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it used to be mad love

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They name her Catastrophe on her second day of training. She is fifteen years old. On the roof of the facility they show her how to use a rocket launcher; she misfires and blows up a cab in the street below. Thankfully, no one is seriously injured - the driver emerges moments later from the cafe he'd stepped into, paper coffee cup in hand and an expression of absolute shock on his face - but the name sticks anyway. Every superhero needs a name, after all - even if no one really qualifies as a 'hero' anymore, not since the industry went corporate.

She's taking a break in the canteen a few hours later, nursing an energy drink and a few bruised ribs from combat training, when one of the other new girls stumbles in. She's limping, her eyebrows are singed and she reeks of burnt plastic.

"Did you get a name yet?" the girl asks, all but falling into the chair opposite.

"Catastrophe." She pushes a second can of drink across the table, one she'd been going to save for later. The other girl looks like she needs it more. "You?"

The girl - short, dark hair, round face, about her age - takes the can and cracks the tab gratefully. "Arsyn," she says, smiling wryly. "The eighth floor's on fire."

"The street, too," Catastrophe replies.

Arsyn lifts those singed eyebrows, looking impressed. She lifts the can in a toast. "Cheers," she says. "To burning everything."

It sounds dangerous, but she's a new person. 'Catastrophe' is a trainee super at a facility in London, a far cry from Alyssa, the friendless Ohio sophmore she'd been four days ago.

She grins and taps her can against Arsyn's. "Burning everything," she says.

*

It's a strange experience, growing up with your life planned out for you. It used to be that only royalty had that experience, but then there came a new kind of superior bloodline. People started to manifest strange abilities - extra strength, preternaturally good aim. It wasn't like the comic books; no one could fly or start fires with their minds (mostly, anyway - there were exceptions, like Frostbyte, who had to train in a room with thermal controls lest she freeze everyone around her), but even the most mundane super power made you a valuable asset to a company that specialised in industrial espionage.

Alyssa was eight when she beat all of her school's athletics records, and then at age nine she was hit by a truck and escaped with barely a scratch. Her parents received a phone call, the school moved her into a gifted class, and when she started high school it was understood that she would be recruited at the end of her sophmore year, that she would be trained, would end up somewhere in the world with the company that put in the highest bid for her talents.

Since that day, she hadn't wanted for anything. Her clothes, education and equipment had always been the best available, and she'd had a personal trainer to keep her in shape. It was an easy existence, but a lonely one as well. She was her parents' meal ticket, her teachers' project, and always different from her peers. Of course she'll win, she's a super. Look at her, she'll be gone by the time she's fifteen. It's a bit creepy, really, what she can do.

She's never really had a friend.

"Budge up," says Arsyn, tossing her tablet onto Catastrophe's bunk before vaulting herself up without bothering with the ladder. "I've just seen the best dog video." She stretches herself out and taps her screen.

"I miss my dog," Catastrophe whispers.

"I know," Arsyn replies, tugging her down. "So come watch this."

*

They train ten hours out of every day for six months before they even see action. There are six in their intake: Catastrophe and Arsyn, Mother Chucker and Slay-Z, Knyght and Eclipse. Training is a bit of everything, from combat and firearms to hacking and strategy. Homeslice teaches them to fight with blades and Lucky Fiori sits in the control room for hours devising near-impossible hologram mazes for them to complete, and by the end of each day they're exhausted in both body and mind, falling asleep on each other in the canteen then fighting over the showers.

Arsyn's head is nodding over her meal at the end of the first week so Catastrophe nudges her in the ribs and murmurs: "I'll smuggle you some dessert if you save me some hot water."

Arsyn smiles at her. "Thanks, Cat." When Catastrophe looks surprised, Arsyn adds: "You don't mind me calling you that, do you?"

Cat tastes the shortened version in her mind and finds she likes it. "Not at all. I've just never had a nickname before." Her smile turns a bit bashful.

Arsyn levers herself out of her seat with a grin. "Loser," she says, nudging her shoulder. "Make sure it's chocolate, that dessert."

"Make sure I get at least five minutes of hot water," Cat replies.

*

By the end of the second month of training, the girls' talents are starting to show: Catastrophe excels at combat and speed while Arsyn has an affinity for biotechnology. They start to specialise. Cat beats Mother Chucker to become the champion of Knockout's boxing ring, and Arsyn ends up under The Trinity's generous wingspan learning about intuitive systems and chemical agents. The others in their cohort are similarly engaged - Slay-Z gets involved in weapons development and Knyght and Eclipse spend long hours locked away with Lucky Fiori studying strategy.

Even so, Arsyn and Catastrophe find each other at the end of each day, pulled back by something stronger than training schedules and personal development plans.

"Can I come in?" Arsyn asks from the end of Cat's bed one night, face pale against her dark hair in the half-light of the dorm.

