This is how the phone call went:
Aster: Hi, can you put Steve on the phone?
Gulp ‘n’ Go Employee: Steve? We don’t have a Steve.
Aster: Yes, you do. He’s out in the parking lot right now. He’s always out in the parking lot.
Gulp ‘n’ Go Employee: Those guys? Why the hell do you want to talk to those guys? I don’t think my manager would like it.
Aster: I don’t give a fuck about your manager, and I’m betting you don’t either. Just go get Steve. Tell him Aster’s on the phone.
Gulp ‘n’ Go Employee: *annoyed grumble* Hold on.
Forty-seconds of silence.
Steve: Well, hello, my delicious crumpet. I knew you couldn’t stay away.
Aster: Not now with that, Steve. Our investigation has taken a turn and we need help. Do you know who Andromeda is?
Steve: Of course I know who Andromeda is. Everyone knows who Andromeda is.
Steve: Don’t worry, love bug, I’ll fill you in. When it comes to redwave magic in Pacific City, she is the witch in charge. No one does anything around here without her say so. Even Stevie and me.
Aster: Yeah, well, that redwave magic you guys were feeling? Turns out it’s rogue.
Steve: Oh, shi-hih-hit. Oh, she is going to go ballistic, she is going to lose it, oh my God, this is going to be hilarious, you have to tell me what she says when you tell her.
Aster: Focus, Steve. Where do I find her?
Steve: Hotel Idaho, as always. And you know how to find me, right, baby? Just purse your lips and-
Aster slammed the payphone down while making a face and turned to Peggy.
“Oh, good. That’s not far. We could walk, be there in…twenty minutes, you think?”
Aster gave her a look, stepping away from the payphone. After a couple of seconds the lines across their forehead smoothed out, and they gave Peggy a slow nod.
“Okay. It seems a little early, I’m not going to lie, but if you think we can go after her, I’m ready.”
Peggy snorted in laughter, and started to walk north up the street when she realized Aster wasn’t following her.
“What’s so funny?”
“Your joke. That was a joke, right?” Peggy turned to face Aster and froze. “It wasn’t a joke? It wasn’t a joke. Jesus Christ, Aster.”
Aster held out their hands, almost hitting someone walking by. Suddenly aware of the people on the sidewalk around them, Aster closed the distance between them and Peggy, meeting her between a trash can and a bus stop bench.
“This Andromeda person is a witch. Witches are redwave magic. And as far as I can tell, redwave magic is always evil. Are you telling me you don’t want to bring someone like this down? We could save the whole city!”
Peggy looked around. It was early evening and the sky to the west was just starting to be splashed with beautiful pinks and oranges. People went about their business around them. Friends idling by. Lovers holding hands. Shops were just putting their front lights on. Restaurants were welcoming in the hungry. A few scooters went by, honking. She turned back to Aster and shrugged.
“Everything seems good to me.”
Aster threw up their hands. “You know you can’t see this stuff on the surface.”
Sudden emotion bubbled up in Peggy. She was pretty sure it was anger. “You know what? I don’t know. I’ve told you repeatedly I’m not cut out for this. I don’t know how to be a hero, and I can’t help people. You’ve just dragged me along to one place after another even as I tell you I don’t know what I’m doing. You want to go bring down an evil witch? Do it by yourself.”
She stalked off down the sidewalk, surprised at how the world had gotten blurry.
“You know what, Peg? You kept telling me you weren’t cut out for this, and I didn’t believe it. Not until right now.”
Peggy snorted, turning to make sure it carried over her shoulder. “Oh, yeah? What finally clued you in?”
“This! We have one – one – disagreement about what to do next and you shut down and try to leave instead of talking to me!”
Stopping short, she whipped around. She’d made it to the corner, anyway, and the Do Not Walk sign was on. Aster had been following her, and it only took a couple of seconds for them to catch up.
