It's okay because Kane can't fight back anymore. The idea of him still itches on the surface of Mike's skin, but he's gone, gone for real, not even a stain on Deluxe anymore. Bleach and cool water and public property meant he came off overnight. The scuffs and scratches from Mutt tearing through the city lasted longer than Kane's glassy angry stare. He managed to stay mad even when they pulled the wrecked remains of his torso out from under the building that'd docked on him.
Julie's odd lately. It's all right since Kane isn't there to be a looming threat anymore, she can go up and hang with Claire and come back down to see the Burners and not have to worry about Kane anymore, but it's like she's a film with the sound out of sync, so everything she does is a beat behind. Like she's staring at something just off screen and it's got her distracted. Mike doesn't question it much -- it was pretty gruesome, after all, nearly lost Texas when his car rolled into that tower, and when the buildings undocked parts of Kane kept dripping down. She stands in doorways and looks at them a lot now, almost like she can't come closer, and sometimes she starts up with "Hey, Mike," but then shakes her head till her bangs go in her eyes and walks away again.
Well, she'll be fine. All of them will, now that, you know. Kane's gone.
Days after is when the real sort of migrations start up, a trickle turning into a flood of people in shiny whites and blues coming down to Motorcity and Deluxe getting clouded up with all the dark earth tones of people from down below. Scientists sniffing around at the corners of Motorcity's foundation, self-taught engineers and racers and scruffy homeless kids scraping their fingernails over Deluxe's shell. They, the Burners, they shift uncomfortably in the middle of it, same as all the others who live half upstairs and half down. It's like some switch has flipped and everyone's realizing that yeah, there's no big man in his tower, anymore, it's all open ground. Politicians and wannabes start to prowl. All the sounds in the city turn a little sour.
It'll be okay though, Mike says, every time that someone voices their worries, every time a car screeches wrong, it's gotta be, Kane's dead.
They lose sight of gangs. They lose sight of the Mama's Boys, they lose sight of the Amazons, they lose sight of Kaia and the terradwellers, they lose sight of Rayon. They almost lose sight of the Duke, but he's so flashy that they watch him parade all the way up to Deluxe to see what he can salvage. They all go up, and down come the folks who were tightest with Kane, or as tight as anyone could be with them. Kids in their cadet uniforms, the ones that still make Mike fidget till Chuck puts a hand on his shoulder, they all march down with something like disgust and wonder mixed up together. They're living at the zoo now. There's K's down here now like there's water in the ocean and all of them have the shivers from it. Julie keeps shuffling sideways whenever she sees one, which is often enough that they've taken to having Texas and Dutch flank her whenever they're out walking. And often enough that Chuck just practically keeps himself attached to Mike's sleeve to keep him from jumping.
"Remember that time Kane made everything freeze," Mike says to Chuck once, because Kane's not quite dead for him yet, "and he made it all warm or whatever so it'd make a storm --"
"He brought in a warm front, yeah, and there was a tornado."
"I think it's like that." Mike smiles kind of sideways, which, anymore, is the only way he can. "Just don't know if we're the warm or the cold."
They're the cold.
The one they find first is the Duke, and Mike could have guessed it, probably, the way he was always more show than delivery. Not as much room for racing and wrecking up in Deluxe. There's footage of this crumpled wreck, still the length of two cars even with the nose smashed up, and they try not to show it but there's a glimpse of his hair dark and wet and blood in the windshield before Chuck turned the news off. DOA, you know, it's something you learn not to flinch at if you live in Motorcity but still. Something about it.
And with him, with the Duke's story, with him smashed up against metal and glass because he was swerving around Deluxe like he already owned it, it all goes wild. All those gangs they lost sight of, they come right back into the spotlight, or whoever's left of them from the static-quiet days between panic and war. There's a few Mama's Boys missing. Foxy's all on her own. No one knows where Rayon is, if he left the place while he could because he's smarter than all the rest of them put together or if someone knocked him off one of the towers in Deluxe while he was taking in the view. Motorcity feels too small, too tight for the way things heat up.
The Burners stay the Burners. They protect their city. It's just with all the people choking its streets and fighting under its bridges, they have a lot more work to do with the same amount of people. Chuck and Dutch keep up this mantra of we gotta be careful, Mike, we have to stay together, we can't be pulling stunts like we used to. Sometimes they hit the brakes on their cars and they take in the disaster of the week and they don't know who they're helping, this uniform or the other or the other. They pick up as many people in Kaneco jackets as they do people in rags.
