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Breathe. Stay calm. You're gonna be OK.

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Breathe.

It was the first thing she'd said to him, when he woke up after the surgery with a body he could no longer control.

Stay calm.

No easy task, when every muscle jerked and shuddered with the power of the device the Dark Docter had implanted in him.

You're gonna be OK.

Words. But words that came true, with her help; he learned to harness that power, the constant inexorable force of the Ra. To bend it to his will.

For a time.

 

***

 

It starts as an accident.

Six months after the confrontation in the restaurant, when Ninjato died and Spex turned against the LXD. They're fighting the kid with the shoes, the one who sometimes seems to be driven by his own feet the way Sp3cimen was driven by the cube inside his body. The kid's getting better. He moves with his feet now, instead of chasing along behind them. His legs seem to bend in places they don't have joints, eeling along until suddenly a foot lashes out, a sharp burst of Ra that knocks the two of them in opposite directions.

But they aren't so easily defeated, the Dark Doctor's perfect Sp3cimen and the nurse who turned him to their side. She slides across the floor on her knees, jerking to a halt at Sp3cimen's feet, and feels the Ra grow in her as the clipped, precise movements of her hands draw her upright again.

Then they turn to face the kid, moving in tandem -- and she matches her breathing to his.

Breathe.

Rotate the upper body. Cant forward, a twenty-five degree angle. Arm across, snapping outward, keep the elbow back so the hand moves in a straight line instead of circling around, an unbroken streak of Ra. They follow it up with the other elbow, bringing it up from below as they pivot, knocking the kid back before he can regain his balance from the first hit.

Sp3cimen's moving a bit like her now. It's part robot, part popping, the tension of muscles pulling against one another giving way to relaxation before returning with a snap. But then one of the others comes in, one of those LXD fools, whirling and leaping and tricking to put up a vortex of Ra that protects the kid in the shoes. She and Sp3cimen break apart, no longer moving together, no longer breathing as one.

But the damage has been done. The healing has begun. She doesn't know which way to think of it.

All she knows is, something has changed.

 

***

 

It keeps happening.

At first she tells herself it's an accident. (Again.) Then she tells herself she's improving her skills, improving Sp3cimen. They fight better when they're in tandem like that. The Dark Doctor notices the effect, even if he doesn't guess the cause; he starts sending them out together more and more. At first it only works when they're in moving in tandem, but after a while the synchronization gets easier. As long as they're breathing in unison, it's there.

Then it gets weird.

That Drift kid is getting strong. He coindrops into an unstabbed mill, whirling almost too fast to believe, and then when he rises up into the headspin the force of his Ra he breaks the walkway she and Sp3cimen are standing on. She falls; he doesn't. Then she's down on the floor, popping triple-time to protect herself from Drift, not really trying to defeat him -- she'll settle for getting away in one piece.

Which she manages. Barely. By the time she joins up with Sp3cimen again, she's gasping so hard it's making her sick, deep, retching heaves of air.

He hasn't been fighting Drift. Took out a couple of raw LXD recruits, is all -- nothing to challenge a dancer like him. But he's breathing like she is, like he just went twelve rounds with a hurricane and lived to tell the tale.

She can see the question in his eyes. What's happening?

It isn't just the fight that has her breathing hard, now. This -- this has gone further than she expected it to. Further than she wanted it to?

Stay calm.

She puts her hand on his left shoulder. He mirrors the movement, their timing flawless. They stare into one another's eyes, fathomless black meeting fathomless black.

And then the darkness thins.

 

***

 

It's a balancing act that defies anything a dancer's body could achieve -- even the sorts of dancers that fight for the Alliance of the Dark or the LXD. Breathe together. Find that harmony. But never where the Dark Doctor can see, never taking it so far it can't be hidden, because she knows, even before she understands why, that he'll be furious if he finds out.

If.

When.

Bit by bit, she figures it out. The Dark Doctor is controlling their Ra. When the Umbras march to war in perfect lockstep synchronicity, it's because there's only one mind behind it, one animating spirit that directs their power. But she and Sp3cimen, they're doing something different. She wasn't strong enough to hold out against the Dark Doctor, and neither was he -- not alone.

But together . . .

They're attuning their Ra to each other, instead of to him. Breathing, focusing. Laying a single finger on the reins that direct them, and then another, and another.

It can only go so far. They hover on the brink of falling, their impossible balance fraying.

All that remains is to choose which way they'll fall.

 

***

 

Appropriately enough, the crisis comes when they're fighting the kid with the shoes again.

There are fewer of them now in the LXD, their heroes dropping to the Ra of the Alliance, or burning themselves out until there's nothing left but empty movement. The ones who remain, though -- they keep getting stronger. Last time this kid had to be saved from the two of them. Now she and Sp3cimen are moving like a single, superhuman unit, but the kid is more than holding his own.

They fall back before his attacks, narrowly keeping their feet when a sudden swiveling rond de jambe from him almost knocks them to the floor. They need a shield, and so they start to build one, their hands interlocking and pivoting around one another in a pattern too fast for the eye to follow.

Across the flickering tangle of their hands, her eyes meet his.

She doesn't have to ask. He doesn't have to answer. She knows they never would have gotten this far unless he wanted it as much as she did; he could have broken it off at any time, changing his breathing, changing his movements. Denying her the harmony between her Ra and his. They wouldn't have been as strong -- but they would have been safer.

The kid hovers outside their shield, sliding back and forth, his toes leaving tracks in the dust. Waiting for his opening, and keeping his defense up. He thinks it's an attack they're building behind that wall.

In a way, it is.

She can feel the Dark Doctor, even though he's miles away. His rage pours white-hot through them both. They take that energy and channel it into their dancing, moving with such force it would tear the muscles of ordinary humans. Their styles pass back and forth between them like waves, her arms in a rigid robot bend while he pops beneath them, then him rising back up again in a crisp unfolding series while she snaps from toe to head like a whip. His hands are on her waist and she's above his head, their Ra grounding her like a pillar, because there's no "his" or "hers" anymore, just a shared force the Dark Doctor can't hold back. Sp3cimen's arms flex and she's airborne, the power bursting out of her in all directions, burning away the control that's held them for so long.

It sends the kid flying. She lands like a feather but folds like a wet noodle, and Sp3cimen falls into her embrace, his head cradled in the crook of her elbow, just like before, in the hospital. Except that back then she helped him stand, and right now she couldn't stand if you offered her a pair of gold-plated crutches to do it with.

Sp3cimen has a little more life in him than she does. His hand rises like a semaphore, stopping the kid before he can make up his mind to attack or not. But Sp3cimen's eyes stay fixed on hers, the spreading darkness gone.

The LXD lost Spex to the Alliance. But with the two of them free, she suspects the tide is about to turn.

There's some life in her after all. Autumn strokes one hand down Sp3cimen's cheek and whispers, "You're gonna be OK."