’d literally kidnapped me. They’d threatened my life and… fuck, but Abby smelled so good, and she was so warm, and I’d felt so good all day long with her. Yet I knew that she’d done this to me. I had to fight this, but…
Did I, though?
Another fingersnap caught my attention and pulled my gaze up to another expectant look. In her hand was another chunk of something delicious. I leaned forward on learned instincts, hoping to eat it out of her palm, but she pulled back. “Uh-uh, kitty. Say it, first.”
“I— I’m going to be your good girl,” I admitted. I couldn’t resist. I couldn’t disagree. I expected to feel a rush of shame, hate, anxiety. I was surrendering to her. She was a supervillain!
Yet, those were negative emotions. Abby had taken all those away.
All I felt was relief and elation. She’d been so nice to me, and she was going to keep being this nice to me? I sniffed, hard, tears rolling down my cheeks, and darted forward for a hug. I could escape her grip, I found. If I wasn’t trying to fight her, the first piercing did nothing to stop me.
She stiffened up, taking half a step back before resting a hand on the back of my head. “Kitten? Are you okay? Oh, dear, I’ve not done an emotional binding this broad before, is it not working? Or did I mess with your body wrong? I don’t really know how to use your power.”
I shook my head hard, then buried myself deeper into her. “It’s working. I’m— Thank you. I know you’ve done this to me. I know I— I know I disagreed with everything you wanted a few minutes ago. I don’t care. Please. Please let me be your good girl. I promise I’ll be good. Please don’t make me go back to how I was. Please keep me. I’m yours.”
Fuck, the anxiety at everything. The dread felt in every waking moment. The pain of just fucking existing. All gone. Not replaced by anything, not yet. Just taken away. Abby lightened my load and I finally felt as if I had room for more in my life than pain and strife.
“I, um,” Abby replied. “This isn’t— I thought you’d try to fight me more than this. Maybe I took away too much, I don’t want you to feel incomplete.”
I shook my head. “You were nice to me. Fed me when I was hungry. Let me sleep when I was tired. I trust you. And— And— That’s—” I felt my strength of will returning to me. It was still there, I just needed to point it in a different direction. “You’re wrong. Your power might just take away, but you give. You didn’t have to take care of me. You did it just because it was right. I think I love you? I mean, I… can’t think anything negative about you, so, I guess love must be right? The… simple fucking love of a dumb animal, maybe, but I love you. I love you, Abigail.”
Abigail grinned down at me, gently fingering the newest metal bar oh-so-securely piercing my body. “You do, huh? Tell me you’d do anything for me, kitten.”
“I’d do anything for you.”
“Tell me you’ll turn to evil~” she cooed, steepling her fingers.
“I’ll turn to evil. For you.”
“Tell me you’ll, um…”
“Help you achieve your goals and be the best you that you can be? Be your Sphynx, whatever you want that to mean? Fight as hard as you let me to help you shine? Of course I will,” I insisted. All I’d had was my fear and my hate driving me. With those gone, I had no fire of my own left. I needed to borrow hers. I’d always been strong willed, and Abby hadn’t taken that away. Not yet, anyway. It was her choice. Maybe I could prove it was worth letting me keep it. Serving and pleasing… “Uhm, what may I call you?”
She let out a happy little sigh, planting a fingernail behind my new ear and scratching. I melted into her, listening intently. My power couldn’t help make her words reshape my mind, but I thought I could handle that one on my own. “Well, Sphynx, my enemies know me as Echidna, mother of monsters.” She paused, for dramatic effect, and to scritch her pet monster under the chin. “You, on the other hand? Let’s go with Mistress for now. I’m still learning exactly what I’m into, but I just know you’ll love helping me explore, pet.”
Serving and pleasing Mistress it was, then.