Julie gets sick from it all. Stress, the air mixing, too little sleep, they can't say, and Mike's left having to have Jacob and Claire watch her while they go out because even with her mumbling excuses and coughing there's still distress calls and they're still the Burners. Claire, still spotless Deluxe Claire, she frowns at Mike in this way he can't figure out when he leaves. They're all sore, though, they're all on edge and a little bit ill, and there's an alarm ringing somewhere so he doesn't have time to puzzle it out.
"It's not like she's puking everywhere or anything," Texas says on the road. "C'mon, she can drive through a cold, no problem!"
"We're not all you, Tex," Dutch says. "Most of us have blood in our veins, not Muscle Mulch."
"That's not what I mean, twiggy." Texas hums into the radio. "I mean she doesn't look sick at all, it's all ... fakey. And she has driven through a cold before. This isn't like our Jules."
It's not, Mike thinks, and he figures Chuck agrees from the way he looks over.
So it's not so much a surprise as a disappointment when they get back from a call and she's just gone. 9Lives is still sitting in perfect condition in the garage. They get Chuck working on seeing what he can do to track her down and Texas tearing through the few things that are sitting on 9Lives' seats and Jacob shrugging because he didn't see anything, Claire was supposed to be with her.
No one ever says it out loud, but after a few weeks, they figure out that she's not coming back. They start to care less about the Kaneco folk and their calls after that.
It wrecks them a bit, a little tear at the edge of a paper that always threatens to catch and widen, because there's a difference between someone staying home and someone not being there at all. Out in the streets the fights are going strong, all the minds of Motorcity and Deluxe that used to be working on keeping the city powered now mocking up guns and bots. Twenty times as many people are scrambling at the scrapyards and the wrecked Kaneco bots, meaning it's twenty times as hard for Mike to just pull up to some yard and grab sheet metal and car parts for when they trash their cars. Which they do, still, often, especially with the roads rocky and full. Cars like Whiptail can't take the terrain and the tight turns, hairpins between potholes and screaming groups of people on their way to some precariously-balanced neighborhood out in who-knows-where, Michigan. Cars like Whiptail, when they haven't been able to get the touch-ups they need after a few weeks of being beaten and battered, they don't stick too well to the asphalt.
It's hard saying what's worse, the radio silence when Dutch's car takes a turn wrong and rolls right off the edge of an old highway some hundred feet up, or the off-key way Roth's chirps and squeals go from inquisitive to panic to just plain screaming.
Chuck puts it most precisely. "We're fucked," he says after a long while of choking on air. It's him and Mike and Jacob at a table, because Texas just right off to where Dutch was painting last.
Mike tries to furrow his brow and says, "Don't say that," but Chuck cuts him off. Chuck digs his fingers into his bangs.
"We're fucked, Mikey," he says. "No point in pretending."
They're two down, but it's all right, Mike thinks, even as he wants to tear this part of his brain out of his skull. Because Kane got wiped out first. He thinks about hearing Kane's ribs snap, about seeing the empty spot where Julie should have been, about the rushed shit shit shit Dutch managed before his voice cut out, even about a kid in some homemade armor letting go of his hand to take an endless drop. Well, it's ok, because of Kane. Something's gotta be ok.
Starts to be that he picks apart all the little things he's ever messed up. When he's driving, he thinks about the faces of people who see their houses coming down and about how he could have been on Dutch's other side. When he's tapping his feet impatiently between distress signals, his brain tightens up around the way he wasn't there for Julie and around the way he let so many people get hurt. He can't sleep because he thinks about how if he hadn't left Kane in the first place this would have never. It wouldn't have. None of it.
"Texas isn't really feelin it," Texas tells them next time Mike gets up to get in Mutt. "Seriously, Mike. How long are we gonna keep this up."
"Yeah, I know," Mike says. Even smiles a little. Have to, you have to or you'll forget how. "But what else are we gonna do, sit on our butts and wait? Come on, we may as well do what we can."
Texas gets up with them but he heaves out a theatrical sigh. At least he still has that.
What the call is for is some no-name politician-in-training thinks if he sets off an explosion in a residential area it'll cause enough panic for him to take the reins while the dust still settles. Which is crazy, it's stupid, he sauntered in there and set a bomb down and what, expected the civilians not to notice? They pull in there and the thing isn't even subtle, it's this bright little blinking thing latched onto the pavement. Texas actually walks over and picks it up, turns it over in his hands before Chuck snatches it away from him.
