Shadow – 5.6

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

Sveta tugged my arm, dragging me off the train.  The sky was dark and the lights of the city were at their deceptive stage where so few apartments and buildings were lit up that it looked like it was four in the morning, not seven in the evening.

“Come on,” she urged, tugging.

“There’s stuff to do before everything happens tomorrow,” I said.  “I really want to, but plans.”

“Change your plans.  You need to talk to the Wardens, right?”

“I was planning on doing a write-up I can bring with.  I sent an email before we got on the train, I’d have to get my computer or phone out to see if they responded already.”

“Come on.  Talk to Weld.  We’ll work something out for the rest.”

More to keep us from getting in other people’s way, I let Sveta drag me out onto the train platform.  We stood outside the train while people got on.  I had only a minute to decide if I’d do what I wanted to do, which was to go with Sveta, or if I’d do what I needed to do, which was to prepare for an imminent war that too few people seemed to be aware of.

Lots of the people were staring or glancing at Sveta, with her unusual body.  The noises that body made as she tugged at me drew as much attention as the colorful suit.

“Let me check my phone?” I asked.  “It might change what I’m doing.”


The connection was slow as I waited for my email to load, the diamond shape in the center of the blank page folding into itself endlessly in the ‘loading’ loop.

I sighed a little as the train doors closed and the train went on its way.

“Don’t sigh at me, Victoria,” Sveta said.  “The train doesn’t matter.  You can fly.”

“People make fun of you on the internet if you get caught on camera while browsing your phone or laptop while flying.  I wanted to sit and chat with you about dumb, meaningless stuff-”

“Which we thoroughly did.”

“-and then spend the rest of the trip typing notes.”

“I used to admire that side of you.  It was a good thing when you were doing the physio, and when you were watching those videos of university classes.  Which were incredibly boring, I’m sorry.”

“They were the highlight of my day.”

“They were so boring.  I don’t know how you make powers boring, but they managed.  But you had the mental fortitude to push through it.”

“I enjoyed it,” I said.  “Really.”

“But I’m worried about that attitude now.  If I had real hands I’d reach up and feel your shoulders to see how tense you are.”

I relaxed my shoulders as casually and naturally as possible.

“If you’re stiffer than the girl with the prosthetic body and her metal boyfriend, you need to relax.  Spend some time with me and Weld.  We’ll talk about tomorrow.”

“I need to call Crystal first.”

“Invite her!” Sveta said.  She reached out and jostled my arm roughly.  “Bring her.  Tristan was going to come by later with some stuff for me, when he has his turn again.  He’ll have updates.  We can make it a little leadership meeting.”

She looked so happy at the notion.

“I’ll ask if she’s interested,” I conceded.

“I’ll have to figure out what we’ll eat,” Sveta said, in an almost sing-song, happy way.

My phone finally loaded.  I had messages and emails.  I ignored them and sent one to Crystal.

Sveta’s trying to drag me to dinner with her and Weld.  You want to come?

“I’m not trying to drag you,” Sveta said, as she set her chin down on my shoulder.

“You were literally dragging me.”

Best Cousin:
yes!  where?  what do I bring?

“Nothing,” Sveta said.  “We’ll have to order in.”

Blue binder from the coffee table.  It has a magazine cutout taped to front.

“That’s not nothing,” Sveta said.

Best Cousin:
I meant food u dumbass

“I like her,” Sveta said.

“People are feeling abusive today,” I said.  “Something in the air.”

I told Crystal not to bring food, then typed out the address as Sveta recited it.  I left the message typed in the box.

“Address is right.  Hit send,” Sveta said.

“We’ll compromise,” I said.  “Because I have about a hundred things I’ve been keeping in the back of my mind, and I had everything arranged in my head so tonight would be the night I pulled it together.”

“What’s the compromise?”

“I need to get organized.  If we’re not getting some stuff done for tomorrow, I’ll cut out a bit after dinner, and we’ll do it another time.”

“Deal.  I think you’ll find we’re better at balancing the cape stuff with the real stuff.  In a way, it’s all mixed up for us already.”

“Alright,” I said.  “Yeah.”

She hugged my arm.  “Send a message to Weld, too?  Let him know?”

I did.

“This way,” she said.  She walked with a bit of a bounce in her slightly ungainly step.  I wasn’t sure she would have been able to if she wasn’t holding onto me.

Stratford station and the surrounding neighborhood were an area of the megalopolis I primarily knew for its airfield.  Helicopters were in and out, and as someone who often had to fly past, I had to be mindful of the airspace.  I usually flew low or gave it a wider berth, using the highway to the north as my guide.

Now that I was in the neighborhood and moving at a walking pace, I could see it was one of the quainter areas.  It was one of the first areas to be settled, and the buildings were smaller, with more houses.  Not too dissimilar to my mom’s neighborhood.  Even the apartment buildings were three or four floors tall at the highest.  Like many of the buildings in the early settlements, they’d been built broad rather than tall.

My phone buzzed and I checked it.

I had two messages, excepting the six others I had from Kenzie.

The first was from the Wardens.  They wanted to talk at ten thirty in the evening.  Committee.  Team heads would be there.

I showed Sveta.

“Damn.  We can’t spend that long together,” she said.

“We do have things to do.”

“I know,” she said.

I sent a copy of the message with the time to the others.

The other was from Ashley:


Dark Damsel Ashley:
At my apartment with BoB henchmen to get my things and talk to landlord.  Moving to apartment in BoB territory.  Taking chance to send message while away from the c-voyants.

She’d sent the message to everyone.

I reported, “Ashley’s moving into Cedar Point, which I’m not sure I would have recommended, but she seems to know what she’s doing.”

“She’s doing fine,” Sveta said.

“She’s doing exceptionally, when it comes to the acting.  If that’s acting.  The way she’s letting these people see where she lives and she’s taking her stuff to Cedar Point, when it might be the site of some fighting?  Or infighting?  That’s where I might have given her other advice.”

“The way she’s unreservedly going forward might make it more believable.”

I nodded.  “She’s in Stratford, isn’t she?  We could bump into her.”

“Other direction from the station, but yeah.”

“Do you meet or anything?  It’s hard to picture you guys together without the group.”

“We’ve met a couple of times.  Um.  Mr. Armstrong came by twice, and he invited us all to lunch.”

“Weld’s foster dad, kind of.”

“Kind of.  And he looked after Ashley, once upon a time, when she was in custody, once, and making sure she had some of what she needed, when she was homeless.  He’s a big reason she’s free now, instead of being an unofficial prisoner with a protective guard, like some of the people from the Birdcage and the S-class threats.”

“Yeah.  You met for lunch?”

Sveta smiled.  “It was a bit awkward, most of the time it was two or three of the four of us talking and the rest didn’t have anything to add.  But I’m glad we did it.  There was one moment where we were talking about something, I forget what led up to it, but for most of that lunch we were all very aware of the difference between us, and Weld said something about how people stared.  Ashley said she’d trade places with me or Weld, because she would like to be monstrous, because it would simplify things and it would make it more natural to be intimidating.  Nevermind that we’d really rather not be called monsters.”


“And Weld said something about that, and Mr. Armstrong tried to clarify, but it wasn’t getting through.  I remember thinking of just how huge the gulf was between us, and then I tried to explain things too.  I said how it was different from wearing a certain dress or acting a certain way, because you can’t take it off.  You can’t get away from it.  And that makes it something different.  Any situation you don’t have control over is automatically worse.”

“What was her response?  You said it was a moment.”

“It was really, really good.  She understood and then all of us were talking for the first time that lunch.  Weld, Ashley and I were all talking about very different things, pressure, differences, and the rest of the world feeling like something that presses in on us.  But we were on the same wavelength, with Mr. Armstrong chiming in now and again to clarify or add a point.  When the group started talking about wanting to make a team, I think that was one of the things that made it something I could be really interested in, instead of something where I had to say ‘yeah, that’s cool, but what about Ashley?’.”

“I can picture that scene.  Was it what Armstrong wanted?”

“I snuck a look at him, and he looked pleased as punch.  That was the last time we all got together.  I wonder if that moment was what he was going for, and he considers his work done now that it happened.”

“It’s taken me a while to get that far with the group.  I’m not sure I’m all the way there.”

“I’ve had to deal with it too, realizing it’s not all peaches and cream.”

“Peaches and-  You mean peachy keen?”

“Either,” Sveta said.

She was giving me a cheeky look, probably because she knew I’d react.  I rolled my eyes.

“Reality is a thing,” Sveta said.  “Stuff’s going on.”

“The honeymoon period is over,” I said.

“Yeah.  It wasn’t really a honeymoon.  More like it was nice when it was an idea, but once we executed it, we had to deal with stuff.”

I nodded.

I double checked my phone, which was still in my hand, then pocketed it.

“Was there another moment?” I asked.

“I went over to her apartment once, before a session.  Not long after the lunch thing.  It’s nice, she seems to save up to buy nicer things, but there are gaps.  So she has a really, really nice black leather couch, a black glass coffee table, a nice television, and a piece of art on the wall that looks expensive… and then for the rest of the room it’s moving boxes to sit on and put stuff on.”

“I can sort of understand that.  I don’t think it’s unique to her.  When you first move out on your own, most of the time, I think you get other people’s leftover stuff, or thrift store stuff.  Everyone’s getting started over anew now.”

“Yeah,” Sveta said.  She shrugged awkwardly, like it was a motion she hadn’t practiced much.  “But she loved all the things she had, so much.  There was something there.  I could see the person she might have been, without powers, or the kid she was before powers.  When I was defending her to you, in the first days we were with the group, that’s what I thought of.”

“I like what she’s been doing for the group.  She’s been honest with me, but I don’t know if I’ve seen that glimmer of light.”

Maybe I had.  When Ashley had seen Presley’s responses on the train.

“I don’t know if I’d call it light.”

“I don’t either.  But… I’m imagining what you’re saying.  I’ll keep it in mind.  I’ll keep an open mind.”

“Please,” Sveta said.  “And we’re almost there.  The place might be a little messy, to warn you.”

“Crystal and I are two people crammed into an apartment with room for one person, I don’t think it’s a problem,” I said.  I withheld the part where Crystal was a bit of a pig.

The apartment building was one among many, in a building with a post office built into one corner of the ground floor.  With the small post office taking up a quarter of the ground floor, the remaining three quarters were divided into two spaces, it seemed.  The hallway was open-air, more tunnel than hall, and there were windows on both sides, looking into both the tunnel and a small, narrow yard.  I could see children’s toys in the yard.

Sveta went to the door, and fished for a key on a lanyard that she wore around her neck.

“Ground floor.  Convenient.”

“Yeah.  Weld worries sometimes that if he was on an upstairs floor, if it was wooden floors, he’d cause too much wear and tear and then plunge through.”

Sveta opened the door.  “I’m home.  I brought Victoria.”

“Hey!”  Weld stepped into the kitchen.  He wore a black t-shirt in a tougher material, jeans, and the same rugged sandals I’d seen before.  A set of headphones were hanging from his neck.

Sveta went straight to him, and he had to catch her so she wouldn’t crash into him.  She kissed him, then planted another kiss on his cheek when he turned his focus to me, smiling.

“Victoria.  It’s so great to see you.”

“Sorry to drop in, and I’m also sorry I’ll be distracted tonight.  I hope you don’t mind if I get my laptop out at some point.  We have stuff to coordinate and figure out.”

“That’s fine.  I’d love to talk shop,” he said.  “Things have been weird with my team lately.  The gears of bureaucracy grind slowly.  Just one thing.”

“One thing?”

“Don’t say sorry.  I get enough of them from her.”

“Don’t say that!” Sveta said, scandalized.

“Three unnecessary apologies before breakfast, another two after breakfast, before she’s out the front door.  At least one in a text message.”

“I’m not that bad.”

Weld smiled, then planted a kiss on the side of her head.

“Don’t try to mollify me or distract me.  Not while we have company,” Sveta said.  She pointed at me.  “She needs to unwind.  I thought we could do that and still hammer out the essentials.”

“We’ll try,” Weld said.

“Make yourself at home,” Sveta said.  “I’m going to go rinse off.  I’ve been cooped up in this body and I’m all waxy and gross inside here.  I’ll be back out in a minute.”

“Do you want me to take your body?” Weld asked.

“I’m okay.  I’ll bring a change of clothes in with me.”

Sveta broke away from him and half-crashed-into, half-hugged me.  Clearly happy, she went off to do her thing, leaving Weld and I.

“Make yourself comfortable.  I’d offer food and drink, but I’m not sure what we have.  I don’t usually partake-”

Weld paused as Sveta closed the bathroom door.

“-unless she’s inflicting an experiment on me.”

“I heard that,” Sveta said, opening the door, before shutting it again.

The apartment wasn’t what I would have called ‘messy’.  In a way, it was very different from Crystal’s place.  There was no detritus, nothing left lying around.

Drawers had flat, painted metal faces, with no handles.  Furniture was divided into things with no legs with what looked like it might have been stone framing the edges, and Sveta’s favored grappling structures, which were poles extending from floor to ceiling with various platforms and things to hold on to.  Even the walls had metal bracing at the corners, painted over so Weld wouldn’t stick to them.

“Case fifty-three living,” Weld said.

“She said it was messy.  I don’t see it.”

“Then I did a good job with my last-minute sweep and clean up,” Weld said.  “Living room?”

I let him lead me to the living room.  I put my bag down by the coffee table and sat down on the couch, which looked homemade to withstand someone who weighed a few hundred pounds sitting on it.  It was so firm I nearly bounced off of it while sitting down.  Once I set my weight down, though, it gradually eased up, hissing as it adjusted to my weight.

Leaning forward, I looked outside into the yard.  A toy plane was parked on the lawn, the kind a kid could sit in and push with their feet.

“Did Sveta tell you what’s going on?” I asked.

“Some.  I had trouble following who was who, sometimes, but I got the gist of it.”

“There’s an attack planned on the Fallen tomorrow.  One of our… not sure how to put it, or how much you know.  Our contact, they’re at risk.  There are innocents there, and I’m not sure the villains care about sparing them.”

“How can I help?” Weld asked.

I adjusted my bag at my shoulder, to indicate, and said, “I’ve got a report partially written up.  If you could glance over it, let me know what you think?  You know the Wardens and what their mindset is.”


“I wanted to do some stuff with my costume later, but that might have to wait.  It’d be nice to finalize some costume things when I get back to my place, but timing is getting tighter, since it’s already… seven thirty, and we have to get halfway across the city for ten thirty.”

“My offer stands, you know,” Weld said.


“To help with any of the metalwork, when you get a new costume.”

It took me a second to connect the thought.

“What the hell, Weld?  That was years ago, when I was thinking about rebranding and joining the Brockton Bay Wards.”

“It stands,” Weld said, smiling.

I paused.  “You’re sure?  I have stuff at my apartment.”

“I’m sure.”

“Thank you,” I said.  I fired off a quick series of texts to Crystal.

Have you left yet?

Best Cousin:
i’m on my way out the door. promise

If it’s not too heavy to carry, can you bring the black shopping bag with the yellow leaf on it from under that table?

“Thank you,” I said, as I finished.

“You’re worried about this,” Weld said.  “Sveta said you were tense.  It’s bad?”

“It’s the Fallen, which aren’t great, and it’s a lot of villains who are pretty desperate for relevance.  We’ve got to pitch this to the Wardens, I think we need more hands on deck, and from the murmurings I’ve heard, there aren’t many to go around.”

“There are some,” Weld said.  “Advance Guard is on standby, others are out of rotation.”

“Advance Guard is… a thing,” I said.  “We ran into them earlier.  I’m not sure they’d cooperate unless made to.”

“You might run into trouble getting anyone to cooperate.  If they aren’t occupied, they’re officially on standby.  Their instinct is going to be to be ready and available in case something bigger happens.”

“Then I’d want to frame it in a way that would justify bringing these people out of standby?”

“Yep.  Show me what you have?” he asked.

I pulled out my laptop, setting it on the coffee table, which was three planks set atop six planks, set firmly in place with metal bands around the perimeter.  I wondered if it was built to be easily remade or rebuilt if it got broken.

The planks had been painted in what I recognized as Sveta’s style.  Clear, bold outlines, almost like a paint-by-numbers picture, or a stained glass picture, but the colors that filled each space were rich, varied, and multi-textured.  Blue that became green, or shaded red, or mottled orange.

Weld sat down next to me.  I opened the document and showed him.

Three sub-factions in Cedar Point.  I’d outlined the people in brief, with them named in more detail at the appendix, pulling out old records, files, articles and more to depict them in as much detail as I could without getting too lost in the exact facts.  I’d put down their motivations, whether it was money or personal, I had notes on their adherence to the rules, real and unwritten, and I’d outlined other things about their behavior and patterns.

“The problem with some of this is it doesn’t leave the immediate impression that this is something that multiple hero groups are going to want to step into,” Weld said.  “It’s deep knowledge that someone going into the fight would love, the geeks will love it, but it’s not something that’s going to get people into the fight, if they aren’t already convinced.”

“Yeah.  It’s too dry.  I’m thinking the notes on petty crimes are distracting from the gravity of the situation.”


“Instead of an introduction to the parties involved, I could open with a presentation on the scenario, frontload it with words like war.”

“Not war,” Weld said.  “That’s going to remind people that there’s something bigger on the horizon that we need to be ready for.”

Bigger.  We had a group with a dozen capes and we had another forty or more capes from Cedar Point going on the offensive.

“Of course.  Maybe… potential loss of civilian life, fallout, and provoking a retaliative back-and-forth that extends across the city at a time when resources are already tested.  Something that you don’t want happening behind you while you’re facing a war in front of you.”

“Sounds like you have the right idea.”

“Weld?” Sveta called out.

“Be right back.”

I worked on the document while Weld joined Sveta in the washroom.  Title page written, the size of confrontation outlined, and the ramifications made clear.

I was writing it to try to convince a group of seasoned heroes and the people who managed them.  It felt convincing, because I was feeling nervous, getting into everything that was involved.

The last time I’d been in something of this scale, I’d been spit on by a mutant the size of a truck.  I’d had most of my flesh melted off and necrotized, and I’d been left vulnerable and helpless.

At that point in time, with the pain being as bad as it was, my emotions all over the map as I thought one thing and felt another, I’d been ready to die.  I hadn’t done nearly enough, but I’d fought and I was ready for it to be over.  The chance at living hadn’t been worth the risk of being healed.

Tattletale had lied to me, and had forced Amy on me.  She had some small responsibility for everything that followed.

So easy, in moments like this, for there to be a point of weakness.  Letting my guard down could do so much damage.

I left the document like it was, so there was room for more revisions before polish.  I checked my messages.

Eighteen total messages from Kenzie.  Photos of the body part of her costume in progress, some more stream-of-consciousness, she let me know when she was going to dinner, then when she came back.  Pizza, apparently.  She’d wanted to have her hands free to focus.  She also wanted to know what to bring.

Which raised a question about what our exact role would be in things as they happened.  Our priorities.

I put that aside.  It was for the group to discuss.

Tristan.  Last I’d heard, he was talking to the lawyer.

Tristan the Goat:
waiting for legal advisor nat now.
am not optimistic but got video footage from Ls as you recommended.
ugh.  if nat keeps me waiting any longer I’ll have to switch for byron.
going to svetas later btw. will update properly around then.

I sent him a message to let him know I’d be at Sveta’s place.

Tristan had been frustrated by Natalie earlier, but we’d try this, because I’d had a small amount of luck after giving her something more tangible to work with than my reports.  We’d try bouncing people off Natalie until we found one that worked.  If any one member of the group ended up being good at working with Natalie, we’d keep them in that role as legal liaison.  If Natalie couldn’t be worked with, we would find someone else.

An email from Byron, twenty minutes after that.

Byron the Blue:
rain left a voice message for me and Tristan.  sounded rushed.  he isn’t staying at his place tonight.  he might go back tomorrow but sounded weird.  specifically said he was messaging us to drop details so we would have lead if something happened to him.  ominous.

More details to come.  Will send you the voice message when I get home to computer and figure out how



A message from Presley, sent via Email and translated to a text:

Presley from the Train:
Can u ask ur friend from the train how she gets her hair so white?

It put a slight smile on my face, when everything else felt so heavy.  I made a mental note to ask.

There was also a group text discussion too long for me to search through, mostly Kenzie and Chris, where Chris was asking what forms we needed for him for tomorrow.  I scrolled down to the bottom, at which point Tristan was no longer participating.

Creepy Kid:
Blind rage would be a mistake I think.  Sudden Shock is quick…
…Or Keen Vigilance.  Slow but tough…
…and I’d be able to see and hear most of what was going on.

Heart Shaped Pupil:
Is that the one with all the eyes?

Creepy Kid:
That’s Multifaceted Interest.  You call yourself a good student?

Heart Shaped Pupil:
I am a good student.  Interest and vigilance are the same for you.

Creepy Kid:
Same range of the spectrum as Vigilance but diff’t. Is open and loose…
…You haven’t seen Vigilance. Same thing but focused more and pulled together tight…
…Think armadillo with ears like a fennec fox and bigger eyes…
…and claws because its keen

Heart Shaped Pupil:

Creepy Kid:
Very not aww. Ugh.

I added my own thought to the text conversation.

We want you on sidelines.  Fast would be good.  Rescue, evacuate civilians

Heart Shaped Pupil:
How are you?  Excited?

Creepy Kid:
I can make that one form.  But I want to get my hands dirty too.

Hands dirty?  I paused, thinking about that.  Looking back at the conversation, I skimmed things.  Chris had contributed more than half of the conversation, going into detail, ideas, plans.

I had never seen him quite this engaged.  Was it because he was more comfortable online than in person?  Or was it because he wanted to get his hands dirty, as he put it?


Creepy Kid:
_This_ is why I’m doing this hero team thing…
…I missed the visit to the Warden HQ because I wasn’t at the computer…
…which was my fault. I need to be a part of this.

I didn’t reply immediately, instead sitting back, thinking about things, while Kenzie responded, sharing some of the same image she had already sent me as part of the chat.

Chris wanted to be a part of this, and the visit to the Warden HQ.  He wanted to be part of the big things?  The large events?  But he didn’t care about the rest?  Were the big events tied to big emotions?

I couldn’t understand him.

A knock on the front door got my attention.  Weld stepped out of the bathroom, towel at one of his hands, and let Crystal in.  She had the binder and the bag.  She was wearing her bodysuit with a jacket and jeans.  The ‘Laserdream’ logo on the front, an arrow with a series of lines flowing behind it at a diagonal.

“This is so damn heavy, Victoria” she said.

“If it was too heavy you should have left it,” I said.  I hurried across the living room and down the hallway to reach her, relieving her of the bag.

Greetings went around.  Sveta stepped out of the washroom, wearing her body again, with a sweatshirt and sweatpants on.  Her makeup had been washed off, and the tattoo was clearly visible on her cheekbone.  She gave Crystal a hug.

“They’re preparing for a crisis,” Weld said.

“I know,” Crystal said.  “Believe me, I know.”

We moved to the living room.  I set the black cloth shopping bag down, and fished inside.

“What’s in this bag?” Crystal asked.

I pulled out some of the costume materials.

There were four ways to go with a costume.  The first was to make it yourself.  It leaned heavily on one’s own ability, and I wasn’t sure I had the ability to keep everything trim while also giving it a unique cut.  The second way was to buy it, but that had problems, and a lot of the places and people that offered costume making services had a way of injecting their own tastes into things, so one of their clients often resembled another.  The third way was to have someone else handle that for you, working for the like of the Wards or Wardens and leaving it up to the Branding department.  Not an option for me.

The fourth was to mix and match.  I’d take a small shortcut.  I’d bought black and white versions of the same hooded top, picked for the slanted cut around the collar, shoulders, and the more sleeves.  I could cut one up and use it to apply trim to the other and know the cut would match.  Then I’d apply the additional elements that would make it a costume.

“I was going to do some sewing to keep my hands busy while I read up on things, but plans changed.”

“Cloth isn’t that heavy.  What else is that, that makes it so heavy?” Crystal asked.

“Spare stuff from dad,” I said.  I pulled out some equipment.  It was the right kind of material, all in a matte gunmetal, but the texture was all wrong.  Dad was ‘Flashbang’ and the armor panels, mask, straps, and guards were all in the style of a grooved grenade exterior.  I’d always thought it was a dumb theme when most flashbangs were smooth-exterior canisters.  “I was thinking I could maybe get you to trim it, Crystal.  Sear off the knobby bits and leave just the panel of armor.  I haven’t quite worked the process out.”

“I can do that.  What look do you want?” Weld asked.

I grabbed the binder, and began flipping through it.  Costume notes and ideas.

“There are years of geeking out in that binder, for the record,” Crystal said.

Sveta collapsed into the seat next to me, looking at the art I’d picked out for reference and ideas.

I found pages, opened the binder to retrieve them, and then closed it so I could fish for more.

“Hood, layered long sleeves I can remove as needed for weather.  Fingerless gloves with decoration.  Metal decoration at the front and edges of the hood… like this image here.  Spikes, like my old tiara, but at the shoulder, decorating edges of the hood, and at the breastplate… which would be structured on a basic level, just like this image.”

The breastplate was flat, with only a slight curve to deflect blows.  A matching, briefer plate rested against the collarbone and upper breast, the bottom part overlapping and sticking up slightly.

“A bit of a warrior angel,” Weld said, turning one picture around so it was right-side-up for him.

“Without the wings.  Yeah, maybe,” I said.

“Sweetie, no,” Crystal said.  “You’re one of the very few capes who can get away with a breastplate that shows off the assets, because you have the forcefield.  You don’t want to be pervy about it, because that’s a whole different kind of cape, but a costume should make more of what you are.”

I rolled my eyes at her.

“It would be utterly criminal if I let you do that,” she said.

I shook my head.  “If any kids end up looking up to me, or if any became heroes, I don’t want them thinking that kind of armor is okay.  It’s asking to get hurt.”

“It’s still way better than a bodysuit, and we’ve been wearing those for years,” Crystal said.

“I like the idea of armor.  I intend to get up close and personal, and my defenses won’t always be up.”

“I know that,” Crystal said.  “I can see it.  But you shouldn’t hide in your costume.  It shouldn’t bury you.  I said the same to- I’ve said it often enough before.”

She’d said the same to Amy.

I hadn’t missed the fact that Amy had worn a hood as part of her costume.

Maybe I’d go with black cloth, applying the white trim, rather than the inverse.

“I think Victoria should dress the way she wants,” Sveta said.

“So do I,” Crystal said.  “But I also think sometimes friends and family need to steer you a bit.”

“I don’t see it as hiding,” I said.  “That’s not the reasoning or logic.  I want the costume to have weight, while still being form-fitting at the torso and arms.  Layers, armor, the hood.  Breaking from the norm is important, because it makes an impact.  Most of the time, you see a cape in a hood, and you naturally glance beneath, and there’s a gimmick keeping the face beneath from being seen.  Another mask, or power-generated shadow, or something else.  They’ll just see me.  Glaring or smiling, but it could have more impact when they do.”

“No mask?” Crystal asked.

“I thought about it.  I might have one for protective reasons, for intense situations or cold weather, but… it’s not me.”

“Okay,” she said.

“Spikes,” Weld said.  “You want me to do those?  And the breastplate?”

“I don’t have a breastplate,” I said.  “Just the extra pads.”

“I can blend them into each other.  The shiny coating will be pretty thin, though.  I have stuff of my own.”

“Please,” I said.  “That’d be amazing.”

Sveta bumped her shoulder into mine.  “See?  Seee?  It was so good you came.”

“You sound more like Kenzie than yourself right now.”

“This is good.  People!  We collaborate.”

“I need more information on the spikes before I do the rough shape,” Weld said.  “You made notes on this.  Five spikes at the shoulder, uneven?”

“Rays more than spikes,” I said.  “They space out, four, and then one shorter.  Minor gap between the four and one.”

“Any reason for the short one?” Weld asked.

“Symmetry,” I said.  “It curves in, so it’s more toward the front of the shoulder, and it leads into more of the same at the breastplate decoration.”


“No?” I asked.

“Hhm.  I’ll trust your instincts,” he said.  “I can work faster if I heat the metal up.  I’m going to go set up the forge.”

“Why barbecue when you can use lasers?” Crystal asked.  “Lasers are great.  We can collab and gossip like schoolgirls while these two work out their business.”

“My schoolgirl impression leaves a lot to be desired,” Weld said.

Crystal grinned.  “But barbecue sounds good, while we’re on the subject.  I was tempted here with food and promises of a chance to tease my cousin.”

“Ah, right.  I tend to forget, because I don’t eat much,” Weld said.

“Wait, wait, wait.  Promises of what?” I asked.

“Implied promises, at least,” she said.

“I can order in,” Sveta said.  “We can do the teasing later.”

“You guys laugh, but I can fire back just as hard.”

“I look forward to it,” Crystal said.

They headed over to the door that led out into the backyard and the brick patio, collecting a few of the components, and paused at the door.

A kid, about five or six, was at the glass door.  His mouth was pressed to the glass and he was exhaling, so his cheeks puffed out and the inside of his mouth was in plain view.

“He’s one of the kids from next door,” Sveta said.  “We don’t use the backyard much, since Weld tears it up and I have a harder time walking on grass.  Sometimes they say hi.”

“Open sesame!” Weld called out.

The kid hurried to obey.  He milled around Weld and Crystal as they got themselves organized outside.  Crystal set up a forcefield to keep the kid at bay while starting to heat up the metal.  The kid seemed fascinated by the field.

Sveta and I remained on the couch, watching Weld, Crystal, and the kid through the glass.

“It’s nice, having the kids around,” Sveta said.  “Annoying sometimes, but mostly nice.”

“Yeah.  Do you do much with them?”

“We babysit.  I have art in my room that I got from them.  I gave them some back.  I think it’s important.  Reaching out, having that human connection, having people have good experiences with us.”

“Absolutely,” I said.

“Five spikes, one shorter and set apart.  Is it a hand?” Sveta asked.  Her voice was quiet.  For me alone.  “A dangerous hand?”

“Yeah, a bit,” I said.  “A bit of the sun, glory, crown of the statue of liberty motif.  But the hands are- yeah.”


“Because sooner or later, people are going to find out about the w- about my forcefield.  It might be a certain power interaction, it might be dust in the air or rain streaming down it.  Maybe a person looks through a tinker lens and sees it.  I’ll make my uneasy peace with it first.  I want to own that side of myself, at least a little, before that happens.”

“What were you about to call it, before you stopped yourself?”

I hesitated.  “The wretch.”

“Is it?  A wretch?  It’s strong, isn’t it?  I was thinking about it, and how you carried Kenzie’s box.  You used straps.”

“More about where it comes from than what it is,” I said.

“Mine is anxiety and instinct,” Sveta said.  “If you ever want, I can tell you some things that Mrs. Yamada taught me.  But try to figure out what it’s doing first, then figure out how to work around it.”

“Thanks,” I said.  Looking for a bit of an escape or out, I reached out for the binder, and shifted its position on the table.

“Owning it sounds like a good start.  That’s the last I’ll say until you ask.  Now, tell me, do you have anything in here to help inspire my costume?”

“I have so much in here for your costume,” I said, smiling at least in part due to my relief that that conversation was over.

Sveta and Weld’s place had been tidy before, but it was something else by the time the next knock on the door came.  Costume pieces, straps, cut cloth, paper bowls of clearly recycled paper with inauthentic Chinese food within, metal, costume notes, and two laptops.

Weld had put his music on.  He had an eclectic taste, and the current song was, as close as I could place it, rock with one of the two vocalists using throat singing.

Tristan entered, carrying his bag over one shoulder.  Natalie followed him in.

“Who’s this?” Crystal asked me.

“Natalie, the paralegal, and Tristan, the teammate.”

“I like Tristan’s choice in colors,” Crystal said.

I didn’t get a chance to respond, because Tristan and Natalie joined us in the living room.

“Crystal.  We didn’t meet,” Tristan said.  “I was watching on camera while you visited Cedar Point.”

“I love the hair,” Crystal said.  “I like the color, too.  I have a soft spot for boys who are brave enough to dye their hair.  If only you were a bit older.”

“I’m flattered,” Tristan said.  “Those aren’t the boys I tend to go after, myself, but my dating life isn’t very… alive, either.”

“Ah, is that so?” Crystal asked.  “Here, come sit.  I think there’s a clear space somewhere here.”

“Costume stuff, apparently.  And we’ve got the munchkins on the screen,” Tristan observed.  He bent down and waved for the camera that was built into the corner of the laptop.  A tiny Kenzie waved back.  Chris existed only in text.

“And this is Natalie,” I introduced Natalie.  I wasn’t wholly sure why she was here, but Tristan had wanted to invite her, and I wasn’t about to object if he was trying another way to get her more onboard.  “Mom recommended her.  Natalie, this is Crystal, my cousin.”

“Pleasure,” Crystal said, half-standing to extend a hand.

Natalie shook it and gave Crystal a tight smile back.  Crystal gave me a momentary glance as she sat back down.

“I’m sorry we’re such a mess right now,” Sveta said.  “The apartment is usually nicer.”

“I totally understand,” Natalie said.  “Don’t worry.”

“Food,” Weld said.  “Help yourself, please.  Sveta doesn’t eat much and it’ll go to waste otherwise.  I think we kept track of the ones I ate from and put them away.”

“Why does it matter?” Tristan asked.

“I don’t have much sense of smell or taste.  We’ve been exploring, and we’re getting further afield, trying things that are not so good for flesh and blood.”

“We started with capsaicin and citric acid concentrate,” Sveta said.

“Among other things,” Weld said.

“We’ll find something,” Sveta said.

“Hoping so.  If it tastes funny, don’t keep eating it,” Weld said.  “I think we removed all of the dishes I tried.”

“I’ll pass, thank you,” Natalie said.

Tristan sat down on the floor next to Crystal, grabbing a spare bowl, before portioning out contents.

“Any more word from our absentee?” I asked.

“Nothing except a string of seemingly random words left in case he disappears for good.  It’s cryptic enough it would take some trying to find him, which I think is what he intends.”

“It might be a good thing,” Crystal said.  “If they’re after him.”

“Tactically?  Yes.  But he’s a friend.  He told me almost everything,” Tristan said.  “Not this.”