“I have no idea why your self-esteem seems to be huddled at the bottom of the barrel. I never would have made it this far without you. Okay, maybe I would have, but not so fast. You know about some of this stuff, way more than I do. And you can kick over your head.”
Despite herself, Peggy laughed. She wiped at her eye, trying to make it seem like she was getting rid of an eyelash. The emotion Peggy had decided was anger was fading, and it was only as it was going that Peggy realized it was shame.
“How about, instead of walking away, you talk to me? Pretend like I only discovered any of this was real a month ago, and tell me why we shouldn’t target Andromeda?”
Peggy took a breath that was far shakier than she would have liked it. “You mean besides the fact that you’re talking about pitting a quarter-god and a human against a witch running a whole city?”
“Call that reason number one.”
“Well…I may not have heard of Andromeda before, but I’ve seen the same thing in other cities. If she’s really in charge of all the redwave magic, then she’s built into this city. Baked into it. I wouldn’t even know how to go about getting her out, and if we did the power vacuum would create a black hole that would mush the city into spaghetti before we could even celebrate. Call that reason two.”
“And reason three?”
“If we want to help Mario, and Naomi, and Gary, then what we want is Andromeda’s help. I heard Steve over the phone. If she’s going to be that mad, she’s probably the only one who can do anything about this rogue demon and free the others from their contracts.”
Aster mulled all of this over, hand to their chin and foot tapping. Peggy didn’t realize she had begun holding her breath until her vision started tunneling. Finally, Aster nodded.
“Yeah. I didn’t think of any of that. And it kind of sucks, but you’re right.” Aster patted Peggy on the arm. “See? We balance each other out. Without you I’d be running blindly into danger until I died really fast, and without me you’d still be pretending you can’t do anything to help. But together, we’re Aster and Peggy: Pacific City Defenders.”
Peggy wrinkled her nose. “Maybe we can workshop the name.”
It took closer to forty minutes to walk to Hotel Idaho. If a witch queen was going to be anywhere in the city, neither of them were exactly surprised it was here. Hotel Idaho was the classiest place in all of Pacific City. Expensive, glamorous, full of that last century architecture and oozing with gold and crystal. Also peppered with paparazzi. Every celebrity wanted to be seen at the Idaho. As they walked through the gates to the front a dozen cameras swung toward them, a few taking pictures as a precaution. Once they all realized Peggy and Aster were nobodies they went back to watching the front loop, waiting for their prey to exit.
“Maybe we should go around the back,” Aster said, eyeing the vultures.
“I figured you’d want to go in the front. You’re always reading the gossip magazines these pictures end up in.”
Aster shook their head. “Not now. We’ve got a mission, right? There’s no way you-know-who would be around this mess. She must be holed up in one of the private bungalows.”
They took the lead, following a small, unlit path that led them away from the front of the hotel and looped around the back. Peggy frowned as she followed. Every time she thought she understood Aster, she was proven wrong. And she was starting to feel bad about it.
Even the back of the hotel was well kept and gorgeous, standing above them with a certain charming menace. And even back here, among the fountains shaped like children and rose bushes, photographers milled about smoking cigarettes and scanning the faces inside and on the patios. None of them took pictures of Peggy and Aster as they passed, or even glanced at them. Stalking specific celebrities, then, celebrities they already knew were inside. Peggy stopped next to a couple passing a joint back and forth.
“Who you watching?” she asked.
“Celeste Carmichael,” one of them said, not looking away from the big windows that looked into the lobby.
“Supposedly here with Bradley Brown,” the other said, passing the joint back.
Peggy’s eyebrows raised. “Oh, no shit? I liked that movie they were in.”
“Peggy,” Aster hissed. They were already across the stone patio, moving into the darkness. Without waiting for her they turned and went down another dark path.
