After goodbyes were exchanged, items were packed and will was mustered, the five teens began their journey on foot. The terrain was uncertain- hills rolled wildly, structural damage to the midwalk had made it dangerous, and trees had begun to overtake some areas.
"Ugh! Could there be any more trees in this city?" Sam complained, picking leaves from her hair and flicking them away. "It's a wonder anyone can even commute from this side of town, these low branches are atrocious!"
"They are pretty bad..." Natalie admitted.
"Why, if the grass wasn't gen-gineered only to grow so high, we'd all be going through this with machetes!"
Carrie shook her head, hopping over an overgrown root. "There's not enough people to do the work. Dad said that in his day, he'd see three or four people on every block, just waiting to cut away some of the excess foliage and taking long lunch breaks. Now there's barely one per area, and they're overbooked every week."
"Doesn't that pay well??" the bat inquired.
"Incredibly. Dad says they're throwing money at people to sign up- even untrained- but they just can't find the people."
Erwin stared over the lush green landscape pockmarked with tall buildings. As they passed by one, he admired it for being untouched by the destruction that had come across every other place. It rose several stories high from its paved square base, all four corners smoothed and rounded. A third of the way up, a hooded ring apparatus emitted light over the structure in the evening. It was a familiar sight- one of hundreds, and a home to any given one of them. Struggling as they passed through a thick grouping of trees, he snapped out of it. "Everyone's having trouble finding people. They begged Max not to leave when he quit Burger Dictator."
"I shouldn't have! I was blinded by a boy with rough hands," the iguana explained. "Foolish!"
"The shark kid??" Natalie asked. "What was his name-... Svenson? You were a cute couple!" A grin grew on her face.
Max hmphed as the trees began to thin. "No, it was not 'cute'- ours was a glorious manly bromance!"
"A manly bromance where you kissed his cheek at 2nd period every day?" giggled Sam.
"My mistake was obvious- our combined manliness raised the bar so high that everyone thought it was cute instead. Next time, I'll be seduced by a girl to show the proper levels of man-chis-mo!" He flexed his somewhat undeveloped arms. "But not like Carrie."
"What?" snapped the cat. "What's that supposed to mean??"
"I need someone soft," he explained. "Girly. Daaainty. Like a snowflake!" He wiggled his fingers as if dispersing magic dust.
"And what am I??"
"You..." the iguana chose his words specifically, if not carefully. "... Are tough. Rugged. Like a pretty pink tank that scarfs cake."
Carrie gave Max the evil eye, then transferred it to Natalie, who sputtered with laughter.
"What?? You can't tell me that mental picture's not hilarious!"
The cat popped her neck and hmphed. "Anyway, speaking of tanks, I think I figured my powers out. The less I move and the more I tense up, the tougher I am."
Epiphany hit Erwin's face. "That's why you didn't want us to move you!"
"Right!" She smiled and nodded. "As long as I was still, it didn't even hurt."
The ferret added, "And you're tough anyway! It's really cool."
"Well, if you hadn't looked like you saw a ghost before Cedric attacked, I might not've known to move in time." Carrie regarded him seriously. "I know I'm constantly making fun of you for being so jumpy, but... you always know when stuff's about to go down."
Erwin slowly smiled as they reached a forested building they had to go around. "I always felt like that was kind of special."
"And Max!" Natalie added enthusiastically. "You're the best climber in the school, maybe the dome. You always have been. With that and your crazy grab tongue... those are pretty much superpowers right there!"
He gasped and beamed with pride. "Yes! And my pants of flaming justice!"
She laughed softly. "Uh, okay?" the wolf acceded.
"And you know if anyone gets hurt, I'll be there to make it better!" Sam joined in, flouncing her hair. "This is so exciting! Maybe I should read some of those comic things after all."
Carrie smirked and raised a fist. "Everyone brings something to the group."
"Well. Except one of us." Natalie shrugged, her smile bittersweet. An awkward silence followed.
"... What, you mean yourself??" Carrie's brows knit.
"That's so not true!" protested Max. "If I'm the best climber, you're the second best!"
Sam nodded sagely. "You're good at every single sport you sign up for at school! And band. And choir."
"Heh," Nat rubbed the back of her head. "I appreciate that, guys, but it doesn't really help with our situat-"
"-And you're the leader."
Natalie blinked, turning toward Erwin. "What??"