I looked at the screen of the computer.  Rapping my fingers against the edge of the laptop twice, I said, “C says it’s unusual for our missing member to use something that cryptic.  He’s not wrong.”

“There’s a lot of unusual happening with him lately, I don’t know what conclusions to draw from that,” Tristan said.  “He gives himself a hard time because he doesn’t realize that he has a lot of inner strength and a lot of general talents the rest of us don’t have.  I think he’s capable enough to come out of this intact, barring the worst case scenarios.”

“I worry about the people around him, too,” I said.

“I do too,” Sveta said.  She held out her arm while Weld checked the fit of a different arm encasement.  His finger drawn to a point, he raked it along the metal to mark a part that needed fixing.

“We’ll figure this out,” Tristan said.

“How did the talk go?” I asked, looking between Tristan and Natalie.

“Natalie and I covered the events of the day,” Tristan said.  “Byron is loaning me time so I can do more.  He’ll help some tomorrow too.  He’s not up for the hero thing, but this is serious enough that he’s on board.  We’re a little more divided on tomorrow.”

“Thank you, Byron,” I said.  “As for tomorrow, Natalie, maybe you could take a look at the proposal for the Wardens?”

I turned my laptop around for her.  She took a seat on the ground to read it, no longer standing and hovering around like she didn’t know what to do with herself.

On the screen of Sveta’s laptop, Kenzie was elbow-deep in electronics, unable to type.  No recent messages from Chris.

Just about everyone had their costumes ready.  Kenzie was going to equip Chris with some projectors.

“Two major groups of capes,” I said.  “The Fallen aren’t to be messed with.  They were a minor nuisance for years, with some bad stuff going on in the background, with kidnappings, murders, mutilations of minorities, case fifty-threes included, and a lot of low-level terrorist or attention-grabbing stunts.  The group we’re focusing on now, I believe, are the Mathers.  Each of the major branches took an Endbringer as a theme, and the Mathers took the Simurgh.”

“The kidnappings were their thing,” Weld said.  “Back in Bet, they would go after isolated capes, ages sixteen to twenty-five.  These capes would be married into the family.  Thirteen incidents over seven years.  Three of the kidnapping victims stayed.  Three died.  The rest escaped, were released, or were freed by PRT intervention.  The PRT tried to go after them, but they moved frequently and they had anti-thinker measures in place.”

“It stands to reason they still have them,” I said.  Because Rain had been hiding among them.

“Stands to reason,” Tristan said.  “Looksee, that means you keep cameras off of the Fallen, unless we give the all clear.  We don’t know if it goes through cameras, and your cameras are weird enough it might be more dangerous.”

Kenzie took her hands off of her work to type.  Protests, it seemed.

“We’ll present our situation to the Wardens and we’ll do what we can to get them on board.  Whether we get them or not, we’ll have some priorities, small scale and big,  and they’ll be what we default to if we’re caught in the moment.”

“May I?” Tristan asked, scooting over and shifting the laptop so it was at a middle ground where both he and Natalie could read it.  Natalie gave him an annoyed look.  “You wrote them down.  Good.”

I leaned forward.  “This attack on the Fallen?  It’s villains looking for validation and a chance to show their stuff, and a lot of natural and justified hate for the Fallen.  They’re an acceptable target, and the Hollow Point group wants to show they’re a force unto themselves.  Part of the group will be going after our teammate, unfortunately, and we can’t control that directly.  But he’s not the focus of the larger group.”

“We’ll trust him, that he knows what he’s doing, if he’s hiding,” Tristan said.

“We have to, your buddy Chris says,” Crystal said.

“I was gracefully avoiding mentioning that, Chris,” Tristan said.

I went on, “Depending on how the scenario unfolds, we may need to evacuate bystanders.  The Hollow Point group is attacking the compound.  They arrived in cars, they had low-tier members out gassing up the cars for a trip, so we can assume they’ll drive and they’ll arrive at the compound, taking action from there.  They’ll probably split up, with teams that know each other sticking together.”

“Factions within the group,” Sveta said.  “Already some infighting.”

“Yep.    I emailed people my last draft of the document.  It covers the groups to expect.  Read it tonight or early tomorrow.  In a big engagement, we can’t just throw ourselves into the skirmish and hope things will resolve themselves,” I said.  “Tristan is more comfortable managing the group in the heat of the fight, I think.  I can give a bird’s eye view, and I’ll communicate what I can.  If I can’t solve an emerging problem myself, I’ll try to give direction to those who can.”

“Are the younger members of the group participating?” Natalie asked.

“Not directly,” I said.  “We talked about it.  We’ll do the same as we did in Cedar Point yesterday.  Looksee as toolbox, if she participates it’ll be as a projection, and we’ll keep her removed from the Fallen.  She focuses more on the Hollow Point group.  C runs interference.”

“Text from Looksee,” Crystal reported.  “She says her mom can drop her off with her projector.  That’s an adorable image, a cape being dropped off by a parent.”

“Not so adorable,” Tristan said.

“She wants to know if you can carry her projector in.”

“You’re the one carrying it,” Tristan said, to me.

“Not in,” I said.  “We’ll bring it and keep it near our retreat, so we have a point to fall back to.”

“Alright.  What does Looksee think?”

“She says that’s fine,” Crystal said.

“The focus in big engagements is to identify the points we can change, and act on them,” I said.  “Rescue and civilians will be a continuous one.”

Natalie moved the laptop, turning it toward Tristan.

“You’re done?” I asked.

“I read it.  I didn’t get into the list of capes, but I read about the ones in charge.”


“I think the justifications for getting involved are sound.  That depends on what the Wardens say, mind you.  If they don’t agree, I don’t agree either.  It does seem to me, however, that it seems like the kind of thing where heroes are very badly needed.  I hope you get their help.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“I don’t think the younger members of the group should be involved.”

“Looksee will be more or less remote,” Tristan said.  “Creepy kid will be venturing in only when we give the a-ok.”

“As… Sudden Shock and Deep Reflection?”

“I guess,” Tristan said.

“If the Youth Guard were active, they’d say no,” Natalie said.

“Can you mute the laptop so they don’t hear?” Tristan asked.

Crystal covered the microphone on the laptop with her hand.

“Natalie,” Tristan said.  “If they Youth Guard were active, they’d say no, and the kids would get involved anyway.  That was a thing that happened in my experience.”

“Oh man, my brother and I gave everyone headaches,” Crystal said.  “Our grades dropped and our parents were told we had to give up the costumes for a few months until we pulled them back up.  Our parents, the Youth Guard, even the PRT was asked to keep an eye out for us.  We were scoundrels.”

“Right?” Tristan asked.

Crystal took her hand away from the microphone.  Both Chris and Kenzie were protesting at length about being deafened for that segment of conversation, with lines of chat appearing so fast they were hard to read.  Kenzie seemed to mostly enjoy joining her voice to Chris’.

“I’ve given my advice.”

“They’re members of the team,” Sveta said.  “We’ll keep them safe.”

Natalie pursed her lips but didn’t say anything.

“Let’s talk about major objectives,” I said.  “On the small scale, we help the civilians.  Pulling away from that, there are a few worst case scenarios here.”

“Major objectives,” I said.  “Containment, control, resolution.”

It was late, and the light from the windows were dark.  The administration in charge of the Wardens were sitting at the tables in front of us, to our left, and to our right.  Chevalier and Valkyrie were present, sitting directly in front of me.  Legend’s seat was empty.  I saw the name plate for Chief Armstrong, white haired with a very pronounced chin and a crooked nose.  He looked more like a mad scientist or a quirky grandfather than a major figure in the cape scene.

Some of them had laptops or tablets.  Chevalier was one of them.  He’d taken off his gold and silver helmet and wore a cloth mask beneath.  Not his serious armor set.  Valkyrie was in full costume, helmet on, and had no technology.  She did have a a specter standing just behind her right shoulder.  A man with a hazy silhouette.

I wore my costume.  The white decorative  trim on the black fabric was missing, and I planned more ornamentation for my gloves, but the rest was intact.  Spires of gold like my old tiara stood up at my shoulders, the middle-center of my breastplate, and decorated the armor around my legs and on my gloves.  The decoration at my forehead was a weight that kept my hood down, and my hair draped out over my right shoulder.  A protective mask hung from my belt, the curved surface resting around the curve of my thigh.  I’d don it if there was danger, and if I didn’t need to speak.

The costume had a weight to it.  It felt almost right.

“Talk to me about containment,” Chevalier said.

“The worst case scenarios here are that this becomes a problem for the city,” I said.  “If the Fallen lose but aren’t wiped out, precedent suggests they’ll hit back harder.  We could expect guerilla tactics throughout the city, terror attacks, and a hit against Cedar Point in particular.”

“The area that has been colloquially named Hollow Point,” a woman said.

“Yes, ma’am,” Capricorn answered.

“We’ll be operating from the perimeter, because getting into the thick of the situation would be beyond our abilities.  Part of our aim will be to keep Fallen from splintering away to regroup and lash out.  We’ll have a tinker trap waiting on the main road out of the area, and we’ll have eyes on the logging roads.”

“Does this perimeter extend to containing the villains of Hollow Point?” a man in a suit asked.  “If they rush in… does this tinker trap trap them there?”

I looked to my left, where Capricorn stood in his armor, then to my right, where Sveta was.  She’d donned some decorative additions.  As I wore spikes that echoed the wretch’s hands, Sveta wore armor that curved and curled away.

Kenzie was workshopping and had an earlier bedtime.  Chris had wanted to come, but we hadn’t been able to get him in costume, and having him around and uncostumed wasn’t a good look when we wanted to present our best face.

He’d been a little upset.

“We debated that,” Capricorn ventured.  “Our instinct is that Cedar Point’s villains would get desperate, if they were trapped on hostile territory.  That would risk civilian well being.  The trap is a soft deterrent more than anything else.  We think we’d let them go rather than try to force it, but we decided we’d leave it up to you, should the Wardens decide to get involved.”

“Then we will get back to you with our thoughts, should we decide to get involved,” the man said.  Tristan ducked his head in acknowledgement.

“Control,” Chevalier said.

“The document we sent you outlines a few priority targets to watch out for.  In the old days, their wiki pages would have had warnings.  Our focus is more on Cedar Point than on the Fallen, because we have an incomplete picture of the latter.  These people are more likely to hurt civilians, and they’re likely to escalate the situation.  If we can target them and remove them from the picture, we will.  We have a contact keeping an eye on them already.”

“We could supply what we have on this group of the Fallen,” Chevalier said.  “Whether or not we get involved, I think we lose very little by rounding out your knowledge there.”

He checked with others, and got nods of affirmation.

I felt my heart skip a beat.  Whether they agreed or not, they weren’t saying no.  They weren’t telling us to go away and mind our own business.

“Thank you,” I said, once I found the words.

Capricorn spoke up, “Our goal with control is to keep an eye out for anything that would make the situation that much worse.  If we take out or hamper these problem elements, the situation is free to wind down.  If we don’t, there’s a risk it perpetuates, and that’s something we want to avoid.”

“Resolution, then,” Chevalier said.

I was so glad I’d outlined things as Weld suggested, with clear objectives and scenario outlined in the first few pages.  Chevalier was really using them as guideposts, picking up whenever nobody else was talking, keeping the meeting running smoothly.

“What resolution do you want?”

“We want a resolution,” I said.  “If this ends and the Fallen aren’t wiped out, they’ll hit back.  The city suffers.  If it ends and they are wiped out, Cedar Point is going to become something more pronounced.  We’ll want to be mindful of who is in play, and who might take charge of that.”

“As things come closer to a conclusion, we may take a role,” Capricorn said.  “If we’re strong enough, and if we have the resources, we could clean up those who are left.”

“That’s a stretch,” Sveta said.  She hadn’t said much, but I had the impression she was intimidated by the room.  “We focus on civilians first.  We’d need a lot of firepower before we can think about handling that kind of clean-up.”

“We’re not in a position to give you a lot of firepower,” Chevalier said, emphasizing ‘lot’.  “Valkyrie cannot engage that group of Fallen, and I’m tied up elsewhere with diplomatic roles.  Many other Wardens and subordinate teams are busy.  Advance Guard is on standby.  We’ll ask them to assist you.”

I don’t want them, I thought.

“We have junior Wardens, as well.  They’ll assist.  We’ll let them know tonight and they’ll be at your disposal tomorrow.”

Them, I wanted.  It meant Weld.  It meant potential others, who I knew and very much respected.

“Thank you,” Tristan said, my voice and Sveta’s only a bit behind his.

“You’re right about this.  We knew something was stirring, but we didn’t have the impression it was this bad.  I’ve been keeping updated on the Fallen, I can’t promise it’s accurate, but you should know the families interact.  There may be one or more of the Crowley sub-branches present.  They also associate with various biker gangs, the various racist factions, and other religious villain groups and ideologues.  Be prepared for any of them.”

“Yes sir,” Tristan said.

“In case of emergency, if you find you’re in over your head, leave.  Retreat, wash your hands of it.  Your lives come first.”

Sveta and I nodded, as Tristan said, “Yes sir,” again.

“I think those are my thoughts,” Chevalier said.  “Any further comments?  Anyone?”

Some heads shook.  Others were silent.

He fixed his eyes on us.  “Any final thoughts, concerns?  Anything not in this document we should know, or anything you’ve learned since writing it?”

There were a few somethings in the document we hadn’t mentioned or outlined in full.

We’d mentioned Rain, though not by name, as only a contact in the Fallen, who might or might not have been compromised.  I’d detailed how we had someone, Ashley, acting on our behalf in Cedar Point, and how we might have Rain in the Fallen camp when we took action.  It would give us more control over the situation, if we had that information and those levers to pull.

We could have said more about Rain, and we hadn’t.  Rescuing him was a mission statement.

We hadn’t said one word about the therapy group, or our individual issues and crises.

Much as I’d wondered if I should mention my time in the hospital during job interviews or when applying to teams, I’d been left the question of it here, standing before the committee.

I could be honest, say something, and they almost certainly wouldn’t let us do this.  I could have mentioned my background when applying to teams, and I would have had even worse luck joining them.

Or I could stay silent.

“No,” Sveta said.  Her voice was soft in what someone else might have mistaken for timidity.  I knew she was nervous, but I didn’t think it was timidity.  She was thinking the same thing I was.

“No sir,” Tristan said, with confidence.

“No,” I said, adding my lie to theirs.

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

Shadow – Interlude 5d

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

It’s my night.  No control over what happens.

Rain’s senses were flooded with a turpentine-alcohol taste, filling his mouth, then his nose.  People laughed and cheered, and flesh strained around his face.

He pulled free of the headlock as the fluid hit his eyes, and leaned over, sputtering, trying to blink the alcohol out of his eyes.  The cheers became more laughter.

Rain groaned, facing the ground, and it was a primal sound.  “Are you trying to kill or blind me?”

“Ew, you’ve got some fucked up snot,” Nell said.

He brought a hand to his nose, and realized the ‘fucked up snot’ was a tendril of snot that was extending from his nose, made more liquid by the caustic, homebrewed alcohol.

He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, caught the snot, and threw it into the fire before leaning back.

“Here,” Jay said.  “Drink.”

He pushed the glass jug at Rain.  The inside looked almost moldy with the way the pulp clung to the exterior and caught the light.  The contents sloshed within.

“If I drink more I’ll be useless tomorrow,” Rain said.

“You’re going to be useless no matter what happens,” Allie said, to laughter.

“Fuck you,” Rain said.  He felt his face stretch into a smile.

“Drink, Rain man,” Jay said, more forcefully.

Rain looked up at the guy.  A year older, Jay was tall, his hair shoulder length and blond.  His light facial hair and the smoke of the fire behind him caught the light of the bonfire, but the same light didn’t catch most of his other features.  His eyes weren’t visible.

No choice.  Rain took the jug.  He tipped it back, and the taste of it made him cough more.

The other teenagers around the fire cheered.

“You’re going to be a soldier,” Jay said.  His tone was such that none cheered.  Some knew what it meant to be a soldier, some didn’t, but all respected Jay as the leader of their age group and they knew this exchange was between Jay and Rain.

Rain nodded.  His vision shifted slightly as the alcohol made itself felt.  He looked up at Jay, and his eye settled momentarily on the long hair.

“I’ll be a soldier,” Rain said.  “The Bible talks about the end times, it talks about armies springing forth, powers, and the deaths of the unworthy.  Everything that happened and happens, the Dragon, the Harlot, the seven bowls, and the armies, with all of the soldiers… even the bad stuff is all God’s will and God’s doing.”

“God’s will,” some others echoed.

“People have to step up to be soldiers in those armies,” Rain said.

Not original words, but they were accepted as truth by the group.  Some believed wholeheartedly, and it was clear in their eyes.  Others were newer, unfamiliar with it, but they played along.  As they heard the voices of people who truly believed, they would hear it and start to come around.  Such was the intent.

The Rain of the past, as he spoke the words, believed.

Jay reached over, and put his hand at the side of Rain’s head, fingers in Rain’s hair, where it had started to grow out.

“Put the fear of God in them,” Jay said.  “And you watch my back.”

“Yeah,” Rain said.  “We’ll give ’em hell.”

Jay let go of his head, refused to take the jug back, and walked around the circle, attention on others.

Time passed.  He could remember a lot of the thoughts he had, as he’d looked at people.  He wasn’t the only person who was earning his stripes as a soldier.  Others, he knew, would be there, and he’d looked at each of them, powered and unpowered, thinking about whether he could trust them, what to watch out for.  Barnabas was violent and could never stop when he got riled up.  Hiram hated Rain because Tabitha, the girl Hiram had liked, had liked Rain.  It didn’t matter that Rain had never reciprocated or liked her back.  Hiram might even take an excuse to hurt Rain, if he had one.  Rain had thought about how he’d try not to be alone with the guy.

They ended up together anyway.  Hiram was a good soldier and he asked for Tabitha.  Now she’s pregnant with his kid, and she pretends to be happy.

Helps that I’m on the lowest rung of the totem pole.

More time passed.  Rain felt the alcohol even through the dream, laughed more than necessary at a few of the jokes from people in the sidelines.

He looked at Erin, who was sitting on the other side of the fire, talking to Jay, shaking her head.  He’d sat where he sat because it gave him a better view of her.

Delilah got up from her seat, hands filled with the blanket she’d draped over her lap, and sat down next to Rain.  “Give me a drink?”

Rain hefted the jug.  It was heavy enough that he had to help Delilah manage it, controlling its tilt so she wouldn’t have it all slosh into her mouth, as Jay had done to him.

“Oh, gawd, that’s awful,” Delilah said.

Rain offered the jug to others in arm’s reach.  When nobody took it, he set it down on the ground by their feet.  The fire’s light illuminated the contents.

Firewater, he thought.  He’d thought it at the time, though it was closer to moonshine.

“Here,” Delilah said.  She held out the blanket.

“I’m warm enough,” he said.  Even in the dream, he felt the alcohol warming him from within, the heat of it, the buzz.  Everything was fuzzy around the edges and his stomach felt ready to revolt if he moved, so he didn’t move.

“Here,” she said, again.  She scooted closer, until her side pressed against his.  “I’ll make you warmer.”

He didn’t resist as she arranged the blanket over their laps.  He didn’t resist either as she slowly undid his zipper beneath the blanket.  Everyone around the fire was talking, the fire had died down and nobody was stoking it or replacing the wood.  Some people had started home.

She took him in her hand, easing him out past the zipper, and he made sure to fix the blanket so nothing was apparent.

“My brother,” she said.  “He’s going out for the first time too.”

Rain nodded.

“Protect him?”

“If we’re even in the same place, sure,” he said, trying to sound normal.  He glanced at Erin.

I’d been so worried about what she thought.

They sat like that for a bit, her hand moving.  The fire snapped loudly, as a log broke, and they both jumped.

Nobody saw or cared.  Delilah’s hand moved again beneath the blanket.

Rain let his head move, leaning it on her shoulder, nose and mouth in her hair.  She smelled good.

“Talk to me,” Delilah said.

“What do you want me to say?”

“Tell me you’re a good soldier.”

“I’m a good soldier,” he said.  His mind had been a blank.

“Some imagination, please.  Tell me what you’ll do.”

“That’s what you like?” he asked, almost incredulous, but he couldn’t put much incredulity in his words without heads turning their way.

He felt her hair move as she nodded, and he definitely felt her finger move.

“I’ll make them beg for mercy,” he said.

“Work your way up to that,” she said.  “And you’ll make them beg for God to save them.”

“I’ll make them bleed,” he whispered.  She nodded fiercely.  He added, “I’ll make them cry.”

“Weep,” she said.  “Better word.”

“You’re so fucked up,” he said.

“Keep going.  If you stop, I stop.”

“We’ll make them think they’re already in Hell, with the fear and the pain,” he whispered.

“That’s good,” Delilah said.  “That’s imaginative.”

“It’s stuff I’ve heard all my life.”

“Are your aunt and uncle your real family?”

“I think so.  I don’t know,” He said.  Rain could remember how weird it had felt to be talking family while in this situation.  “My mom called my aunt her sister when we lived in the same places, which wasn’t always.  I know I’m related to a lot of people here.”

“Not me,” Delilah said.  Her face brushed against his as she pressed her mouth to his shoulder and bit him lightly.

Near Jay and Erin, Allie stood from the log stump she was using as a seat.  She took a second to gather her guitar and sling the strap over her shoulder.

Rain put a hand on Delilah’s, telling her to stop for a moment.

Allie approached.  She looked at Rain and Delilah, eye dropping to the blanket, and rolled her eyes, whites visible in the gloom.

“You good?” Allie asked.

“I’m great,” he said, terse.  “Obviously.”

“Obviously.  My prayers are with you tomorrow.  I might not see you before you go.”

“Thank you.”

“My prayers are with Joel too,” Allie said.

“Thank you,” Delilah said.  “We’ll talk tomorrow, okay?”

“Do you want to meet?  We can keep an ear out for word on how things go, watch the news.”

“Allie,” Rain said.  More terse than before, he said, “Go.

Allie smiled, smug, and sauntered off, guitar bouncing behind her.

“Can I keep going?” Delilah asked.  “I have to be up early, but I want to send off at least one soldier.”

“That’s one way of putting it,” Rain said.

In the dream, he was warm in many ways, face flushed, buzzing with the strong alcohol, head pounding in time with his heartbeat, and a good feeling suffused him.

In the dream, as he went through it again, there was none of the psychological, where it was divorced from the physical.  He despised himself a little for succumbing to his instincts in this moment, he’d never even especially liked Delilah.  He agonized over if Erin would notice anything, because he liked Erin.  Even back then, he’d gotten along with her little brother.

And above all else, he dreaded what came the next day.

It was a sunny day as they climbed out of the little bus and the trucks.  Rain watched as a few people in the parking lot looked their way, saw the tattoos, the shirts with crosses on them, and the masks.

The people turned the other way, changing their minds about their plans to go into the shopping center.  They would, Rain knew, agonize over what to do, whether to call for help.  The Fallen appeared here and there, sometimes only to make their presence known, only causing trouble on the rarer occasions.

In a matter of hours from this point, weeping, these people would be talking to the news cameras, saying they should have seen what happened and called.

Rain fixed his mask.  It was hard plastic.  A demon’s face.

“You,” Seir said.  He had his horse’s head on, and heavy black clothes that left his arms bare, where he’d wrapped chains around them.  He indicated Rain.  “Special job.”

He never liked me, Rain thought.  Something about family ties, old grudges he can’t resolve because some people aren’t around anymore.

But he’d listened.  Rain went with Seir, looking back at the others.

They went around the side of the shopping center.  One employee was out the side, smoking.  A teenager of Rain’s age, slightly overweight, her hair tucked under a flat-top cap with a visor at the front.

Her eyes on her phone, cigarette at her mouth, she didn’t see them.

Seir raised a hand.  There was a sound, halfway between a rumble and drumming, almost a stampede, and curling lines of black spilled from Seir’s palm.  The dozen or so lines didn’t curl so much as they bounced, each moving in a smooth half or quarter circle before stopping, curving back or at a right angle to carry on its way.

Where they hit solid surfaces, they exploded into rough silhouettes of Seir, mask and all.  Each was as black as the lines – like gaps in reality rather than mere black that absorbed the light of the sun.  Each had eyes that glowed as they looked around- one human eye where it peered through the horse’s eye socket, and one of the horse’s eyes.

One, twenty feet above the ground, tore the security camera from the corner of the building.  Another appeared beside the store employee, who was running now that she’d heard the sound and saw them.  It snatched her up.

Seir became shadow, and the figure with the girl in its arms became Seir.

Others were turning over trash cans, breaking glass in car windows.  Ten in all.  The ones that finished doing their damage disappeared.

Rain continued walking.  He could feel his heart pounding.

“Bad for you,” Seir said, wrestling the girl around and taking the cigarette.  He took a puff.  “Are you bad?  Are you a sinner?”

“Please,” she said.

“Open,” Seir said.


“Open wide!” Seir screamed the words.

She opened her mouth and kept it open.  Seir took another puff, still holding her, his face next to hers.  Rain could see her trembling.

He could remember how he’d felt.  Uneasy.

Seir held the cigarette, only half burned, and held it up in front of her face.  Then he flicked it into her mouth, hard enough it had to have hit the back of her throat.  His hand caught her before she could spit it out, and he held his hand firm over her mouth.

It took what had felt like a minute before she stopped struggling and went still in Seir’s grip.  Only fifteen or twenty seconds.

When Seir held her by only one wrist, she didn’t fight.  Her eyes were wide, terrified.

“Spit on her,” Seir said.

Rain spat on the girl’s face.

If I’d hesitated even a fraction of a second, he would have destroyed me and said he was justified doing it.

“Give me an excuse,” Seir said.  “Fuck up one time.”

“I’m not going to fuck up,” Rain said.

“I’m giving you an easy job,” Seir said.  “You won’t have much of a chance, but I think you’ll manage to fuck it up anyway.”

He dragged the girl, jerked her arm when she wasn’t fast enough.  Her hand went away from her face to wipe away the spit, and Seir shook her hard.

“Leave it there,” he said.  She did.  Seir looked back, and said, “Kid, what do you think you’re doing?  Open the fucking doors.”

Rain opened the double-set of metal doors.  Rain could see within, see the plaza on the far, far end of the hallway, the signs on either side, and the stacked tables and pallets, people walking this way and that, going about their days.

Rain heard a muffled shriek.  Three shadowy Seirs hauled the girl off her feet, the fourth holding her hair and mouth.

She was lifted up until she was horizontal to the ground, then forced to the ground.

“Make a sound,” Seir said, “And I’ll kill you.  Stay.”

Fingers knotted in her hair, Seir held the hair and let the doors swing shut, trapping the hair there.  He stepped on it for good measure, straightening with a grunt.

The man took a chain from around his arm and wound it through and around the door handles, squares of sheet metal, and hauled the chains tight.  He rummaged, and a moment later, came up with a padlock.  He put it through several of the chains to keep it tight, but left it unlocked.

“You’re guarding the door,” Seir said.

“I wanted to do more,” Rain said.

Did I?  Rain wondered.  His old self was so long ago, so far away.

“Cry about it.  We’re scaring the shit out of them.  Step one in scaring the shit out of them is not letting them escape.  Got it?  Let any of them go, you’re not going to get another shot at being a soldier.”

He reached a hand out for Rain.  Rain knocked it away, then backed up a step.

“Don’t disappoint us, boy,” Seir said.  “You know how fucking bad it is to disappoint us.”

“The only disappointment today is that I’m left guarding a door.”

Seir snorted.

Black lines flowed up from Seir’s head and shoulders, arcing and bouncing off the wall on their way to the roof.

Seir took the place of one of his shadow selves, leaving a shadow on the ground.  It lunged at Rain, and Rain jumped back.

Only a feint.  The shadow looked like it was snickering, then disappeared.

Rain gave the now-absent Seir the finger.

Then he was left to wait.  He stared down at the hair that still stuck through the door, stuck there.

Someone at the corner of the building walked out to their car.  Rain turned away, hiding his masked face.

The day was slightly overcast, but the sun was bright.  Rain fidgeted, back to the wall, hood up and head down.  When the explosion hit, he could feel it through the walls of the building.

He looked down at the hair.

The door jumped, chains clacking and screeching against the metal of the door handles.  Rain stepped back.

He heard the thuds, the pounding of fists on the metal, and the first of the shouts.  As the thuds escalated, his own heartbeat picked up.  He could feel the rush, hear the pounding of his blood in his ears joining the cacophony from the hallway.

He could make out the words, the pleas.

His hands went to the chain, traveling along it to the lock.  He could feel each push from the people on the other side, until the pushing stopped outright.

Not because the people had stopped, but because there was so much pressure that it wasn’t possible to pull the door back.

He looked up, for Seir, then to the side, and he gripped the lock.

His hand fell to his side.

He could hear people screaming and shouting, and he closed his eyes.  There were still thuds on the door, pounding fists.  Those, too, came to a stop.

Just the outward pressure on the door, and sounds from people further inside.

An interminable amount of time seemed to pass.

On the other side, he heard the scream he now knew to be Love Lost’s.

A huff of noise left his mouth, more cough than anything.  He brought a shaking hand to his face, and his vision jerked, spasmed.

His hand fell again, grazing chain, and he stepped back.  No longer muffled, the laugh left his lips.  It didn’t stop, continuing when he couldn’t draw in the air properly, small, hysterical, wild.

He sucked in a breath, almost pulled himself together, and then the laugh came out again, while his hand pressed against the door.

He was still laughing some time later, when Seir appeared.  The man created a shadow near Rain, took its place, and shoved Rain down.

“Fucking moron!” Seir swore.  “This is supposed to scare them, not kill them!  How the fuck do you think we’re supposed to clue them into the power of God, goodness and badassness both, if they’re all fucking dead!?

Rain’s mad laughter continued.

Seir kicked him, hard, in the stomach.  It didn’t make the laughter stop, but it did make it quieter.

Seir hauled on the chains, then used his shadow selves, and began tearing at the door, breaking the chains with the strength of the shadows and the help of the pressure on the other side.

Rain’s laughter died as the handles shattered with the force.  Fragments of flat, shattered metal skittered along the pavement, alongside some pieces of chain.  The doors were open.

People had to climb over others.  They flinched as Seir’s shadows tore at the pole that stood between he doors, then tore more at the frame, opening the aperture wider.

People stumbled out, and smoke followed them.

Rain started to climb to his feet, then fell, his hand going to his stomach.

Seir shot him a look, then created his shadow copies, and went to the roof.

Rain climbed to his feet, hand at his stomach, and found himself staring down the crowd, angry, hostile.  His hand had been near his mouth from the laughter, and now it touched his mask.

He could feel the instant the trigger hit him like a bucket of cold water being sloshed over him.

Rain found himself in the room, awash in self-loathing.  Bending down, he reached for his chair.

Stumbling, he dropped to one knee, hand on the loose floorboards and pine needles below.

No chair.

No, it wasn’t where it was supposed to be.  It was ten feet away, lying on its side, broken.  The lighting in the room was different. Almost everything had been scattered to the ground, damaged, or both.

They invited someone.

He lurched to his feet, looking around.  In Snag’s area, a shelving unit collapsed noisily, metal shelves falling.  Snag cursed in his characteristic growl.

Snag emerged from among the shelves, giving a wide berth to some bent shelves that leaned precariously.  He looked at Rain, then looked away, scowl etched around his eyes.  To Cradle, he said, “This may have been a mistake.”

Cradle emerged from the shadows around his area.  His fingers traced broken construction, the concrete slabs had cracks running through them.  More worrisome, however, was the fact that the invisible wall that rested between Cradle and Love Lost was streaked with blood, which ran down in thick, chunky globs.

At the base of the wall, a body so mangled it barely looked human was slumped against the wall.

Love Lost approached it, and knelt down beside the corpse.

It’s like an intense fight happened while the rest of us were off dreaming, and this person lost hard, Rain thought.

“This is going to be a hassle,” Cradle said.  “She brought bodyguards.”

“Do you need help?” Snag asked.

“I took precautions when Love told me old one-tooth here was dangerous.  Fuck.  Fixing our situation is going to be hard if the powers lash out at the people who get involved.”

“Do you want one or not?” Snag growled.

“Give me one.  I might need to make a run for it.”

Snag passed one piece of glass over to Cradle.

Mama Mathers, Rain thought.  He braced himself for the appearance, and saw nothing.  He scanned the room, looking.  Too much to hope that it would have brought her in, for the same treatment the one-toothed woman had been given.

Emotionally, after his visit with Mama Mathers, after the dream, he felt raw.  There was a part of him that wanted to break down in tears.  But to show weakness?

Blood still worked its way down the invisible barrier.  It was responsible for some of the altered color in the room.  Where others’ spaces had been cast in shades of blue and purple, it was now redder.

The others would discuss, they’d share out powers, while leaving Rain out of the loop, and then they would go back to trying to kill him.  Rain, meanwhile, would wake up and find himself where he’d been the night before.  Mama Mathers would watch his every move.

“I need help,” he said.

The looks on their faces.  Hate, hate, and a cold stare through scratched-up glasses.  His heart sank.

“There are people with the Fallen who need help.  Innocents.  The Fallen- they use powers to force us to act a certain way, keep us from leaving.  There are-” Rain started.  He looked at Love Lost.  “There are kids at risk.”

Love Lost’s hand went out.  She punched the barrier between them with enough force that something in her hand audibly broke.  She trembled with a mixture of pain and sheer loathing as she lowered her hand.

The hand would heal when they woke up, but still- to go that far.

“There are kids who are being forced to comply with powers.  The ones who aren’t brainwashed the usual way are made to obey with powers.”

“Convenient excuse,” Cradle said.

“In that dream, I wasn’t under the influence of any powers except for a watchful eye,” Rain said.  “She was observing me back then, but it doesn’t appear in the dream.”

“Shut up,” Cradle said.  “Stop.  We hear this every five-”

“I’m desperate!” Rain raised his voice, advancing.  “It’s bad.

“Good,” Snag said.

Love Lost nodded.

“Suffer,” Snag said.

“Innocents are going to die, or worse!  I can give you information on the Fallen.  You can use it to stop them.”

“We’re not going to cooperate with you,” Cradle said.  “Anyone else, but not with you.”