"Course," Cat whispers, lifting her covers and shifting over to make room.

Arsyn climbs up and curls in so that she's on her side facing Cat, but she doesn't say anything for the longest time.

"You came in late tonight," Cat murmurs in the end, to break the silence.

"Yeah," Arsyn replies. "I spent all day learning about chemical sequencing. My brain's fried. Remind me again why we signed up for this?"

Cat smiles. "I don't know. You're the brains, here. They only pay me because I can take punches."

Arsyn laughs, a low chuckle that vibrates the mattress beneath them. Her arm shifts and she reaches up to touch Cat's chin, which hurts just a little bit. Must be bruised. "You do it well," she says, smiling in the dark. "How much do you think it would take to truly hurt you?"

Cat rolls a shoulder. "I don't know. Falling off a building, maybe? The truck didn't do much damage."

Arsyn grins. "Super woman," she says, curling her smaller body in closer to Cat's warmth.

"You better believe it," Cat replies, breathing in the smell of her hair.

*

The Company is competitive. If you don't measure up, you're out, and most of them only have the skills they've been trained with - all but useless in the real world. Can you type? Catastrophe imagines an interviewer asking the night before her first mission, terrified of failure. Analyse data?

No, but I know how to break a man's arm in three places.

We'll call you.

In the end, though, it's Arsyn who screws up. It's a relatively simple job. Break into this secure facility, disable the cameras, neutralize the guards and steal the samples.

They make it in easily. Catastrophe does her part - moves fast, has the head guard's key card before he knows what's hit him. Arsyn's in charge of the computers. She disables the bio-lock in record time and collects the samples into a refrigerated case, but as they're headed for the stairs the alarm override fails and they're suddenly surrounded by guards.

Catastrophe takes a few punches, shakes them off, delivers a roundhouse kick to one guard that knocks him into two others, breaks some arms before they can call for backup. She's surrounded by shattered radios by the time she realises that Arsyn isn't beside her, is bailed up in the next room defending their prize against a man three times her size who's wielding a taser.

They dance around the room as Catastrophe watches. The case is forgotten as they spar, Arsyn graceful but frantic, dancing away from the electric arc of the taser, trying to land a hit but failing. Catastrophe darts in, scoops up the prize. Eat or be eaten, their training says, the assignment above all.

The guard keels over when the flat of Catastrophe's hand slices into his throat.

"You should be gone," Arsyn gasps, watching him fall.

"Who's going to share dog videos with me if you leave?"

*

They do five jobs together, ten, fifty. Before they know it, they're eighteen and running their own trainees, twenty and planning their jobs from scratch. For the most part their cohort stays together, Knyght and Eclipse behind the scenes, Slay-Z supplying the weapons and Arsyn the tech. Catastrophe and Mother Chucker are the muscle, knocking heads together and running laps of buildings on reconnaissance, and together they pull off job after job.

But the competition is tough and the headhunters are many. The corporate demand for supers is high - if you're any good, someone else wants you. Three years after their first fully-planned job, they have their first casualty. It's Knyght, but she's not injured. Instead, she disappears after a job one day, and they learn later that she's been plucked from their fold by a competitor who offered her more money and perks for all her strategic training.

They see her again on the opposite end of a firearm. It's a job they've been planning for months, sensitive and high-stakes, and she brings her own team, her new team, cutting them off at the start.

"You'll have to go through me," Catastrophe says, stepping in front of the gun. "How much did they pay you to betray us, huh?"

"Plenty," Knyght declares, taking aim. The bullet tears through Catastrophe's shoulder and the job is over before it's begun.

"Sell-out," Arsyn says later, dabbing at Catastrophe's shoulder with alcohol as Cat hisses in pain. "How could she? We're sisters."

She's not the only one, though. Knyght and Eclipse were always close, and when Eclipse betrays them three months later, she takes a whole new batch of secrets and a set of office blueprints for the next job with her.

"Bitches," Arsyn says, up on the roof of the facility where there's no one to hear but the two of them. "Traitorous bitches."

"Traitors," Catastrophe agrees, feeling skin-tight, not sure who they can trust. "Traitors!" she shouts to the London sky.

Arsyn turns to her. "If they get in first with that job," she says, "I don't even know. Will they let us keep our team if we can't even stop the others from leaving?"

Cat leans against the roof's railing, energy spent after her outburst. "What can we do? Who can we take? Who do we trust?"

"You and me," Arsyn says. "All our work. We've got to get it back. We can do it between us." Her eyes are dark and intense, steely. Catastrophe meets her gaze.

"You and me," she agrees. "I know I can trust you."

*

The shattered glass sounds like bells as she falls. Catastrophe feels every one of her bones shatter against the roof of the car.

How much? she wonders as the city lights twinkle above her. What's the price of sisterhood?

She's going to burn everything.