The ferret shrunk back. "Well, it's true."
"Duh, you're the leader of the group, Natalie." Carrie rolled her eyes.
"I'm not the leader!" The wolf girl shook her head, confusion abound on her face. "Who decided that??"
Erwin shrugged, as if she were asking if water really was wet."Um. You did. You're always the one bringing everyone together. For hanging out, parties, school projects... and... well, here you did it again."
"But I was just-"
"In danger, mortal danger," Sam butted in, "And the first thing you did was to gather up Carrie and find the rest of us, cleverly beating the odds." She smiled just a tad smugly. "I'm afraid it's just not the same without you- you're the captain of this ship."
Erwin nodded evenly. "I felt better when you came."
"Oh, me, too, darling!"
"Me, three! Plus three bonus to friend-itude checks!"
"Heck," Carrie admitted, folding her arms. "Even I felt a few up-ticks when you got the five of us together again."
The wolf girl felt her ears flush. "Geez."
"Yeah, well!" The cat smirked. "Don't get a big head about it. Oh, hey, look ahead!"
The kids had finally reached the end of the forested overgrowth, emerging on the other side to severely damaged roads.
"Heh. Alright, gang." Natalie stood tall, pointing toward the huge tree that was the nature reserve. "Let's go fix our weather system and figure out how to take back our city!"
"Ooh, look at you, all charismatic," Carrie teased.
Nat pointed at her girlfriend. "As Captain, I order you not to mock me. And surrender your boobs immediately for plundering."
"Oh, but don't you two get enough of that sneaking around the school?"
The group turned around to face Culby Hendrix, their history and science teacher. The Reubenesque skunk woman was in rough shape- scrapes and bruises bore themselves across her body, her clothing torn, her look one of exhaustion. She still wore a weary smile.
"Ms. Hendrix!" Natalie exclaimed. "Oh my gosh, are you okay??"
The older woman chuckled. "I've been better, dear. Did you ever triumph over Cedric?"
The wolf girl didn't even understand the question at first. "... Oh! Oh... I... kind of, I guess. Not really, but it hardly matters now."
"Oh, Natalie..." Her smile curled upward in a strange, disturbing way. "Every battle is important. History shows us that."
"... Huh? I... I guess..."
Sam smiled kindly, walking over and extending a hand. "Ms. Hendrix, you're hurt. Let me help you, I can make you feel better. I have- anh!"
The skunk woman grabbed Sam's wrist, staring down at her with a growing grin. "Help me? Yes. Yes you can."
"Nnh! Ms. Hendrix!" The confused bat girl looked up, tears jerking from her eyes as she struggled against her. "Y-You're hurting me! Stop!"
A look overcame the school teacher's face. A terrible, dark look that promised no mercy, no quarter... a small, sadistic smile that gleamed with awful potential. "Oh, child... the pain has only begun."
Sam trembled with panic as tears filled her eyes. "Oh god, are you going to kill me??"
"Oh, no," she replied smoothly in a way that filled Natalie's gut with a feeling of... wrong. "You won't get away that easily."
"You get away from her!" Carrie immediately sprung into action, barreling shoulder-first into Ms. Hendrix with all the force she could muster. Elementary years of playing Tackle Toss bolstered her offensive, catching the skunk by surprise and knocking her over as they fell in a heap together.
"Carrie!" Erwin shouted in a panic, searching for the right words. "Get hard!"
Get hard she did, and it was a good thing- a moment after the cat tensed her entire body, a royal blue blade of some sort erupted from Ms. Hendrix's arm, slicing through the air as she roared in feral anger. Carrie was thrown off of the midwalk and into a tree, which made a loud cracking sound. The skunk stood up, eyes chasing Sam, who had chosen to run back to her friends. She popped her neck- something she chastised her students for doing not a day earlier- and became covered in goo of the same blue as the blade. Every inch of her body crawled with its murky hue, obscuring her face until two yellow eye slits appeared.
Natalie's mind was a hellish cacophony of alarms. She could feel in her bones that whatever this thing Ms Hendrix had become was incredibly dangerous. "Watch out, everybody!" Panicked memories flooded in, but she pushed them aside and assumed a fighting stance, stepping closer to protect her friends. "Who are you?!" She demanded with a sense of deja vu. "What do you want??"