“I can tell you where they are, I can tell you how they operate.”


Emotionally ragged, Rain almost opened his mouth to mention Erin.

“I’ll- if you cooperate, if you save these people-”

Save Erin.  Save her brother.  Save Lachlan.

They’re going to force me to go to the team.  They’ll find out about them.  If they get their hooks in Tristan- in Sveta?  Kenzie?

His teeth chattered with emotion.

“We’re not going to help you,” Cradle said.

“If you do,” Rain said, “I’ll do what you want.  Tie me to a chair, torture me for days.  Kill me.  But save them.”

Love Lost shook her head, looking away.

“We’re going to come after you,” Cradle said.  “Could be tomorrow, could be a week, could be a year.  Then we’ll do that anyway.  If you’ll lose people and things you care about in the meantime?  Good.  And you can know we let it happen because of your fucked up attitude infecting us.”

“Fuck you,” Rain said.  “Whoever or whatever you were before, it wasn’t normal or good.  People staring at you with disappointed looks from across a desk, looking at reports?  What was it?  Because you weren’t living up to potential?  You’re proving them right.”

Cradle didn’t flinch.  “You don’t know anything.”

Rain clenched his fist.  He looked at Love Lost.  “Your daughter would be disappointed in you.”

She raised her other fist, ready to punch the barrier again.

“Don’t take the bait,” Snag said.  “Don’t give him that satisfaction.”

“If you got anything from me, it wasn’t evil,” Rain said.  “It was willful blindness, being fucking sheep with no self-esteem or self-respect.  What happened to that Snag that helped that girl?”

It was Cradle who answered, “You guarded the door while he was trampled on the other side, and you laughed.  You see what we went through in our dreams, but you were the one getting a drunken handjob and laughing while we faced the worst days of our lives.”

“It was panic,” Rain said.

“Fuck that.”

“It was panic.  It was a nervous reaction!”

“Fuck that,” Cradle said, dismissive.  “We’ve heard it before, but-”

“Why do you think my share of the powers breaks things apart?  They’re thematically tied into who we are!  And my share is to shatter things because I was fucking shattered, right then!”

“It’s a power to destroy because you destroy things.  Do you know how I know?” Cradle asked.  “Because you fucking told us.  Day one.  You, me, him, her, in this room.  You laughed.  You told us we deserved it.  You threatened us.”

“Kill me, then.  Stop the Fallen, kill the monsters at the top, like Seir, and then kill me.”

“We’ll do all that without your help,” Snag said.  “Give us time.  Wait for it, dread it.”

Rain was shaking.  He approached the dais.  He found the his shards of metal.

He snatched them up and gripped them as a stack in his hand.

He turned his back to the dais, the three others, and the mangled body.

Fingers ran through Rain’s hair.

“Shhh.  Easy.”

He closed his eyes.  All of the aches and pains, the soreness in his throat from vomiting, and the more physical side of his emotional exhaustion were making themselves felt with every beat of his heart.  Sunlight streamed in through the window of the machine shop.


He startled, flipped over, and scrambled away from Mama Mathers, her fingernails scraping his scalp.  She knelt on the ground by where he had been sleeping.

His back was to the wall as he stared at everything that wasn’t her.  Looking at the images and hearing them made them last longer.  His prosthetic hands – if he dwelt on the design, focused on the schematics, on the work he needed to do, and the possibilities, if he didn’t think about-

Her hand touched the side of his head.  He flinched away, then froze, shaking.

He was so tired.  Already, he was on edge.

“You’re going to show me what you’ve been up to.  Show me the progress you’ve made in preparing to kill the others with matching powers,” Mama Mathers said.

He stared at the sunlight that came in through the window, the dust in the air illuminating it.  More dust and sawdust on the floor had patterns where footsteps had left tracks.  Clothes had been layered over a bag to serve as a kind of pillow.  Erin’s sweatshirt.  There was a wet spot where he’d drooled on it.

“Don’t disappoint me,” Mama Mathers said.

He made his way to his feet, his bruises and aches from his encounter with his uncle not helped by his sleeping on the hard floor.  He bent down to get the bag, picked up the sweatshirt, and folded it so his drool wasn’t too obvious.

Was Erin safe?  She-

Mama Mathers was in the corner of his vision.  Even his suspicion about who was responsible if Erin wasn’t safe was enough to bring her to bear.

She would have had to go home.  Her parents were fanatic enough they’d excuse almost anything, but he couldn’t imagine her staying all night.

A note sat on the table, beneath a connector tab from one of the digit manipulation systems he’d been working on.  He really wished Erin hadn’t moved it- just the fact that it wasn’t in order meant another ten or fifteen minutes of work.

Not that she could have known.

You sleep like you’re dead.  It’s freaky.
See you in the morning, bud.  We’ll figure something out.

The name was penned out in an exaggerated cursive, the ‘n’ exaggerated and drawn out long with a dwindling series of dips and raises.


He touched the name and realized he still had her sweatshirt.

He wanted to hold it to his face and inhale, only because he felt so desperate and alone that he wanted any connection that wasn’t- wasn’t her.

Mama Mathers approached the window and looked outside.

He might have wanted and done the same connection if it was a boy.  If it was Byron, or Tristan.  Not because he was that way, but…

He didn’t have much.

There was a knock at the door.  He reached for the note, folded it, and put it in his pocket.

“Come in.”

Erin.  She’d showered, and she had a stack of lunchboxes under her arm.  Three.  She wore a t-shirt with a blurry skull design bleached onto the front, crosses for eyes and separating the teeth, jeans, and high boots.

“What’s that?” he asked, indicating the lunchboxes.

“Food.  I asked my mom for breakfast to go, and lunch too, and she went overboard.  I thought after a day like yesterday, you might want to take it easy.  Hot breakfast, coffee in a thermos, and some lunch for later.”

“And the other?” he asked.  His voice was more hoarse than it had a right to be.  He felt the disparity between dusty, injured, weary himself and clean, beautiful, vivacious Erin.

“Breakfast for me, duh.”

“Oh,” he said.  His thoughts went in the wrong direction.  Mama Mathers paced the length of the room.

His life wasn’t his anymore.

“You can crash in your workshop today, figure your things out.  If you want dinner, I can bring that to you too.”

“I have to go,” he said, aware of Mama Mathers’ stare.  “I need to talk to the others, and I need to deal with my cluster.”

“Okay,” Erin said.  “I can drive you.”

“You don’t need to.”

“I can drive you.  It’s fine.  When do you want to go?”

“As soon as possible?  I need to shop for stuff, for my hands, and I want to stop by the library.  We could eat on the road.”

“Perfect,” she said.  “I’m ready to go, so get your stuff.”

He nodded, stiff.

“Can I?” she asked.  She pointed.

Tired, dazed, trying not to think, he was momentarily dumbfounded.

She pointed with more intensity, until he looked down.  Her sweatshirt.

He handed it to her, then turned to get his arms together.  His stuff hadn’t been touched from the night prior, but there was other stuff he wanted to bring, just in case.

“Did you jerk off onto my sweatshirt?”

He looked at Erin, stunned.  He looked at the wet spot of drool.

“I- no.  Drool,” he said.  “Sorry.”

“Fuck, you look like you just ran over my dog.  I was joking, I wanted to try to get a smile out of you.”

She smiled, encouraging.

He opened his mouth, then closed it.  He was so far from smiling, he couldn’t even process the idea.  He was all too aware that Mama Mathers was watching the exchange.

“Oh, honey,” she said.  “I’m sorry.”

“Sorry,” he said, again, automatically.

“It’s okay.  Let’s get on the road and get the stuff you need.”

He nodded.  He followed behind her, firmly shutting the door behind him, and the smell of breakfast was intoxicating.  He felt hollow inside, in more ways than one, and the idea of food to fill him up, after throwing up, after missing meals, with only candy and caffeine to tide him over, it made him almost delirious, his thoughts momentarily freed of the trap of thinking, not-thinking.

But thinking about the trap only brought her out again.  She stood on the street, looking around, as he got into Erin’s dad’s car.

He took the boxes, opened his, and started eating immediately.  “Thank you.”

“My mom’s a good cook,” she said.  “I did the pancakes, because they’re easy.  Made properly, not out of a box.”

“It’s the best thing I ever tasted,” he said.

As the car rolled down the dirt road, he could see the camp outside the window.  People who were only just waking up, meeting in town to eat at the communal dining hall, or borrowing what they needed to harvest crops or do a day’s worth of building.

“So, silly story, bear with me.”

“Silly story sounds good.”

“My brother and I, we had a game we’d play a year or so ago, when we were new here and there wasn’t much to do.  A series of codes and signals.”

Rain nodded.  He worried he was too tired to process anything complicated, but Bryce was young.

“Some of it was so we were on the same page, and if our parents were being especially kooky we could touch our hair near the right ear.  It was a good way to stay sane without making them upset or defensive.”


“And the other sign, it was folded arms.  We couldn’t do it all the time, or it’d be obvious, and we’d obviously have to change the subject.”

“I don’t follow.  You’d cross your arms when-”

“Be careful when you eat the sausage, by the way.  It’s handmade, but it has gristly bits in it that will do a number on your teeth.  I swear they’re bone shards, they’re that tough,” Erin said.

Rain looked at her.  He made the connection, realized what she was doing.

Mama Mathers was in the back seat, leaning forward, and Rain folded his arms.

“Yeah,” Erin said, with emphasis.  “Exactly.  It’s miserable, because my dad loves the things.  I can’t mention it, you know.  I haven’t been able to since we first arrived here and that was first dropped on my plate.  He’ll get super defensive, and my mom keeps making them and giving them to Bryce and I.”

The rest was filler.  Rain processed what Erin had intended to say, things he mostly knew.

The folded arms were to tip the other off that Mama Mathers was looking.  It was more of a concern for Rain than for Erin.  Erin’s introduction to the woman had been fleeting.  New visitors that were brought in as serious residents were given a glimpse of her, and a bit of a listen of her voice.  Most didn’t even realize what had happened, until they broke a rule.

The effect was weaker, only kicking in if Mama Mathers was mentioned by word, written or spoken, or possibly if she was thought about at the same time as a strong emotion was felt.

Erin couldn’t tell the others any more than he could, or Erin wouldn’t have been allowed to come.

“I’ll eat your sausage if you don’t want it,” he said.

“You go right ahead, you madman.”

They drove into the city, and his arms were crossed for much of the trip.

“Just don’t tell me whatever you end up doing to him, and we’re golden.”

“That’s fine,” Snag said, again.

In the background, the dog girl approached, the girl in the bodysuit, scarf, and demon mask walking at her side.

“Bitch,” Tattletale said.  “This is kind of a clandestine meeting.”

“My favorite kind,” the girl in the demon mask said.  Snag startled, his hand raising.  Tattletale moved forward, hand out to rest on top of it.

“My recordings do not like this person,” Kenzie said.  “I’m getting a billion and two warning messages.”

“Memories don’t track her,” Victoria said.  “She was relatively new when I left Brockton Bay.  Cameras record her better than the eye does, but the footage degrades over time.”

“Uuuuugh,” Kenzie groaned.  “This messes up so many things.  Let me reboot.”

The screen went dark.

“Our memories of this should be fine, unless she’s gotten stronger over time.”

“Do powers do that?” Rain asked.

“That’s a complicated question with a lot of answers,” Victoria said.  “Kid capes tend to get a better grasp on their abilities than adults do, but that’s partially because they adapt to the agent’s wavelength.  It’s part of what feeds into the myth that kids are stronger.”

“Not so much that they’re stronger,” Sveta said.  “Just that there’s less person and more power?”

“Something like that,” Victoria said.

“I know that reality pretty well,” Sveta said.

“There are other things.  Some have hidden uses or nuances that aren’t made obvious to the user.  Most powers are instinctively usable, but there are gaps, sometimes, or things about the power you need to figure out.”

“We’re back!” Kenzie announced, as the screen lit up, showing the camera footage, Tattletale’s group all gathered.  “And I have to say I love gothic doll girl’s dress.  That’s awesome.”

“Don’t wear a frock, Kenzie,” Tristan said.  “A tinker in a frock would be a travesty.”

“Having to keep all that neat and tidy would be a nightmare.  I’d rather spend that time on my cameras.  But she looks awesome.”

“Beside her is Flechette.  Was Flechette.  Foil, now that she’s gone over to the dark side,” Victoria said.

“Dark side?” Chris asked, from the other end of the room.  He snorted.

“Get out of the damn corner and join the conversation, you goon,” Tristan said.

“The corner is comfortable.  I can see everything.”

See everything.

Rain was aware of Mama Mathers, standing on the edge of the group, watching, paying mind to the others.

“Good boy,” Mama Mathers whispered in his ear.  “We’ll be ready for them.”

He crossed his arms.  Erin wasn’t around, but it was habit, and he worried his hands would shake if he wasn’t careful.

Knowing what he’d done to those people in the mall ate at him.  The woman with her hair in the door hadn’t survived.  Others had died in the crush.  Some were children.

But Rain knew.  He’d have to kill Mama.

He’d have to kill Snag.  He’d have to kill Love Lost.  He’d have to kill Cradle.

“I don’t want to go inside,” Bitch said, on the screen.

“You came all this way, and you don’t want to go in?”  Tattletale asked.

“Across universes,” the girl with the very ironic demon mask commented.

“Across parallel worlds,” Tattletale clarified.

“I came all this way because you said I had to.”

“I said it would be a good idea,” Tattletale said.

“And I came.”

“It’s a good idea because we all need to be on the same page, and we need intel on all these people we’re going up against.  I meant for you to come to the briefing.”

“Briefings are important,” Foil said.  “Especially for something this big.”

“Tattletale can tell me before it happens,” Bitch said.

“Or you can come in, and you can listen.  It’ll be good for people to know your face.”

“I don’t care about those people.  It’s a nice night.  I’ll sit with my dogs and stand guard.”

“She’s right,” the girl in the demon mask said.  “I’ll come with you and hang out, if that’s cool.”

“No,” Tattletale said.  “For you, it’s absolutely mandatory.”

“That’s not fair.”

“Life isn’t fair.  Go.  Inside.  Rache, find a nice seat by the water.  Everyone, again, I shouldn’t need to repeat myself, but your antics are making me worry, watch what you say.  They’re listening, and they’re watching.”

“You sound paranoid,” Foil said.

“Deservedly so,” Tattletale said.  “If you have to say anything about the job, say it indoors.”

“Or I can not talk,” Bitch said.

“Or that.  Go.  Shoo.  You guys, indoors.  Snuff, watch the cars.”

Rain watched as Tattletale herded everyone.

“Jesus,” Tristan said.  “These are the guys who took over a city?”

“And run one of the most established areas of Gimel,” Victoria said.

“I ran into some of them when they came to Cauldron, right on the heels of the Irregulars and the whole mess there,” Sveta said.  “They were there at the end of the world.  They played a big role in it.”

“Credit where credit’s due,” Tristan said.

Victoria had her own arms folded.  Fingernails bit into her upper arm.  “Give us some intel later, Sveta?  Or do you think that would be unfair?”

“I can give some intel.”

Tattletale, business done, stepped away, and when she was at the side of the building, nobody in her immediate area, she leaned against the wall.

She drew a phone out of her pocket, and pressed it to her ear.  Reaching into her pocket, she pulled out a lighter, but no cigarette.

No, Rain realized.  Not a lighter.  It flipped open, but there was only a button on the top.

“What is that?” he asked.

Kenzie hit keys.  “No phone calls live.”

“You’re tracking that?” Sveta asked.

“Part of making sure we’re not being listened to.  No biggie.”

Tattletale hit the button.

“Uuuuugh,” Kenzie groaned.  “What is she doing?  This is messing up other stuff.”


All eyes went to the screen.  It was Tattletale that had talked.

“Optics, or whatever you’re calling yourself now.  Capricorn.  Sveta.  Creepy kid.  Boy from the Fallen.  Not sure if I just outed you, but there we are.”

“Are we supposed to reply?” Kenzie asked.

“I’m creepy kid?” Chris asked.

“Cute stunt, alleging I’m working with you.  I’m sure you have camera footage to help build the lie.  Fine.  You win.  You ruined my day and it’s going to be a headache for a while.  This insane grudge you’re nursing?  It’d be great to call it even.”

Victoria didn’t move a muscle.

“Fifty-fifty odds you’re shaking your head at me right now, G.H.  If you’re not, you’re standing there being all stoic, really wanting to be.  Fine.  Five of you need to butt the fuck out.  The sixth needs to run.  These guys really want him gone, and frankly, after hearing what they had to say, I’d almost cheer them on.”

I can’t run, Rain thought.  I would have run a long time ago, if I could.

“I know you’re not going to, but if I jumped straight to that, it’d sound too aggressive.  I’m going to be unusually gracious and give you this warning.   Tonight is the briefing.  After that, we’re going to have a war.  Be as far away as possible, be crafty, and maybe they’ll run out of money to pay me before they catch up to you.  If you can’t get away, put as many people you don’t give a shit about between yourself and these guys as you can.  You’ve been staying in the camp for a while, that’s a good place to be.”

“She’s giving us advice?” Chris asked.

“Mastermind games,” Victoria said.

“I’m going to hold nothing back when it comes to finding you, as soon as my contract starts, and I’ll tell them exactly where you are within minutes.  They’ll come after you, they’ll get you, and they’ll do things to you that make me squeamish.  If your friends are in the way, Fallen boy, they’ll probably do the same to them.  I could list off a hundred things I’ve seen and even done that would drive the squeamish point home, about how it’s actually pretty amazing they got me, but this doo-dad is almost out of juice, and I don’t want this recorded or overheard by our friendly clairvoyants.”

“Uuugh,” Kenzie groaned.  She mashed the keyboard with her palms.  “That’s what she’s doing.”

“Cost me a lot too,” Tattletale said.  “Sorry Optics.  Victoria?  Third time I’ve been really gentle with you or your people.  Kind of hope-”

Tattletale stopped.  She smacked the lighter-sized jammer with her hand a few times.  Looking back up to the camera, Tattletale gave it the finger, then turned to walk away.

“Thinkers are scary,” Tristan said.

“Fuck her,” Victoria said.

“Are you okay, Rain?” Sveta asked.

“Nothing about that was really news.  Except just how confident she is she’ll find me.”

“I think she could say the sky is lime green with confidence,” Victoria said.

“I’m… not reassured,” Rain said.

“Whatever you want to do, we can back you,” Tristan said.

Rain, arms folded, was aware of Mama Mathers.  He looked at her.  He prayed for someone to notice, to put pieces together.  He saw Victoria and Tristan exchange a look.

“Come home,” Mama Mathers said.

“I’m going to go back,” he said.  He didn’t have much of a choice.

“We’re going to help, okay?” Tristan asked.  “This thing is happening, you’ll be over there, we have people on both sides of the conflict, you on the one side, and-”

“And an agent on the other,” Rain finished, before Tristan could name names.  “If that group is even part of it.”

“They are,” Kenzie said.  “They’re attending the briefing.  A lot of friction.”

“This goes down tomorrow, and we will make something happen,” Tristan said.

“We’ve got your back,” Sveta said.

Rain nodded.  Tired as he was, with only a brief nap in the car to sustain himself, he felt emotional.

No words.

“I’m going to talk to the Wardens,” Victoria said.  “It’s time.  They’re probably already aware something’s up, this many major players getting together, but I can provide context and get you help.”

He nodded again.  He didn’t have it in him to speak.

The Wardens wouldn’t want to help him.

He walked over to where his stuff was, grabbed the cosmetic things Kenzie had given him, and exited the door.

Erin had gone home earlier, at the time of Advance Guard’s appearance.  With all the chaos after, they’d canceled the other plans.  It wasn’t worth it, and the cat was out of the bag.

He had the support of the group, potentially the Wardens, of Erin, and even Tattletale giving advice and a head start.

He wasn’t sure he deserved it.

The ferry-car that Rain had called was jam packed, and the trip was made more uncomfortable by the fact the road into the camp was choked with vehicles.  There were trucks, jeeps, and the barely-intact rush jobs that more enterprising people had put together from scrap, back when they’d needed workhorse vehicles and there hadn’t been enough cars coming out of Earth Bet.  Sheet metal welded together to form car bodies, with Frankenstein interiors and engines.

Even after the cars had been available again, the car junkies had kept making the ugly beasts, as a point of pride.

He had spent enough time around the other branches that he knew the cliques and groups, the tendencies, styles of dress, and the favored tattoos.  All three sub-groups of the Crowley family were present.  All three brothers.

Mama Mathers knew about the attack, because she’d seen what the group had seen.  She’d called in help.

Tents were going up, cars were parked on lawns outside houses, to the point it looked like every house was throwing a massive party, and bonfires dotted the dark fields and hills.  Even the forests were eerily illuminated, as whole groups of people were bringing down trees and dividing them into firewood.

The Fallen weren’t outnumbered three to one anymore.

There were others, Rain saw.  Groups that he didn’t know, but that the Crowleys were no doubt familiar with.  Bikers.  Scattered people from the Clans.

If they fended off the initial attack, and they might, Rain knew they would attack back.  They’d hit Cedar Point, wiping it off the map and they’d do a lot of damage to everything between here and there.

The truck stopped several times.  Many of the people in the vehicle with Rain were Crowleys, new to the camp, so the truck drove well past the point of the central settlement, to deliver multiple people to each house.

It meant, at least, that Rain had transportation direct to his place.  Two guys got out with him.  They were Crowley jackasses- actual titles they wore with pride.

“Rain,” Mama Mathers said.  “Stop.”

He stopped in his tracks.  The two jackasses gave him a look.  He waved them on.

The woman’s hand, spectral as it was, felt real as it touched Rain’s hair.  He flinched, but she persisted.  He remained where he was, head turned away, neck stiff.

“This was good,” Mama Mathers said.  “I’ll reward you.”

He didn’t move a muscle.

“Enjoy your evening, my soldier.  Tomorrow, we show them we’re not to be trifled with.”

Rain turned his head, to look for clarification, but she was gone.  There was a distant sound, like a flock of birds taking off.

He’d slept on the train, but this whole scene was so surreal.  She’d-

He stopped, bracing himself for her appearance.  For the physical contact.

She hadn’t appeared.  The sound remained.  A thunderous flapping, far away.

Mama Mathers, he thought.

There was only the sound.

She’d freed him?  For only tonight?

Adrenaline coursed through him.  His eyes were wide as he strode forward.  He had- not opportunity, but something.  He walked at a speed that was only a run, passing the jackasses, pushing his way into his aunt and uncle’s house.

His aunt and uncle were in the living room, organizing sleeping arrangements for five boys and girls, ages ranging from sixteen to mid-twenties.  Soldiers, like Rain had once been.  Crowleys.  Allie was at the kitchen table, with others her age sitting around her.  Adult women were cooking.

He was free, or almost free, and he was surrounded by Fallen.  What was he supposed to do?

His aunt spotted him.  Her expression was unreadable, and she shooed him off.

His room.  He’d go there, he’d regroup.  If it hadn’t been commandeered to give others a place to sleep.  He had some spare things in his room.  Weapons, traps.  He took the stairs two at a time.

Jay’s sister was in the hallway.  Nell.  The house was crowded, but the upstairs had been kept quiet.

Nell stared at Rain as she put headphones on.  The stare persisted as he walked past her, her head moving to keep him in her sight.  He was uncomfortably reminded of Love Lost.  This wasn’t hostility, but-

Threatening?  Ominous?

He opened the door to his room, and let himself in.

The room was occupied.

Rain swallowed, hard.  “Erin.”

Erin sat on his bed.  She didn’t make eye contact, her fingers picking at the blanket she’d put over her lap.

She was wearing only a silk nightgown.

“They were waiting for me when I drove in, like last night,” Erin said.


“They took me to the big house,” she said.

“To the leadership?” he asked.

She shook her head.

“Elijah?  Valefor?”

“To the elders, in the sitting room.  They told me I’m to marry.”

Rain swallowed hard.

Erin put her hand forward.  When she pulled it back, two simple golden bands were left on the dark wool blanket Rain kept at the foot of the bed.

“They’re giving me to you,” she said, her voice lacking inflection.  “If-”


“If you want me.”

“Not like this.”

“Can you hear me out?  Can you let me talk?  Because I’ve been sitting here for hours.  They took me to my house, they made me change.  When I wasn’t dressed how they thought I should dress, they went through my room and picked this out.  This isn’t my choice, so you know.”

“I don’t-”

“Hear me out?  Please.  Before you say anything and I lose all composure.  I know you’ve helped me out a ton, and I’ve helped you out, but can you do this for me?  Let me talk?”

Rain nodded.

“I want to do this.  I want to- I want you.  Please.  I thought about it and I’ve been thinking about it as a just-in-case.  They asked me at the big house, they said Mama Mathers wanted to pair you and me, and they asked what I wanted, if it were to happen.  There’s this dilapidated house I think it could be fixed up nice and expanded to be a proper house.  It’s on the outskirts, near the old gate.  It’d be ours.  For us.”


“And my parents could move in.  I want them away from everything, not so involved and tied in.  They’ll make them move, and they’ll start being more rational if there aren’t those influences.  You and I together.  I know you don’t want to stay, but we’d barely be part of the community, that far out.”

“I can’t.”

“Listen,” she said.  She stood from the bed, and he looked away as he realized how short the nightie was.  She scooped up the rings and held them in cupped hands.  “Listen.  Please listen.  I only liked you as a friend, before.  But a few days ago, you gave me a hug, and it was nice.  I started thinking, if it had to be someone, I wanted it to be you.  Once I started thinking like that, I started thinking about how you looked nice.  Kind of 90’s bad boy, with the long hair, ripped jeans and flannel, very Bender in Breakfast Club, except you’re way more attractive than Nick Cage.”

“You’re rambling, and-”

“I’m terrified,” she said.  She stepped forward, well inside his personal space, until her chest touched his.  He pulled back, back to the closed door, and she didn’t pursue.

Instead, her hands went up, fingers pinching at the very edges of his shirt.

“Please,” she said.  “You.  My parents.  My brother.  This is the only way I get anything close to a happy ending.”

“You need to come with me.  We’ll run.  There’s going to be this war, anyway, and-”

She was already shaking her head.

“I can’t leave them.  I lost everything.  My family lost everything.  If they lost me too?  If I lost them?  I couldn’t ever.”

“This place will destroy you.”

“Not if- not if we get that house on the outskirts.  We’ll be far enough away, we won’t have a lot of involvement.  Please.  I see the way you look at me.  I’m not dumb.”

“I can’t.”

“If you want me barefoot and in the kitchen, I can-”

Rain made a face, shook his head, looked away.

“No.  I didn’t think you would.  But…”

Her presence was overwhelming enough he worried he might do something stupid.  Every look he’d averted, every thought he hadn’t completed, every time he’d jacked off and thought of her, but hadn’t ever been able to let himself imagine a scenario to go along with her, they were things that had been left incomplete, like a hole inside of him.  Love with a missing letter.

She was, standing before him, promising that.

“That you’d suggest that… isn’t that the destruction I just talked about?  That’s not you.  That’s this fucking place.”

Mama Mather’s disconnected presence was like bird’s wings against the exterior of the house, rustling.

Erin was barely able to speak and barely audible as she said, “You want this.  I want this.”


“Give me my family, Rain.  Be my family.”

“It would destroy you,” he said.

She shook her head.

“And it would destroy me.  It’s the one thing I can’t do.”

She went very still.

“I love you, Rain.  I really think I do.  It took me hours sitting in here and considering possibilities, but I do love you.”

“I love you too.”

“Don’t say that.  Not when you’re also saying no, when they’ll marry me off to someone else instead.”

“You need to leave.”

“I can’t.”

“You need to leave.  You can go.  While everything’s going to pieces, I can get your parents and brother.  The team will.  We’ll kidnap them, we’ll get them out.”

He could see the glimmer on her face.  The hope.

He could see it die.

“If it failed, I’d lose them.  Unequivocally,” she said.  “I can’t risk it.”


“I can’t!” she raised her voice.

The murmur of discussion downstairs grew quieter.  People were listening now.

“I can’t.  The world ended and I have nightmares every night.  I lost friends.  Losing my family will destroy me more surely than anything.”

Rain wanted to reply.  He remained silent instead.

Something in his expression conveyed what words couldn’t.  Her expression changed.

She hit him in the chest, hard.  She hit him again, drumming him with her fists.  He didn’t resist.

She stopped, clutched his shirt, and pressed her face to his chest.

It was all he could do not to wrap his arms around her in a hug.

“This isn’t you,” he said.  “It’s this place.”

She pulled away.

“You need to leave,” she said, with restrained anger.  “If you say no to this, they’ll want to know why, and the reason why is that you aren’t loyal.”

She wasn’t wrong.

He stepped away.  He approached the window, and he looked outside before creating his silver blades.

“I’d die for you,” he said.  “But I can’t be Fallen.”

“Then fucking die, Rain.”

He cut into the bedroom window with his blades.  With a strong tap, he let the glass fall to grass below.

If it hadn’t been his day, he wasn’t sure he’d have had the precision to cut like that, or the ability to so easily tap it out, without breaking the glass.

He hit the ground, and he started running.

Rain punched the numbers into the keypad.  He was on the train, and he had no destination to travel to.  He couldn’t go to the others.  He couldn’t go back to the camp.

His finger traveled over the number pad.  One, seven, four, six, nine, three, and M.

The numbers painted out a letter on a conventional number pad.  He’d just drawn out ‘H’.

Nine, seven, four, six, four, one, three, and D.  He’d drawn out ‘E’.

Seven, one, three, and N.  ‘L’.

‘P’ was the last letter.  One, seven, nine, six, four and S.

The letters were a code of their own.  An incomplete word or phrase.

He sent the message, and he waited, staring at the phone.

He got his reply.  A text: 9713A97139E17593S9746413Y

He translated it.  ‘Come’.  Letters: A, E, S, Y.  Put together with his, ‘Madness’ and the stray Y.

In plain text, he asked ‘where’?

In code, he got his reply.  It was lengthy enough it had to have been pre-prepared.  An address.

It took him an hour to get there.  A dark part of the city, where the power hadn’t been kept on.

A door as opened.  Candles were lit within.

The woman who faced him was petite, and wore a rabbit mask with a uniform that looked like a soldier from the 1800s.  A rapier dangled from her waist.

“March,” he said.

Wordless, she invited him to come in.  He did.  Further inside, he could see others.  A trio of people.  Another pair.

Other clusters.

“I’m out of options,” he said.

“You know what I want,” March said.

“Foil.  Flechette.  From your cluster. I’ve seen her.”

“I’ve been planning on dealing with her and her acquaintance Tattletale for some time now.  It puts me in a unique position to help you.”

“You want her to die.”

“That discussion can wait until tomorrow.  For now, you look like you need to sleep.”

Heartbroken, exhausted, he couldn’t bring himself to say no.

He dreamed, and the dream slipped from memory as soon as he entered the room.

Rain bent down for the chair, found it in its usual place, and set it on the ground.

There was no discussion.  The others stood, Snag approached the dais.  Love Lost hung back.  Cradle paced.

Rain sat, and he watched.  After so many hard days and nights, he felt eerily calm.

Not so much left to lose, in a way.

It dropped from the sky, and it bounced on the tip of the crystal spike that stood up from the center of the dais.  A token.  A coin, flipping in air, a shard of metal as it showed its other side.  A tooth, shadow moving across it as it rotated in the air.  A piece of glass.

It bounced on the point of crystal with eerie accuracy, landed, wobbled, and then slid to one side, breaking apart as it slid.  Rain stood, and he approached the dais.

He pushed everything else aside, and he collected his shards of metal.

With them, a piece of glass and a coin.

Today mattered.  The others’ expressions were trying not to betray anything, but they were bothered.

I’ll see you tomorrow, Rain thought.  And at least one of us here is going to die.

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

Shadow – 5.5

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

Orange motes began dancing around the trucks and railing that were serving to slow Prancer’s group down.  The people who hadn’t been pushed very far back actually backed away from the motes.

Glowing particles from one parahuman could be harmless or negligible, they could be concentrated points of energy that cut through flesh like a hot knife through butter, or they could be concentrated points of energy that un-concentrated into sizable explosions, given an excuse.

I made a loop of the area, getting a better look at Beast of Burden’s violent capes that were on the right side of the street -their right, my left- and with a gap separating them, the other capes, with the thinkers and Prancer.  I gave a wide berth to the particles, to help sell the idea they might be dangerous, and then landed beside Capricorn.

“Holding up?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Keep doing what you’re doing.  Don’t set it off unless they get close.”

“That’s the plan.  Mayday,” Tristan said.  “Good to meet you.  Are you caught up on things?”

“Spright filled me in.  This is your jurisdiction?”

I answered, “We’re babysitting it while other teams tour it.  They liaise with us.  That you didn’t says something went wrong.  People are messing with us, Cedar Point, or both.”

“We can discuss that later,” Mayday said.  “My team, Teri, Signal, Prong.  Who’s out?”

“I know you might need me, but my focus is gone,” the diagram woman said.

“Go,” he said.  The word was barely out of his mouth when she went out like smoke dissipating into air.  The smoke held the colors that had been her, initially covering the black of her costume’s fabric, the dark blue armor panels, the lighter blue ‘magic circle’ images on those panels, and her apparently near-black skin and hair.  The smoke included the interior colors too, however.  White for bone and fat, and lots of pinks and reds.

Within a second and a half, she was gone.

“Prong, Signal Fire, we decide who to evac next depending on situation.”

Five Advance Guard remained, with the five of us.  We were outnumbered almost three to one by the collected villains of Cedar Point.

Spright, Mayday, Signal Fire, Prong, and one other.  It was a woman with a short dress as part of her costume, leggings beneath, and long sleeves with the panels helping to form the bones of ‘wings’.  The panels at the front of her mask swept along the sides of her head to form a wing pattern.

I was going to guess she was ‘Flapper’.  A hard name to tie into the aesthetic of the Advance Guard.

Two mobile capes, and three that were waiting to be teleported out.  I was betting Mayday would be last.  Once their group was small enough, I was betting they would make a break for it.  We’d want to be able to go too.

Capricorn’s orange motes were rising up and filling the area between buildings.

Past the curtain, I could hear Ashley’s power.

