The lightning and wind came to a halt as the old woman landed.
As the magic abated, she looked older--and weaker. When she saw Red, something sad flickered across her face.
"Red," she said. "I've been looking for you."
I had instinctively put myself between them. Red shifted behind me, sitting up. "Yes?" she replied, and I could sense the chill in her tone. "What is it that you want?"
"I'm so sorry, Red."
I stepped aside, looking between them. They both had that similar dark, ruddy skintone--and their eyes were the same. I put two and two together. "Wait," I said. "You're--like, you're her mom?"
"Grandmother," Red corrected. Her voice was strained, quivering between two extremes. In the distance, I could hear the screech of arriving fire sirens. "You are sorry? About what?"
"For staying silent," she said. The sirens were building. "For never making it clear that my life--my home--is always open to you. Unconditionally."
Red tried to stand up, but she was still too weak. I stepped forward to brace her; she took my arm thankfully and leaned heavily. "When mother threw me out," Red said, picking her words with care, "I did not know whether I could turn to you. You had taken her side before..."
"My daughters have always been a weakness of mine," the old woman said. "But not this time. When I found out that she had abandoned you, I..." She grimaced. "...we had a talk."
Red's eyes widened. "You... Is she, ah, is she--alright?"
"Yes. But I tore a hole in her roof and set her prized azalias on fire," the old woman said.
I could tell Red was trying not to smile. She shook her head a moment and wobbled; I snaked my arm around her waist and steadied her. "I--thank you, grandmother," she said, her tone trembling. "I am sorry that--"
"No," the old woman said, and there was thunder in her voice again. "You don't apologize for anything." Then, the thunder dimmed, and her tone became meeker. "...that is to say, I'd rather you not. You have nothing to apologize for. Red--if you're willing to forgive an old crone for her mistakes, I want you to come home. With me. I understand if you would rather not, but--you would not have to speak with your mother again, not until you feel you're ready. If ever. And in the meanwhile, I could teach you. My magic."
I felt Red start to buckle against me. Her head was pressed to my shoulder, her arm around my waist--and I was aware that she was crying. "I was terrified that you would reject me. I could deal with that from mother, but not from you."
The old woman stepped closer and reached her arm out for Red; Red took her hand and shifted her weight from me to her grandmother. They embraced; her grandmother kissed her on her forehead. "Never," she said. "My children are precious to me. I will always love you for what you are."
The sirens had become a terrible shriek, now; behind me, I could see the approaching fire engines and ambulances. As I stepped back to give them their space, I heard Sumerset's voice crackle from somewhere behind me on my pack.
"Starling? You out there?"
I pulled the spare radio transmitter out of the pack and cradled it into my ear. "Here," I said. "Red's okay."
"Wytch show up?"
"Old lady who throws lightning?"
"Yeah," I said. "Uh, she's Red's grandmother, you know."
There was a long silence.
"No shit," Sumerset said. "Huh."
"Yeah. Is... the demon--?"
"Dead as a doornail. Bonesaw's here, too. Voodoo?"
"Smear on the concrete," I said.
"There's a spare mask in your backpack. Upper left compartment--same spot the radio transmitter was in. Pulls out like a kleenex. Put it on before anyone sees you. I'll pick you up near Voodoo's complex."
"Well, uh, actually, if it's all the same to you--do you mind if I stick around here for now? I want to make sure Red's okay, and, um--"
I heard Sumerset snort on the other end. "Yeah, take care of your shit. Just don't let anyone see your face. And remember, you ain't a registered cape."
"I'll remember," I said, and I turned back to Wytch and Red.
When the EMTs arrived, they placed Red into one of the ambulances. Wytch said she would meet her at the hospital, but she wanted to attend to the fire along with the firefighters.
The paramedics gave me a strange look when they saw me in the stretchable Skull mask, but they were used to this sort of thing. While they searched the area for more people, I managed to get a moment alone with Red while she sat up in the ambulance.
"Everything good, then?" I asked her.
"I think so," she said, and she gave me a weak smile.
"I suspected that you were the Skull all along," she said, and then she looked down at her feet. "I thought that you had a good reason for saying otherwise and I thought I would not question it."
I gave her a long look. "...you suspected even when you told me about the--uh, you know--the whole kissing thing?"
She blushed, but didn't answer. That was answer enough.
"So," I said. "Um. Do you like... the PWF?"
I grimaced. "Stupid question, I know. It's, um, you know. Just a dumb game--"
"I love the Powered Wrestling Federation," she said. "But I have not had an opportunity to watch for many months. Has Justifier successfully defended his title from the Litigator?"
I blinked, grinned, and shuffled closer. "Yeah. Y'know, my handler--um, the old dude--he mentioned he could get me tickets if I ever wanted to go and watch it in person. He knows the Justifier from back when he was just starting out, see, and--"
"Are you asking me out on a date?"
Now it was my turn to blush. "Oh--no, no, nothing like that, I mean--I know how awkward that'd be, especially given we hardly know each other, and you've been through so much tonight and--um, okay, yes, I am totally asking you out on a date," I said.