The eyes focused on her. "Why, everything, my dear girl." Its arms pulsated. "E v e r y t h i n g."
Natalie shook. No. She wouldn't be deterred. The wolf girl raised a beckoning hand, nodding. "Then come and get it!"
Using the distraction, Carrie jumped on the back of the skunk-shaped monster, claws bared as she pulled at its head. It reacted too quickly, flexing its entire body in a wholly unnatural way that left Carrie landing on her feet, stumbling. It then rotated a full circle on its torso, backhanding her across the face and sending her to the ground.
The thing seemed to chuckle bodily as it watched the cat hit the pavement. "Hn. Head's still attached," its resounding yet cold voice echoed in a strange liquid way. "Impressive."
Natalie's flesh crawled. She didn't remember bolting forward at full tilt, fists clenched... but nothing was going to stop her. She leapt at the last moment, her leg straightening out into a dragon kick- something she had never dared use against another living person.
She slammed into the fluid creature foot-first. Its solidity was far less than she'd imagined, and at the same time, far more. Her sneaker pressed into her former teacher's chest a disturbing twelve inches- she had to have been pushing out the other side- and stayed that way for a moment that seemed to last an eternity before feeling herself being forcefully pushed out of the indentation. Liquid Hendrix grabbed her ankle, letting her drop to the ground, shoulder-first. "Your mightiest warriors." It looked down at her. "Children."
Natalie felt herself whipped up by the leg, then snapped back down suddenly- it was all she could do to raise her arms up defensively before slamming into the ground. The grass was hardly a cushion. "NNGH!"
"Lay off my girlfriend, jelly-ass!" Carrie had risen from her own impact and spun about to swing a haymaker straight into the back of the creature's head. Stumbling forward and glancing aside to face the girl, the former Ms. Hendrix opened herself up for an uppercut swung up from Carrie's frayed sneakers to the top of her arm reach. Finally, the furious feline grabbed her amorphous aggressor's shoulders and slammed her head into the face of her opponent.
Natalie's arms and chest ached with blunt pain. One of her hips screamed in agony, momentarily making her wonder if she could walk on it. Despite her body's protests, she rose to her feet in time to see Carrie headbutting their once-benevolent school teacher.
"Carrie!" Erwin gasped. "Ah... buh! Suffocating!"
"... What??" Confused, the cat took a punch to the face, her head pitching to the right. She wouldn't be caught unready for that again! When the next punch came, she set her jaw and steeled herself.
Except it wasn't a punch. The dark blue hand was open when it met her mouth, and as soon as it made impact, its cold fingers fixed themselves to her face. The palm covered her mouth and nose with a latex-like solidity, cutting off her breathing. To make matters worse, its fingers had elongated, and the creature was now lifting Carrie up off the ground by her head.
Natalie, in a mix of fear and anger, took two steps and soccer-ball kicked the thing in its portly rear end, lifting it off the ground for a moment. While satisfying, this only caused it to spin around and affix its other hand to the wolf girl's chest. "Ungh! Gah!" Her legs kicked as she struggled, trying to resist being lifted up into the air like a toy. Her anger grew when she saw Carrie, hands locked around their opponent's wrist, eyes desperate as she tried to remove the thing from her face. "Lemme... go!" the wolf demanded.
It shot her a furious yet calm look. "Fine."
Nat felt herself being drawn back, then flung with force she couldn't imagine. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a large tree heading right for her. A loud cracking sound filled her ears. Then... silence.
A haze of consciousness rose to the surface like oil from the murky ocean.
Her head hurt.
Natalie opened an eye. The light was too harsh, forcing her to squeeze them shut again, lest a headache creep in. "Nngh."
The sensation of a stream of liquid against her jolted her awake. Her watery eyes opened to recognize that the toilet she sat on had attempted to clean her with its pressured jets of warm water. Shutting her eyes once more, Natalie sighed and pulled her wet shorts off, waiting for the cycle to finish. She leaned her head against the stall as warm gusts of air dried her off.
Shorts in hand and bottomless save for the sticker, the wolf girl opened the stall, stood up and tried to remember how she got here. 'Here,' by all visual indication, was the bathroom of the school. It was undestroyed, and in fact, unmolested by the recent attack. Yet, the lights were dim, and most bizarrely, there were no doors out to the hallway. She puzzled on this for a moment before deciding to make use of the drying pad. Placing her shorts on the red heating element, she turned around and half-leaned, half-sat on the counter.