“Hey!” Prancer called out.  “Civilian property.  They pay us, we leave their stuff alone.”

Ashley said something I didn’t hear.  Nailbiter sniggered.

Natalie was going to get upset with us again.

The standoff couldn’t last.  We were walking backward, putting distance between ourselves and the group, while the orange motes collected and filled the space.

“Hi Signal,” Looksee said.  “We didn’t interact for very long, but-”

“Optic,” Signal Fire said.

“Yeah,” she said.  “Except I changed my name.  Trying one on for a fit, but a teammate was making fun of me for it.  You actually remember me?  I thought you wouldn’t, maybe, because you had so many trainees-”

“I remember,” he said.

“Okay,” she said.  “It’s so nostalgic.  It’s been a while, Mayday-”

“Not the time,” Mayday said.

“Oh.  Okay,” she said.  “Okay.  Shutting up now.”

“You know the kid?” Flapper asked.

“She was one of my Wards, once,” he said.  “The less said, the better.”

“Wait,” Spright said.  “Is she the one you mentioned?”

The less said, the better,” Mayday said, in a tone that left no room for doubt.

“Geez,” Spright said.  “From the stuff I heard, I thought she’d look way different.  Older.”

“Let’s leave it,” Mayday said.  “I shouldn’t have said anything in the first place.”

“Nice to know that people are talking about me,” Looksee said, with a touch of sarcasm.  “We talked to Houndstooth, by the way.”

“It might be worth talking to him,” I said.  “He can round out what Spright said.  His team passed through.”

“I’ll do that.  He’s a good one,” Mayday said.  There was a pause.  “We’ve met and talked a few times.”

“Avenguard too?” Looksee asked.

“No comment,” Mayday said.

“I’m missing context,” Flapper said.

“Why don’t we focus on current events?” Sveta asked.

“Please,” Mayday said.

“Spright, keep an eye on the ones to the left.  Flapper, right.  Intercept and obstruct for Signal and me to tag.”

Rain raised a hand, pointing.  To our left, on the other side of the barricade, a hand and arm of thin parts was reaching up, tips embedding into the side of the building and piercing through.

Nailbiter was climbing the building face, to get up and over the orange motes.

I flew toward her at the same time Spright started running in that direction.

Off on the other side of the street, Velvet sent a trash can sailing through the orange sparks.  Metal rings held wooden slats in place, prettifying the exterior of a half-filled plastic bin.  Trash emptied out as it turned over, and it passed harmlessly through the orange points of light and the trails they’d left.

Testing them.

That was for others to handle.  I wasn’t looking at the time it happened, but at the corner of my vision, I saw the trash can change direction in the air.  Sveta, possibly.

Nailbiter found her position on the wall, toes extended and digging in, and pulled one hand away to point it at Spright and me.

It was hard to tell how fast it was coming at me, because the individual fingers were so thin and their extension so fluid.  I tried to judge it, flew to one side, and was struck regardless.

Before I could get hit again, I changed direction, letting myself fall down, away.  I’d had to deal with guns before.  If I couldn’t see the fingers and teeth stabbing for me, I would treat them as I might treat bullets.  She was mobile, strong, and as far as I was concerned, she had powerful shotguns for fingers and teeth.

I landed hard on the ground, rolled, and let her dismiss me, changing her focus to Spright, who was flying up toward her, his arms extended, with fingers drawn out, long and thin.

I waited until they clashed, fingers striking one another like ten rapiers striking ten more, and then I flew, pushing off the ground for that miniscule extra boost.

Spright extended his arms, flying down while keeping his hands in place, his arms long and high above him.  I could see the points of Nailbiter’s teeth pass above him, saw her turn her head toward me-

With her being extended across so much of the wall, I had room to maneuver while still pressing the attack.  I went low instead, seized her ankle with the wretch manifesting around me, and hauled her back and away from the wall.

It wasn’t an easy or immediate process to dislodge her.  In another circumstance, I might not have been able to budge her.  In this circumstance, gravity helped a bit.  She couldn’t do a lot to keep herself from having those long needle-fingers pulled out of the wall, except to extend them further.

Sidepiece hurled something at me, and it exploded against the wall, a foot from my head.  I glanced at her, saw her tear one of her exaggerated ribs out from beneath a cutoff t-shirt with so much cut off from the bottom it was indecent, above a stomach that looked like a zombie’s, with flesh bloody, raw and open where literal pounds of flesh had been torn away. The spine and area around it were intact, as was the navel and stomach on the opposite side, but the sides were completely gone.

She flung it at me.  I let go of Nailbiter, flew down, and hit the ground with an impact, my aura flared out.  I didn’t stop for half a second before immediately taking off again.

“Don’t fucking hit me, ‘piece!” Nailbiter screeched the words behind me, but the manner of speaking was even worse, as her teeth were retracting.

Again, I used my aura as I touched wall, not as heavy an impact, but I hit the edge of a window frame, and it made glass rattle.  Aura out, harder than before.

I zig-zagged, ground to wall, wall to a point high overhead, point above to ground again.  I made each point of contact with a surface something they had to pay attention to, putting them off guard, making Sidepiece have to turn around.

I took off again, flying toward her, aura at full blast.

Straight line, impact, straight line, impact, the pattern was ingrained.  I flew toward her, the impact a damn promise I’d made, and then changed course in the air, veering away from Sidepiece, aura stopping abruptly.

She threw a rib, but it was a throw she’d been planning to throw at me while I charged at her.  It went far afield, sailing in the direction of Capricorn, Mayday, and the rest of the group, and hit the road.

She didn’t have time to get another pound of flesh ready to hurl at me.

Nailbiter was getting herself situated after the adjustments she’d made to try to cling to the building, one of her hands out, fending off Spright.  She saw me coming, but too late.  I hooked my arm around her middle, her long torso in the crook of my elbow, and I pulled her away from the wall, successfully this time.

Once I’d pulled her away, she was flailing, searching for something to hold onto.  I didn’t give her the opportunity to get a grip or find an angle to get me.  I checked the coast was clear and tossed her down.

“Capricorn!” I called out.

“Okay,” I heard him say, a distance away.

Nailbiter landed across the truck, surrounded by orange motes.  The motes solidified, turning into the ridged white stone with orange-yellow veins running through it.

Nailbiter was stuck, part of her torso, her butt, and one arm caught in Capricorn’s stone.  The wall covered a considerable height, reaching up to the second story of the neighboring buildings, with some isolated spikes reaching up to the third.

I landed on the wall, and Spright landed right beside me.  He reached out with one extended hand, flexing it.

“I love the changer forms I get to steal,” he said.  “They last for so much longer than other stuff, and I get more of the offensive side of it than I do with other stuff.  This is great.  Thank you, Nailbiter.”

“Fuck yourself!” she screamed, voice distorted.  She reached back with her one free hand.  Both Spright and I leaned back and used the top edge of the wall for cover as the extended fingers stabbed upward, thin.

“Do that again, and I’ll return the favor,” Spright said.

“Stay put, Nailbiter,” I said.  I looked at Spright.  “You should go.  I can do more against them like this, and if you wait too long you won’t be able to catch up with the others.”

“No objection,” Spright said.  He somersaulted backward off of the wall.

Our group was running, now.  The only reason they hadn’t run earlier was that the bottleneck had been too important, too essential to keep the villains from coming at them as a mob.  Now there was a wall dividing the two groups.

I had the bird’s eye view as I stood on top of the wall.  Damsel began shooting at the wall, putting holes in it, while Moose stepped back, assessing the situation.

I flew down to the wall, close enough to Nailbiter that I was pretty sure Moose wouldn’t come tearing through the wall and trample me.

My back to the wall, hands out and pressed to the uneven surface, I waited until I felt the vibrations of Moose’s running footsteps.  It was hardly necessary, because Nailbiter kicked with her legs and screeched something at him, loud enough that Advance Guard and the therapy team could be aware of what was happening.

I pushed out with my aura, hard, extending it through the wall.

The thudding footsteps stopped.

On the other side, I heard Moose’s voice, then a laugh.


Gave him pause, at least.

He didn’t charge the wall, but he did punch one gauntleted fist through it.  A moment later, another fist came through.  He grabbed the intervening bit of stone and hauled on it, pulling out a chunk.

I backed away, facing the wall and Nailbiter’s rear end.

Moose peered through the hole.

“We meet again,” he said.

“Sorry about the face,” I said.

He moved his metal mask a bit to one side, showing me the three grooves that ran from the corner of his jaw to his cheekbone.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Sorry.”

“I got a compliment from a girl, she thought it was gnarly,” he said.  “It’s not all bad.”

“Stop fucking flirting and get us through, Moose!” someone called out, on the other side of the wall.  Velvet, I was guessing.

“My mom would cry if she saw it, though,” Moose said.  He lurched forward, shouldering his way through the hole he’d made, leaving a Moose-shaped hole behind him.

On the other side, I could see Prancer’s entire group backed away as segments of the stone came crashing down behind Moose.  More time, more delay for our side.

Delay that would be needed, it seemed.  Moose was fast on his feet, more than super strength and good form might have suggested- each footstep seemed to produce a focused blast where his feet landed, a geyser of dust behind the ball of each foot, blasting out to five feet behind him.  There was Prancer in his breaker state.

Just behind Prancer, Velvet drove a truck through the hole Moose had made, the side view mirror on one side scraping off on the wall’s edge.  Capes were in the vehicle and perched on top.

They’d been smugglers, suppliers, and getaway drivers, in another life.  It made sense they could move when they needed to.  Normally it meant them getting away, but here it applied to the chase.

I couldn’t catch Prancer, and I wasn’t going to throw myself headlong at a truck filled with what had to be a half dozen people with powers.

I could have gone for Moose, but I didn’t want to make his mom cry any more than she might, and he was moving fast enough and hard enough I wasn’t sure I could stop him without causing reams of property damage.

Better to go back to the others.  They’d rounded a corner, and were heading northward, toward the main highway and the train tracks.  I flew direct to them, putting myself ahead of Prancer and his entourage.

I flew alongside the others.  Looksee was keeping up, inexplicably, and it was Rain who was lagging.  Capricorn had one hand at his shoulder.

Mayday, just to Capricorn’s right, wasn’t the fastest either.  Prong was gone, and Mayday and Signal Fire were the only ones left in Advance Guard who didn’t have mover abilities.

Spright had the benefit of both Flapper’s power and the lingering effect of Nailbiter’s transformation.  That put him well ahead of the rest.

That seemed to be his thing.  Always staying ahead, always with just a bit of an edge in mobility.

“They’re coming.  Moose and Prancer are charging in.  Velvet has a car,” I reported.

“Got it,” Capricorn said.

I saw the orange lines moving across the road.  I could see the pattern and the logic.  Rush jobs, but they snapped into being as Rain and Mayday passed over them.  Rows of spiky growth across the road.

“I could use my power, but I’d rather keep it under wraps,” Rain said.

“Do,” Tristan said.  “Have your gun ready.”

Gun?  Erin’s?

The villains rounded the corner behind us, and they started catching up.  Moose saw the spikes and bent low while running, tearing his hands through them, scattering whole chunks of them in passing, not even slowing in stride.

Moose broke more of the spike strips.  Prancer ran up one of the horn-ridden poles while it was still moving through the air, the butt end slamming against the ground as he put his feet on the ridged spikes.  He planted a foot on the end as the pole tilted toward the ground, pointing in our general direction, and leaped, hard.

I pushed out with my aura, hard, and flew to intercept, forcefield down.

He was quick, and determined enough the aura didn’t give him much pause.  I drove an elbow in his direction, normal human strength, and his fingers found the crook of that elbow.  He leveraged that into half-pulling, then half-kicking himself over my arm and shoulder.  Lighter than he looked, and he’d used me as a stepping stone, closing the distance further.

Sveta’s hand caught him before he could grab Rain from behind.  She pulled herself to him and possibly by dint of him being as light as he was, him to her.  They met halfway, and crashed in a heap.  The breaker form dissipated.

Sveta was quick enough to recover that I didn’t even reach her side before she was up, reaching out.  Her feet skidded on the road for the first moments as she hauled herself away from the defeated Prancer, Moose almost on her.

“Stop them!” Prancer called out to Moose.

The big guy had only slowed slightly, to check on his friend, and now he picked up speed.  Behind him, Velvet was driving her truck through gaps that were narrower than the spacing between the truck’s tires.  She veered to one side, then the other, and possibly augmented by her power, drove the truck tilted on one side, only the rightmost wheels making contact with the ground to pass through the gaps Moose had made.  The guy on the roof of the truck was a good two hundred feet away, but I could still see the whites of his eyes as he held on for dear life.

The group carried on making a break for it.  As Advance Guard left, we’d have to figure out what to do with our team.  I wasn’t sure if their teleporter would be able to evacuate us in the same way.

Ahead of the group, Anxiety Chris was at the corner of the street, clutching at his face with all of his legs.  He screamed as he saw us coming.

Spright picked up the pace, flying in his direction with a combination of my flight and Flapper’s, his arms with extended fingers buoying him forward, like bat wings without the webbing between.  He touched ground, running, making a beeline straight for the guy.

I wanted to call out a warning, but I wasn’t sure if it was right to.  I’d have been outing Chris’ role in our group.

His power affects the mind.

“Don’t!” Sveta called out.

“We don’t know what it is!” I added.

Spright ignored us both.  Again.

Screaming without pausing for breath, Chris traveled the ‘S’-shaped route, trying to take evasive action, and Spright remained on his… not heels.

“Give!” Spright called out, as he drew closer, until he could almost touch Chris.

They remained like that for a brief while, Chris trying to escape, Spright chasing.  The screaming continued.

Spright’s pace slowed, and he let Chris run away.  Spright glanced back at everyone else, assessed the situation, and then took flight, putting himself closer to Flapper.

“We’re close!” Capricorn called out.

So he had a destination in mind.  Good.

The van had stopped to collect Prancer, but it was catching up.  Moose continued to bear on us.

I’d have to intercept him if he got too close, I knew.

I could still imagine the scene of his face erupting in blood as the wretch clawed it.

Further ahead, I could see what Capricorn had done while he was waiting around.  A wall of his stone barred the street.  There were gaps wide enough for people to pass through.  Three gaps, and the group was more than three people.  Some members of the group turned around, ready to help and run interference while others slipped through the doors in single-file.

At the side window, Etna climbed out, reaching, and hurled globs of molten glass.

I intercepted the first, forcefield going up at the last second as I swatted it aside, aiming it in Moose’s general direction.

“Incoming!” I called out, because I couldn’t intercept the second.

The group looked back and saw the incoming white-hot orb.  People moved out of the way.  Looksee didn’t.  The glob hit her across the head, which struck the wall behind her hard.

The camera with the projection device mounted on it clattered on its way to hit the road, the final landing muted as it landed glass-side down.

“Aauuughhh!” Looksee cried out, in a not-very-convincing agonized scream.  “I’m dying, I’m dead!  Auughh!”

“Looksee,” I heard Rain say.

Moose came to a halt, standing by the southeastern corner of a small apartment building, while we stood at the northeastern corner.  The truck skidded to a stop.  People had stopped in their tracks.  Some eyes were on Etna.

“Mayday, I loved you, you were awesome.  Signal Fire, you were a great teacher.  Team, you’re the best, I love you with all my heart!  Remember me, avenge me!”

“Looksee, they know it’s a projection,” Rain said.

“Shit on me, did not want this today,” Mayday said.

It didn’t seem like Looksee had heard, from her tone.

“I know, duh,” the camera said, the ‘oh’ sound at the end of the word stuttering slightly.  She laughed, enthusiastic.  “I’m just having fun.”

The villains were still back there.  They were unloading from the truck.  Some expressions were sober, others were dangerous.

“You’re willing to go this far?” I called out.  “Shooting a kid?”

“I thought you’d catch it,” Etna said, her voice small both because she was far away, and because of disappointment in herself, it seemed.  She was more Prancer’s camp, if I remembered right, despite the dangerous power that might otherwise have put her in Beast’s.

“If she’d been real,” I said.  “This would have been a fuck-up of the highest order.”

“If she’d been real,” Beast of Burden said, making the truck bounce as he climbed out of the back, “She still would have been causing trouble on our turf.  It wouldn’t have been undeserved.”

“No,” Prancer said.

“Yes,” Beast of Burden said.

“No,” Prancer said.  “That’s not how we’re playing this.”

“It’s not how you’re playing this,” the man replied.   He was shorter than Moose, he wasn’t especially greater in size, but the massive horns of his helmet were as wide across as Moose’s musclebound Brute shoulders, and his armor had to have added three hundred pounds of weight to a two hundred pound frame.  “If they don’t want you and if you’re willing to play for keeps, Etna, I’ll take you.”

“No thanks,” Etna said.

“We’re in this together,” Moose said.  “Let’s not ruin that.”

“No,” Beast of Burden said.  “No we’re not.”

Disjoint had been the one on the roof.  He went to Beast’s side.  Nailbiter had stayed behind, for obvious reasons, Damsel hadn’t been invited onto the truck, and Sidepiece hadn’t made it on.

Snag was present, he’d been in the back of the truck too, but we’d heard his stance on the cliques and groupings.  His glowering mask looked especially ominous in the moment, as he stared us down.  He couldn’t have known his cluster-mate was part of this group, staring at him at the same time.

Either way, he wasn’t part of Beast’s clique.  Love Lost might have gravitated in that direction, but she hadn’t come.

Still, the two members of Beast’s clique were standing apart, and Beast was breaking away.

“Do this again, and I’ll kill one of you,” Beast said.  “You come to fight or take a stand, be prepared for a fight.”

“Stupid,” Prancer said.

Beast of Burden shaking his head was dramatic, with the horns on his helmet swinging.  “Necessary.  You can wrap this mess up yourself.  Put a fucking bow on it for all I care, deer man.”

He turned to walk away, shaking his head.  A nervous Disjoint followed.

Prancer looked between Beast of Burden and those of us who hadn’t ducked through the Capricorn’s wall.

Rain bent down and picked up Looksee’s camera, shaking it slightly, as if that would dislodge the cooling black glass that caked part of it.

“Cameras,” Prancer said.

Rain nodded.

Prancer raised a hand to his head, found hair that was sticking up after his tumble of a fall, and pressed it down, running fingers through it to try to set it in place.  “How long?”

“Long enough,” I said.  “We know you’re bleeding people of cash, when they don’t have enough.  You’re using this place to run drugs to the rest of the city, and you’re- you were giving safe haven to crooks like Nailbiter.  Who took a teenager away from her parents earlier today.”

“If you take me out, someone like Beast is going to take my place.”

“If I leave you where you are, that’s going to happen too.  Someone stronger and meaner will take you out, and they’ll be very hard to dislodge because of what you’ve already set in place.”

“This isn’t you, Prancer,” Sveta said.  She was perched on Capricorn’s wall.

“It isn’t, you’re right,” he said.

“Stop.  Disband,” I said.

“No,” Prancer said.  “This role isn’t me.  I have a lot I need to learn, but I’ll change until I fit the role.  I think most of these guys will work with me to do it.  We need this.”

Velvet put her hand on his shoulder.

“Your people are organizing to mount a war right under your nose,” I said.  “Against acceptable targets, yes, but if you think today was a bad day?  You’re underestimating just how bad it’s going to get when the Fallen come after you, and the damage they’ll do to everyone and everything between them and you.”

“Not under my nose,” Prancer said.  He looked back at Snag.  “We’ll manage.”

“You need to keep your mouth shut about that,” Snag growled.

“No.  You need to loop the Wardens in.  Get the full picture, get help.  If you fight them, you need to win, unequivocally.”

“It’s handled,” Snag said.  “And if you don’t keep your mouth shut, you’ll be sabotaging it.”

“These are people the PRT couldn’t stamp out,” I said.

“It’s handled,” Prancer said, echoing Snag.  “This isn’t about the PRT, or about heroes and villains.”

“What’s it about, then?” Sveta asked.  I had to look past Rain to see her.  He was remaining silent.

“It’s about monsters,” Prancer said, pacing slowly. “Speaking of.  Garotte?”

“That’s not my name,” Sveta said.

“Circe says hi,” Prancer said.

I could see Sveta’s expression change.

“Yeah,” Prancer said.  “If you’d only arrived a few hours later.  Whatever.  We have resources.  This is about standing on our own two feet.  If we do this raid right, no matter how you interfere, no matter what Beast does, breaking off with his people, Cedar Point is going to be a thing.”

“You do this wrong, and a whole lot of people are going to wish they were dead,” I said.

Prancer continued pacing for a few seconds, then stopped.

“That’s fine,” he said.

“If you’re willing to involve those people in this, we might have to stop playing nice,” I said.

Prancer sniffed out a small laugh.  “Alright then.  Moose?”

Moose turned his head to Prancer, then to us.

“Sorry,” he said, smacking the knuckles of his gauntlet into his palm.  Without any more preamble or prelude, he charged us.

Rain backed toward the door, the loose sleeve of his costume covering his one hand, while he held the glass-caked camera.  He withdrew the flash gun, pointing it at the enemy group.

I turned my head, covering my eyes with my arm.  The gun wasn’t even aimed at me, my eyes were shut, and my arm was in the way, and the darkness of my vision still turned pink, shaded slightly by bones between me and the group.

Rain emptied the gun, firing again and again.  From the changes in the flash’s angles, he was moving while firing.

Moose crashed into the wall, rather than into any of us.

The flashing had stopped, and I flew skyward.  I deemed myself safe to look, and saw as the others ducked through the openings in the very thick wall, Tristan sealing the apertures behind them.  Moose sat on the ground, and the rest looked bewildered.

I shook my head and flew to the others.

We were all gathered.  Advance Guard’s group was assembled in entirety, including the supporting members of the group.  I warily watched as a healer cape did his work.  Flickering images overlapped as he pressed his hand down on ReSound’s shoulder.

Nothing like Amy.  It still bothered me.  True healing powers were something comprehensive and powerful, to cover the bases necessary for all the various sicknesses and maladies, while also wreaking meaningful change.  Powers themselves didn’t lend themselves to healing, as a general rule, either.  Not unless they were selfish.

Even the strongest self-healers I’d met had been pretty fucked up.  Crawler had been one.

Rescue was present, the teleporter who pulled people away.  Mapwright was a straggler, a woman with a limp.  She went to Mayday’s side, and they clasped hands.  The place where their hands met glowed a soft pink, and then Mayday’s eyes glowed pink behind his mask.

“Who’s that a block to the north?” he asked.

“Civilians.  Kids eating popsicles,” Mapwright said.

“Then we’re clear to talk,” Mayday said.  He pulled off his helmet.  He did the thing a lot of capes with helmets did, wearing a basic mask beneath.  He was thirty-five or so, had warm black skin, with a very long face and sharp chin, arching eyebrows, a thin mustache at his upper lip, and a line of beard from the middle of his lip to his chin.  His head was shaved.

His face didn’t really match the impression he gave with his helmet on, with the broader, triangular face panels.  That was part of the point, I supposed.

“This was a clusterfuck,” I said.  “We ended up showing ourselves, you pointed out our surveillance, you disturbed the peace, and the entire situation got more chaotic.”

“Easy,” Capricorn said.

“She’s not wrong,” Rain said.

“I know,” Capricorn said.  “But… easy.  I don’t want to be enemies with Advance Guard.”

“No,” Mayday said.  “The sentiment is mutual.”

“I agree.  It’s not the kind of thing we need these days.  But I’m upset,” I said.  “We just had to play a lot of our cards that I really would have rather kept up our sleeve.  I’d love to know why.”

“Spright said he explained.”

“But he couldn’t tell us who gave you the okay.”

“We had messages.  Cedar Point was asking for help, Civilians asked us.  It’s not a shock.  We’re prominent,” Mayday said.

“Can you forward those to us?  Help us trace them?” I asked.  “I think it’s more likely a mastermind in the background pulled this.”

“Believe it or not, we’re prominent,” Shortcut said.  “It’s a hell of a lot more likely people thought they needed help and called us than this conspiracy idea of yours.”

“Did you talk to Foresight?” I asked, ignoring Shortcut.

“We did,” Mayday said.  “The leadership is wrapped up in a war-”

“Thought so,” Sveta said, voice soft.

“-and we communicated with one of their lieutenants.”

“Communicated how?” I asked.

“Oh my god,” Shortcut said, his head rolling back.

“Email,” Mayday said.  “One phone call.”

“Can you verify those exchanges for us?” I asked.  “I know someone who saw two attempts to hack their email.”

“Some people in the Wardens had the same,” Mayday said.  “Legal.”

“Same people,” I said.  “It’s not out of the question someone managed to spoof something at you, threw out bait.”

“That we bit?” Spright asked.

I shrugged.

“We’ll look into it and let you know,” Mayday said.  “We’ll figure this out.”

Looksee wiggled, sitting on the curb.  “I’m psyched to be working together again.”

“We’re not working together, Optics,” Mayday said.

“Looksee,” she replied, quiet.

“Looksee,” he said.  He paused, then said.  “No.”

“You need to explain this to me,” Flapper said.  “Because as far as I can tell, you’re being uncharacteristically shitty to a kid, and you’re good with kids.”

“He’s not being shitty,” Looksee said.  “He’s nice.  No need to get into it.”

“I think there’s kind of a need to get into it,” Flapper said.  “Please.  This is going to bother me.”

“This is the kid,” Spright said.  “Cost him his promotion.”

“Not directly,” Mayday said.  “Flapper, if you’d just take my word for things and leave this, I’d appreciate it.”

“I would if it was the only thing that went sideways today,” she said.  “I’ve seen teammates compromised, acting strange.  Some were because of drugs, others were Strangered.  Two things in the same day?  Just… explain?”

Mayday folded his arms.  “She went from institutions to being a PRT focus in Baltimore.  Not a concern, not an asset… something between.  She went from there to training camps, moving her around so she couldn’t get too attached to anyone.  San Diego included.  Signal Fire?”

Signal Fire explained, “Coworker of mine was investigated.  Looksee left her computer open and kids messed with it, changing her online profiles.  They found photos, they took the computer to people in charge.”

“So embarrassing,” Looksee said.  I went to stand next to her, and put my hand on her shoulder.

Sveta sat down next to her.  Looksee leaned into her.

“Kid in a swimsuit, hanging out with an instructor at a hotel pool, all smiles, the two of them hanging out, pictures of them shopping, eating out of a food truck, being in places he shouldn’t have been near.  They looked close.  Questions were raised, answered pretty quickly, because of kid’s prior history, but it still had to be investigated.  It wasn’t wholly impossible he was skipping patrols and hanging out with the kid instead.”

“Doctored photos,” Mayday said.  “Kid was lonely, thought photos of her and the instructor she liked most would be nice to have.  BFF close, in the pictures, which looks weird when the guy is fifteen years older than her.”

“I know that now,” Looksee said, quiet.

“Then she goes to the parahuman Asylum, and from the Asylum to Baltimore, with Youth Guard getting involved.  Baltimore.  We have an inner city, we have gangs, we have some troubled kids in our Wards.  Had.  I hate to outright say it, Looksee, because I do think you’re a good kid-”

“Everyone says so, but I did bad stuff,” she said.

“Uninformed stuff,” he said, gently.  “But bad, yeah.  It was more trouble to deal with her than to wrangle all the other Wards combined.  I get out of the toilet stall in the men’s room and this kid is sitting on the counter by the sink, waiting, has been for twenty minutes, dead silent for the first time in her life, because she wants to talk to me.  There aren’t cameras in the bathrooms.  It’s a blind spot.  How does that look?”

“Sorry,” Looksee said.

“She works herself to the bone, it looks bad for the department.  She intentionally misses the bus or fakes hours so she can spend more time with us, so we have to have people drive her home or pick her up.  Which also looks bad, because it’s time spent alone or in proximity to a kid who isn’t just vulnerable, but throws herself headlong at people who prey on the vulnerable.  Kidnappers, people who would work a tinker to the bone, people who want to hurt the PRT.”

“Threw, not throws,” Looksee said.  “Okay, maybe throws a bit, but only a little.”

“It was a hundred things like that.  It was everything that could have made the Youth Guard crawl up our ass to light warning fires.  We could have hired two new capes from elsewhere if it wasn’t for the fines and administration costs.”

“Sorry again.”

“She’s doing way better,” Capricorn said.


“She’s a great kid.  Talented as hell,” Capricorn said.

“I’ve talked to Houndstooth, Avenguard, and Spotter.  I think you’ll find we’re mostly on the same page,” Mayday said.  “We don’t disagree, necessarily, but…”

Looksee nodded very quickly.  I gave her shoulder a rub.

“Except I don’t know if I’m as nice as they are,” Mayday said, not finishing the thought he’d left to trail off.  “I took over the department because that kid sank my predecessor.  The question mark hovering over the bathroom thing was part of what cost me one golden opportunity to get up to the Protectorate core team, during the final year, when we were dealing with the new Endbringer situation.  She ruined a lot of careers, teachers, heroes, social workers, and I can’t be fair to her because I’m pretty fucking bitter about it.”

“You could try,” I said.

“I could.  I won’t.  Advance Guard is walking away.  Consider it a blessing, if you want.  We don’t usually back off.  But we’ll do it here,” he said, glancing at Looksee.  “We’ll give you Cedar Point to look after, I’ll ask about what you said, look into the possible hack and validity of the emails.  Spright- you get stuff in their office?”

“I went where Mapwright showed me,” Spright said.  “But we didn’t get that far.  These guys wanted me to go straight to you.  We spent most of our time figuring it out.”

Mayday said, “That’s not your usual, Spright.  You’re more of a scoundrel than that.”

“Pretty girl- pretty girls tell me to get moving, give me a convincing reason?” Spright asked.  He offered an amused chuckle, looking at Sveta and me.  “I might listen properly for once.”

“You’ve never listened to me,” Flapper said, archly.

“Or me,” Mapwright said.

ReSound didn’t say anything, but she cleared her throat.

Spright chuckled nervously.

Mayday raised a finger, while Spright’s head was turned toward Flapper.  Beside Spright, Signal Fire reached out to seize his arm.

“What gives?”

Mayday walked up to him, seizing his other arm.  With his free hand, Mayday patted Spright down.

He reached beneath a flat armor panel, and withdrew a notebook with a rubber band around it.

He tossed it to Capricorn.

“Amends,” Mayday said.  His expression was solemn.  “Good luck.”

They went on their way.

I paged through the notebook.  It was a ledger, devoid of numbers.  Transactions as barter, with a great deal of shorthand.

We knew what the truck was, now.  With all of the preparations for war, a truckload of guns had made a disappearance.  Prancer knew where it was.

He was a proper arms dealer, now.  It wasn’t an insignificant number of guns.

We had notes on the other work he was doing.  Drugs.  Robbery for hire, moving things between the illicit, villain-run camps on corner worlds.  There were plans for other things.  In the future, he seemed to have two days where he and his people would be moving humans.  It wasn’t clear why or for what purpose, but they were to be delivered from one corner world to another.

Once they realized the notebook was gone, they would change their plans.

Kenzie was all smiles, so excited from the excursion and her involvement in it that the issue with Mayday seemed to breeze past her.  Still, we were leaving her mostly alone, with Sveta keeping her company.   I could remember her blowing up over her bag.

Some of Kenzie’s attention was on Ashley.  Damsel was still in Cedar Point, giving us a window into what Beast of Burden was doing.  For the time being, he was having beers with his clique.  They were to remain in Cedar Point, but they’d have their own corner of things.  They would leave Prancer alone if they were left alone, but I doubted things would remain that way.  One group or the other would grow.

For the time being, Beast and Damsel’s group told war stories.  Nailbiter, agitated, had left a bit ago.  We’d tracked her on the camera as she met up with Colt and a young guy.  The three of them went for a walk along the waterline, Nailbiter asking about ’employees’, the young guy answering, while Colt remained silent unless spoken to.

I finished reading through the notebook and handed it to Rain, who was working on his arms.  The mask and sleeves were set aside, Kenzie’s work, not his.

His expression was grim.

“How are you dealing?” I asked.

“It was my day,” he said.  “And I couldn’t even use my power without stirring up more trouble than it was worth.”

“We need to talk about things,” I said.

“Tomorrow,” he said.  “Not today.  Please?  Today’s been rough.”

I nodded.  I pushed the notebook in his direction.

Chris had the corner, his back to us, and he was hunched over a video game.  Oblivious to the rest of the world, drawn into his shell.

Tristan and I were the ones without a place to be.  I met his eyes, and I walked out to the fire escape.

He joined me.

I stood by the railing at the little balcony-landing outside the door.  Tristan sat on the top stair.

“You were trying to keep Kenzie from being alone in the building,” I said.  “And from being alone with Erin and Rain.”


“Keeping Sveta and I together.”

“No manipulation or strategy there.  You two fit.”

“Do I need to worry?” I asked.

“That’s a loaded question,” he said.

“Can I trust you?”

He didn’t answer me.

“Or is it that you don’t trust them?” I asked.

“It’s a really fucked up thing, if I consider myself one of the more trustworthy members of the group,” he said.  He turned around to look up at me.  “Rain- he’s in a bad place.”

“In more than one way,” I said.


“I didn’t want to ask him, but… what Fallen family is he from?  The last time I ran into Fallen, they were Crowleys, but… it’s not just Crowleys left, in Gimel, and the Crowleys would be bad enough.”

“I don’t think he’s living with the Crowleys,” Tristan said.  “But he won’t tell me.”

“Okay,” I said.

If we were people who’d been powerless once, set out to help the powerless, that might mean Rain and Erin were people who were very high on our list of people to help.  He’d brought her for a reason.  Had he expected her to communicate with us?  Or was her presence meant to communicate something?

“One last question,” I said.

“Go for it,” Tristan said.

“The hand signal earlier today,” I said.  I mimed it, hand not with palm facing forward at Tristan, but at an angle, so palm would be facing his feet instead, were he standing up.

“Hm?  I thought that was obvious.”

I shook my head.

“Stop,” Tristan said, palm out, facing forward.  He pointed forward with three fingers, “Go.”


He made the gesture.  “Go slow.  Ease up.  I figured it was intuitive.”

I chuckled under my breath.

“Not at all,” I said.

Tristan smiled.

“You were wanting to juggle the group,” I said.

“Feeling my way through it,” he said.  “This is new to me.  I’m worried I’m going to fuck it up.  Rain’s my friend.  I care about them all.  Even Chris, God help me.”