Red was smiling, but she looked reserved. "I think--I think I would like that very much. But... there are things I should probably explain about myself, first."
"If you mean the whole, you know, thing between your mother and you, and how Voodoo Jones was disrupting your magic--I think I already understand," I said.
She looked up at me with those bright molten brown-gold eyes, her expression one of surprise. "...you do?"
"Well, I don't understand everything," I said. "But I think I got the basic gist of it--that you're, like, a girl trapped in a boy's body?"
"No," she said, and there was a hint of the same thunder I heard in the Wytch's voice earlier--and a flicker of something. Dark, violet electricity that weaved its way between her burnt fingertips. But in the next moment, it was gone. "...that is not perhaps the best way to put it. But you are within the correct ballpark."
"Okay. But, y'know, I just really like you," I said. "And if that's enough for you--it's enough for me. We can sort the details out later."
It was then that I noticed her hand--the one with the burns--had slipped atop of mine.
"That is enough for me," she said.
Takes me a good fifteen minutes to peel myself out of what's left of the old Arsenal suit. Bonesaw has to give me a hand--carving with serrated blades while I give her directions. More than a few times, I feel the brief pinch of an edge getting too close to meat.
When I finally emerge, the place is crawling with paramedics. Bonesaw disappears in the crowd; a crew member sees me wheezing for breath and pulls me to the back of one of the ambulances. Gives me an oxygen mask, a pat on the shoulder, and a quick lookover.
I wave him off to help somebody else. Somebody who needs it.
It isn't long before I feel that familiar tingle of electricity at the back of my spine--and realize I'm not alone. I pull the oxygen mask off and look up.
Wytch is perched on top of the ambulance, peering down at me.
"So, what," I say. "Is the Y supposed to represent your rejection of the patriarchal values inherent in the letter 'i' or some bullshit like that?"
"Why do you do that?" Wytch asks.
"You always pick fights when you don't have to. It's like you want me to reduce you to a pile of smoldering ash."
"Maybe I do," I say, and then I lean back into the car. "Fuck. I'm sorry. I'm old, cranky, and I just got my shit handed to me by a demon, okay?"
"A demon?" she asks. "You didn't give him that whole 'Eat Math and--"
"No," I tell her, emphasizing it a little too much. "Ugh. Goddammit. And now my ward's off doing fuck knows what--"
"Actually," Wytch replies, floating down besides me, "I'm fairly certain she's currently in the back of an ambulance on the other side of the Stix, making out with my granddaughter."
"...wait, what? Seriously?"
"Fuck," I say. "Just what I need."
"And what the hell is that supposed to mean?" she asks, giving me the old stink-eye.
"Nothing against your kid," I say, waving my hand. "Just teenage romance. More stress than I need right now, you know?"
"Remember when I told you that I approved of her coming out as a woman? With the Skull identity?" she said.
"Hell, look, I said I'm sorry," I tell her. "I'm honestly not looking for a fight anymore--"
"That's not what I mean," she says. "Let me finish, you old goat. I didn't approve because I thought it was progressive. I approved because it tells me that she's making the identity her own."
I give her a long look.
"She's inherited a mantle that's been worn by three generations," she says. "Each new Skull brought something different to the table--each made the Skull their own. Lived with the mask on their own terms. I think it's important that you let her do that."
"Maybe," I reply, lost in thought.
"Also," Wytch said, her voice becoming softer, "when are you going to tell her?"
"Tell her what?"
"That you're dying."
I grunt. "The fuck you on about?"
"Sumerset. I worship Kali, not the Care-Bears. I can smell death a thousand yards away. You reek of it," she says. "What is it? Cancer?"
I sigh and shake my head, surrendering. "Kind of, yeah. Leukemia. And lung cancer. And heart-problems. Like my body's just fucking had it."
"And you're still standing?" she says. "How long do you have?"
"A few months," I reply. "I've been taking regular shots of a diluted Skull Formula since last January. Susan gave it to me before she passed."
"Goddess's teats, Sumerset. You know what that will do to you? To a non-power?!"
"Cuts my life expectancy in half," I say. "Also means I get to stand, talk, breathe--walk--"
"--up until the day your body burns itself out and you drop dead mid-step," she cuts me off.
"Ain't it like you said? We gotta deal with our shit on our terms. Well, this is how I'm dealing with mine. I ain't gonna spend my last few months in a bed, Wytch. I'm gonna spend them doing something."
"You have to tell her. When you go--who will she have?"
"Her aunt'll be out of rehabilitation by then. Hopefully she'll have her shit together enough to finish the job her sister started."
"And who's going to help her with the other half of her life?" she asks. "Who's going to be her handler?"
"I've... been thinking about that," I say.
"Tell her, Sumerset. For the love of the Kali, tell her. She deserves to know," Wytch responds, and then she flies back into the night sky.
I watch her go, then reach for the oxygen mask again. And start to think.