Natalie's eyes went wide as she looked for the source of the sound. Sweeping from side to side, she saw nothing. With a small hesitation, she looked at her shadow on the floor. No murderous pink doppelganger. Finally, she turned around and discovered that- in addition to the fact that, yes, her chubby black cheeks were jutting out from under her skull hoodie- there was something wrong with the mirror. Namely, her reflection wasn't mimicking her.
"Hey." The mirror image waved at her in a friendly manner, smiling a bit meekly.
"Wh-... whoa, what?" Natalie shook her head. "Am I dreaming?"
Shaking her head, the reflection replied, "Oh! No. Well... yes. Kind of."
The wolf girl's shoulders slumped. "It's all so clear now," she complained dryly.
"Okay. This place?" The image gestured with its fingers, indicating the room around them. "This isn't real. The place where the doors should be? Goes nowhere." It looked around, hand close to its mouth. "I think it's a manifestation of a place you equate with safety, but I might be talking out of my ass."
"We're inside my mind??" the girl asked, surprised.
It clapped once and pointed to her. "Yes!"
"And... who are you?" she inquired.
"I....." The reflection paused a moment. "That's a hard question to answer."
Natalie put a hand on the back of her neck and leaned either way, popping it. "Because it's weird and metaphysical?"
It made an indecisive face. "Because I don't really... completely know."
The wolf girl rolled her eyes. "Ugh, it's like I'm back in the Bullet. Come on, really? I'm not an idiot."
"No, it's true! I know that I'm a part of you, it's just that..." Thoughts bounced around in its head, then it finally relented. "Okay. I wanna show you something... but don't freak out, okay?"
"I'm not making any promises," Natalie warned. "I've been put through the wringer lately." She tiredly sighed. "At the same time... whatever, it's a dream. Go ahead."
Mirror Nat nodded and closed its eyes. A pitch black substance began encasing its body, light shining reflectively off of it. Natalie watched as her reflected form was slowly covered completely in polished liquid blackness. Two solid pink eyes opened, and a similar mouth shape did the same. "Ahhhh."
The wolf girl jumped back, fists clenched, her pulse racing.
"Wait! I know!" What appeared to be the solid black version of her last nightmare's mystery foe held out a hand. "I know. That... thing attacked you."
"You think I'm stupid?!" She yelled. "A color swap and I'm not gonna know??"
"It wasn't me!" Her strange goo self shook its head. "I swear. I wasn't even aware of... my... self, before that nightmare."
"What, were you asleep or something??" Natalie pounded the counter in frustration. "Nothing makes any sense!"
"Natalie." It sighed. "My memories... they're fragmented. I don't know why, but the fact that I'm talking to you now is really important. I'm a part of you, but that... person. Thing? It wasn't."
The girl just stared at her dark-mattered reflection. She turned around and started pacing back and forth between the counter and stall. "And I'm supposed to trust you?? You look just like the thing that attacked me! Like the monster that ate Ms. Hendrix!" A sudden headache flared, making her wince. "Nngh. Anh... I'm not a monster, so how in the hell are you a part of me??"
"... Wow, Carrie was right, your butt does jiggle when you walk."
"... What??" Natalie stopped, facing away from the mirror.
Her doppelganger's pink smile was curly and inoffensively cute as she made a heart with her hands. "Your cheeks are jiggly. Like a big jell-o heart. It's super cute."
Natalie's brows knit together as she marched toward the counter, blushing, and pulled her shorts off the drying pad. "What does that have to-" As she pulled the spandex up, however, she blinked. "Wait. Carrie said that, like, three years ago."
It nodded. "I was a part of you then. I remember a lot of stuff about Carrie. You... um, we I guess... love her a lot."
Nat blinked slowly. "Okay. What else?"
This seemed to excite her doppelganger. "Okay, okay! Um... Carrie... comics... Cap'n Comet... you love bagels... hate outer space... afraid of thong leotards since 5th grade gymnastics-"
"That's enough." Natalie shook her head. "There's no doubt you've been in my head a while, but why are your memories of me so good, but your memories of you just awful?"
"I don't know, Natalie... when I think about it, those memories seem so far away..." The liquid girl leaned forward. "But you're right about something. You're not a monster, and somebody is taking advantage of that."