"Gotta love the easy jobs," Mike comments, and that should have been his clue. Should have.
Turns out the wannabe is better than they think. Chuck hasn't even powered the thing down before there's a whole mess of gangsters on them, hands full of bats and staffs and guns. It's hard, thinking right when you're three guys fending off twenty, when Chuck is scrambling to pick up a live bomb and Texas doesn't even have enough time between strikes to grab for his nunchucks, but Mike manages. Figures with every swing of his staff that there's another one hurt. And another. It's for the greater good, or the decently good, or just for shits and giggles, he can't tell, but it's still blood he's shedding and heads he's smashing. He works to shut his brain off so he can actually defend himself and it's more of a struggle than it should be.
"Almost got it!" Chuck shouts over the noise of the brawl. He's managed to duck over to Stronghorn and use it as cover while he fiddles with the bomb. "Just a."
A thousand people hurt, a thousand and one. If he'd just given it up ages ago, if he'd just stayed with Kane in the first place, if he hadn't been so him, it could all have been fine.
Chuck doesn't cut off midsentence like that, but Mike does. He hears Chuck's sentence punctuated with a too-close gunshot and he thinks, first, he thinks shit, not Chuck, not him. His chest and stomach are all warm and tight and loose and cold.
The guy in front of him sneers and lowers his shotgun.
Mike doesn't even realize that it's Chuck screaming in his ears and dragging him over to the cars for the way that he's thinking damn, this'll make a real mess out of my jacket, Jules'll kill me. It's her week to do laundry, right? I'll really have to owe her. Chuck sobs and the pain flares.
"You're gonna be fine, man, you're gonna be -- fine -- shit, Jacob, pick up," Chuck shouts over the fight and that's still going, isn't it, Mike tries to crane his head to look for Texas but it reminds him that the whole front of him is a shredded mess. Chuck props him up in Mutt's passenger seat while he leans over and pounds at the dashboard like it'll make the radio work.
"Whoa," Mike says, "don't take it out on Mutt, man."
"Shut up, Mike, shut up! You're gonna be fine, okay, just shut up." Chuck's a worse mess from the way his eyes are all wide and bloodshot and his breathing is panicky-ragged. His fingers blur, they really do, how fast they're going. Mike feels his ribs scrape against the inside of his skin.
"If you say so, Chuckles." It's like breathing sludge. He feels it all stick in his throat, rattle with his inhales. "It's all right, though, man, we did it. We beat Kane, so it's fine."
Chuck's hands clench into fists and he shudders. "I told you to shut up, Mike."
"I'm glad you're here. I'm glad you were always there, Chuck, that was always really awesome of you."
Chuck can't even look at him. He must be bad. It feels bad, feels like he just came out of taking a warm bath with all his clothes on, feels like he's trying to breathe through the hundred holes in his abdomen. Chuck's biting his lip so hard he might start to bleed, too. "It was awesome," Chuck agrees.
"What are you ladies doing? I could use some help over here," Texas calls out, ducks and turns to look at them. He sees Mutt's door swung open and streaked messy, sees Mike slumped in the seat, sees Chuck hunched and crumpled behind the wheel. Parses it.
Texas shrugs and turns away from looking at Chuck and gets swept up in the fight.
Well, Jacob says later, you stopped that bomb. Chuck stays quiet. Texas grunts in response and pins down Roth. Has some parts that Stronghorn needs.
No one wins this kind of fight. The news doesn't air anymore. Last they heard, the terradwellers were taken out in one fell swoop, not even in the political fight but for being mutant, for being wrong. Last they heard, people had started packing up and leaving, risking the wastelands rather than stay to see if Detroit would fall. Jacob's one of them. And after that, it's hardly a stretch for things to dissolve. Chuck and Texas were never close without the glue of the Burners to hold them together, and cars don't make great company. Tex, he packs all sorts of things into his car and drives straight into the fray, screaming his name the whole way because something has to stay the same, even if it's skewed all the way onto its side.
Chuck holes up in Antonio's, all empty and even dark after the power cuts out and he doesn't much have the energy to coax it back on. It's like him, just waiting to starve or something rather than go out and get himself killed. He'd rather just wait.
So he does.
The way things end, they all just wipe each other out. No one steps up as Kane's proper replacement, so the cracks in the city just deepen and spread. Chuck listens to it happen with his knees tucked up under his chin.
But hey, he thinks.
It's gotta be okay. They got rid of Kane, after all.