Archer improves on Kimberly's designs. It turns out having deadly arrays on one's hands is enough to make a man a bit crazy.
Archer grits his teeth against the pain, willing his hands not to twitch as the tattooist's needle strikes a nerve. This will be worth it, he reminds himself, worth every jolt of pain, every irritation of healing them. He's wanted this power since the first time he heard of it, and now Kimberly's given him enough practice and he's read enough theory that he's certain, absolutely certain, that he can make this work.
His arrays are different from Kimberly's -- more detailed, more specific. He'd argue that he's improved on the original design, though he has no doubt that Kimberly would -- will disagree. The specificity makes it slightly harder for him to use them, since he has limited himself by naming his catalytic elements on the pads and palms of each hand -- but they're common enough elements, and naming them also gives the arrays more power, gives him more fine control over the chemical transmutations he can effect.
Kimberly's arrays are more like gestures toward the intended result, a kind of rough outline, where Archer's form a clear plan. There's always an element of unpredictability when Kimberly sets off an explosion, a randomness to the result that Archer could never settle for himself.
His own arrays will be stable, predictable, deadly every time. They will burn and dissolve and detonate anything, everything, that comes between him and his goals.
The tattooist puts down his needle and reaches for the roll of gauze. "I hope you have somebody to take care of things for you, for a while," he says as he wraps Archer's left hand. A few drops of blood, rich iron-oxide red, have already seeped through the bandages on the right. "You're not going to want to do anything with these for a good week, at least."
Archer smiles pleasantly. "Oh, I'll manage," he says, withdrawing his hand from the man's grip. This will be the worst part. But he can't afford to be crippled for that long.
He presses his hands together, gently, breathing slow and deep the way Kimberly taught him. The center of his power is in the life-force that he can feel running down his spine. Energy to animate him; energy to bend to his will. He pushes some of that power into the array on his right hand.
White fire flares to life between Archer's palms, devouring the bandages, scraps of burning cloth fluttering down onto the table as the tattooist recoils in panic. It hurts, hotter than any burn he's ever felt, pain so intense that it brings a wave of nausea in its wake -- but it's over fast, and Archer swallows hard against the urge to vomit, and in the fire's wake, his wounds have been seared closed. They'll scar, now, raised texture in addition to the black ink, but he doesn't care. His work has just passed its first test.
"Are you /crazy/?" the tattooist asks, gesturing at the little bits of flaming gauze on the table. "Get away from there." He's holding a bucket in the other hand.
"That's not water, I hope," Archer says, advancing on him. "Because that would make the fire so much worse."
"You crazy fucking bastard," the tattooist says, backing up nervously. "Holy Mother, no wonder you couldn't find anyone to work on you, you're another goddamn Crimson Alchemist."
Archer laughs. No wonder Kimberly's never been broken, even in prison, even as a fugitive. This is /glorious/. "I like to think I've improved on his methods," he says. "But he was an excellent teacher."
The man drops his bucket of water and tries to bolt for the door, tries to push past Archer and escape. Archer lashes out and oh god the /pain/, black spots swimming in front of his eyes as he closes his left hand around one meaty forearm, but he can't let go, can't fail this test. He pushes, trying to suppress the groan of pain as power surges through the twice-sensitized array. He loses his grip -- and his balance -- when the tattooist jerks away, clutching at his arm and /howling/, stumbling, collapsing before he's reached the door on legs that are no longer fit to support him.
Archer staggers to his feet, his hair falling in his face, and watches the man die. It's not what he wanted; his concentration was inadequate, and he didn't finish the reaction fast enough. The result was flawed: no detonation, just this slow corrosion as acid eats the man from the inside.
When the thrashing stops, Archer allows himself to sink back to the floor. He's shaking, dizzy, nauseated. Surely, he thinks irritably, Kimberly wasn't this undignified, wasn't this devastated by the process of getting his arrays.
Still, it takes long minutes before Archer can pull himself to his feet, step over the stinking mess of organic sludge on the floor, and leave the tattoo parlor. The weakness will pass, he reminds himself, and only the power will remain.
Halfway back to the safe house where he's keeping Kimberly, Archer stops. He can't go back there like this -- too weak and shaky to demonstrate what he's accomplished.
The waiter at his favorite cafÃ© doesn't recognize him at first, and then seems convinced that something terrible has happened. Archer does his best to dismiss the concerns, careful not to show his palms at any point. His arrays ache, red and inflamed around the black ink lines. He wonders if Kimberly ever worried about keeping them hidden.
The food helps immeasurably. By the time he's paid his bill and left, he's feeling steady on his feet again, the ache in his hands manageable instead of agonizing. He makes a mental note: performing advanced alchemy like this on a regular basis will require that he increase his caloric intake.
But it's a worthwhile trade. He holds himself proudly as he walks, tasting the intoxication of his own destructive power. Even learning to shoot, earning the right to carry a sidearm, didn't feel quite this good: Archer knows he could destroy anyone he sees, reduce them to nothing, wipe them from the face of the earth. Walls will not stop him. No wonder they called Kimberly mad -- this is too much for any man to bear in silence, the raw force and unspeakable pleasure.
Archer catches sight of himself in a shop window, and has to laugh. No wonder he wasn't recognized, before: his hair disheveled, his jacket missing and his sleeves rolled up like a common laborer's, this unholy light in his eyes. He flexes his hands, and the jolt of pain makes joy thrum heady through his veins. Nothing can stop him now.
The safe house is at the end of an alley, close to where South City stops being residential and becomes industrial instead. It's squalid, dark, ill-kept. Archer has always hated it, hated the necessity of keeping Kimberly in seclusion while he tries to find some way of restoring his rank and citizenship. The door is old oak, once sturdy but now softening with age and neglect, paint peeling away in strips from the wood. Archer rests his palms against it.
The door explodes inward, scattering flaming shards of wood across the floor. Kimberly is on his feet immediately, tensed to spring, relaxing only slightly when he sees who it is.
"What the fuck did you just do?" he asks.
Archer laughs, hold up his hands. Kimberly's lips work silently for a few seconds as he decodes the symbols and figures out what those arrays could do --
"Fucking /hell/," he says at last. "You don't do anything by half."
Archer smiles. "I thought you realized that after the Devil's Nest raid." He takes a step forward, but Kimberly retreats, hands up, staring at him warily. "What's the matter?"
Kimberly gestures at Archer's hands. "You're dangerous. I'm not letting you touch me with those."
"Don't be ridiculous," Archer says. He can't entirely wipe the grin off his face. "I'm not asking anything of you that I wouldn't be willing to do myself." He takes another step.
"Just because you're that crazy doesn't mean I am." Kimberly's back is to the wall now. His arrays are so straightforward, Archer thinks. So minimalist. Flawed, but elegant.
"I want us to be allies, just like I always have," Archer says. He raises his hands, distantly amused that this could once have been a placating gesture. It seems a lifetime ago. "Imagine what we could do together."
Kimberly's pupils are dilated wide, black ringed with a narrow band of gold. "I could kill you right now," he whispers hoarsely. He's never been so beautiful.
Archer reaches out and presses his palms to Kimberly's.
AN: Gift fic for Pinstripesuit, from a drawing she did here: http://www.deviantart.com/view/17194553/