"We look like idiots."
Avery twisted around, checking to make sure no one was behind them, then yanked the thick, green hood around his face again. "We look like druids."
Slinking through the dark, Catherine hopped over a branch lightly. "Yeah, what part of idiot doesn't that cover?"
Since Avery possessed many awesome gifts, he tripped over the branch because unlike cat girl over there, he couldn't see in the dark. Well, he could see. Like, he could see a bonfire in the distance. He could see his breath in the air. He could see Catherine flipping disappear into a tree.
"What are you doing?!"
From above, Catherine said, "Shut up. You'll blow our cover."
Somewhere- somewhere on the other side of the bonfire, Sophie and Jacques were doing Sophie and Jacques things. In Avery's mind, those things were probably sweaty, involving sticky wrestling and saying crap like mon Cherie or voulez vous cou-
Thoughts cut off along with his air, Avery flailed until Catherine let go of his cloak. His druid cloak. His "Darla thought the best way to complete this mission would be to infiltrate a bunch of nature-loving freaks, probably because she couldn't wait to use footage to make a fanvid set to a punk-pop cover of Umbrella" cloak, not that he had any recent or specific grievances against their deeply twisted Oracle-substitute or anything.
A cheap velvet cloud brushed his face as Catherine hopped back down. "I see the package."
"That's what she said," Avery replied, and grinned when Catherine sneered instead of shoving him in that freaky-weird way girls thought was both assertive and charming. They were wrong- one, it wasn't assertive, it was crazy aggressive, and two, it wasn't charming, period. Unless said girl smelled like Sugar Bean Exfoliating Scrub by Body Candy- which Avery only knew about because he had accidentally glanced into Sophie's basket at the drug store when they were on a Doritos run.
Catherine put a hand on his shoulder, turning him toward a distant point she could see. "We're gonna walk in over there, grab the package, and walk right back out."
"Okay," Avery said, reaching for her. Over there was way the hell over there, and they'd already spent an hour tramping around in the woods dressed like granola bars with nuts.
Flat, Catherine said, "No flying."
It took strength- superhuman strength, thank you very much- to keep Avery from rolling his eyes at her. Before he could complain, or kind of hint that she was a scaredy cat, ha ha ha c whut i did thar?- Catherine plunged into the woods again.
"I'm flying," he whisper-yelled after her. He even lifted off, flexing his hover action, but when she didn't turn back, he dropped to the ground again and stalked after her. He'd tried low altitude flying once and really, it was better for everybody to let that embarrassing memory die. In fact, it would if Darla would take down that ska-infused speed-metal vid of the Unfortunate Incident in New Jersey.
Avery glowered and kicked at stupid branches and clingy vines. He stomped shrubs flat and jumped over logs and still found himself trailing behind Catherine by a good thirty yards. Yeah, of course, she'd love traipsing through the underbrush like a little woodland creature, all nimble like an emo Disney chick. The forest saved all its hands and teeth for him.
"Oh god," Catherine said. She bent over suddenly, like she had to puke.
Taking a few flight-enhanced leaps, Avery caught up in an instant. "What's wrong?"
Straightening, Catherine flattened her lips into a tight, white line and let the track of her gaze point out the naked druids. The naked, dancing druids. Dancing in that bouncy, hippie, swaying way only Deadheads who'd toured with the band the first time they went on the road could. It was like watching ancient gummi potatoes get their nirvana on.
"We can never unsee that," Avery said.
Scratching through his itchy cloak, Avery added, "I want hazard pay."
"I want to get this package and get the hell out of here," Catherine said.
A goal they could agree on! Avery offered her his hand, then made buggy eyes at her when she balked. "All the other little druids are holding hands."
Making the same sound she'd made two minutes before, Catherine took his hand and stalked toward the bonfire. It wasn't a gentle stalking, either. More like they went viciously into that good night- not that a night filled with druids, robed and disrobed was a good night.
For once, Avery was glad that Catherine had about as much patience as a chinchilla on meth. She didn't do painless, but she did do fast. Before he knew it, they stood in the inner circle, which sounded kind of ominous and spooky, but really, it was just the innermost ring of stones at the druid fest. Jagged, chalky stones jutted all around them, kind of like Stonehenge, but more with the pointy and less with the impressive.
"These are called plinths," Avery volunteered, suddenly attacked by a random fact from European History.
Instead of rolling her eyes, Catherine peeked at him from beneath her hood. "Seriously?"
"Not a word I would make up," Avery said.
It was a single syllable that could have meant anything. And she might have even elaborated on it, if the druids hadn't suddenly stopped cavorting and gamboling and other archaic dancing words, like somebody had pulled the plug on their twisted little pachinko machine.
They all moved at once, turning toward the inner circle and because of that, turning right toward Avery and Catherine.
"Turn around!" Avery whispered, scrambling. Heat swept up the back of his neck, a blush that was - hey! fortunately covered by his cloak. He hoped they looked like all the other little Beltane robots, but he couldn't shake the sensation that they were still looking at them.