“Shit,” Peggy muttered to herself. She almost thought to call back and tell them who the photographers were waiting for. She was sure Aster liked both of them, too, and would kill for a look. But Aster was, once again, more invested than Peggy thought. It was turning out to be harder to get a read on Aster than Peggy had once thought, but she found herself more committed than ever to-
All the thoughts in her brain scattered across the grass like leaves as something heavy and rough caught her across the face, from eye to mouth. Peggy stumbled back, working to regain her balance and stay up. Blood was running down her face and she could taste it between her teeth. Aster, is Aster okay, where’s Aster, what-
Peggy felt something rushing at her and she sidestepped fast, putting a foot out. Whoever it was went down with an oof. But they were back up in a heartbeat, moving as fast as Peggy could. Peggy pushed the hair that had come loose from her braid out of her face and-
And found herself face to face with Aster.
They weren’t holding themselves right, all of the casualness and ease of motion gone and replaced with an awkward stiffness. Oh, and their eyes were glowing red.
“You’re not Aster,” Peggy said.
“You’re not human,” Not-Aster said. Their voice was gravel.
“Pot and fucking kettle. You must be that demon we’re chasing.”
Not-Aster stood up straight and bowed at the waist. “In the flesh, so to speak. I’ve had this stew cooking for months, now, and I’m not going to let a couple of wannabe detectives knock over the pot.”
“You only came up with that metaphor because I just said ‘pot,’” Peggy said.
“What? No, I didn’t. I always use that metaphor.”
“Who fucking cares? You listen to me. You’re going to walk away from this. Go back to the cheap side of town and pretend you don’t know a thing about it. You seem to be good at that.”
Peggy raised an eyebrow. “And my friend?”
“I’ll dump the meat-suit. No harm, no foul. Just as long as you back off.”
Peggy considered it. And then, this time, she really did feel anger. Angry that this low-life demon had been able to make her think of leaving her friend with no guarantee they’d be okay. Angry, because she knew Aster would want her to stay. Angry that she was being pushed to trying something she had told herself she would never try again.
With a sigh, Peggy pulled herself up to full height and squared up. “You haven’t really taken a look around in there, have you? If I just walked away, even if you actually left, Aster would just kill me themselves.”
Not-Aster tutted. “You really want to hurt this body?”
“No. And I’m not going to have to.”
Not-Aster threw themselves at Peggy. No fists up. Not ready to strike. Ready to be struck. To make Peggy hurt her friend. If the demon had bothered to figure out what Peggy was beyond ‘not human’ he might not have tried it.
Peggy put her hands out. Not to strike Aster. As the demon pushed Aster’s body toward her, Peggy put out her hands and placed them on their shoulders.
I hope this works.
She was only a quarter god, so there wasn’t much bluewave magic in her. In fact, exactly a quarter of what a full god would have. It made her a little faster, a little stronger, a little more balanced. It heightened her senses. It potentially made her less afraid than she should have been, although that may have been upbringing. It made her hungry all the time. And sometimes, if she concentrated very hard, she could gather all of the magic that was inside her, and push.
Blue light rolled out of her hands and into Aster. Not-Aster began screaming, trying to pull away, but the bluewave magic wasn’t having it. Aster had become affixed to Peggy, and all Not-Aster could do was howl and flail as the bluewave magic filled Aster, filled them until finally the demon was pushed out in a backward explosion of red light.
Aster collapsed to the ground. Peggy collapsed right next to them.
After a few seconds, Aster coughed. “What the fuck.”
“How did it…how did you…when…I…” Aster cleared their throat as they sat up. “Why does my throat hurt?”
Peggy got up on her elbows and spoke in a low growl, “Because it kept talking like this.”
Aster laughed, and then groaned. “Oh, even that hurts.”
The two of them whipped around, Peggy almost falling over. Standing at the line where the stone-paved path met the grass Peggy and Aster were currently lying in was a man in a suit and a cloak with a high collar. His white blonde hair was slicked back and he was standing like a butler in a movie, hands behind his very straight back.
“Andromeda will see you now.”