I hesitated before speaking.

“Is it- is it okay that I’m here?” I asked.  “I’m not making things worse by being here?”

“No.  I don’t think you are,” he said.  “We need the help.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Good.  It would be pretty hard for me to walk away at this point, if you said no.”

“Yeah.  Probably,” he said.

We sat for a bit.  There wasn’t much more conversation.  I was tired, after waking up early, and the adrenaline was long gone, leaving me weary to the bone, even though I hadn’t exerted myself that much on a physical level.

When Tristan stood and stretched, I took that as an unspoken cue.  We went back inside.

It would have been tidy and neat for more to happen before we packed up for the day, but it seemed everyone involved was licking wounds or replenishing their batteries in their individual ways.  I could hear Ashley’s voice, volume lowered on the camera, as she ranted about something, and Beast of Burden chimed in with monosyllables.  Prancer looked after his territory, cleaning up the rubble from the walls, talking to people, trying to get sorted.

Love Lost and Snag emerged from their apartment building, and Love Lost’s leg was fixed.  They stood outside for a while, Snag talking periodically, making comments.

It was right when we were getting packed up to go, Kenzie had dinner with her parents and Rain had to take Erin back to the camp, that things started moving again in Cedar Point.

A camper van pulled up and parked in the middle of the street, near where the bottleneck had been.  The people that emerged were Case Fifty-threes.

Sveta went tense.

“Do you know them?” Kenzie asked.

“Circe,” Sveta said.  “Whippersnap.  Bristle.  He must have researched me or asked Tattletale about me, and then reached out to them after.  They were teammates, once.  They know me.”

“You talked about them in group,” Tristan said.

Sveta nodded.

Other cars were pulling up.  I looked at the clock.  It was six in the evening.  This was a pre-arranged meeting time.

This time, the cars were sleek.  Six black cars, one large truck.

The drivers remained in their seats, and the occupants of the vehicles exited out the backs.

“These are ones you should know,” Tristan said.  To me.

I recognized Tattletale, from the lead car.  She had a kid with a bird on his shoulder with her.  She smiled.

I saw Snuff, and I saw other assorted henchmen.  Soldiers, like Coil had once used.

In one of the cars further back, Imp climbed out.  Eerie to see her older, now. There was a crew of kids with her, all wearing masks.

Parian.  She had been a rogue.  Turned to the dark side.  Flechette.  For the briefest period of time, she had been a teammate.  She went by Foil now, I was pretty sure.

The truck?  Rachel Lindt.  Hellhound.  Bitch.  She had a bevy of dogs.

The Undersiders chatted like long-lost friends.  Tattletale was exempt, standing back, smiling.

There were others I didn’t recognize.  They’d gathered capes.  Henchmen, teammates, connections.  Big and small.

Cars were still pulling up and parking as I watched Tattletale approach Prancer to shake his hand.  Her Undersiders were at her back.  I could see Nursery in the background.  I spotted someone who might have been Kingdom Come.

I then saw her put her gloved hand in Snag’s large mechanical one, shaking it.  She smiled like it was a joke she got that nobody else did.

“They’re meeting about the attack,” Sveta said.

“Or they’re making it tonight,” Tristan said.  He put his bag down.

“Shh,” Kenzie said.

The pair were walking away from the greater group.  With all of the cars parking, even in the growing gloom, the car headlights illuminated the area.  Tattletale and Snag stepped toward shadow, where they were out of earshot of most others.

“You located him?”

“I’ve known where he was for a very long time,” Tattletale answered Snag.

Love Lost was approaching.  Snag turned his head to see.

The two communicated briefly, a word from Snag, Love Lost tapping the backs of her hands together twice, the metal there clinking.

As they had that exchange, Tattletale looked around idly, her eyes turning skyward.

Her eyes locked on the camera, looking directly at us.

“Love Lost says-”

“Cradle’s arrived.”

“Yes.  He’ll wait for the crowd to thin out before deploying.  And you-”

“We’ll deliver,” she said.  “You’ll get your fourth, I get each of you for three years.”

“That’s fine,” Snag said.

“Just don’t tell me whatever you end up doing to him, and we’re golden,” she said.

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

Shadow – 5.4

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

“You’re pissed,” Spright replied.

Why?” I asked, again, stabbing my finger in his direction.  He stepped back out of the way of it.  “What the hell is Advance Guard doing?”

“This is how we operate,” Spright said.  He put the binder he was holding down, moving a few things to look at the things on the table.  Having verified something or verified the lack of something, he gave Sveta and I his full attention.  “We identify targets in need and we handle them.  We’re good at it.”

“What about jurisdictions?” I asked.

Spright paused.  One finger tapped the desk.  “This is Foresight’s.  They got this territory when we held a lottery for the major areas of the city.”

“Did you talk to Foresight?” Sveta asked.  Her tone was a marked contrast to mine.  It sounded pitying or pleading.  Spright had already pointed out how I sounded.

“You think this is your territory,” Spright voiced his realization aloud.

“Did you talk to Foresight?” I repeated Sveta’s question in my own way.

“Not me personally,” Spright said.  “Okay.  We need to talk this out, but now isn’t the time.  Let me do my thing, two to five minute investigation, then if you wanted to let me copy some of your powers to make a graceful exit, I’d appreciate it.  Then we have a conversation.”

He put one hand on the binder.  I put my hand down on the corner of the binder, and slid it away from him.

“ReSound got sliced up,” I said.

I could see Spright tense.  “How sliced up?”

“Enough that I’m mentioning it,” I said.  “And enough that we need you to go straight back to your team and tell them to leave.  Then we can have a chat.”

“Okay,” Spright said.  He walked around the table, putting it between us.  “I hear what you’re saying.”

“Time is of the essence here,” I said.  The change in position worried me.  Was he going to bolt?  Or anticipating violence from me?

I changed my stance, forcing myself to relax my posture.

“This isn’t the first time we’ve raided enemy territory or the first time someone was hurt.  We have a pattern we operate by.  I handle my part and I trust the others to handle theirs.”

“And Cedar Point?” I asked.

“Will be better off in the long run,” Spright said.

“Capes aren’t liked right now,” Sveta said.  “The local villains have been pressuring people here who can’t afford to leave, which makes feelings toward capes even lower.  We were doing something here.  You can’t just…”

The pity or pleading in her voice gave way to frustration at that last part, to the point she couldn’t finish her own sentence.

“…Create a mess and trust they’ll be better off,” I said.

“Yes.  Exactly, thank you,” Sveta said.

“Others have been coming-”

“Were invited to come,” I said.  “Screened, to avoid a screwy situation.”

“We were invited too!” Spright said.

There.  Now the situation made some sense.  Advance Guard had been invited.  It wasn’t by us.  Someone looking to screw us up or throw a wrench into the works.

Sveta and I exchanged glances.

“What?” Spright asked.

“You may have been played,” I said.  I had to keep in mind that the clairvoyants could be watching.  “Maybe you should walk us through your side of the story.”

“Any minute now, people could come after me.  They’ll figure out we’re in here,” Spright said.

“Fast version,” I said.

He moved, taking two quick steps to one side, before slapping his hand down on the table.  “It wouldn’t be out of the question for you to be working with the bad guys.  Stalling me, throwing a wrench into our plan.  It’d even be a good cover, for a team like Prancer’s B-listers to try to corner or confuse the hero jurisdiction too.”

“Completely out of the question,” I said.

“Not a moment’s hesitation?” he asked.  “No outrage or indignation?”

“It makes sense for you to say it.  But not if you do any digging.  I’m a cape from a cape family.  Every surviving relative I have is a hero or ex-hero.  If I pulled something like that, I’d get caught and I’d lose my entire family and their respect.”

“I’m dating and living with Weld from the Wardens,” Sveta said.  “He’d lose everything, and I wouldn’t do that to him.”

Spright’s head turned.  He analyzed Sveta, then me, peering through the lens of his future-elfin mask.  “Straight to talking about your relationship to other people.  Nothing about yourselves.  Good cops have crooked cop kids and girlfriends.”

“References and connections matter,” I said.  “I could say any number of things about myself, but that’s my words out of my mouth.  Talk to my dad?  My cousin?  They’ll give you a clearer picture of who I am.”

“I remember her.  I’ve talked to Weld,” Spright said.


“Fuck,” Spright said.  “Alright.  Fast version?  We caught wind of what was going on here when someone was commenting on the stupid cape names here.  We asked around.  Teams building bonds, taking turns to help out in a place that needed help.”

“People talked about stuff that they needed to keep their mouths shut about,” I said.

“They didn’t talk,” Spright said.  “Not as far as I know.  But secrets are hard to keep when powers are in play.  They didn’t talk Cedar Point, but they were psyched about working together on a level outside of what the Wardens are negotiating.  On a lower level, I mean.  We have the meetings at the Wardens headquarters, and people were stopping in at the same place.”

“And you asked Foresight?”

“Not me.  Mayday.  He said we were clear to go.”

Who the hell had Kenzie’s old boss talked to, that we weren’t roped in?

“Foresight is tied up with war stuff right now,” Sveta said.

“They are,” he said.

“Is it possible the key people were tied up, and Mayday talked to lower-level members of Foresight?” Sveta asked.

“I don’t know,” he replied.

“Hold the questions along those lines,” I said.  “Good theory, Sveta, but we should get the particulars later.  Time’s short.”

“Okay.  I’ll check the window,” Sveta said.

Time was short, and the clairvoyants were possibly listening in.  There was a degree to which I didn’t want to reveal too much to them, at the same time I wanted to get the situation straight.

Was it a play, then?  Or was it bad circumstance?

Hard to know without talking to Mayday.

“Our version?” I asked.  “We’ve been juggling multiple teams, trying to keep on the down low, and we’re holding the fort until a team decides to settle in permanently.”

“You, specifically,” he said.

“Us, as a group.  We’re setting up as a team,” I said.  I thought of the clairvoyants.  “We’re getting ourselves set up, we’re still getting costumes and names, headquarters, and a long-term plan.  This is an interim job, and it gets us some money, connections, and favor.”

“And you think we bypassed that?”

“You bypassed it.  The team is getting paid by people who want a chance to get some practice in and mess with the Cedar Point guys while they’re bewildered.  We’re getting resources.  We’re draining their resources.  They’re spending money to hire help, they’re losing people.  They pull favors from major players, get answers or other stuff.  What I arranged, my part in this, is that one of those players gives us a cut each time we provoke these guys to call.  It drains the bad guys and I can give these guys their startup cash.”

Sveta was walking around the perimeter of the office.  She stopped and looked my way.  “You’re telling him?”

I’m telling Cedar PointThey want answers, and I’m going to give them Tattletale.

I hadn’t wanted to do it so soon, but it was something in keeping with my warrior monk philosophy.  My goal here was stability.  To minimize the ripple effects and keep things from pinging off of one another to cause a greater disaster.  I wanted things to stop.

“Yeah, I’m telling him,” I said.

I could see Spright consider it.

If this madness continued without a scapegoat or a target, then it would only continue unabated, with endless escalation.  So long as Cedar Point thought they knew what was going on, they would move predictably, rather than windmilling their arms around and stirring up chaos.

“You were just talking to me about how the company we keep and our references matter.  You’re working with the villains?”

“Working with heroes.  Accepting the big picture villains are a part of the picture we’re not going to be able to shake, and adapting to that.  Trust me when I say I do not have any fond feelings for who I’m talking to.  If you knew the name and did some digging into my background, you’d know that.”

He reached down to the table and fidgeted with a carving, the shape only partially blocked out.  Wood shavings surrounded it.

He didn’t give a response, seemingly considering.

“Spright,” I said, dead serious.

“I don’t like the way you’re doing this,” he said.

“I like you, Spright.  I liked our talk before everything went to shit, when we first met.  But the feeling is mutual.  I don’t like how you guys are doing this either.”

I watched as he nodded slowly.

“We were here first,” I said.  “I’d really like to cooperate with you guys like we’re cooperating with other heroes.  But either someone’s messing with us by giving you a false go-ahead, or you guys fucked up somewhere.  Whichever it is, you can’t be here.”

“Or Foresight fucked up,” he said.

“Or that,” I said.  I didn’t believe it.  I repeated myself with more emphasis, “Whichever it is, you can’t be here.  If you were supposed to be here, it wouldn’t be a surprise to us.”

He flicked the wooden figurine across the table.  “Damn it.”

“Go talk to your people, convince them to quit this,” I said.

“I will,” he said.  “Can I use your powers?”

“You don’t want to use mine,” Sveta said.  “If you even can.”

“You sure?” he asked.  “I get an intuitive sense of movement-related powers.  Yours seems okay.  Coded weird, but I can push past that.”

“Mine’s dangerous,” she said.

“Yeah,” I said, “Be careful.”

“I’m terrible at careful,” he said.  He turned to me.  “Flight.  And… shadows of feet and fingers groping for handholds?  I don’t think that one would move me very far.  Only by inches.”

It was the most direct reference to the Wretch I’d heard someone make.  I wanted to reply, to look normal, and I couldn’t.

My heart pounded more with the one question and two follow-up sentences than it had with all of my irritation and anger at Advance Guard.

“Can you use only the flight?” I managed.

“Yes.  Absolutely,” he said.  His feet left the ground.  “Cover me?  We’ll take the direct route.”

I followed, meeting Sveta before we reached the window.  As Spright passed through the open window, I saw the look my friend gave me.  I saw it again as I passed through the window, turned around, and put my arm around her waist as she made it through the window in a more than slightly awkward way, prosthetic body not cooperating fully.

My arm around her waist, her arm around my shoulder, we flew after Spright.

Airborne, a ways ahead of us, Spright put his arms out to his sides.  Ribbons extended out from his wrists, loose in the air, one from each wrist.

I gave him a wide berth as I realized what they were supposed to be.

He gave us a sly look over one shoulder, then reached out.  The ribbon moved faster than the eye could follow, reaching for a ventilation duct on a roof.  He pulled himself to it, in a very familiar way, reached out with the other, and through a combination of flight and use of the two ribbons, sped well ahead of us.

I realized what it was I was seeing.

“I’m kind of not a fan of these guys,” I said.

“I kind of get what you mean,” she said.  With the wind in my ears, I looked at her to track what she was saying better.  The look on her face broke my heart a little.  It was a longing look, where she didn’t take her eyes off of Spright and his casual use of her power until he was out of sight.

A trash can was knocked down here, the contents blown around by wind.  A section of roads had cracks in it that I was pretty sure weren’t from the road settling.

In the distance, I heard Love Lost’s scream.  The mob.  She and Nailbiter had returned to the scene, it seemed.

I reached for my phone, and I hit the button.

“It’s me.  Update?”

“I can talk?  Are you there?  Did you leave?”  Kenzie.  Looksee.

“I don’t think they’re listening in on phones, no,” I said.  “Codenames only, to be safe.”

“Codenames.  It’s Looksee here with Capricorn.  He’s on the phone.  I lost track of who with.  I’m at the perimeter.  Are we good to go?”

“Not yet,” I said.  “Hand me over to Capricorn as soon as he’s free?”

“Can do.”

Closer to the scene where the fighting had initially broken out, things were more chaotic.  I stopped at a rooftop to try to get a sense of it all.

Eight members of the twelve initial Advance Guard capes were present.  Spright was near someone I presumed was Mayday, a guy who wore a costume with red and black armor panels and a cape that covered one shoulder.

“Handholds and footholds?” Sveta asked, quiet.

I pressed the phone against my chest, to muffle it.  “Yeah.  I guess.”

“That’s the wolf?  I saw the expression on your face.”

In the midst of the fight, Advance Guard was actually faring well enough, even though I couldn’t tell where four of their members were.  Spright was having a conversation with Mayday, as villains approached them, crowding in.  Mayday raised a hand, palm flat, then brought it down, so it pointed forward.  Villains started scrambling out of the way.

From the distance, a flare of red light rose against the blue sky at the horizon, framed with something shadowy and dark that made it stand out clearly.

It was deceptive, in its general oblong shape, which became a circle and became oblong again, and its apparent lack of depth.

I realized what it was and put my hand at Sveta’s arm, in case I needed to pull her away.  A projectile of some sort.  It soared toward us, and touched down in the middle of the battlefield, with Mayday running to intercept it, getting clipped by one of Nailbiter’s claws on the way.

It hit him, almost dead on, and smashed into the road like water might, a mess of red strands that glowed to the point they were almost neon, in a sea of darker and darker strands.  The webbed ball dissipated, broke up, the lines spreading out to run through, around, over and under almost everything on the ground.  The larger portion of the mass skidded nearly a hundred feet before breaking up.  Mayday’s team had been carried along with the skid, and as the strands dissipated, they were on their feet, standing in formation.  The villains who hadn’t scrambled out of the way were at the edges, lying down, or pushed between parked cars.  No property damage had been done.

They were outnumbered two to one, but Advance Guard wasn’t losing.  They looked battered.  Two of them were being locked down by one of their fellow teammates.  Affected by Love Lost’s scream, it seemed.

The phone’s speaker buzzed against my chest.  I picked it up.

“The bad guys have reinforcements coming,” Looksee reported.  “From your five.  I think that’s how it works, right?  Five is behind and to your right?  Or is twelve o’clock directly behind?”

“That’s how it works, Looksee,” I said.  “Five is right.  We’ll keep an eye out.”

I looked back over my shoulder.  Did I want to get involved in the brawl like this?

“Victoria?” Sveta asked.

Down on the road, Advance Guard were using an area that had become a bit of a bottleneck, with one section of sidewalk fenced off with railings that had been bolted down, so there could be a patio outside one restaurant, and several cars were parked beyond that fence and on the opposite side of the street.  Mayday retreated through the bottleneck with a flying ally shielding him by catching some flung balls of flame in what looked like a web of glowing lines in geometric shapes.  Mayday raised both hands, palms flat, forming a ‘y’, and then brought them down.

In the distance well behind him, twin flares of red energy appeared at the horizon.  One of them might have been headed straight for me.

I fixed my grip on Sveta’s arm, then carried her skyward.

Up, away, clear of the immediate fight, until the figures on the battlefield were specks.  I stopped there, at a height I was pretty sure the clairvoyants couldn’t track me, where the phone I held still had two bars of signal.

Comfortably away, secure, and private.  Close enough to see if the reinforcements appeared.

“Scary, being up this high,” Sveta said.  “Scarier that you aren’t answering my question.”

“Sorry,” I said.

“Don’t be sorry.  Answer me.”

I nodded.  The sick feeling that had hit me when Spright had commented on the wretch’s existence hadn’t gone away.  It was worse, if anything.

Mayday’s power hit.  Two shots, barreling in from the horizon in a matter of seconds, each half the size of a house.  The red balls were more oblong than before, where the last one had only appeared that way because of its arc.  The shape might have been why they traveled further as they hit, carrying people away.  While villains scrambled to get to their feet.  Lines spread out, forming overlapping triangles, circles, squares, and stars, extending in a pattern around the woman who had been shielding Mayday.

I pressed the phone down against my chest.

“You’re being weird,” Sveta said.  “And weird can be allowed, believe me-”

She let out a small, hollow laugh.

“-But bad weird isn’t.  You’re not just pulling away.  You’re pushing away.  Throwing me away, literally.

“That’s not-”

“You threw me aside, Victoria.  Literally.  You didn’t warn me.”

“I wouldn’t throw you if I couldn’t catch you, okay?” I asked.  I wanted to put my thoughts into words without blurting them out, but I couldn’t do that while defending myself and simultaneously making sure I didn’t leave the heroes down below undefended.

“It’s not okay,” Sveta said.  “I feel shitty for bringing this up now, but it’s really not okay that I barely recognize you sometimes, and it just got shoved in my face twice.”

“I don’t want you to recognize me.”

“Not that.  Not- mostly not that.  Not- I’m glad you’re you again.  I’m glad I can communicate with you without you bringing every conversation back to the topic of your sister.”

I flinched.  I didn’t blurt, but I did voice something safe and reliable, something I’d already said, because it was safer than that. “It’s the wolf.”

“That doesn’t tell me anything.  Spright told me more than that.  I really, really don’t want to find out stuff from other people instead of you, Victoria.”

“It’s- My forcefield moves with a mind of its own,” I said.

She didn’t retort, and it was my instinct that I’d hear her retort.  That wasn’t based on her, not on the time we’d spent together at the hospital, where we’d kept each other company, communicated, shared a computer and tried to keep each other sane.  It was based on what I’d want to do.  She’d been pressing me, attacking, aggressive.  Were it my old self, without the two-year long reality check, I wouldn’t have been able to just stop after being on that verbal offensive.  I would have pressed.

She didn’t.

“Since the hospital,” I said, for elaboration.

“Moves on its own?  Does it make you move?” she asked.

I shook my head.

“But it fits your body.”

“Not anymore,” I said.  “Not this body.”

I didn’t elaborate, because I didn’t have it in me.  I waited, let her put it together.  I saw her expression change, and I focused instead on Advance Guard against Hollow Point down below.

We were higher up than a ten story building would be.

“Sorry,” I said.  “Having this conversation with you when you can’t storm off or walk away.”

“Don’t drop me,” she said.

I nodded, stiff.

She shifted her grip, extending an arm to reach for my shoulder.  Her prosthetic foot tapped against mine, then her toe settled on top of it.  I held my foot rigid while she pushed herself up a bit, pulling on my shoulders until she’d raised up.

It took some doing, and it took me realizing and helping her a bit, but she found a position where she could wrap her arms around me in a hug.

My eyes remained on the scene below as I hugged her back with one hand.  My other hand still held the phone against my chest, and Sveta’s hard chest pressed hard against the back of my hand.  It hurt and I didn’t make her stop.

I wanted to hug tight, but the pain reminded me it didn’t matter, because it was only her shell.

“Thank you,” I said, instead.  “Thank you, thank you.”

“Idiot, moron.  Tell me.”

“I haven’t even told Mrs. Yamada.”

“Lamebrain.  You don’t think I one hundred percent get it?  You don’t think this stuff makes sense to me?  More than anything or everything else?”

“Maybe I didn’t want it to be got,” I said.

She moved her head, knocking it against mine.  She did it again.

It made me think of the hospital.  Of a time shortly before she’d left with Weld.  A couple of weeks before, maybe.  Physiotherapy, working on my manual dexterity, they’d given us video games and controls we could use.  Sveta had done a lot of it, and picked up more of it for the social aspect, so she’d joined me to egg me on.

She’d done the head-knock out of frustration then too.  I’d been so focused on trying to get movement out of my hands and translate that to the controls that I hadn’t been paying much attention to the game.

It was a bittersweet memory, which was about as good as things had gotten, then.  Two or so weeks later, Weld had gone to see her.  I could remember her anticipation leading up to the meeting.  She’d been so upset over the Case fifty-threes defecting en-masse from the Protectorate and Wards, and Weld’s visit had turned that around.

It hadn’t gone well.  I wasn’t sure exactly what had happened.  Then Weld had come to see me.  He’d treated me with more human decency than I’d had out of anyone but my therapists, patient advocate, or the other patients for months.  He’d been patient, ignored my ramblings, he’d been gentle, asked what he could do for me.  It couldn’t have been easy.  I’d been a mess.

I’d convinced him to go back to her, with a renewed perspective.  Later on, I’d given them my blessings.  She’d walked away from the hospital with her hero and freedom.  Weld had gotten my only real friend and one of my only unabashed, unpaid-for allies.

I drew in a deep breath and sighed.

Sveta spoke first.  “There was a time I was with a team.  Things came to a head, a climax.  It turned out half of the team had one idea of what we wanted, and the other half had another.  Blood was shed.  People died.  Really- really cool people.  The deaths weren’t as bad as the betrayals.  I don’t want this to be a repeat of that.”

“Neither do I.”

“So I want to ask, because I didn’t ask then.  What the hell are we doing?” Sveta asked.

“Hugging.  Trying to keep this situation from getting too out of control.”

Whatever reinforcements Kenzie had mentioned hadn’t caught up with us yet.  The battle lines were separating, now.  Advance Guard was now a group of seven people.  I wasn’t sure where the eighth had gone.  Spright was at Mayday’s side, talking in short sentences.  Here and there, enemies lashed out.

“Those things are now,” Sveta said.

“I think… we know what it is to be powerless, and to be stuck like that, and not always having people able or willing to help.  Just about every member of the team does.”


“We’ll help those people.  Cedar Point is a group of those people.”


“Colt included,” I said.

“Can we get in there?”  Sveta asked.

I hesitated.

“This is our jurisdiction.”

I put the phone to my ear.  “Looksee?”


“Where are those reinforcements?”

“Fighting in the ranks.  They’re gathering themselves together.  Eight more.”

“Okay.  Is Capricorn there?”

“He’s on the phone.  Talking to Foresight now.”

“I want to move now.  Before this ends one way or the other.  Have him hang up and give him the phone.  We make an appearance.”

I pulled the phone away from my ear at the enthusiastic noise she made.

“I’m here,” Capricorn said, on the other line.  “I spent five minutes on the phone with Natalie before giving up.”

Giving up?  I remembered trying to convey the situation with Hookline and Kitchen Sink, before having to resort to video evidence.  Maybe we’d need to get her access to Kenzie’s feed.

“I was talking to Foresight, they don’t know what’s going on with Advance Guard,” he added.

“Neither does Advance Guard, apparently.  It’s time.  We should act before things get worse.”

“Ok.  On our way.  E.T.A. five minutes.”

Sveta shifted her grip on me at the same moment I flew straight toward the ground.  Her hand slipped from my shoulder, and I caught her.

Fucking Advance Guard, fucking Prancer’s people, fucking wretch, hospital, mom, Amy.

It couldn’t be easy.

The thoughts flew through my mind and I left them behind as I plunged.  I slowed and stopped as we reached the ground, still landing hard enough my legs bent, and I nearly dropped to one knee.

I’d put us right in the middle of Advance Guard’s group.

“They’re friendly!” Spright called out.

“You sure about that?” Shortcut asked.  He was on the periphery, holding his polearm.

“Pretty sure,” Spright said.

On the other side of the bottleneck were sixteen villains with a scattered few mooks.  Mooks augmented with Bitter Pill’s tinker stuff, it looked like.  Foaming at the mouths, in a way.

Snag was there, in the back.  Love Lost had retreated as well.

No, there was more to it.  There was a division in the enemy ranks.  Prancer, Moose, Velvet, Etna, and someone who might have been a thinker, in one group.  They moved and talked to one another like they were cooperating.  There was a faint red fog around them, heavier at the ground, at ankle height.

Bitter Pill’s group had Bluestocking, the six mooks, Crested, Birdbrain, and Foggy Idea.  That group was more visually distinct, all but the mooks being tidier, and they hung back.  The mark between them and Prancer’s group was subtle.  They were at the edge of the fog, and they held themselves differently.  Crested with his fan and Birdbrain with a bullwhip were the only ones with weapons.

Compared to that subtle distinction between Pill’s group and Prancer’s, the Nailbiter, Love Lost, Snag, Damsel, and a couple of the more violent and dangerous looking ones, like Sidepiece and Disjoint, were standing such that there was a fifteen foot gap between them and the others.

Anxiety Chris was in the distant background, perhaps a block away, screaming.  His change would be fading soon, I imagined.

Eighteen of them.

Seven Advance Guard, Sveta and I, with Capricorn and Looksee on the way.

Love Lost screamed, and the diagram-drawer blocked it.  Nobody caught at the edges.  I imagined it helped the group had shrunk to seven.

“I can’t convince you guys to up and leave?” I asked.

“Our teleporter is pulling one at a time,” Mayday said.  “She’d pull us all at once, but the impression got scrambled when the scream hit our thinker.”

Sidepiece and Disjoint were moving to flank the group, sneaking around a parked vehicle.  A diagram-wall appeared to block them off.  Disjoint hopped up onto the vehicle and was knocked off as Mayday swung a hand in his direction, casting out a tiny version of the red projectile he’d been bringing in from the horizon.  As Disjoint landed at her feet, Damsel started cussing him out for getting in her way.

“It’s going to take a bit,” Mayday said.  “Gets harder as our group shrinks.  Injured go out first, then the less mobile.”

“They have reinforcements incoming,” I said.  “Infighting is slowing them down, but the enemy group is going to get larger while yours gets smaller.”

“We know this,” Mayday said.  He had a deep, rich voice, which was muffled slightly by his mask.  “The thinker I mentioned, Mapwright, showed us before evacuating out.”

“They have more strong capes than we were led to believe,” the diagram-woman said.

“We need to talk about who you talked to,” I replied, under my breath.

The good guys were stuck, in a way.  Powers aside, the vehicles and nearby railing were the only things that kept the Hollow Point villains from charging in all at once.  It wasn’t that they were that great an obstruction to a group of people like Nailbiter, Moose, or Prancer.  It was that they made it so that for people to pass that point, they needed to approach in ones and twos.

“We need to talk, Prancer!” I called out.

He didn’t answer, verbally or otherwise.  There was a dark look on his face, and it was the violent clique that grew louder.  Not Snag, not Love Lost, but Nailbiter and her fellows.  Damsel didn’t jeer, but she said something, and one of the villains smirked.

“Let’s call a ceasefire!” I raised my voice again.

At the front lines, Velvet flung a rusty newspaper box with telekinesis, more to take away something that contributed to the bottleneck than to outright attack.  It crashed hard, squealing as the metal side slid against the rough textured road.

That would be their answer, then?

Fuck them.

Moose stepped forward, and Shortcut took a step to meet him.  The road distorted, space rippling and appearing like water, spray and all, and he leaped forth at Moose’s side.  Shortcut was there, pole in motion, the blade at the end making the end heavy even as he used the dull side to connect with the back of Moose’s leg.

Moose didn’t go down, and swatted in Shortcut’s direction.  Shortcut disappeared, appeared again, swinging.  This time the blade was more apparent.  Moose was forced to take a step back.

Bitter Pill had a group of six men and women around her, toward the back.  They looked like zombies.  Each had their heads lolling back, and black fluid flowed from their mouths like water from the edge of an overflowing sink.  She was giving them orders, her voice lost in the other noises.

Mayday raised his hand, then brought it forward.  The entire assembly of villains reacted.  Etna, who wore a revealing robe in glossy silk, and a black mask with six horns, threw globs of superheated glass.  The robed woman who drew the magic-circle diagrams raised her defenses, only to be caught off guard when Moose, feinting to throw Shortcut off, charged her.

Moose’s charge meant much of Advance Guard leapt to the fray, Spright included, and Bitter Pill gave the order for her zombies to attack.  They charged, spilling black fluid from their mouths in the same way someone with a very full jug of water might have water sloshing out.

That was Sveta and my cue to get involved.  I flew forward.  Sveta snatched out with a hand to pull one’s ankle out from under it, dragging it into the middle of Advance Guard’s ranks.

“Don’t hurt them!  They’re people!” someone called out behind us.

I changed direction, as I saw Love Lost get a boost from Snag, which segued into her running up the side of the building.  Two long, lunging steps, with metal glittering around her one leg, dangling like extensive jewelry, damaged in an earlier fall or at some point in this altercation.

Still, she grabbed onto a windowsill, twisting around to reach up with her mask.

Sveta’s hand went up.  Love Lost shifted her grip, her back to the wall, arms out to either side to grip different windowsills with her claws.  She refused to go down.

It did mean she couldn’t remove her mask and scream.  I flew skyward, out of the group assembled behind the bottleneck, toward the building’s edge.

Nailbiter was keeping her eye out for me.  In the midst of this kind of chaos, with this many witnesses, she couldn’t go for the lethal strike, but she could interfere.

Brutes had a way of gravitating toward Brutes in a fight.  It was a kind of weird rock-paper-scissors thing, where rock tended to favor smashing rock.

I used my forcefield to swat aside Nailbiter’s claws.  So soon after the conversation with Sveta, to bring it out and be acutely aware of it, to think briefly of the hospital, it was disorienting.  It made the moment dark.

More of Nailbiter’s claws shielded Love Lost, keeping me from getting to her and pulling her free.  Not directly.  I saw Love Lost lower her head and raise her more intact clawed foot.  She was using it as another hand.

Flying higher, I looked to Sveta.  I reached out my hand, and she sent hers to me.

She pulled herself to me, then reached down, grabbing Love Lost from above.

To hold the windowsill and avoid being pulled down was one thing, but being pulled up was another.

Love Lost slashed, raking at Sveta’s arm and tendrils.  Sveta let go, and let Love Lost drop.

It was Snag who leaped out, flying in a straight line to catch the woman in one mechanical arm, before she could crash into the midst of the crowd of villains.

Sveta pulled herself back down to ground level.  Meanwhile, I flew over the enemy group, putting myself behind the herd of enemies, while they scrambled to do something or get clear of the incoming Mayday projectile.

It was intimidating, being on the ground, while a ball of abstract energy the size of a one-car garage hurtled toward us.  I was pretty sure it was very selective about who it affected, catching people up and depositing them in a way Mayday thought appropriate, but even with that, I found it distracting.

I’d put myself close to Bitter Pill and her group.  The thinkers, the clever ones.  I used my aura, to pressure them, to catch their focus while the projectile sailed toward us.

It was Crested, folding fan in hand, who turned my way as I walked in their direction.  All of the darkness of the hospital was in my eyes.  My anger at everyone I couldn’t change or fix was in my body language.  The aura was one thing, but I could be the focus of those feelings of fear and awe that my power stirred in them.

Crested swung the fan.  I knew what to expect, and I wasn’t surprised when the fan spun, the folded metal slats multiplying, as the fan became a circle that became a spiral, each multiplied slat larger than the last.  The effect was reminiscent of an ammonite fossil.  A shield of interconnected metal slats that bit into the road and formed a wall between me and them.

“Crested!” Bluestocking called out.  “We need a barrier against-”

Crested started to fold it up, but it was too slow.  I flew forward, forcefield up, and hit the barrier, just to add to the intimidation and shake the other guys.

I hit the barrier again.

It kept them from erecting a defense.  Prancer grabbed Velvet and leaped up to higher ground.  Others ran for cover in the last seconds.  Some tried to approach me, to use the other side of Crest’s barrier to defend themselves.  I pushed out with my aura to discourage them in the last moment.