But it was more likely they were looking at the spindly guy with an entire set of deer antlers on his head who pulled a rainbow glowy thing from a box in the middle of the circle. In spite of its size and dazzling colors, it mostly looked like an acorn. An acorn, raised above Antler's head, which apparently meant everybody should bow down. Because everybody bowed down- some things didn't require a dossier to figure out.
"That's the target?" Catherine murmured, a little, springy crouch in her kneel.
Squinting, Avery said, "Darla said we were after the Seed of Life."
"Acorns are seeds."
"Did I say it wasn't?"
"You said it like you thought it wasn't."
Whatever witty retort would have followed that died on Avery's lips as an antlered shadow fell over him. Slowly, he raised his head to greet the ringmaster, or the merlin or whatever you called the druid who got to wear the talking hat while shaking a disco acorn. Hazarding a guess,
Avery said, "Klaatu barada nikto?"
In response, Antlers roared, "Get them!"
Arching her back, Catherine said, "Get them, highly original," and sprang. A green and black flash, she snatched the disco acorn. It strobed in her arms, turning everything to rainbow slow-mo. Flipping over the antlers, she landed lightly on her feet. A look to the left, a flash to the right, and she took off running.
As far as Avery was concerned, this was the best part. All the druids surged to chase Catherine, and as soon as they were bunched up, Avery squared his shoulders and took off. Threading between the plinths, he plowed through the mob of furious green velvet. Druids flipped off their feet, scattering like heads flicked off a whole field of dandelions.
That was his job: human goalie. And he was freaking proud of it, because he'd come a long way from accidentally hurting guys on the wrestling mat, to harmlessly mowing down the bad guys with his leet skillz. Of course, he wouldn't have to if Darla would pair him up with Sophie, because Soph had no problem with the flying. She'd cling to him, pluck up the package (that's what she said,) and they'd fly away to someplace awesome like top of the Washington Monument, and just as the moon rose over the Mall they'd...
Snapped out of his high-flying fantasy, Avery managed to put his hands up before the disco acorn got planted in his forehead. Catherine had a hell of an arm, and... crap! She'd thrown it because she was going down in a mass of velvet and antlers. Tucking the acorn under one arm, Avery shot straight up and looped around. Wind burned his face in the best way as he came in low. Picking up speed, he tore through the ring, and then, through sound itself.
He couldn't see the sonic boom- maybe later on replay, but he watched the druids scatter. They melted away to reveal Catherine with claws unsheathed. She whirled around, shearing through velvet, and threatening flesh when it got too close. Suddenly, Antlers popped up behind her, clamping both hands on her shoulders.
Hitting the ground hard, Avery tore through soft earth. Clods of grass and dirt flew up around him. He came to a stop right on top of Catherine.
"Hey," he said, handing her the acorn. Then he reached past her shoulder and flipped Antlers in the nose. When he keeled back, Avery turned a wicked grin on Catherine. "Evacuation protocol."
"No," Catherine said. "No no no, oh f..."
And she didn't quite get out the curse, because Avery looped an arm around her waist and rocketed into the air. As soon as their feet left the ground, Catherine sank her claws into his chest. Well, more like, his cloak and his shirt, but whatev. The point was, she caught hold and refused to let go. Even with the wind whistling past them, Avery could hear her breath, shallow and thin as they parted the skies above the forest.
"I'm not going to drop you," he said.
"You might when I barf," she told his chest.
Laughing, Avery resisted the temptation to corkscrew and spin with her, because okay, dig. Even though he couldn't see how this wasn't the most amazing thing in the whole freaking world, being able to walk away from gravity and have endless miles of mountain and sky to look at, he could tell she didn't. She didn't relax; she didn't let go. In fact, she pulled a little harder and soon keyhole-shaped gouges appeared in the fabric.
"Second floor, large appliances, garden weasels, Sham-Wows," he told her softly.
Dropping smoothly, they sank into the canopy of trees below. Miles from the bonfire, the druids safely miles behind them, Avery scoped out a particularly big oak and sat Catherine in the tallest branches. Because hey, she could climb. The heights were never the problem with her; it was all about control. Or so Darla had once claimed- she also claimed that Watson could make scrambled eggs by himself, so he had to consider the source.
Catherine, pale and drawn, exhaled heavily and clutched the branch so fondly Avery thought they might have a moment.
"You good?" he asked. He leaned a little closer, his brows raised expectantly.
Narrowing her eyes, Catherine said, "Don't even think it, hotshot."
"Like I would," Avery replied. Blustering, he pointed toward the sky. "I'll follow fromrprprph," where mrprprph would have been a word if Catherine hadn't kissed him. It was a brief, sharpish caress, and surprisingly hot for somebody whose lips had been numb with terror like, two minutes ago.
When she pulled back, she hesitated, like she might say something. And he maybe even kinda wanted her to, sort of?
Instead, she bit his lip, then tore down the tree with record swiftness. She was easy to spot- she was the shadow with the disco acorn racing into the distance. Avery counted to four to let her get a head start. Four was enough and as he punched through the open air again, he wondered if this would be the part where Darla's video would fade to black.