She sighed. "Like they took advantage of Ms... Ms. Hendrix!" Nat blinked with realization. "The fight! I have to get back!"
She didn't finish her sentence before the sink in front of her began running water. "Uh?" Immediately, a huge typhoon erupted from the drain, as an impossible sucking force pulled at her from inside the sink. "What the hell?!" She yelled over the vortex, pulling her head back to stop her hair from being sucked down.
"You're regaining consciousness!" Her doppelganger supplied as Nat pushed against the counter. "I'll keep trying to remember things!"
"H-How can I talk to you again?!" She was almost flipped forward, but managed to stand up on the counter.
There was a pause. "I'll figure out something!"
Natalie's sneaker's grip slipped, smacking together as they slid down the sides. She found herself sucked into the sink's bowl, her sneakers squeaking as they were forced painlessly down the pipe. "What the f-" Her legs slipped in like noodles down a drain, squeezing inward cartoonishly. The plumbing-produced maelstrom hit a snag when it tried to swallow Nat's rump, her cheeks bulging and jiggling as they filled the sink, tickling her with embarrassingly loud sounds of flesh being sucked on. She blushed fiercely. "Really?! C'mon!"
As if responding to her criticism, the sink suddenly sucked her down completely, her view of the dim bathroom light shrinking rapidly to a pinhole.
"... -got to keep trying!"
"-can't keep that up forever, she's-"
"... I think I see her eyes moving!"
Natalie's eyes filled with the bright light of the afternoon sun. As they focused, she saw Samantha, lips locked with her, eyes staring into hers. They both blinked for a moment before Sam pulled away and looked excitedly aside. "She's awake!"
The bat's voice rang in Nat's ears. She looked to where Sam was looking, and saw Carrie's face, eyes puffy and moist. "Natalie? S-Sugarbutt?"
"Mmh okay," she slurred. Summoning her strength, she stood up shakily. She'd hit a tree, which had given far less quarter than she had.
"Natalie, be careful! Ohh..." Her bat friend nervously regarded her.
"How long was I out...?"
"Two minutes. We were very worried; you..." Sam struggled with something, glancing at Carrie. "You were in very bad shape."
Carrie could wait no longer, and wrapped her arms around her girlfriend. "Natalie, I thought you were-... don't ever do that to me again, okay?!" She sniffed, her face terrified and furious. "Let me take the hits!"
Natalie smiled softly. "Hey... Boobiecakes. It's okay. We're all right." She hugged her tightly and kissed her forehead, before looking up. "Where are Max and Erwin?"
"Oh, no!" Sam straightened up. "We left them to distract Ms. Hendrix!"
"We tried to hit her with the neurod, but it didn't do anything!"
A surge of adrenaline filled Natalie, and before she knew it, she was turning and running toward the scene.
Max clung to their evil-consumed school teacher, his dextrous lizard limbs turning him as he climbed all over her in chaotic orbits. Erwin's expression was one of furious concentration as he shouted out directions, calling out each and every time their goo-like opponent reached for the scaly prankster. "Up! Down! Left! Right! Hold it- STOP!"
"I'll end your life, you loathsome cur!" The liquid skunk swiped madly at the lizard as he circled her like a hula hoop, over her shoulder like a bandolier, crawled between her legs and up her back.
"You will never catch me!"
"My style is invincible!"
"You can never defeat-"
The liquid lady smiled malevolently as Max fell for her ruse. Grabbing his tail, she swung him above her head and tossed him into a tree.
"My styyyle- gwaugh!"
"As for you, conniving tactician..." She snaked over to Erwin and grabbed him by his arm, turning around and sending him toward the ground with terrible velocity.
"ERWIN!" At full sprint, Carrie shoved her foot out and slid across the grass. The cat's heel shoved into Ms. Hendrix's leg, and her ferret friend slammed down on top of her- which was what she wanted. Instead of the ground, Erwin's body hit her own- which she had carefully tensed only the back of to brace them both. His hips fell on her legs, his chest on her middle, his face in her breasts.
The shaky ferret looked up at her. Just for that moment, Carrie had the most tender caring eyes he'd ever seen. "You... s-saved my life..."
"Now see how easily I take it!"