I was barely touched, as it washed over me like hot air from a hair dryer.  Others were dragged a hundred feet down the road, pushed back and away from the bottleneck.  Bluestocking’s blue stocking was shredded by the contact with the road, stained red.

They were a jumbled heap.  They hadn’t pushed past the bottleneck or delivered a serious blow to Advance Guard before the bizarre siege weapon hit.

I flew back to our side.

“Let’s end this!” Mayday called out.

“Are you surrendering?  Six of you and your two helpers,” Prancer said.  “And-”

Behind him, Beast of Burden was arriving with reinforcements.  The leader of the violent clique.  No blood, no barbs or spikes, but the armor he wore was steel, and it looked like slabs had been cut off of tank armor.  Helmet blended into body armor, so broad and heavy it didn’t leave a hint of a neck.  The helmet had bull’s horns longer and thicker around than my leg and only slits for eyeholes.  The chest armor was a slab shaped roughly like chest armor, and similar measures had been taken for the metal segments that encircled parts of his arms and legs.  Cleat was with him, and Cleat was spiky in a way I’d anticipated Beast of Burden being.

Beast of Burden, ‘Bob’, was quick for a guy wearing armor as heavy as his.

But we had reinforcements too.

At our rear, Capricorn, Rain, and Looksee were arriving.  Looksee had her armor on, much as she’d designed it.  Four spheres at the back of her head, to encapsulate hair buns, five lenses at her face, lime green and gray color scheme.

Rain had gone with something relatively simple- a combination of loose clothing with a hood, a mask that made his face look like a robot’s, and gloves that did much the same.  He wasn’t wearing extra arms.

Did he look sufficiently different to mask him for Love Lost and Snag?  Nothing about their expressions suggested anything.

We were gathered.  All together, or as together as we could reasonably be.  Chris had run off, and Ashley was on the other side, walking the fine line of being hard to manage and believable.

“Hey, Mayday,” Looksee said.

He was silent, as he turned to look at her.  She had her flash gun out.

“Aw shit no,” Mayday said.

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

Shadow – 5.3

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

We hurried to get ourselves put together.  Tristan was often the one to take point on the organization side of things, but for the moment, he was ducking under a table, dragging out a plastic bin with his armor in it.  No breath or focus to spare.

“What are we doing?” Sveta asked.

“I guess we all go,” I said.  “Control the situation, then help the heroes, in that order?  Tristan?”

“Yep,” Tristan said, as he straightened up.  He pulled off the v-neck long sleeved shirt he was wearing, undid the necklace with steel beads and a metal ram’s horn, and dropped them into a corner of the plastic bucket.  He had his non-armor costume on under his clothes, form-fitting and covered in patterns that gave some character to what was visible in the gaps between the individual pieces of armor.

“What can I do?” Rain asked.

“You come if you’re up for it.  Kenzie too.”

“Yes,” Kenzie said, without hesitation.

“I want you on the periphery,” Tristan said, stressing the periphery part.  “Kenzie, you’re staying close to me, you’re backup and problem solving, we’ll figure out where to park you and keep you as a reserve.”

“You’re bringing me along?” Kenzie asked, wide-eyed.

I listened and watched, pulling off my sweater with one hand, the other hand holding my camisole top in place.

Tristan answered her, “I promised you I would.  You can keep an eye on things with the cameras?”

“I can,” she said, enthused.  “Oh shoot!  I need to get last minute costume stuff done, and I have it loaded with stuff for Chris.”

She began rummaging, hurrying to get ready.

“You want me along?” Rain asked.

“It might be best to have everyone along in some capacity.  You stay far enough back the clairvoyants can’t see you and so you won’t run into Love Lost or the others.”

“Okay,” Rain said.

“Sveta and Victoria together.  Erin?  Good to have you here, but-”

“It would be weird if I stayed while you’re all gone.  I get it,” Erin said.

I put on the sweatshirt.  I’d peeled off the previous design, and put on a new one.  It was better than the mess before, a similar aesthetic, with the circle and stylized rays, but the lines curled more, reaching out to the seams of the sweatshirt, where they blended into thin black bars.  The hood was framed with the same design.

More of my self-care, to get my outfit somewhat in order.  I’d done a little something to the mask, giving it some black accents, but it was still predominantly white.

Not that it mattered much.  I didn’t place a serious priority on my secret identity.  Anyone who could put two and two together would know my face, including the villains in Cedar Point.

Sveta applied her mask.  She’d taken one of the temporary masks, but in the time since we’d gone out together, she’d taken some art supplies to it.  The same color scheme that covered her prosthetic exterior, with deep, dark blues and greens, neon oranges and yellows, now covered her mask.

“That’s great,” I said, briefly, before applying my own, making sure it was symmetrical.

“Thank you.  The color rubs off, so it’s only a temporary thing.”

“The masks aren’t meant to be long-term,” I said.  “We’re making do until we’re more settled.”

I plucked at my sweatshirt as I said it.

“That’s temporary then?”

“Yeah,” I said, giving her a hard look.  I glanced back at the screen.  “Going to do something better, but I have to figure some stuff out first.”

“Okay, haha, I was worried I’d have to dance around my friend having low standards for her costume,” Sveta said.

I snapped my head to look around, and saw Sveta stick her tongue out at me.  I gave her a light push.  “Fuck off, and not the time.”

“This is better than what you had before.”

Baby steps.  Better costumes as I figured out what I was doing.

What was I doing?  I could see the mob on the screen.  I knew from my experience with the broken trigger that mobs were hard to wrangle.  Adding my emotion power to the mix, when Love Lost’s had already taken hold?

More than anything, I wanted to think things through.  I wanted to be intelligent in how I went about the cape thing, but there were times that couldn’t happen.  This time, where blood was being shed, was one.

If law, right and wrong, and the input of others didn’t serve to clarify matters, then I wanted to do what would weigh on me the least.  I was glad that those least-weighty things were often the lawful and right ones.

It was selfish.  If a time came in the future where I was disabled, with nothing to do but sit in a hospital room, thinking about the past and dreading my non-future, I didn’t want my memories to be something I had to endure, or things that soured on reflection.

I didn’t miss the fact that as that idea rolled through my head, the ‘if’ of the idea had the faintest catch to it.

An idea to hold onto for when I saw my new therapist.  When, not if.

“I’ll organize these guys,” Tristan said.  He was strapping on his armor. “I’ll run to catch up.  You two figure out what you’re doing.  Remember Chris and Ashley are out there.”

I looked at the screen, looking at the labels of the capes involved in the fight.  Prancer and Spright were maneuvering around each other in the middle of downtown, not far from the pub or Prancer’s headquarters.  Nailbiter had left the larger brawl and were giving chase.

Snag’s name had appeared and was in the shifting jumble of labels over heads.

“It’s too chaotic,” I said.  “If we throw ourselves into that mess, I’m going to hurt someone, Sveta is, or we’re going to get hurt.”

“Go after Prancer and-” Tristan turned his head to check the screen on the side.  “Spright.  Keep an eye out for Love Lost and Nail.  Do what you can.  I’ll signal you once I’m closer.  We’ll deal with the mob when we’ve more of our own people around.  Us stragglers will call Chris and the hero oversight.”

“Good,” I said.

I didn’t want to waste more time.  I pushed the door open, holding it for Sveta, and then took her hand.

I picked her up and flew.  When I was higher than any of the buildings in the area, I paused to turn around in mid-air, looking down at the headquarters.

“Something bothering you?” Sveta asked.

A lot of things were.

I flew toward Cedar Point.  If I waited too long, Prancer and Spright would have moved on from the area we’d seen them.

“Tristan.  He’s getting everyone out of there,” I said, while we flew.  I had to raise my voice to ensure I’d be heard.


“And- it’s like that riddle,” I said.  “The wolf, the chicken, the corn, a boat with room for the man and one thing in the boat at a time.  He’s-”

My voice dropped away as we drew close enough that I could hear the faint scream and the reverberation.  I partially lost my train of thought.

“I’m not following you,” Sveta said.

“He’s either pulling something or he’s worried someone else will,” I said.  “He’s taking possibly unnecessary steps.”

I felt Sveta’s arm move, where it was wrapped around my back.  Tightening.

“I don’t like this,” she said.  I could barely hear her.

“Me interpreting things like this?  Tristan?  Rain?  The awful puzzle analogy?”

“Any of it,” Sveta said.  Her voice grew louder, so I could hear her properly again.  “I don’t want to make this mistake again.”

I wanted to ask, but I heard another scream.  I could see a distortion in the air, as colors pulled away from trees and buildings as if they were watercolor or the color was multiplying, casting the surroundings into shades of red and purple.  The effect was brief, and the distortion faded.  No damage had been done to the surroundings.

I could feel the effect of it, even from a distance.  My heart rate picked up, and for a moment my thoughts and feelings spooled out.  There were a hundred things I was holding in my heart and head that had to sit there.  There were worries, irritations, traumas, and causes for outright fucking fury that I couldn’t do a damn thing about.  Just being on the periphery of the effect made them swell up and jostle together.

Sveta’s arm tightened around me.  I could hear the thump, thump, thumpthump of her tendrils against the inside of her body.

I met her eyes.  I could instantly tell that she’d been affected more than I had.

I was resistant to emotion effects, because I generated them.  Snag had hit me hard because he’d hit me where it hurt the most.

My rage?  It was there, beneath the surface, but it wasn’t a weak point.  It was a regular point.

Changing course, I flew straight for the nearest rooftop.  Sveta let go of me and dropped down the moment we were close enough.  She was unsteady on landing, and after her legs didn’t keep her upright, she landed on her hands and knees on the roof’s surface, which was covered in black shingle-like tiles, four feet across.  Puddles of water settled in the parts that were lower than others, waiting to be evaporated by the sun.

I kept my mouth shut as the emotion effect subsided, and walked over to the roof’s edge.

Love Lost had joined the chase, running alongside Nailbiter, who had extended her limbs.  They made a racket as they ran.  Love Lost’s claws scraped the road and kicked up sparks, and she was faster than an ordinary person.

Nailbiter, though, had extended her limbs, but they got narrower as they grew longer, and had become black and gnarled in the process.  Her jaw hung low, the joints on either side extended, her jawbone  made longer and narrower, and the teeth extended further.

She looked like something half-crocodile, half-scarecrow.

She had no problem with mobility or strength, apparently, as she took strides that were fifteen feet long.

Prancer was only a short distance behind Spright.  Spright ducked in between two parked trucks.  As a maneuver, it put a truck between himself and Prancer, and forced Prancer to anticipate which way he’d go, or if he’d carry on straight and go down the alley.

Prancer hopped up onto the vehicle in the same moment that Spright slid under it.  The two seconds it took Prancer to look around and try to find out which way he’d gone were seconds he could run, using enhanced speed.

He half-jumped, half-climbed up a building, with Prancer in delayed pursuit.  Setting foot on the edge of the roof, he leaped backward, in a backward bound that saw him arcing over sidewalk, street, sidewalk, and put him on course to make contact with a building’s face.

I started forward as Nailbiter reached out.  Her arm extended, long, thin, and rigid, fingers doing the same as they became points so fine and far away I couldn’t even make them out.  Spright kicked out and brought an arm up to deflect the piercing fingers with the armor there.  He landed on the roof, and an intervening building meant I couldn’t see where he went from there.

I was flying in that direction when I saw Love Lost reach for her mask.  She pulled it off, and I changed direction, reversing course and throwing myself against the roof I’d just left.

The scream pierced through the air, raw and magnified in volume. I could see the distortion flare up around the edge of the roof, where the effect was cut off, but it didn’t extend through the building or the roof.  I didn’t feel the change in heart rate or breathing.

The color change and distorted blur in the environment was limited to an area in front of Love Lost’s mouth.  Solid objects blocked it.

I chanced a peek.  She was down on the street, running past us, Nailbiter a distance ahead of her.  She didn’t seem to have noticed me, even with her emotion power.

Damsel was chasing as well, only as fast as she could run, nothing augmented but the blasts, which she wasn’t using.

Sveta, Ashley and I.  I’d come this way because we were the worst people to deal with Love Lost.  I’d been ready to leap to Spright’s defense against Nailbiter if I had to, but Love Lost being here complicated that.

At least Spright seemed to be managing, whatever he was doing.

“Sveta,” I said.  “Are you okay?”

“I’m ok-” she started, and the interrupted ‘okay’ sounded like ‘oak’.  “I’m trying to tell my body not to murder my suit.”

“Can I do something?”

She shook her head.


On the street, Spright had escaped Prancer.  He returned to the main street, saw Nailbiter and Love Lost close by, and broke into a run.  The breaker effect was steadily fading.

Prancer’s power, I knew, was a breaker effect, to go by the PRT classifications.  It was the most misunderstood classification in playground arguments and online debates, to the point where every power had probably been called a breaker power by someone.  Where changers were powers that changed one’s form and were physical and mostly bound to the natural world, breaker powers were on-off, tied into enabling powers or powersets, and were ethereal or rule-breaking.

Prancer’s ‘on’ switch was a power-derived form that made him fast and nimble.  Running and jumping around made the effect steadily ramp up.  It made him fast and evasive.

It was good to think about the mechanical side of powers, to dwell in fact and things that made me think of reading cape magazines in bed and talking to Dean.

Sveta’s voice stirred me from my thoughts.  “Positive side is I just found out I’m all instinct when I’m forced into attack mode.  My body isn’t smart enough to figure out how to get out of the suit.”

“Good thing,” I said.  I meant it as I said it, saw the fleeting smile on her face, but I was also kind of distracted.

“What’s going on over there?  It helps if I focus on external things I can’t accidentally murder.”

“Spright’s running, I lost track of him.  I’d go to him and ask what the fuck is going on, but he’s trying to be slippery and he’s good at it.  I’d talk to Prancer, but it’s exactly the same thing.  I don’t want to go after Love Lost and fuck up.  I’m wondering if we should run, go back to the mob.”

Sveta nodded.

“I hate to leave Spright,” I said.  “He might not know about the violence, or who’s after him, and this is a- in big fights, outright wars, it’s good to identify solutions.  If I can get to Spright, I can stop this.”

“Love Lost is the biggest problem?”

I nodded.

“I think I can get her,” Sveta said.  She shifted position and sat back.  “I don’t want to hurt her, but I think I can get her.”

“You sure?”

“Reasonably sure.”

“Rule of thumb I’ve been thinking about?  Seventy-five percent.  No more than three-quarters of the hurt they’ve done to others.  She made ReSound bleed a lot.  You can make her bleed a little.”

Sveta winced.

“Or not at all,” I said.  “But remember that she’s willing to hurt Rain.  If she had a twisted ankle or something, it’d make a lot of things easier.”

Sveta nodded.

“You good?” I asked.

“I wanted to do this.  Go get Spright.”

The best way to get control over this situation.  Spright had been sent forward as the vanguard of Advance Guard.  Was it to lead others on a wild goose chase, or was he after something?

I flew a course that put me directly over the rooftops, so the buildings were between me and the pairing of Nailbiter and Love Lost.  There had been some time since the last scream.  Her mask might have been put back on, which would have meant a delay before she could hit me with something.

That delay had been a factor when Sveta and I had both visited Cedar Point together, to deal with Sink and Hookline.  It might be a factor here.

Prancer’s power wasn’t a threat, but it was a serious consideration.  It made him fast and hard to track down.  Once upon a time, it had meant he could run drugs and make drop-offs as a petty criminal.

The drawback was a concern too.  He was forced out of the breaker state and made mundane if he got hurt.

I spotted the colorful set of blurs that was the pair, and changed course to follow.  They were leaping between building faces, positioning feet to avoid putting one through a window, and covering as much ground up and down vertically as they were crossing horizontally.  They were fast enough now that if they had been moving in a straight line, I wouldn’t have been able to keep up.

Flying over the rooftops, moving in a straight line to close the distance, I caught a glimpse of Nailbiter climbing up a two-story building with the ease someone else might climb up onto a desk.  She moved like she was on stilts, or like she was all stilts.

Pointed ones, as I understood it.

Her arm moved, swinging.  I heard the sound of fingers as fine as needles slicing through the air, and put my shield up.

I couldn’t even see her fingers, as they crashed into me.  Shield down, I changed course before she could close those fingers around me and set me up for something else.

Her mouth yawned open.  My shield wasn’t yet up when her teeth extended, but I was able to get down enough she wouldn’t hit me.  Each tooth pointed in a slightly different direction, and she had a lot of nail-teeth.  I heard the faint whisking sound of the thinner-than-needles teeth hitting things almost purely at random.  Each hit with the force of a knife swung overhead and into a table.

There was a pause, and I heard an unearthly screeching sound.

The teeth had stopped just short of penetrating windows.  With each small movement on her part, points scraped against glass.

I saw something thicker than a tooth withdrawing.  Changing course, I maneuvered between buildings, barely a few feet above the ground, my forcefield up.

Several feet in front of me, a vague column that looked like it was more shadow than substance  lunged out into my path.

My first thought was that it was one of Sveta’s arms.  It wasn’t.  I tried to fly under it, since I was already so close to the ground, and the individual components fanned out to bar my way.

I crashed bodily into them, my shield absorbing the hit, and the impact made them slap against the side of a dumpster in the alleyway.  The thing was crude in a made-just-after-the-world-ended kind of way, four pieces of thick metal, welding, and handles for the dump truck.  The hit made one of the sides buckle, the weld at the side closest to me splitting violently.

I turned to look the other way, and saw Love Lost with one clawed hand resting on a crouching Nailbiter’s fingers, guiding them.  Nailbiter had both hands together, fingers pointed at me, and the fingers were extended out.

Enhanced strength, and the ability to extend any part of her body, making that part rigid and thinner.

She moved her hand, and two fingers pressed me against a wall, needle thin bars against my throat and thighs.

I couldn’t trust that my forcefield would come back in time.  My feet were only barely touching the ground, but I could fly.  I flew away from her, sliding between the extended digits and the wall.

She increased the pressure, and I had to stop, lest I give myself road rash while scraping against the concrete wall.  Another nail-finger shifted position, slapping me across the cheekbone and ear, and pressed my head back.

Her mouth opened.  I didn’t see her do anything, but I threw up my shield all the same, the moment I felt it was ready.  I pushed out, hard, and the wretch did the same, gripping and pushing the finger bars that had trapped me.  A foot from my face, her tongue struck hard against an invisible surface.  It would have gone right through me if it had connected.

I moved while I could, between fingers and wall.  I could feel here and there where there was a bulge where there had been a knuckle.  I could only imagine how it worked when it wasn’t extended fingers, but the rusty nail-teeth.  Doing this would have been like running a saw against my throat, face, and thighs.

These two were dangerous.  I flew straight up, the moment I was free of the fingers, rounding a corner.

Instincts told me to press forward.  I wanted to go after Spright, or remove the threat.

I stopped instead.  There was a limit to how fast and how far they could travel.  I had a second.

Love Lost could have hit me with a scream while I was pinned.  She hadn’t.  She could have seen Sveta and I with her power earlier.  The second might have been explained by her thinking we were bystanders, but the first?

Was it that she would have been hitting Nailbiter’s fingers?  Not a good idea, to provoke an enemy who was standing right next to you, not when that enemy was very good at hurting people.

An easy conclusion to jump to, but not the only one.  I’d been thinking about breakers, the on-off.  It wasn’t out of the question that Love Lost could only sense emotion when she wasn’t projecting it.  It could be a thing that alternated, with a period of time where she could see, a period she could project, with the mask serving to restrict it.  It could be that her scream disabled her sight for a time after using it, while the power gobbled up energy for another activation, the sight only available when the power was primed and ready.

That attack into the alley had been timed to try and hit me, or at least to anticipate me.  My flight pattern hadn’t been predictable.  I didn’t want to have more nail-fingers in my face the second I was up above the buildings.  I wished I was better able to figure this out.

The scream, too.  She made people pissed.  Irrationally, recklessly angry.  When she’d done it to ReSound, she’d been prepared for Resound lashing out.  Maybe she hadn’t done it to me because she couldn’t handle me in a fight?

Sometimes the simplest answer was the right one.

I could call Kenzie and see if they have anything to report, but that might show our hands.  We were already showing so much.

I heard a distant scream, terrified, and it wasn’t Love Lost’s.  At the same moment,  my phone vibrated in my pocket.

Pulling it out, I checked the screen.  A text from Kenzie, now listed on my phone as ‘Ls’ for Looksee.

coast clearish

I flew straight up, until I had a view of the situation.  I didn’t have a thinker power, but a view of the battlefield from above counted for something.  If my forcefield broke, I would take evasive action.

What I saw had to be Chris.  I was far away, so I couldn’t see him well, but it had to be him.  It was a face, six feet tall, three feet wide, with no cheeks or anything but a spine connecting the top half from the lower half, as if the chin and bottom row of teeth were the ‘head’ of an insect, the rest of the head the thorax.  The setup was surrounded by a ring of spider-like legs in varying shapes and sizes.  They looked like flesh and not chitin, though, muscular meat with a pronounced ‘elbow’, coming to a pointed tip where it touched the ground or face.  He jerked and twitched, large eyes wide, and some of the legs seemed to be more focused on clawing at his own face than on keeping him mobile.  I would have said it was like someone dragging his fingernails across his cheeks, but he didn’t have any cheeks.

He screamed at them, and it was the sound of mortal terror.  He’d succeeded in getting Love Lost and Nailbiter’s attention, and now huddled at the foot of a building, pulling against it as if he could pull himself through the seam between sidewalk and store.  They didn’t seem to know what to make of him.  I didn’t blame them.

Love Lost touched Nailbiter, and pointed in my direction.

Yeah, she could see me.  I braced for evasive action.

Anxiety Chris screamed again, louder.  Nailbiter moved a hand, and he darted to one side, taking a wild path that saw him running up the wall and off the side of the building, radically changing direction as he touched ground.

He was quick.  I was put in mind of a bug darting to the darkness as the lights came on.

They were caught between keeping an eye on me and keeping an eye on Chris.

When Love Lost touched her mask, Chris sped another fifteen feet in a heartbeat.

She pulled off the mask, and she screamed at him.  I could see the distortion, aimed more at the ground now.  Roughly conical, it covered a lot of area.

Chris twitched, jerked, moved this way, then that.  He raised his fleshy spider legs and pointed two tips at them, and Love Lost moved slightly behind Nailbiter, as if she’d find cover behind the exceedingly thin limbs.

Chris screamed back, raw and scared.

There was a moment’s pause, and she screamed at him again.  Compounding the effect?

He screamed at her again, quivering in the wake of it, and crept closer.

Nailbiter’s fingers stabbed the ground between herself and him.

He screamed, brief, and ran away.  It seemed he couldn’t move in a straight line, or the evasive action was built in, because he traced an ‘s’ shape as he ran.

I flew to put buildings between me and her.  Where were Spright and Prancer now?  We’d diverted the dangerous elements, but I wanted to fix things.  I wanted to take concrete, measured steps to make things better, now that Advance Guard had shit the bed as badly as they had.

I wanted the world to make sense again.  And Cedar Point didn’t make sense.

Two more screams, both in short succession.  Anxiety Chris’ scream.  I turned to look, and I saw the faint shadow of Nailbiter’s nail-fingers stabbing skyward.

Love Lost was running up the fingers.  They were thin, but she didn’t seem to be struggling.

Her mask was off, and she was looking down.  Looking for me.

Scratch my earlier theory about her not wanting to provoke me.

I couldn’t get to cover fast enough, so I did the opposite.  I headed straight for her.  If she thought she could deal with me, I wanted to see what she’d do.  I pushed out with my aura for the first time, to make it harder.

She would be resistant, like Snag was.  Still, I refused to believe that she could deal with my aura, scream, at me, and take evasive action against my charge while thirty feet above the rooftops.

Nailbiter lashed out.  Teeth.  My forcefield took the hit, and I carried forward.  Love Lost lost her footing, teetering, then leaped hard off of the fingers.

I flew straight down, to put myself out of Nailbiter’s reach, while Love Lost leaped sideways.

She touched the side of Prancer’s headquarters, the claws of her hands and feet finding traction on the surface, and she moved like she was running, claws catching and helping to propel her.

There was the wall-running power.  She moved fluidly along a vertical surface, claws helping.  Her hand went to her mask, and a hand reached up from below, grabbing her ankle.


Love Lost was pulled away from the building.  No longer able to make contact with the surface, she fell at a diagonal, in the direction of the rooftop she’d originally been falling down to.  I could see her reorient herself in the air, twisting to put feet beneath her, but she couldn’t stop falling.

Not a terminal fall, most likely, but it’d be a hard one.

In the distance, I could hear Chris screaming as he ran.  He covered a lot of ground, apparently, because the scream faded with each passing second.

Good job, Sveta, I thought.  Not showing her hand, catching Love Lost by surprise, and staying clear of that scream were perfect.  It had taken her a while, but I didn’t blame her for moving carefully and having trouble finding the right position and moment to act.

No, that was exactly what I was wanting to do.  It was energizing, in a way, exciting.  For all my doubts, I liked that at least one person was on my wavelength.

Chris had done his thing too.  Not bad, but he’d shown himself to Nailbiter, and it worried me that he could have been stabbed if Nailbiter had been a little more willing to pull the trigger and impale him.

I flew in Sveta’s direction, and found her waiting, her back to the wall, phone out.

She jumped when I floated over to her.

“Good,” I said.  “I’ll tell you how good after.”

She smiled.  She showed me the phone.

prance lost sprite.  sprite on roof to W of u
we here at edge of town.  mob splitting up.  some headed ur way

As I read the messages, a new alert popped up.

nail dam comin

I grabbed Sveta’s hand, and prepared to fly away when Damsel appeared in the alleyway.  I could have called her Ashley, but she didn’t give me the impression of ‘Ashley’.  Shadows fell across her face, accented by the mask and makeup, her eyes were eerily white, her hair was white, and it made for an attention-grabbing profile.  If I hadn’t known better, I might have been intimidated.

Nailbiter appeared, looming over Damsel in a crouch, three times as tall as Damsel was, so thin in places as to be almost invisible.  Her face was still prolonged, jaw hanging, teeth pronounced.

Love Lost was in Nailbiter’s cupped hand, crouching, holding one finger for balance.  I couldn’t tell how hurt she was.

“I’ll deign to let you two help me against the wannabe Alexandria and the girl with the paint,” Damsel said, dismissive.

Nailbiter pulled her face back together, the features drawing shorter.  “You aren’t Cedar Point.”

There was a whistling ‘s’ sound on Cedar.

“I am now,” Damsel said.  “Mess this bad?  Ripe for takeover.”

“We can discuss that,” Nailbiter said.

“Interested?” Damsel asked.

“You’re being hasty,” Nailbiter said.  “I’d be interested if I wasn’t loyal to Bob.”

Love Lost swiped out with a claw, dashing claw-tips against the wall to her left.  It made a sound, and both Damsel and Nailbiter focused their attention on her.

She pointed at us.

“Yes,” Nailbiter said.

She started forward, with sufficient clearance to go over Damsel, and I flew with Sveta’s hand firmly in my grip.  I could hear Damsel used her power in the same instant, lunging forward.

It bought us time, that she hurled herself forward while Nailbiter was trying to place an extended limb.

Time to get around a corner, to take pre-emptive evasive action.

They turned the same corner, and Sveta had turned herself around.  She cast her hand out, and gripped Love Lost at the neck and hair.  Love Lost had her hand at her mask, and stopped, not screaming.

“Sorry!” Sveta called out, as she hauled Love Lost free of Nailbiter’s grip, pulling her halfway toward us before letting go.

Love Lost was like a cat, apparently, acrobatic enough to keep her claws under her.  Still, she was moving fast, momentum was a thing, and the resulting landing was a bit of a roll and tumble, before she managed to stop herself.

Scraped up and glaring, Love Lost watched as I put some vertical distance between us.  Nailbiter slowed to avoid trampling Love Lost, falling behind slightly, and then raised a hand, aiming.

Reflexively, I brought up my forcefield and heaved Sveta up, back and away.  Instinct.  I couldn’t have my forcefield up while holding her.

I couldn’t even watch to see what Sveta did.  My focus was on Nailbiter.

She chose to try to get Sveta while Sveta was in the air.  I saw the mass of teeth extending, spearing out, and they were aimed too low to be aimed at me.

I flew down to intercept.  Forcefield up, I grabbed them after they had extended past me, pushing down, redirecting.  The wretch had to have grabbed them too, because she moved like superstrength applied.  All of the teeth were attached to her and when I moved some of them, I moved them all.

That done, I looked back for Sveta.  The inverse of Love Lost, to tumble so bonelessly through the air, with no ability to reorient herself.

My forcefield scraped against the nails as I flew past them, pushing them more before a last-second course correction to intercept Sveta.  I caught her.

“Warn me!”

I nodded.  It was very possible I felt more alarmed in the wake of the moment than Sveta did, and she looked really alarmed.

I looked back.  Love Lost and Nailbiter were on the ground, and Nailbiter wasn’t pressing the attack.

“You going to explain that?” Sveta asked.

“I can,” I said.  “Sorry.”

“It’s okay, but- what was that analogy?  Wolf, corn, chicken?”

“Wolf,” I said.  I had an ugly, heavy feeling that thoroughly crushed the moment of triumph.  I flew down, setting foot on the rooftop.  Each passing second, it bothered me more.  “Wolf.”

“I don’t follow.  I didn’t follow the analogy in the first place, but- secrets?  Maneuvers?”

“Just… wolf,” I said.  I didn’t want to explain it in detail.  “Control issue.  Similar to yours.”

I saw her forehead crease above her mask.

“You didn’t have one before.”

“No I didn’t,” I said.

“Okay,” she said.  “You should have told me.”

I tried to formulate a response.  She wouldn’t look directly at me.

As I opened my mouth, she looked down at her phone, as if she was looking for an excuse to look away.  The tiny change in her expression gave me pause.

“What is it?”

“Come, Spright’s moving.”

She grabbed my arm, tugging.

“You can carry me?” she asked.

I nodded, seizing her with a firmer grip than necessary, carrying her off the roof.

Spright still had a vestige of Prancer’s power, even though Prancer was nowhere nearby.  I could see him running along a rooftop.  He leaped from the rooftop’s edge, to the building face next door.

The building was Prancer’s headquarters.  A stone building with a clocktower on the top.

Touching fingertips to toes, as his feet pointed straight forward, Spright passed through an open window and landed at a run.  For Sveta and I, we had to get there first, and then we had to maneuver ourselves through the window.  I supported Sveta so she could climb through and then looked around to make sure we weren’t being observed.

Well, if the clairvoyants were awake, and they had to be with the day still young, Chris still screaming in the distant background, and various other noises and chaos, then we were being observed.

But I couldn’t see anyone who could follow us into the building.

The things inside were… not especially nice, even though attempts had been made.  It made me think more of a parent teacher conference room and my mom’s office when she was really deep in work.  Budget desk, budget chairs, budget stuff in general, with the doors being wood that hadn’t even been polished down that nicely before being painted, and some signs of domesticity, with a jacket on the back of a chair, signs of eating at desks, and personal touches littering the space.

Spright was already across the floor.  A binder was open in front of him.

“Spright,” I said.

“The heroine who was Glory Girl, and a friend,” he said, sounding pleasant, even casual.  He picked up the binder and turned our way.  “I heard you were around.”

I stalked toward him, reaching for the top of the chest-plate that served as the closest thing I’d get to a collar.  He scrambled back, staying just out of reach, turning to flight when his feet failed him.  He dropped the binder.

Failing to get a grip on him so I could shake sense into the man, I settled for pointing a finger accusatorily at him.

I could hear Chris screaming in the background, a distant sound I couldn’t place, that might have been a giant tinker device going off.

This entire thing had been about taking a topsy-turvy world and making it topsy-turvy for the bad guys, unseating them and breaking their hold.  It had been about sanity, and they’d pulled the most insane fucking stunt, and they’d upended it.

But I couldn’t burn bridges.  They were… how would Ashley have put it?  Blithering idiots?  And I had to get along with them.  Heroes needed to cooperate, the team needed it, and I wanted to be diplomatic.

Fucking why?” I asked.

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

Shadow – 5.2

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

“Maybe trouble,” Kenzie said.

I was digging through my bag when she said it.  I set some of my things aside and headed to the front of the room.  Erin was standing beside Kenzie, while Kenzie regaled her with stuff.

Rain was thirty feet away, sitting in his computer chair in his nook.  Some of the tables we’d arranged were situated so the long side was against the wall, but in the interest of giving Rain some desk space, we’d set up two so the shorter ends of the table were against the wall and the tables jutted out into the room, his whiteboards against the wall between the tables.  He’d unfurled a roll of paper tablecloth, laid out his arms on it, and was using marker to draw on the tablecloth and make references.

His bag was open, and I could see the jaws of a bear trap and a bit of chain within.

He looked up, met my eyes, then looked at the screen.  He remained where he was.  He, Sveta and I were the ones who hung back a bit.  Him because of his work, and Sveta and I because we were rummaging in our bags.

“Continuation of a bit of family drama,” Kenzie said.  She hit a few keys.  The camera’s image on the screen focused in on one section and rotated.

Nailbiter and a teenaged girl were standing outside of the nail place where Ashley had been comparing her nails to the outdated example images in the window.  A middle-aged woman with bleached blonde hair was holding the teenager’s wrist.  The angle didn’t allow for a very good view of Nailbiter or her expression.  She didn’t seem to be doing anything to step in.

The teenager had a resemblance to her mother, but was slender.  Her hair reminded me of how Byron wore his, it was the same medium-long length, slicked straight back from the face, but the teenager’s was bleached where Byron’s was black.  In facial features and in expression, the teenager was a younger mirror of her mom.  Neither was happy with the other.

“What’s this?” I asked.  “What’s the drama?”

“The girl is Colt.  She was working for her parents, but business was slow, they weren’t paying her, and now she’s working for Nailbiter.”

“Working how?” Tristan asked.

“Muscle, I guess?” Kenzie asked.

“She can’t weigh more than a hundred and thirty pounds,” Tristan said.

“Okay, well, she’s hanging out with Nailbiter and she’s getting paid, I think, because she’s had new clothes lately,” Kenzie said.

“You’ve been watching her?” I asked.  “How do you know all of this?”

