The arcade was dimly lit, aside from the game screens. Brightly colored characters squared off against old Golden Age heroes in blurry 16-bit glory. Neon vehicles whipped around tracks, sending bass rumbling through fake car seats. The place was a din of bleeps and bloops. Fingers on buttons and quarters in slots, and the faint smell of pizza in the air.
In the back corner of the room was a particularly old machine. It attracted few players, and the one regular player it had was so good at the game by now that she rarely spent more than a dollar on it. It didn't make a lot of money for the owner, but he kept it around anyway.
That machine was active, and skilled hands were guiding its hero, a tiny, nearly unrecognizable Striped Eagle, through a series of platforming hellscapes.
"You could just download the rom, you know."
The voice came from a young man dressed in rags. One hand was stuck in the pocket of his ragged jeans and the other was offering a crumb to the rat on his shoulder. Having finished that task, he wiped his fingertips on his thrice stained vest and slipped them into his free pocket.
Misty didn't look away from the game, and her black nailed fingertips kept their rhythm as Striped Eagle moved toward her final confrontation.
"Please. The home release was toned down. No need to drain quarters from a console."
Her voice was only mildly muffled--her nose and mouth were concealed by a respirator--but her eyes were sharp and alert. Striped Eagle seemed trapped in a loop, dodging the same attack and retaliating again and again and again.
"How'd you get him stuck like that?"
She would have rolled her eyes if she weren't busy. "Just have to know how the enemy thinks. From there,"
A massive explosion filled the scene, followed by a still image of a victorious Striped Eagle. Misty finally took her eyes off the screen, turning to look at the Verminister.
"You exploit the pattern."
She leaned back against the machine. She was almost as tall as he was, but where he was bony she was soft. They both tended to slump. She wore a black hoodie with a similarly black t-shirt and a worn denim vest with studs on the shoulder. Her wrists were circled by bracelets with short, rounded spikes. Her hair was blonde, but black at the roots, and was cut off at jaw level.
The Verminister gave a sarcastic clap. "Oh, very wise. You're a real badass."
Her mouth was concealed, but her smile was visible in her eyes.
"Sure am," she said.
A faint puff of mist escaped the filter of her mask when she spoke. Neither of them noticed. When she was around people like the Verminister, she felt a little less freaky and a little more normal. Maybe they were just accustomed to each other's strangeness.
She hefted her bag, which was nearly as old as the arcade machine behind her. It was a faded and worn messenger bag adorned with a handful of pins, mostly anarchy symbols and trans pride flags.
"So, what's the gig? You never come here to hang out."
"It's not me! People don't like rats near their food, even though statistically-"
She was holding the door open, letting a brisk winter wind into the arcade and drawing some irate whispers.
He followed her outside, and the cold made their breath visible. Misty's especially, and it lingered in the air longer than his, leaving trails of bone white in the air.
"Well," he started, squirming as the rat on his shoulder became the rat in his shirt, "it's New Year's."
She blinked. "Oh. Right, yeah."
She'd forgotten without her brother around to celebrate with. She had sent him a card, priority mail straight to his cell in the prison designed for people like them, but she doubted it would ever get to him. FALCON facilities weren't exactly renowned for holiday cheer.
"We're having a little shindig. Even got a hold of some champagne. Thought maybe you'd like to drop by. I know your plans aren't as concrete as ours this year, so..."
She kicked at the ice on the edge of the sidewalk, sending tiny fragments skittering over the street.
"If you don't want to, that's cool."
She sighed. "No, yeah, sounds cool."
Bill grinned, and his rat poked its head out of the front of his shirt collar.
"Maybe some socializing will cheer me up," she said.
She followed him as he led her down the street. It was a dead chill that night, devoid of wind. A chill that sank into the bones. Her fist clenched, nails digging into the fabric of her fingerless gloves.
"I tried to find you," she said three blocks later.
It was less crowded in this part of the city than usual, with most people congregating in nicer areas to celebrate the new year. He turned his head toward her as they walked.
"On Christmas. I went to the station, but I...couldn't get inside."
The Verminister nodded. "I know. I appreciate it. We all do."
"If I ever see that bas-"
She was cut off at the sound of hover jets in the distance. They both ducked to the side, down an alleyway. A moment later, a figure wearing Striped Eagle's symbol flew down the street, checking left and right for anyone out causing trouble. As she passed, they heard one side if a phone call.
"...no, Puck, I wouldn't. No. No! I'm busy. Please give Sohcahtoa his phone back now..."
She flew two more blocks and then turned, flying off toward some other patrol route.
"There goes your girlfriend," The Verminister whispered. She responded with an elbow to his ribs.
It was only a few more blocks till at last they came to their destination. Bill gave the manhole cover a quick two stomps before lifting it, as was the signal.
The sewers under Protean City were strange and grotesque, much like the people who called it home. She knew these people, but not particularly well aside from Casey. If the pair's musical aspirations held any water, someday everyone one know their names. But for now the sewer was home to these rejected miscreants.
They made the best of it, but the winter chill was unkind to the place. The water was full of frozen chunks, and despite being well below zero the place still reeked. But tonight there was a new smell in the air: dinner. Somebody had stolen a whole chicken and Burning Man had done what Burning Man does. It was an interesting celebration, to be sure.
The champagne followed, and they gathered around a small TV to watch midnight come. It was a louder celebration than she was used to, with plenty of laughing and joking and teasing, but it wasn't altogether unfamiliar. Family just looked a little different sometimes.
She rang in the new year with a glass of champagne in one hand and Casey's shoulder in the other as they all began a lively chorus of a Mountain Goats song.
And it felt, for a few hours, like home.