A blue foot raised and came down, but the cat rolled with Erwin, barely missing them. Carrie braced herself on her hands and knees, the next blow landing on her back. She absorbed the blow, but the liquid skunk was unrelenting- her foot came down on Carrie over and over again, the sheer power not letting her tense properly. Erwin found the body his friend had protectively thrown over him being threateningly oscillated toward him, and though he wondered idly for a moment how many times he'd dreamt of this scenario minus the angry liquid teacher, he knew he had to get out from under the impending death Carrie's chassis represented.
"Erwin! Ngh, get- agh!- away!" the cat warned.
As soon as he moved, blinding pain shot up his arm and filled his face with heat, disabling him. "Ack-knhgghk! I-... I c-can't! I can't move my arm!"
Natalie had been reluctant to act, trying to figure out a plan- but while she dithered, her friends were running out of time. Damn it, she just had no -information- on these things! The wolf girl tried to remember the words of her doppelganger. "Someone is taking advantage of my not being a monster." She paused. "A monster." Her eyes locked onto Ms. Hendrix and wondered... what if the rubbery skin could be removed, just like it appeared on her? "Hey, ugly!" she called. "Why don't you try and fight me without all that crap on you?"
The goo woman stopped what she was doing momentarily and snaked over to Natalie. The girl spun a reverse roundhouse, but Hendrix had been waiting, and ducked under it. Nat found herself being held up by the neck. "Oh, little girl, this is my skin. Your teacher is gone, there's nothing left but me." It held her closer and licked her cheek with its chillingly soulless tongue. "Did you have a crush on her? Want to see her one more time?"
The wolf girl swallowed hard, shuddering. "Y-Yes... please."
The thing laughed richly, its dark, fluid flesh peeling off of Ms. Hendrix's face. The skunk smiled patronizingly. "How cute."
Natalie grit her teeth and screamed, "MAX! Neurod!"
Their former teacher blinked in surprise as a tongue darted out of a tree, its sticky end wrapped around a neurod, which smacked against the back of her head.
... And collapsed her into a pile of limbs with a ~thud~, the fluid melting off of her. "Angh! You filthy mongrels!"
Natalie's PET played a musical tone, and her mother's voice emerged from it. "Natalie? Have you reached the climate center yet??"
"... We had a delay," she answered finally.
"Are you okay??"
She looked around at her friends, all gathered around Erwin. "Mostly. I'll talk to you later, okay Mom?" Her eyes drifted back to Ms. Hendrix, who just glared furiously at her. "... We really have to go."
"Okay, but be careful."
Nat ran over to her friends, examining Erwin, who continued to lie on the ground despite the fact that Carrie was no longer over him. "What's wrong? What happened?"
"I believe he's broken his arm," Sam reported with concern.
"Mmfh," Natalie winced. "Damn. I'm sorry, Erwin, I should've protected you."
The ferret was obviously in blinding amounts of pain. Nevertheless, he gave as much of a smile as he could. "I t-take apologies in the f-form of... j-jumping jacks..."
She laughed a little. "Take it easy." Her gaze turned to Sam. "Can you fix it?"
Samantha pursed her lips. "I can heal him, that's true. But... if the bone sets incorrectly... there'll be big problems. We need to move him to a more secure area."
"Isn't that dangerous??" Carrie inquired.
"Yes," she confirmed grimly. "We can't move his arm too much or we risk the bone breaking surface, or making him bleed internally."
"Ngh..." Erwin shook. "I-Isn't there anything for the pain??"
Sam paused for a moment. She leaned in, took Erwin's head in her hand, and kissed his cheek gently.
"..... Anh... hunh... ahhhhh..." The ferret relaxed greatly.
The bat tilted her head. "You're still injured, but I think I dulled the pain."
Natalie looked for a moment as Max climbed out of the tree he'd been in. Suddenly, an idea hit her. She began taking off her hoodie. "Max! Get us two of the biggest branches you can! ... And gimme your pants!"
Not one to question a strange request, the upside-down iguana saluted her. "Aye aye, Captain!" He proceeded to kick off his pants and scurry back up the tree.
"Natalie?" Carrie inquired.
"I've got a plan." She tossed off her hoodie. "You were in cub scouts, right??"
"You can tie our clothes to a couple of big branches-" she was interrupted by Max landing on the ground next to a branch he'd jumped on, "-And we can make a stretcher. Then we can carry Erwin on it and get to the Subway Station."
The group managed to craft the makeshift stretcher with their combined clothing. Sweating and shirtless, Carrie wiped her forehead. "... Damn."