“I’m not watching her watching her.  That makes it sound like I’m being creepy spying on people.  Geez.  It’s because they keep having shouting matches at night, and idle cameras go on alert mode at loud noises, so I end up hearing stuff.”

“So you’re being creepy eavesdropping on people,” Chris said.

Kenzie glanced around her desk.  “I’d throw something at you if I could find something I’m okay breaking.”

“Family issue, okay, but what’s going on now?” Tristan asked.

“And do we need to step in?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Kenzie said.  “Colt left the place to go talk to Nailbiter on the street, and they started to leave when Colt’s mom, Tammy, went after her and stopped her.  Her sister, who’s about my age, she went outside with Tammy the mom and ran back inside.”

“Audio?” Sveta asked.

Kenzie hit a key.

Chris asked, “Who names their kid Colt?  Or is that a shitty nickname?”  Chris’s second question had him inadvertently talk over the start of the audio feed.  Kenzie shushed him.

“…cking let me go!”

“Get inside!  You’re still in trouble for stealing!”

“Fuck you!  I deserved something!”

“She’s been helping, you haven’t!”

“The one time she helps, you decide to pay her, and I get fuck all because it’s the one time I decided to go out instead!?  Fuck that, fuck you!”

“Is this how we’re doing this!?” the mom screamed at Nailbiter, ignoring her daughter for the moment. “You want money from us while you’re scaring away the business, and now you’re taking my little girl, too!?”

“I’m not fucking little!”

“She decides,” Nailbiter’s voice had a slight whistle around the words.  “I’m losing patience, Colt.  If I walk away from here without you, I’m not bringing you along again.”

“I decide, not her!” the mother raised her voice.  “I’m the mother!”

“Then the two of you need to decide,” Nailbiter said.  “Now.”

Colt hauled back, her arm still in the firm grip of her mother’s two hands.

I looked at the door.  If I flew over now-

A sound of an impact made me look back to the screen.  Colt’s mother had turned away.  Colt had her free hand raised.  She’d slapped her mother.

Her mother moved to retaliate, and Colt pulled back out of the way.  There wasn’t much heart behind the swing, either.  Not for the mom.  The teenager tugged to try to free her arm, and when she couldn’t, she swung again.  Not a slap this time, but a punch.

Kenzie looked away before the second punch could land.  She didn’t look back for the third or fourth.

“Shitty name girl’s got grit,” Chris said.

“No,” I said.  “I don’t think that’s grit.”

“Colt!” the father hollered the word, on emerging from the nail salon.  Colt backed away, arm free of her mother’s grip, while the father advanced.

Nailbiter stepped forward and to the side, to put herself between Colt and her father.  The father stopped in his tracks.  He looked at his wife, then leaned over for a closer look, touching her cheek where it already looked like it was going to be a heck of a bruise.

He and his wife stood together as they squared off against Nailbiter.

“She’s mine, now,” Nailbiter said.

“Are you, Colt?” the father asked.  He got angrier as he talked, “Are you hers?  You’d hit your mother, who sacrificed so much for you?”

Colt looked spooked, in that moment.  Kenzie zoomed the camera in further, moving the mouse.

It was Erin who said something.  “Say no.”

“Fine.  I’m hers,” Colt said.  “Fuck this.  At least she pays me.”

“Brave sounding words, while you’re standing behind her.  You’re not going to stand aside, let us handle this as a family?”

“No,” Nailbiter said.  “She’s an employee.”

“I don’t want trouble,” the father said.  “We can leave it at this.”

“If you want,” Nailbiter said.

“Good,” Colt said.  “Leave it and fuck off.”

“Don’t come home,” the father said, and his voice was hard, now.  “Don’t show your face in front of me, your mother, or Reese again.  Be her errand girl.  I’m done trying with you.”

Colt was silent.

“Patience lost,” Nailbiter said, the dry whistle catching on the ‘s’ of Lost.  “I’m going.”

“Mom?” Colt asked.  I heard her ask that, and I wondered if she wanted her mother to grab her, to drag her away.

“What are you asking me for?” Tammy asked, one hand at the side of her face.  “If you’re going to go, then go.”

“Yeah?” Colt asked.  She spat the words, “Fuck you.

“I’ll be by next week to collect,” Nailbiter said.  “See you then.”

Another whistle on the ‘s’ of ‘see.’  Nailbiter and Colt walked away.  The father hugged his wife.

“Is this kidnapping?” Sveta asked.

“No,” Tristan said.

I shook my head.  “We could call authorities, but I have a hard time believing we’ll be able to get cops out there, and have them take action with a nearly-18 person who doesn’t want to cooperate or go back home.”

“Having the police show up to take her away might make her dig her heels in more,” Sveta said.

“Stupid,” Erin said.  “So fucking stupid.  Colt and her parents both.”

Her eyes were a touch moist as she shook her head, arms crossed, and ducked past Sveta and I.

“Too close to home?” Sveta asked.

“I can’t talk about home.  Sorry.  Give me a second.”

“Okay,” Sveta said.  She met my eyes.

I had worries, but they were ones I’d rather not voice aloud.  Nailbiter had a history that had seen her arrested and sentenced harshly, without much delay.  Post-Gold Morning, she’d settled back into her role as a violent cape, serving as what might have been Beast of Burden’s second in command.

She was calmer than she’d been reported to be in the one article I’d been able to dig out of my boxes of notes, part of an article from a magazine, listing the Birdcage’s residents at the time.  The last page of the article, annoyingly, hadn’t been preserved.  I’d pulled the page out for whatever article or image was on the other side.

Either way, violent, as might have been expected for an ex-con with rusty nails instead of teeth.  Prison and nine years might have changed her a bit from the person described in the article, but I doubted Colt was in good hands.

“Okay,” I said.  “We don’t want to ignore this.  I’ll make some calls later.  I’ll see what I can find on Nailbiter.  She was from North Carolina, I think, and some of their capes are still around.  I’d have to track down a veteran.  We’ll see what we’re up against.  If I get a chance, I’ll have a conversation with her.”

“And say what?” Chris asked.  “Parents don’t want her, intense nails-for-teeth lady does.”

“She didn’t want to go, and I think her parents wanted her to stay,” Tristan said.

“‘I never want to see your face again’ sounds like a real term of endearment,” Chris said.

If she’s with Nailbiter,” Tristan said.

“I’ll talk with her,” I said.  I looked at Ashley.  “Given the crowd you’re likely to run into while you’re over there, there’s a chance you may see her.”

“She hit her mom, several times,” Ashley said.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Her mom was willing to hit her back.  Colt learned that behavior from someone.”

“You’re assuming she picked that up from her parents?  That’s a bit of a leap.  We can’t know for sure,” I said.

“We can guess,” Ashley said.

“But we can’t know,” I said.  “It’s… far from great, that situation, Colt, her parents.  Maybe think about what you might say or do if you run into her.”

Ashley shook her head slightly.


“I was thinking more about Nailbiter,” Ashley said.

“Okay, you should already know she’s dangerous,” I said.

“I’m more dangerous, I’m not worried.  I want to go.  Sooner than later.”

“Do you still want to do the eye thing?” Sveta asked.

“If possible.  I’ll take my mask off when I’m with others.”

Sveta turned to me.  “Did you find anything usable?”


“I have stuff, plus the white cover-up.  Erin?  Do you have anything?”

“I have stuff,” Erin said.  “What are you doing?”

It was a series of last-minute tasks, Sveta, Erin and I helping do up Ashley so she could present a good face.  Kenzie was high-energy, switching from watching to fiddling with the yet-to-be inserted eye camera to talking to Chris about what he was doing when he went out.

“Any word on Snag’s group?”  Rain asked.  Ashley was in a chair with her back to the table Rain was using for work on his hands.

“We’ve seen Snag and Love Lost around,” Kenzie said.  “Love Lost more than Snag.  She was in a bad mood yesterday.  She went away for a while.”

“Snag is tinkering, and if Victoria’s description of how he operates was any clue, he can tap into his other powers through his tech,” Rain said.  He slapped something metal down on the table, hard.  “And I’m struggling with something that should be simple.”

“I want to talk to you about tinker stuff after,” Kenzie said.

“I had some small arms for you to mess with, but they got broken,” Rain said.  “I have the contact pads.”

“Awesome,” Kenzie said.  “I think we can figure something out.”

Ashley was patient as we applied some white and black eyeliner, then used Sveta’s cover-up to fix the color around the eyes.

“I wish I could do this,” Sveta said.  She was handling the holding of the various brushes and objects, so we could hand one to her and take another.  “But my hands can’t hold the brushes and pencils, and I wouldn’t feel safe with my tendrils out so close to Ashley’s face.”

“Tendrils,” Erin said.

“I don’t know what Rain told you, but I’d probably accidentally rip out Ashley’s eye.”

“If they do a bad job, we can wash it off and you can try,” Ashley said.  “If you rip out my eye, then I’ll have the intimidation effect I want.  Of a different sort.”

“Of course,” Sveta said, with an unusually sarcastic tone.  “You’re fine with losing an eye, that’s badass.  But you can’t wear a wig, because if it was knocked off, that would be embarrassing.”

Ashley sighed.  I nearly stabbed her in the nose with the eyeliner pencil.

“Don’t move,” I told her.

I finished with the eyeliner, and stepped back to admire the work.  A white line along the lower lid, to make the eyes appear larger, and black mascara, because her eyelashes were apparently white without.  Erin had handled the careful application of fine veins of black eyeliner that fanned out from the eyes in parallel with the eyelashes.  They had been drawn in waves with each wave washed out with pats of the white cover-up, so the lines appeared to fade out and have dimension.  At each corner of each eye, I’d drawn a hooked triangle, with the hook pointing down at the inner corners and up at the outer ones.

Erin had a bit of the softer, artistic touch for the lines and fading-out, I had the steadier hand for the line work.

The only mirror was a compact mirror, too small to show everything, so I took a picture instead.  I showed Ashley.

“Good,” she said.  She smiled.

“Stay put,” Kenzie said.  “Eye camera.  Here we go, and I can’t touch your face because  I don’t want to smudge the nice makeup.”

“Camera first next time, then,” Ashley said.

Erin clearly had the heebie jeebies, as Kenzie held the needle within a few inches of Ashley’s eye, swinging it within half of an inch of the eye as she rotated one part to get it tighter.

“Okay,” Kenzie said.  “Here we go.  Same as before, but don’t flinch and keep your eye fixed on one point.  Making contact on three, ready?”


“Zero, one, two, thre- wait.”

Ashley stayed stock still, waiting.

“Haha,” Kenzie said.  “I should turn it on first, or it won’t phase in.  That would’ve been a mess.”

“Would’ve ruined my makeup.”

“On three, this time.  Zero, one, two, three.  Can you feel it this time?”

Erin shook her arms, as if she couldn’t shake off the goosebumps, and walked away, her back to the scene.

“I feel like it’s there, but it doesn’t feel five percent there.”

“And…” Kenzie held up another, shorter needle.  “For the effect.  On three.  Zero, one, two, three.”

Kenzie stepped back.  Ashley’s pupils were gone.

“Ta da!”


“Super low tech,” Kenzie said.  “I put liquid eraser on the projection caps, which aren’t phased in.  It’s not perfectly matched to the rest of her eyes, but it works if you aren’t looking super close.”

I took a photo and showed Ashley.

She stood from her seat, and bent over, hand on Kenzie’s shoulder, planting a kiss on the very top of Kenzie’s head.

“You like it?”

“It’s good.”  Ashley looked at Sveta, Erin, Kenzie and I, and then said, “Thank you.”

With that, she put her mask on carefully, eyes still decorated behind the eyeholes, and walked briskly on her way.

“I feel pretty good about how we did there,” Erin said.  “Can you send me the picture?”

I passed a copy of the picture to her phone.

She checked she had it, then smiled.  “Thank you.”

“Not a problem.”

“It’s nice to have something.  I haven’t had many wins lately.”

“Are you doing okay?” I asked.

She shook her head.

“Anything I can do?” I asked.

“This is cool, superheroes, distractions,” she said. “I was super into this cape stuff once.  And this stuff helps Rain, in a roundabout way.  Which might end up helping me.”

Rain was at his whiteboard, scribbling furiously in red marker.  He’d written a list of ten items, and he was erasing all but the bottom three, the aggressive side-to-side motion of the eraser making the whiteboard rattle against the wall.

“Rain?” I asked.

He stopped, still facing his whiteboard.  “I had ten ideas on things I wanted to try.  I did some napkin level tinker-notes and found out tolerances are lower than I thought.  Scratch eight ideas, now I have two, which is probably going to become zero when I do the next set of calculations.”

“Being a tinker is hard sometimes,” Kenzie said.

“Kenzie,” Rain said.  He brought one hand up to his forehead, back still to the room.  “If I could build one of the things I’ve seen you make, I’d be happy.”

“Sorry,” Kenzie said.

“I can’t do stuff.  It’s not hard, it’s impossible.

“Go easy, Rain,” Tristan said.

“I’m sorry I touched a sore spot,” Kenzie said.

Rain shook his head, turning around, hand still at his forehead.  He dropped it, looked at Kenzie, then looked away.  “I do appreciate the thought.  Yes, being a tinker sucks sometimes.”

“Maybe you can take a look at my tech later,” Kenzie said.  “You can see if it inspires stuff.  And you can explain the contact pads.  Being a tinker might have its bad points, but we can be two tinkers working together.”

“I’d like that,” Rain said, and it sounded a touch forced.  “Yeah.”

Kenzie’s smile looked more forced than Rain’s.

“Why don’t you take five minutes, step outside for some sun and fresh air?” Tristan asked.

Rain looked like he might resist.  He looked at the board.

“You’ve said it helps,” Sveta said.  “It’s how you unwind.  Nature and space to think.”

“I have,” Rain said.  “Yeah.”

“If it’s okay, I’ll have the camera above the door turned on, so we can make sure you won’t get kidnapped,” Kenzie said.  “Or someone could keep you company.”

Rain nodded.  “Alone is good.  The camera is fine.”

“Got it.”

He paused at the door.  “You’re great, Kenz.”

“Thank you.”

“I’m sorry I’m shitty, that wasn’t about you.  I was ready to snap at anyone, I was so frustrated at this stuff.”

“It’s okay.”

“Go outside.  Take a bit,” Tristan said.

Rain stepped out onto the fire escape.  The door slammed behind him, more because it was a heavy door than because he’d actively slammed it.

“He needs help,” Erin said, quiet.

“It’s a bad situation,” I said.

She nodded.

“That wasn’t about you, you know,” I could hear Tristan telling Kenzie.  “He’s stressed.”

“I know.  But it isn’t cool.  There’s a big part of me that feels like it is about me.”

“It isn’t.  Cool or about you.”

I looked around the room.  Chris was at his station at the point in the apartment furthest from the screens that wasn’t inside the bathroom.  He was bent over a video game.

The cameras were capturing video from high overhead.  One came down at an angle, and the other was a bird’s eye view, depicting only the tops of heads.  Ashley had yet to arrive.  The cameras tracked automatically, based on the people they recognized and their apparent importance.  One was following Nailbiter and Colt.

But there was another measure of tracking: it seemed to judge by number.  The other camera was shifting to look northward.  The labels popped up as people were recognized, so distant they were barely more than stick figures.  The labels congealed together into a single large label above the small crowd.  Twelve unrecognized individuals.

“We didn’t have a patrol coming through, did we?” I asked.

“Not for an hour,” Tristan said.  He turned to look.  “Oh what?  Fuck me.”

Kenzie ran past Erin, Sveta and me to get to her desk, seizing control of the cameras.  She focused in on the crowd.

“What’s going on?” Tristan asked.

The costumes were distinct enough for me to recognize them before any icon came into view.  Bold contrasts of light and dark, angles, armor panels, and bright colors.  Masks tended to be full-face.  All of it looked like they had one very tired designer working on their costumes.  Cohesion to the max.

The camera caught the icon, and it popped up in a window, blur-corrected.  A figure running to the side, drawn out as a collection of triangles and irregular shapes.  Their arm was out and holding an arrow-shaped shield.  Others had slight variants on the same icon, to play into costume textures and other minor details.

“Advance Guard,” I said.

“We haven’t talked to Advance Guard,” Tristan said.  “We actively avoided bringing Advance Guard into this.”

I looked at Erin and touched her shoulder.  “Do you want to go get Rain?”

She nodded.

A second screen was projected onto the wall to our left.  The camera began gathering blurry portraits together, lining them up in three rows and four columns, each showing one mask.  As the camera got better resolution shots, they were overlaid over other shots of the same person, the images clarifying in stages as each image was uploaded.  Some details remained blurry, while others became bold and precise.

Rain entered the room.  He approached the desk with arms folded, looking weary.

Everything was still clarifying as Chris exited the washroom and belatedly joined us.

Spright was one.  Shortcut another.

“They invited themselves?” I asked.

“Fuck them if they did,” Tristan said.  “This is our jurisdiction.”

“We can worry about that kind of thing later,” Sveta said.  “Do we intervene?”

“It could be a trap,” Rain said.

“He’s right,” Chris said.  “Prancer’s supposed to try something.”

“We’re supposed to think he paid off Advance Guard?” Tristan asked.

“He could have,” I said.  “They’re money hungry, with fancy costumes and nice facilities.  I’ve had pretty mixed reactions dealing with them, too.”

Tristan frowned.  “Okay.  I’m bothered they’re just marching in here.  Assuming it’s not a trap, what’s even their plan?”

“The locals might have called for help,” I said.  “Advance Guard could have been that help.”

“It hasn’t been that long,” Sveta said.

“Twelve capes.  Many I don’t know or recognize.  I don’t want to rule anything out.”

“Makes sense.”

“They’re good,” Tristan said.  “And there’s a lot of them.”

“But they’re aggressive.  Their usual M.O. is to blitz a target,” I pointed out.

“Not out of the question here,” Tristan said.

Even though they were walking in as a group.  The place being a peninsula mattered.  It meant there were less routes to get in.  It made it easier to keep watch.  There would be eyes on Advance Guard, clairvoyant or no.

“I should go,” Chris said.  “I’ll have my phone.  If we need to do something, I can jump in.”

“Be careful,” Tristan said.

“I’ll be fine.  I’ll change when I’m close.  Don’t record me, Kenzie.”


“Because I have to ditch the clothes, or I’ll tear them to shreds.  I’ll be naked.  I want privacy.”

“Okay, um, I’m very fond of you, Chris, but despite the fact that everyone seems to think ‘tinker camera’ and immediately think of that, the perverts, that’s not how I operate.  I don’t want to see you naked, so you’re good.”

“I’m noting that you haven’t said you won’t record me.”

“I won’t record you, Chris!  Relax!  You’d think you already did the anxiety thing.”

“I did, yesterday, to get home faster.”

“Okay, um- lost my train of thought.”

“That’s a good thing,” Tristan said, taking some authority.  “Chris, go.  Kenzie, turn the cameras away.”

“I’ll go too,” I said.

“No.  Hold back,” Tristan said.

“Hold back?”

Tristan said, “Ashley’s in there.  We don’t want her arrival to coincide with yours, and you’ve shown up a lot.  We already came pretty close with you and her being within a day of each other.  Her being connected to Chris is less bad, and he won’t even be human.  Let’s keep them from making the complete connection.”

I saw his hand move.  Flat, at an angle, as if telling me to stop, but not quite stop.

He was trying to communicate something with me?

Caution?  Something else?

“Okay,” I said.

He gave me a little nod, turning back toward the screen.  “We send you in if it gets ugly.”

“Let’s hope it doesn’t,” Rain said.

“Is Ashley in their clairvoyant’s usual range?” Tristan asked.

“Yes,” Kenzie said.  “Should we call her anyway?”

“No,” Tristan said.

I wanted to ask why he’d signaled me, but I could hardly do that.  I likely wouldn’t get an answer until this was over with.

The villains were gathering.  The initial group that appeared was roughly the same size as Advance Guard’s group.

I could see Kenzie’s labels with the attached names.  Love Lost was in the crowd of villains.  Snag was absent.

Colt was hanging back, not far from Nailbiter.

On the wall, the Advance Guard mugshots were filling in.  I looked for the familiar first and found them already named.  Spright, Shortcut.

Mayday, Siren, ReSound, Gong…

“Mayday,” Kenzie said.  “He was Baltimore.”

Signal Fire, Flapper, Prong…

“I trained under Signal in San Diego, too,” Kenzie said, adding, “I’d really like to use that training someday soon.”

“Someday,” Tristan said.

“You dropped the ‘soon’,” Kenzie said.  “We need to talk about that, after.”

This was difficult enough without you getting involved, Advance Guard, I mused.

“Every time I run into Advance Guard, it’s a headache,” I said.  “I run into the one incorrigible asshole in the group, their timing sucks, their choice of where to show up sucks, or it’s more than one of the above.”

“Must be how Prancer feels,” Tristan said.  “Heroes turning up out of nowhere.”

The two groups advanced until they were in sight of each other.

One of the capes on Advance Guard’s side held up a hand.  She continued approaching until she stood halfway into no-man’s-land between the two factions.

Kenzie’s computer blipped as the label connected to the individual at the front.  ReSound was the spokesman, apparently.  Her outfit had a lot of circles reminiscent of records or speakers, with the depthed concentric shapes and circles of color in the center of black circles.  The icon on her chest was made of crescent shapes, not triangles, with the shield being a half-circle.

Prancer didn’t step forward to meet her, not immediately.  Instead, he waited for a moment, surrounded by his allies.  Velvet was in the crowd.  Moose was absent.  So were Hookline and Kitchen Sink.  Some stragglers were catching up.

Ashley entered the street, and Kenzie’s camera provided the label above her head: ‘Swansong’.

“Should be Damsel, until she takes the name officially,” I said.

Kenzie typed it out, replacing it.

Damsel was situated near the back of Prancer’s group.  Some people reacted, but nobody attacked or lashed out.

She didn’t even flinch at the people around her or the unexpected situation.  She walked through the left side of the crowd, until she was near Prancer’s left flank.  She leaned against a wall, arms folded, and stared at him, rather than at Advance Guard.

Prancer did note her presence, and looked momentarily annoyed.

The annoyance seemed to spur him forward.  He met ReSound at the middle of no man’s land.  The camera zoomed in to focus on them.

“This is getting tiresome,” Prancer said.

“What ‘this’?” ReSound asked.  I’d expected her voice to sound altered, as many capes with sonic themes did, but she sounded normal.  Confident.

“The routine.  You guys show up, you’re interested in the area, but you don’t commit.”

“We commit,” ReSound said.

“Hm?  I don’t follow.”

“We’re committing.  We’re staying for long enough to finish the job.  We’re here to break up the villains in Hollow Point.”

“Job.  You were hired?”

“We hired ourselves,” ReSound said.  “We break up priority targets, and we got to talking.  You guys seem priority enough.”

“Based on what?” Prancer asked.  His composure had cracked, but he didn’t raise his voice so much as he allowed emotion to affect his words.  “We sell grass, we live here.  We don’t shit that much where we eat.”

“Who was it?” ReSound asked.  “Kitchen Sink.  Hookline?”

“They pointed you our way?”

“Someone thought they were funny names, and they were joking about it-”

Tristan groaned out loud.

“-and they wouldn’t say why they were here in the first place.  They aren’t alone either.  Others have been through.  A lot of people find you very interesting.”

“We’re very boring villains, really,” Prancer said.  “Insignificant.”

“Houndstooth, no,” Kenzie said.  “Ugghh.  I recommended you.”

“It was fucking Foxtrot,” Tristan said.  “Foxtrot is the clown in Houndstooth’s group.”

ReSound was taking a moment to consider Prancer’s claim of being boring.

“I don’t believe you,” ReSound said.  She offered a half chuckle and said, “It doesn’t matter.  We do this, we get some points with the public, and with the current attitude about capes?  Points matter.”

“We outnumber you.”

“We train.  I’m sure you went to great efforts to get your people together.  Did you watch us on your cameras, then make sure to bring in a few more, so you could say you outnumbered us?”

“Cameras?” Prancer asked.

On camera, ReSound pointed skyward, not that far off from pointing directly at the camera we were using to watch the scene.

Some heads turned, following the pointing finger.

In the headquarters, Kenzie shoved her keyboard out of the way and brought her forehead down to the desk.

“Not ours,” Prancer said.

“Again, I’m not sure I believe you,” ReSound said.

“If you’re going to doubt everything I say, why are we even talking?”

“Because we always declare war, Prancer.”

“No.  You’re up to something.”

“What makes you think that?”

“The fact this conversation feels like someone trying to keep me on the line so they can get a wiretap, doling out just enough information to keep me interested.  We’re done,” Prancer said.  “Don’t pick this fight.”

Prancer was halfway back to his group when Advance Guard took action.

Spright.  He dashed forward.  Enhanced movement, straight for the Hollow Point group.  If he was a speedster, he wasn’t much of one.  Faster than a normal human could manage, but hardly a blur.

Avant!” ReSound called out, and the sound was magnified, loud, echoing far faster than a normal echo could or should.  The camera’s sound died, dissolving into crackles.  Several of the Hollow Point villains covered their ears.

Prancer was one of them.  Spright ran past him, and the leader of the Hollow Point group flared.  He became blurry around the edges, with the blur reaching out five feet in every direction.  It subsided, but he retained the effect around his silhouette.  The gold on his costume, from his mask to the deer’s head in profile at his collarbone, with antler over one shoulder, all became larger, more intense, more like glass with amber colored lava within its confines.  The green of his costume became smoky.

Breaker form.

But as he adopted the form, Spright used his own breaker form.  It wasn’t much different, and Spright managed to keep ahead of Prancer, running toward the thinnest ranks of the stunned villains.  Toward Ashley.

She used her power, a blast to drive herself in Spright’s direction, as she aimed to intercept.  She was in the midst of people, which limited her options, so she ran several paces before she was clear to use another blast.

Still in breaker form, Spright reached out.  A scintillating cloud of energy exploded from his hand.  He used the recoil to change course.

Of course.

From there, it was a brawl.  Spright disappeared into enemy ranks with his own powers exploding out around him.  With the use of powers, he ducked and dodged between, went over, and slid under people.  He made it out of the back of the crowd and dashed toward the deeper part of downtown.  Ashley couldn’t keep up, but Prancer could.

Love Lost staggered forward as ReSound maintained her sonic assault.  One we couldn’t hear or get a sense of, because the camera audio had died.

She ripped off her mask.  Then she screamed back.  Advance Guard was throwing up defenses before it seemed like the scream hit them.

I couldn’t hear what it sounded like, but I could see the effect.  The people who weren’t fully protected, ReSound included, were laid low.

Had it not been for shimmering forcefield-like barriers and strange crystal growths, she might have been able to hit the entirety of Advance Guard, aside from the absent Spright.  As it was, she got maybe three or four.

“The emotion attack,” Rain said.

Resound’s body language changed completely.  A moment later, she lunged for Love Lost, swinging punches, grabbing.

The black haired woman didn’t let her make contact.  She stepped back out of the way, raked with claws, avoided the grab, clawed again.  With the second slash, blood was spilled.

The other affected people in Advance Guard were turning on teammates.  Most shouted, silent with our lack of audio, rather than attack.

My first thought was, fuck Advance Guard.

My second thought was to register the blood.  Blood.  This is serious now.

“I’m going,” I said.

“We’re coming,” Tristan said.

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

Shadow – 5.1

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

Experience told me that after waking up from a bad dream, it was better for me to move.  The emotional and mental impact of being tired for the rest of the day was far lower than if I remained in bed and stewed.  Either way, I rarely fell back into sleep.

It was one of the few things that had been easier at the hospital.  Sleep had been regular, reliable.  There hadn’t been any stretches where I’d have nightmares or insomnia for three nights in a row and the littlest things would be a grind by the third day.  The drugs had been part of my diet, to ensure I fell asleep and woke up at certain times.  They didn’t do much about the nightmares, but even waking up hadn’t ended the nightmare back then.

I was perpetually tempted to get something to help, but the degree to which I was tempted was a warning bell in the back of my mind.

Sleep, eating, having a space to retreat to, physical affection, attention, socializing, breathing.  It was always the basic, animal things that came apart in the wake of stress and crisis.  Things broke down, got twisted, or they were reminders.

I woke up and I pulled on a pair of jeans.  Red-dyed raw denim, washed with something dark that made the creases and seams very apparent.  They were a little looser fitting than my going-out jeans, and I’d settled into wearing them when I was at home and my dad was around, or now, when Crystal was around.  It felt less like I was a slob if I was wearing them at home, especially if anyone dropped in.

Dean had tried on red jeans once, while I was shopping with him.  His uncharacteristically self-conscious reaction had had me in stitches.  If I hadn’t been able to fly, I would have been on the floor laughing.  It was a good memory and a large part of why the jeans were a security-blanket level thing for me.

The memory had a nice second part, when Dean had mentioned that even the brief wearing of the jeans had turned his legs and underwear red.  His best friends and I had been there as he’d recounted how concerned he’d been before realizing, and how the redness on his underwear had been worse where it pressed against the jeans, especially at the front.  He’d described it as a clown-nose smudge on the front and his friends had been nearly falling out of their seats.

Even now, it put a smile on my face.

There were other memories too.  Some from the same trip, others from other dates.  He’d tried on a lot of jeans and to this day I could remember a pair where he had looked perfect: in profile, in the narrow waist and hips, the broad shoulders, the pert butt.  He’d lifted up his shirt so I could see the fit, and I’d seen the thin trail of body hair leading up to his navel, his flat stomach, and the bones of his hips just above the jeans.  Already warmed up by my laughing fit earlier, I’d worked myself up into a tizzy, the best words for it, and I’d maintained the tizzyness until twenty minutes later when we were cutting through the parking lot to the bus stop.  I’d pulled him aside for a make out session.

I missed him so much it hurt, but the memories were happy ones and they were a good buffer against the bad night’s sleep.  I kept my t-shirt and underwear on from yesterday and I went without a bra, pulling on a white sweater with too-long sleeves and a wide collar that left my shoulders bare.

The fit was snuggly and enveloping, as if the sweater itself was giving me a hug; kind of what I was shooting for when a not-insignificant part of me felt like I was five years old again, scared and wanting to crawl into bed with my mom and dad.

Set on putting the nightmare and the associated feelings behind me, I got some socks, underwear, sports bra, and a camisole top, stowing them in my bag where I already had my wallet.  I pulled on some sneakers, sans socks, and headed to the balcony door.  I eyed the clock in the kitchen as I passed it.  Fifteen minutes to five.

I flew toward Cedar Point.

“You’re not wrong,” Jessica Yamada said.

I stared out over the water.  There was something sinister at play with the team.

Crystal was out at the water’s edge now, leaning over the railing.  Forcefields made a kind of table or tray for her to set her food down on.  It drew the attention of bystanders, in a ‘look at that, how cool’ way.

“Double agent?  Someone under the influence of another?” I asked.

“Telling you would be telling you who,” Jessica said.  “Which, unfortunately, would be betraying confidence.”

“Can I think aloud?”

“You can.”

“I got on this track of thought because I have an ominous feeling.  I liken it to, uh, to my sister.”

“Keep in mind that hindsight might distort the picture with your sister.  It’s easy to look back and think things were better or worse than they were.”

“I- yes,” I said, conceding the point.  “Yes, but I can take key moments in isolation, scenes I remember with vivid detail, conversations down to the word, and I can use those as waypoints.  I can recall what led up to what and what happened after, because I’ve replayed it all in my head a thousand times, and I can compare that to this.”

“Don’t lose sight of how replaying events in your head to such excruciating detail might distort the picture, as will gathering all of those like memories together.”

“I’ll try not to,” I said.  “Thinking aloud… you think something’s up.  You’re equipped with all of the facts, you know people’s stories, most of the secrets.  Sveta said something about how she’s kind of unique in how she knows the most about most people, if I’m included in things.”

“I imagine she does.”

“I had no background going in, but I called you to talk because I had worries, and I’m realizing the general shape of your worries and why you brought me in.  We’re at the same conclusion, but we got here by different roads.  Something’s wrong or it’s going to go wrong.”

Jessica ate while I talked.

“You would be allowed to break confidentiality if there was a real and imminent risk of danger, or if there was a danger to a vulnerable group.  And in the event of child abuse?”

“I would if I knew there was a danger to any involved,” Jessica said.  “I would also have to disclose if required by law – a muddy thing these days, with the world hanging in suspension while the laws are being written.”

“I’ve run into that a bit,” I said, thinking of Natalie.

“And if I had to disclose to obtain payment or ensure proper care, as I would if I was giving care to someone who then had to go to the Asylum.  In either of those two cases, for law or working with other mental health professionals, I would get the patient’s permission first.”

“So it’s not that, obviously.  But you’re really worried.  It’s something that you think is likely enough that you want me there to keep an eye on things.”

“I gave some serious consideration to whether the risk, though not a certain one, was worth the cost to the patient, to my career, and to the other patients I might no longer be able to look after.”

I looked at Jessica.  She took another bite of her barbecue chicken sandwich, adjusting the wrapper to catch the drips of sauce and bits of lettuce and onion.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

With index finger and thumb still holding the sandwich, she held up some fingers to block her mouth while she chewed.  I nodded, and waited for her to finish the mouthful.

She swallowed, paused, and then said, “I mean that if I were to report, there is a chance my reasons for reporting might be seen as insufficient, unproven, or unclear.”

“Just a suspicion.  A strong one.  Not enough reason to bring authorities into it or take action against the person or people you’re worried about.”

“Yes,” she said.

“What would happen?”

“It’s hard to say.  The future of the law is unclear.  But I can say I would be tied up in proceedings as they judge whether I had merit, which could take months or even more than a year.  Even if nothing happened, the fact that it even had to happen in the first place might impact who I could work for.  I might have to take a leave from work, and I might not be able to work with the Wardens or with critical-risk, powered juveniles.”

“You’re kidding,” I said.

“The PRT was stringent about who they would hire and take into confidence, and there’s no reason to believe the next group to take power will be any less careful.  Even with that in mind…”

She trailed off.

“You thought about telling people.  That doesn’t seem… just.  There are a lot of people that rely on you.  Even with the group therapy kids, it’s pretty clear.  I feel like if they didn’t have you, some pretty bad stuff would happen.  And they’re, what, ten percent of your caseload?  Less?”