"What is it, o brutish one?" Max inquired.
"I need something for his head." She looked up. "Something taut but stretchy."
The group looked at Natalie.
"... What?? I don't-... crap." She sighed and pulled her shorts down, struggling to get them over her sneakers for a moment. "Twice in one day..."
Erwin, who'd had to give up his own pants for the plan, smiled. "I should break my arm more often."
Natalie smirked and stuck her tongue out at him. "Here."
With the addition of the shorts looped through the head of the stretcher, they all worked together to get the ferret on it. "Y'know," Carrie remarked, "Hendrix sure has been qui-"
They looked back. The skunk was gone.
Natalie shook her head, looking around anxiously. "... Let's get the hell out of here."
"Alright, pick him up, easy, easy... there." Sam supervised Nat and Carrie as they lifted Erwin up carefully. "Now, try to walk evenly, we don't want to jostle him."
"This is cake, he's a lightweight," Carrie certified.
Soon enough, they were walking. Nat carried from the front while Carrie lifted from the back. Max scouted ahead to find the shortest route to the subway around dilapidated buildings by climbing their walls. Sam monitored Erwin to manage the pain and ensure his condition didn't worsen.
The ferret looked around at the city as they moved. The 'pavement' they moved on- earth that had been glassed into a smooth, flat surface- was cracked and chunky, making the terrain none the more pleasant. Trees reached as high in the air as buildings, both sharing space... and both sharing in the destruction that had befallen them. Colossal multicolored arches of paired lights reached far into the air- tracks for the trans that would normally be flying about. White for universal transport, purple for personal, red for freight, green for mass trans... and yellow for school. As his eyes wandered, he found himself focusing on a huge white arc across the sky- The Ring, a space station that encircled the planet. It was the pride of every dome on Earth, the fruit of their combined efforts. He idly wondered if the men and women in space were any safer than they were planetside... and when help would come.
Natalie heard a sigh from behind her as she walked about in her undershirt and sticker. The girl frowned, concerned. Guilt ate at her gut. Erwin was injured, Sam was quietly terrified, Max was putting the goofy front on extra-hard to hide his own fear, and even Carrie was beginning to tire. She'd brought her friends into this, and they were suffering greatly for it. She thought for a moment.
"Erwin, are you staring at my butt??" The wolf girl accused in a casual tone.
The ferret blinked, confused, and instinctively spread his feet, glancing downward. Natalie's bare buns swung and pumped thickly, jiggling with each sneaker-softened step and shaking off perspiration as they did. "No! Not at-... Well. Maybe a little."
Carrie felt a smile creeping up. "Well, finally something took his attention off my boobs for a second!"
Glancing up, Erwin saw Carrie's amused face from behind her chest and breasts, their rounded, sweat-slicked shapes wobbling side to side as she walked. A boyish grin overcame him. "It's not my fault you took your clothes off!"
"Oh, listen to that!" Carrie scoffed. "He's blaming us, now!"
Natalie gasped theatrically. "Unbelievable! I mean, we're only helping Sam heal him."
"Right! Nurses, really!"
"Precisely. Two hot, sweaty, half-naked nurses trying to get him the medical help he desperately needs."
"Oh. My. Gosh. Natalie, look at his sticker. It's so big!"
"It's just... out there!"
"I think he likes big butts!" Nat accused.
"He can't lie- he's bulging!"
"In public?? Erwin!" Natalie shook her head and tsked as the boy blushed. "My goodness."
Sam giggled and joined in. "It shouldn't surprise us!" She poked his nose lightly. "I'll bet this is just like one of his perverted dreams."
"Dreams?" Natalie milked the mock shock. "About his friends?"
"All the time!" Carrie added. "What a perv!"
"No sense of shame!"
"No shame at all."
Natalie smiled as she heard Erwin laugh despite his flush face. She liked teasing him, and strangely enough, given that it was inside their circle, he liked it, too. That was the rule- you got teased for your flaws, but never enough to be hurtful. It strengthened the group, and made insecurities less crippling. Erwin's overactive hormones and boundary-disrespecting fantasies had nearly stopped him from socializing out of sheer terror of being found out. Once they'd dragged it out of him, however, the good-natured jibes made it the triviality to everyone that it truly was.
It was just the thing to take their minds off of the dark tunnel they were stepping into.