“Less.  But I can’t ignore one wrong involving my patients for the sake of ensuring I can maintain care for the rest.  Thankfully, it isn’t that binary in reality.  I can act clearly and decisively when there’s a clear and decisive danger.  I can ask multiple someones that I know and respect to keep an eye out.”

“Me being one?”

“Yes, Victoria.  You’re one of several.  Some are waiting until the group is more visible, people in the Wardens will reach out and coordinate, they know where your group originated and that I’m concerned about where it may go.”

“I may not be the best choice- I know you didn’t choose me, exactly.  You wanted me to try and steer the group away from the hero thing.  I volunteered myself for this and you were…”

“Relieved to have one set of eyes on things, on a more ongoing basis.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“If you need to back away from this, you can,” she said.  “Tell me and I’ll help.  Others will help to keep an eye on things, if at more of a distance.  I involved you initially and I was glad when you seemed to be interested and invested in a way that played to your strengths and that you enjoyed.  I was, again, relieved to have more eyes on things.  I do not, however, want you to suffer for it.”

I looked out over the water, which was so very dark and expansive.  The city didn’t keep many lights on at night, with the power situation being what it was.  Less lights to reflect down on the water after dark, less light reaching the clouds up above, to make the sky lighter.

Ink black darkness.

“How have you been?” she asked.

I shrugged.

“Back at the Asylum, after you had worked on your motor control, I had you keep a journal, with the attendant’s help.”

Dark, heavy feelings, to match what I saw over the water.

“Each day in the calendar started with a drawn out cross, with a  number written in each of the four quadrants.  We tracked how you were doing in various areas.”

“I didn’t make much progress.”

“You moved on to the independent care facility.”

More dark, heavy feelings.

“How would you fill it out now?  Physically, emotionally, contextually, and in the immediate picture with your personal needs.”

“I have no earthly idea,” I said.

“It might be worth paying attention to,” she said.  “Have you called the number I gave you?  The therapist?”

I shook my head.

“If you sat down with a friend or a loved one and they told you they felt as you have these past few days, their worries, wants, needs, and problems, would you want them to talk to someone qualified?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I guess I would.”

She took a bite of her sandwich, diplomatically avoiding saying something.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I hear you.”

I stopped in at the group’s headquarters, landing on the fire escape, and unlocking the door with my key.

Lights started to turn on, computer monitors appearing, Kenzie’s cube glowing at the corners, as her projected image appeared in the computer chair, fritzing.

“It’s fine.  Go back to sleep, Kenzie,” I said, to the room.  “I woke up early and decided to go flying.  I’m using the shower.”

There was a pause, and then the various projections, images, screens, and lights went dark, in the reverse order they had turned on.

I wondered if I’d actually woken her up, and if she’d actually heard me.

The apartment was fairly spacious, to the point it could have been a two-bedroom place if it actually had walls.  As it was, the only walls encircled the corner, where a single shallow closet and the bathroom were.  The bathroom, I couldn’t help but note, was ridiculously small for the size of the overall apartment.  Toilet, sink, and shower stall, with barely any room to squeeze in between one thing and the thing or things beside it.

I stepped into the bathroom and disrobed, leaning out past the door to hang up my jeans outside, so the humidity of the shower wouldn’t get at them.  I hung up the rest of my clothes on the inside of the door.

It was paranoia over preserving the raw denim and bringing out any dye that regular wearing hadn’t already worn away, maybe, but I’d spent a week’s pay on the jeans.  If they had been free, I still would have been attached to them, because they reminded me of Dean, and because they were getting to be the most comfortable jeans I’d ever had, after rigorous wearing.  I was going to be fussy.

I hadn’t gotten to be fussy with other things.  A year after I had gone to the hospital, my mom had donated just about all of my clothes to charity.

There had been things I’d bought with Dean, with friends, with Aunt Sarah or Crystal.  Uncle Neil had always spoiled me rotten, going to Crystal for tips on what to get me, and there had been four or five things I would have liked to have.  Some had been milestone things, dresses I’d worn to school events, clothes I’d gotten to take home from photo shoots, and small accessories I’d bought as rewards to myself, like saving my first thousand and two thousand dollars, when I’d thought I might move to another city to follow Dean, if the PRT moved him.

It hadn’t been like she’d needed the room.  Dad had moved out by then, I was gone, my sister was gone.  It had been… her ripping off her own band-aid, by giving away my treasures.

I could have turned the shower to a scalding heat to try to find a physical way to reflect what I was feeling otherwise.  I could have turned it to freezing cold, to wake myself up.

I opted for the embrace of warm water in lieu of the warm hug of the sweater I’d taken off.  I got into the shower and used my flight, bringing my knees to my chest and hugging my legs tight, closing my eyes.

I rotated in the air a few times over the course of what might have been twenty minutes, letting the water pour over me.  I didn’t open my eyes once for the duration, and I didn’t feel like I might fall asleep.

I finished my recounting of my observations of the team.  Jessica finished eating.

Rain was in a bad spot, and he’d revealed himself to be Fallen.  Kenzie and Houndstooth.  Ashley and her outbursts.  Chris and his lopsided dips into one emotion.  Sveta’s worries.  Tristan and Moonsong.

“No team name, a lot of missing cape names.  I know you don’t like the cape name thing-”

“It’s not that I don’t like it,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “I think it can make sense to take a hero name as an adult, but for someone younger, it can be one part of a greater issue.  It’s hard enough for a teenager to decide who they are without the icon, the mask, and the name taking so much focus.”

I wanted to argue the point so badly, and I was too tired to do it.  A passionate debate about powers, identities and costumes with Jessica, outside of the bounds of a therapy session?  It would have been great.

“There’s going to be a war,” I said.  “Rain is going to be swept up in it, if he hasn’t already.  They’re hoping to kill him in the chaos.  The others might be swept up in it.”

“We’ll try to keep that from happening.”

“If it happens, we can try to make sure it happens in the safest, most controlled way possible,” I said.  I saw the look on her face, and hurried to add, “I know you want to keep it from happening, but they want to protect each other, and they do want to stretch their wings and flex their powers.  It’s part of being a cape.”

“It is,” Jessica said.  “What about you?”


“Will you be swept up in it?  Do you want to stretch your wings and flex your powers?”

“I don’t want to flex my powers,” I said.  “I do want to be involved.  I… see this as a snowball rolling downhill.  It’s chaotic and it has the potential to do a lot of damage, some of it inevitable.  But for all their flaws, I think they are holding onto what you wanted to impart on them, for the most part they need… nudges.”


“To change the course of the snowball.  Reassuring Sveta.  Redirecting Ashley or giving her an excuse to do what she wants to do anyway.  Keeping Kenzie from overcommitting herself.  Tristan gets into things and needs a bit of a shake, and he’ll step back from the headlong charge.  Rain- more complicated, because it’s not him, exactly.  Self doubt, but it’s external factors pushing in on him that we need to worry about.”

“And Chris?”

“I don’t even know.  I plan to keep a close eye on him, because I haven’t figured him out and he doesn’t seem like he wants to share any of himself, which makes me worry.  I’ll see if I can figure out what to do.”

“Nudges and keeping an eye on things,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “I think you’re on the right track.  Step back if this is wearing on you.”

I shook my head.  “Everything wears on me.  Eating and sleeping wear on me.  Stepping back wouldn’t do me any good.  I’ll call your colleague.  Do what I can.”

“Self care,” Jessica said.  “Yes.  Be kind to yourself, reach out for help if you need it.  You have friends.  Don’t lose sight of that.”

I looked over in Crystal’s direction.  She waved the foil-wrapped sandwich in the air, as if baiting me.  I found myself tempted, when I hadn’t even been hungry before.  “Yeah.  I just realized how ravenous I am.  I feel like there are a hundred more things I should tell you that you need to know, but…”

“Not enough minutes in the day, even if and when I get more with a helpful someone’s power.  I know.  Go eat.”

I stepped back from the railing.  “Sorry, I skipped breakfast and I tossed my lunch.”

“I’d have stern words for you, but I barely ate today either.  Take care of yourself, Victoria.”

She hugged me.

“We’ll talk again soon,” she said, without breaking the hug.

I nodded.

I hadn’t worked out what I was doing in regard to Rain.  A part of me had hoped for guidance.  In the end, it had been better to give Mrs. Yamada the lay of the land.  If she was suspicious, then my mention of outbursts, of backsliding, of stubbornness, confrontations or secrecy might have been the cue she needed to make a decision.

If she was okay with where things stood, then so was I.  I would nudge, I would keep an eye out, and I would look after myself.  I felt more peace than I had, having had the conversation.

“Bye,” I said, my voice not all there because I was a little choked up.  I couldn’t wholly pin down why.

I broke the hug and went straight to my steaming barbecue chicken sandwich.  Crystal too.

Shower off.  Tangled mane transformed to wet combed locks, wet locks transformed to damp braid.  Clothes on: sports bra on under sweater, sleeves rolled up around the wrists, red raw jeans, socks and sneakers.  The clothes I’d hung up on the bathroom door had been effectively steamed while I was in the shower, and my hands smoothed out the wrinkles that had accumulated from my clothes being in my bag.

Self care, to have a shower with no disturbances or worries about bothering Crystal.  To dress in things that felt right.

The computers illuminated as I walked through the main room.

“Go to sleep,” I said.  The computers went dark.

I had to fish through three coarse paper bags of groceries that we’d stowed under one of the tables to find the food supplies.  A small bag of lime and chili chips, a protein bar, some preservatives with pepperoni stick added in, more stick-shaped preservative packs with cheese in the mix, dried fruit, two bottles of vitamin water, and a large thermos of regular tap water


Laptop.  I flipped it open and turned it on.  The agenda for the day was laid out in glowing words against a dark background.  More groups would walk through.

I had messages from the night prior.  Fume Hood.  Another friend and support.  Hero teams planning to patrol in Cedar Point.  Other, related things.  There was a vein of positivity running through it all.  The hero teams reaching out, expressing interest, wondering about the response they’d gotten, or expressing curiosity about villains who’d showed their faces but hadn’t been involved.  Who was that guy?  What’s her history?

It was easy to be standoffish, to draw lines in the sand when it came to jurisdictions, to make territorial noises and see the other teams as competition.

This was a balancing act, but there were benefits.  The heroes we were connecting with knew some of our names, faces, and voices.

The clock told me it was a quarter after six in the morning as I left the headquarters.

My feet left the fire escape and touched down in Cedar Point a few minutes later.  The shifting temperature and the proximity of the water cast Cedar Point in a heavy mist.  There weren’t many lights on, but the ones that were on made the surrounding mist glow.

Not many people awake.

I walked along the rooftops, flying up to the points higher than I could get with a skip or a jump.  Briefly, I turned on my forcefield.

Briefly, I saw the mist stir, as facial features and hands moved through it.  If I hadn’t known what I was looking at, I wouldn’t have been able to make much sense of the swirl here, the vaguely oval void there.

It wasn’t a good feeling, to verify that, but I’d treated my heart gently this morning, armoring it in sentiment.  I could take that much.

I sat on the edge of a random rooftop, got my laptop out, and opened it.

There wasn’t internet here, but I had files saved on my computer.  Random pictures I’d saved, old PRT documents I’d scanned and saved for printing for my collection, that I hadn’t gotten around to deleting or printing, and some things I’d typed up for the Patrol block.

One leg folded under me, the other dangling off the edge of the roof, I poised the laptop on my knee and dug for what I could find on costumes and branding.  I created seven folders, one for myself and one for each of the six members of the team, and began copying files over to each, where relevant.

The pepperoni sticks were stale, brittle and tough enough I had to gnaw on them to soften them enough to bite through.  Tasty, though.

A small truck beeped with surprising loudness as it backed into an alley.  One person got out to guide it, waving and gesturing, as the headlights of the truck illuminated him in the fog.

The truck fully backed in, he turned around.  Pausing, he looked up at me on the rooftop.  He raised an arm.

I packed up my laptop and hopped off the roof.  I landed silently behind him.  He wore a jacket with a lime green reflective vest over it, and the combination made him look much bulkier than he was.

“You’re the one who knocked Moose on his ass,” he said.


“Just… hanging around with your computer?”

I shifted my bag at my shoulder.

“I saw the glow of the screen,” he said.

“Felt like I should make a stake.  It’s easy to show up during the daylight hours, but it means something else if I could be here at midnight or at six in the morning.  It’s interesting that it seems like the people who keep watch haven’t responded to me yet.”

“Yeah?” he asked.  “Huh.”

“What’s in the truck?”

“Produce,” he said.  “It’s not a good haul.  My buddy back at the depot picked up a box of melons, it was liquid.  Sloshed himself in watermelon juice, shoulder to toe.  Long day of work ahead of him.”

“Just shipping it out, leaving it to the stores to complain?”

“I guess they hope enough people won’t bother that it balances out.”

I nodded.

“What do you think?” he asked.  He extended an arm.

I drew in a deep breath.

“About Cedar Point,” he clarified.

“I think this place is going to get wrapped up in a war,” I said.

“Yeah?” he asked.  “Because of the heroes coming through?”

“Because it’s building up to something, whatever the people in charge seem to want,” I said.  “The war is going to start here or it’s going to come here.”

“Should my buddy and I get out?” he asked.

“You might want to,” I said.

“We pay a fee to do business here, our manager covers that, but we have to face down the people in costume who collect the fee and give us a hard time, too.  Boss can’t handle that.  Stuff off the boats and trains hasn’t been as good lately, profit margins are getting slimmer.  Maybe we’ll try telling the manager it’s not worth it.”

“Is it a problem?  The heroes being here?”

He had to think about it.

“Yes,” he said.

“Okay,” I responded.

“But it’s a necessary one,” he added.

It meant a lot to me, to hear that.  I held myself to the idea that if I couldn’t trust the law, I could trust what was right.  If I couldn’t trust either, I could reach out.

I couldn’t trust the law.  It was in flux.  Natalie was trying to predict it, but it was more question mark than full stop.  As for what was right, I wasn’t sure I could trust myself, and I couldn’t trust the team.  Jessica could give me some direction, tell me that I was all clear if I kept an eye out, to nudge.  The other teams could validate and suggest they liked this direction.  Collaboration, at least, felt right.

Reaching out, I could get some affirmation from this nameless guy in a reflective green vest.

“Thank you,” I said.

“You said war,” he said.  “Not a battle?”

“I think it matters more,” I said.  “There are other places.  They’ll follow suit.  The entire city might change course, depending on what happens.”

“Huh.   I’m Jerry, by the way,” he introduced himself.  He pulled off a glove to extend his hand my way.


“No hero name?”

“No hero costume,” I said.  “Yet.”

“Can I give you a nod or a wave if I see you, while you’re hanging around, then?”

“Better not.  When the villains are awake, they’ll be keeping an eye on things.  With powers.”

“No shit?”

“On everything,” I said.

“I might talk to my boss, then,” he said.  “Sounding more like I should stay clear.”

“Good,” I said.

“And you’ll be here, then?  Staking a claim?  Preparing for war?”

“Making sure that if nothing else, instead of it being fifty villains and no heroes, it’s fifty villains and one hero.  It’s me being ridiculous, but I feel like that’s important.”

“Lonely,” he said.

“Nah,” I said.  “I think I’ll have allies when it counts.”

The entire group arrived pretty much all together.  Tristan, Ashley, Sveta, Chris, and Kenzie.  The westbound train arrived at twelve-thirty, and the eastbound train was just shy of ten minutes later.  Delays and other passing trains changed things up, but it seemed if the group wanted to meet at the station and walk together, they could.

“Here already,” Ashley observed.

“Yep,” I said.  I held up a hand as Kenzie walked past, and she gave me a high-five.

“Cool jeans,” she said, without turning.

“Thank you,” I said.  She went straight to her desk, kicking the cube that sat on the ground by her chair to boot it up before falling back into her chair and hitting the lever to boost herself up.

“Did you see the emails from the other teams?” Tristan asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“No,” Ashley said.

“I’ll show you in a moment.  You’ll like it,” Tristan said.  “They were talking some and they like this.  Cedar Point was a thing that was bothering a lot of people, I think.”

“Civilians too, maybe,” I said.  “I dropped in early enough the villains weren’t really awake.  Talked to a few.  Feelings on heroic intervention range from positive to mixed.  Considering that feelings on heroes are mixed in the first place…”

“We were talking, thinking I’d pay a visit,” Chris said.  “Keep them on their toes.”

“I’d rather wait,” I said.  “Rain said his trigger group would be out of commission for a few days while repairing and healing from injuries.  It’s been a few days.  They were hiring people, and they probably won’t wait too long before they use those hires, or else those people might get caught up in other activities.”

“I’m primed to do something, and I think you guys would rather I do it there than in here,” Chris said.  “We’ve got- what, two teams coming through today?”

“Two with a third holding back.  Third one is a single cape, they want to actually do something,” Tristan said.

“We need to discuss that one,” I said.

“They’re paying,” he said.  “If we give him clear directions on how to ruin a villain’s day, he’ll pay us two hundred bucks.  It’s a good precedent.”

“People are coming through,” Chris said.  “If we need it, I’ll be a distraction.  I’m quick, I’ll be in and out.”

“Maybe,” Tristan said.  He looked at me and Ashley.

“It was the original plan,” Ashley said.  “I say let him.”

I made a so-so gesture.

“Yeah,” Tristan said.  “We’ll debate it when the time comes.  It’s anxiety?”

“Yep.  Mad Anxiety.”

“Great,” Tristan said.  “It’s not the screaming one, is it?”

“Mad is the screaming one,” Chris said.  “I wanted to make an impact and if we need me as a distraction then screaming is good.”

Tristan said something Spanish under his breath and went to his whiteboard.  Swear words, if I had to guess.

“I’ll go in,” Ashley said.  “We said I would after a few days, and if things are happening, I want to already be recognizable around there.  Will the eye camera be ready?”

“Yes,” Kenzie said.  “Oh, Victoria, I bought some energy drinks if you want them.  And I have a thermos of a coffee my dad and mom really like.”

“What coffee?” Sveta asked.  “Weld and I were trying to find one he might like, but it turned out he wants it super bitter, because that’s the only way he can taste it.  We had a bunch of things of coffee taking up space, and I took it on myself to drink it.  I even gave some away.”

“You should bring it in,” Tristan said.  “Supply the team.”

“I can’t believe it didn’t occur to me.  Except I can, because I don’t think about what I have in the cupboards unless I’m standing in front of an open cupboard.  I have other stuff.”

“How far has this food experiment with Weld gone?” I asked.

So it went, the conversation sprawling, back and forth, casual, from work to life.

I’d woken up before dawn, taken the necessary time to pull myself together, and then tentatively reached out, to make sure I wasn’t just centered in my own self, but in what I was doing.  Reaching out to make sure it seemed right and, to a slightly lesser extent, that it was within the bounds of the law.  Reaching out, too, to have more contacts.

I had a bad feeling.  No, more than that, I had bad feelings.  About the team, what lay beneath the surface, the war over Cedar Point, the Fallen, the clash between Snag’s group and the Fallen, and the danger to Rain.

But I knew why I was here.  A potential disaster lurked here.  Knowing that made everything easier, in an ironic way.  The dissonance of not feeling right about being here had eased.

There were clear, defined, acceptable enemies to face down.

“I don’t want a wig,” Ashley said, to Sveta.

“I’m saying, if you cut your hair-”


“Then it’s an option.  It could even give you a secret identity.  Kenzie, the eye thing you were talking about, you can give Ashley eyes with irises, right?”

“I could.”

“Eye color, hair color, clothes,” Sveta said.

“Wigs get pulled off or lost in a fight,” Ashley said.  “It’s undignified.”

“You do realize I’m wearing a wig.”

“I realize you’re wearing a wig and you have the capacity to pound someone’s face in or dangle them off the side of a building.  They’ll learn to respect you if you make them,” Ashley said.

“You do realize we’re supposed to be heroes, right?” Chris said.  “Nominally?”

“Not nominally,” I said.

“What’s nominally?” Kenzie asked.  “How do you spell it?  I’ll ask the computer.”

“And I’m not about to do any of those things,” Sveta said.

Ashley ignored us.  “Me?  I can kick them, or I can turn them into a bloody smear using my power.  That’s pretty much it.  I don’t have the manual dexterity or hand strength to use a weapon, I can’t punch them without damaging my hands.  Kicks won’t do enough, using my power does too much, and the mess would be inconvenient.  I don’t want a wig.”

“You don’t want a wig.  Fine,” Sveta said.

“I have some images on my computer,” I said.  “Hair and eye makeup, some costume related.”

“Show me?” Ashley asked.

We walked over to where my computer was on a table.  I found the folder and opened it.

Sveta leaned over me, half-hugging me from behind as I clicked through the images.

“I was thinking of a name to do with swans,” Ashley said, as I clicked.

“An awful lot of the bird names are taken,” I said.  “It was a trend once.  What were you considering?”

“Swansong,” she said.  “If I go with the white costume.”

“I can check, but I’d have to go through my paper stuff,” I said.

“Isn’t that kind of a bad omen of a name?” Sveta asked  “Like, last dance or ‘I’m going to retire today’?”

“I like bad omens,” Ashley said.

“I like this one,” I said, indicating an image.  “I have a folder for you too, Sveta, just so you know.”

“I’m curious what you’re thinking.”

“All over the place,” I said.  “Lots of stuff where I might not even remember why I saved the image in your folder.”

“Guys,” Tristan said.

He had our attention.  His phone was to his ear.

“Rain’s nearby.  He wants to know if he can bring Erin.”

Just like that, the mood of the room shifted.

We exchanged looks, and there were tentative nods, some real nods, no vetoes or refusals.

Tristan gave the a-ok.  He hung up.

The silence lingered for a few seconds.

“I like Erin,” Kenzie said.  “And I’m really glad Rain’s coming back so soon.”

“Yesterday was hard on him,” Tristan said.  “And… Coño, it was his night last night.”

“His night?” I asked.

“His dream,” Tristan said.  “It’s always hard.”

“Sounds like a good dream to me,” Chris said.

Tristan picked up an eraser from by the nearest whiteboard and threw it at Chris.

“I like this one,” Ashley said.  She tapped the frame of the laptop screen.

“Elaborate,” Sveta said.  “You’d have to draw it on every time you went out in costume.”

“It could be projected,” Ashley said.

“It could,” I said.  “If it’s easy to do, we could do that.  I think the thing to do would be to make sure you look good if the projector breaks or loses power, and then build on that.”

“Like the wig idea,” Sveta said.

Ashley sighed.

Rain opened the side door of the headquarters, letting Erin in first before following.

I’d gathered myself together earlier in the day.  For the first time since the Patrol block job, I felt like I almost had my feet under me.

Tristan had said Rain had dealt with a hard night on top of a hard yesterday.  It showed.  Something hollowed out, something wounded.  He looked like I’d felt after Snag had gotten his hands on me.

When he approached the table next to his whiteboards, Erin stepped back a little to let him pass.  It was a subtle thing that I couldn’t help but notice, but it played into the second half of my observation of him.  That he seemed more dangerous.  Where I felt stronger because I’d pulled myself together some and clarified my direction with Mrs. Yamada, Rain conveyed something more in how he’d come undone.

Even yesterday, his face swollen on the one side, black eye, cuts and scabs, it had seemed that idea had held true as he’d found the strength to reveal his background.

What had he dreamed, last night, that this was what had come to the surface?  Was this the strength of desperation?  Something else?

Rain greeted Tristan first, almost falling forward in a ‘bro’ half-hug with just the one arm, the pat on the shoulder.

He gave a nod to Ashley as she was closest to him as he rounded the table.  Sveta gave him a pat on the shoulder, a smile, and a few murmured words that got Rain to nod a little, his expression relaxing a little in what might have been a smile for someone else.  She left us to go talk to Tristan.

Rain stopped a distance away from me.  He didn’t quite face me, and instead said, “We good, Kenz?”

“Yup.  I’m glad you came.  And you brought Erin.  You want to see my toys, Erin?”

Erin walked from the side door to Kenzie, but ninety-five percent of her attention was on Rain and me.  I hadn’t quite seen her like this.

I hadn’t seen Rain like this.  He almost swayed where he stood, eyebrows slightly furrowed, clearly in deep thought.

I didn’t like the Fallen.  They scared the shit out of me.  I hated everything they represented.  He’d killed people, children, and it didn’t seem right that he was standing here and that was passing without incident.

Maybe his condition, mental and physical, represented just how hard he was fighting to get free.  Maybe it suggested it wasn’t passing without incident.

I put out my hand.  When he went to shake it, I grabbed him by the wrist, instead.

He flinched at the unexpected gesture, looked to one side, and stared off into space momentarily.  There was a part of me that recognized that too. Bad dreams.

He forced his attention back to us and our exchange, looked down at our hands.  He took my wrist.  A clasp, more than a shake.

“We good?” he asked, not making eye contact.  His voice was faintly rough-edged, like he’d screamed himself hoarse.  As if a small part of Snag had found root in Rain’s throat.

“We’re good,” I said.

“Let’s get ourselves organized,” Tristan said.  “Training wheels are off, and we’ve got a few things going on today.  Ashley’s going back in, and it makes sense to insert her before things get messy.  Two hero teams are swinging through sometime after that, we’ve got Chris on standby and one hero who wants to pay us to get a chance to do something, which we’ll want to discuss.”

“There’s Prancer to account for too,” I said, releasing Rain’s wrist, approaching, “He’s had a day to think about what we’re doing and a day to get countermeasures in place.  He reassured his friends that he had a handle on this.  Let’s prove him wrong.”

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

Shade – Interlude 4c

Previous Chapter                                                                                           Next Chapter

She stared up at the ceiling, tears in her eyes.

“It’s not like I didn’t give you warnings,” he said.

“I can’t change your mind?” she asked.  It sounded like pleading, begging.

She looked at him.  His head was shaved, his chin was marked with stubble, and he looked weary.  The front door was ajar, the world outside dark.  He had his jacket and shoes on, and he stood in the hallway, while she stood in the living room.  The water hadn’t even dried from when he’d walked in from outdoors and it was clear in his body language he was about to go.

He took a long time to decide what to say.

“I’d say you could tell me things were going to be different-”

“They will.”

“-But you’ve told me it before,” he said.  “I don’t believe your words anymore.”

“This isn’t just about me,” she said, raising her voice.

“Seventy-five percent me, twenty-five percent you, then,” he said.

“Don’t fucking reduce it to numbers,” she said, angry now.

“We’ve talked about this,” he said.  His voice was calm, in stark contrast to hers.  “I’ve tried to be fair.  I outlined what needed to change.  That you needed to take it easier and be more reliable.  I don’t even know where you are some nights, and it’s not because of work.”

“It’s part of the job!” she said.  Her voice echoed down the hallway, and the echo came back different.  “It’s the work culture!  How many times do I have to say it!?”

“I’ve outlined what needed to change.  The therapist took my side.  She thought it was fair.  We agreed on rules, the therapist signed off on them, and you broke them,” he said.  His voice was more weary than his expression was.  “How many times have I had to get Ever out of bed late at night, get her things, and bring her to the hospital like that because you’ve gotten hurt?  You’re a mom.”

“I’m a human being!  I’m trying to find a balance!”  Again, the echo, louder, jumbled, not going away as it bounced off of the walls, building and multiplying.

“She’s almost five.  She’ll be in kindergarten this September.  In the last four years and seven months, She’s learned to walk, talk, do some chores, and she’s going to go into school knowing some reading, adding, and subtracting.  She’s figured all that out.  Why can’t you figure out your balance in that same time?”

“Oh fuck you, Lee!”

“Dad?” the voice was small.

Lee turned and stepped aside.  The little girl- Everly, she’d crept up, and now she stood in the hallway that went from the front hall toward the bedrooms, fidgeting with her nightgown.

“Oh, hon-” her words were nearly drowned out by the jumble of sound.

“Hey Ever!” Lee’s voice interrupted hers, positive, happy.  Were the point of view not from the woman’s perspective, Love Lost’s perspective, then nobody would’ve heard the small, broken sound that escaped her throat.  Another person might not have seen how the lens was watery, blurry at the bottom edges with tears.

Lee bent down and swept Ever up in his arms.  “What are you doing out of bed?”

“You’re shouting.”

“No I’m not, goblin,” he said.  He squeezed the girl in a hug.  As he did, he turned, his face where Everly couldn’t see, and gave Love Lost an accusatory, disappointed look.

No I’m not.  But she is.

“Where are you going?” Everly asked.

“I have to go away for a bit.”

“You weren’t going to say goodbye?”

“Were you?” Love Lost asked.  She didn’t shout, but the words reverberated and echoed down the hallway and through the house as if she’d voiced the words with a megaphone.

Lee’s look was much fiercer, this time.

“It’s not goodbye,” Lee said, the gentle tone disconnected from expression.  “I’m going to see you soon.  Promise.”

“Wizards can’t lie, Daddy.”

“I know, baby.”

“And we’re wizards.  It’s not allowed.  It’s a pact of a promise.”

“I know.  You and me, we’re wizards and we keep our word.”

Love Lost shook her head, looking away, elsewhere in the living room, down at her hand, which was clenched.  When she opened her hand, her palm had a row of half-moon marks in it.

Lee set Everly down.  “Go to your mom.  Sorry, goblin, but I’ve got to go.”

Everly looked at her mom, hesitated, both hands on her dad’s leg, then obediently crossed the way.

Love Lost knelt on the living room rug, folding her daughter into a hug, her head buried in the little girl’s shoulder and hair.

“I’ll send you the papers by the end of the week,” Lee said.

Love Lost flinched, whole-body, as the door shut with a solid impact.  The sound broke up as well, scattered, became a hundred trampling shoes and boots, bangs.  Picture frames rattling became another kind of rattle, of things clattering, falling down.

The floodgates opened, and her arms still encircling Everly, she used her thumbs and fingers to try to wipe tears away.  To keep Everly from seeing.

“Why are you crying?  Mom?”

She shook her head.

“Mom?  What did I do?”

Her voice broke as she tried to speak.  The noises were too loud- the jumble.

Her eyes were wrenched open as people pushed in close.  Her surroundings were claustrophobic, not even accounting for all of the people.  Folded tables and pallets on either side of her, many with papers stuck to them.  The words ‘event’, ‘convention’ stood out on the paper.  People pushed, shoved, and Love Lost pulled closer to the wall, put her head down, burying her face in her daughter’s hair.

“Mom,” was the faint sound, almost drowned out.

Love Lost looked.  She made eye contact with her daughter, now grown, twelve or so years old.  Makeup around her eyes was thick, bright, smudged.  Strands of red hair with one strand bleached and colored blue had fallen across her face.  Everly looked terrified.

People pushed past, and Love Lost did what she could to hug her daughter closer.  The space between the piles of stuff might have seemed like a refuge at one point, but it wasn’t big enough for two people.  Love Lost sat on the ground, her back to the wall, pulling Everly in as tight as she could.

A man squeezed by, and Love Lost looked down at where her hand gripped her daughter’s waist.  The friction of the man pushing past had skinned the back of her hand.

Love Lost shouted, inarticulate, and her own voice was inaudible.  Angry shouts, telling people to get back, to give space.  Someone tried to stick a leg into the gap between her and the folded tables leaning against the wall to one side.  The tables rattled as the picture frames had, a steady, endless, echoing drum.

Her daughter said something, but the noises- too much noise.

I can feel the vibration of her speaking against Love Lost’s chest, Rain thought.

Love Lost screamed words at the crowd.

The pressure of the packed crowd was such that the stacked tables couldn’t handle it.  Something gave, and the tables fell, sliding down against the ground, taking the legs out of a dozen people in the crowd.  The result was a domino effect, people falling over and taking others with them.  Others sought relief from pressure in moving over the crowd.

The ripple effect in the crowd was more like a tidal wave crashing through.  One moment, where Love Lost’s eyes moved over the crowd, saw people falling, saw others pushing-

Her daughter was torn from her arms by the shift in the crowd.  She watched, the scene slowing down, the noise dying out, fingers grasping, as Everly’s face was forced- shoved into the side of a table that hadn’t fully collapsed.

The only sound was the impact, a single, hard knock.  The dull echo and the rattling.

Her eyes went first to the slash of red, the gap between nostril and teeth, where the upper lip had split.  Then to Everly’s eyes, which pointed in slightly different directions, unfocused.  Gone.

She reached for Everly and the movement of the crowd didn’t let her make contact.  People moved in, stepping on her, on Everly’s body, and Love Lost fought, fierce, desperate, and animal.

A scream tore from her lips, a multi-note sound.  Anger, desperation, despair, grief.

Love Lost leaned over the counter, hands at her temple, as the screaming on the television stopped, replaced by a jingle, jarring voices.  Bugs danced on the screen, turning around to wiggle their rear ends, showing off the symbols stamped on their shells.

“Everlyn,” she said.

Her hands moved at her temple, and the scene distorted with the movements.

“Everlyn!” she raised her voice.  The shout echoed through the apartment.

She heard the tromp of running feet.  The sound echoed, became a part of the background noise.

“Yes mom?” the voice asked.

“Turn it down.  That’s loud enough to bother the neighbors.  And turn it off, if you’re not watching.”

“I was going to watch.”

“You were in your room.”

“I wanted to find someone to watch it with me.”

Love Lost looked over as two stuffed toys were placed on the counter’s edge.  Ugly things, with twisted faces.  One of them looked like a ballsack with arms, legs, and a bulldog face.  Ugly toys were apparently the in thing.  The other was alright.  A princess doll with red hair.

“See?”  Everlyn moved the toys, animating them with wiggles and moving a finger up to raise the princess’s arm.

“I see.  Now turn it down.”


The toys were left where they were.  A moment later, the volume of the children’s voices singing the repetitive song started dropping.  The noise of the lingering echoes remained.

“Quieter,” Love Lost said.  Her fingers moved at her temples, drawing her eyes into slits, as she stared down at the sink.

The sound of the television dropped again.  The two toys were whisked away from the edge of the counter.

Thank you,” Love Lost said, raising her voice to be heard as the footsteps retreated at a run.  She drew in a deep breath and sighed, aggrieved.

The peace lasted about five seconds.  Something crashed, a loud sound that cascaded, as if everything had fallen down.

“Sorry!” Everlyn called out, from the other end of the house, her voice high.  “I’ll clean it up!”

Love Lost raised herself up straight, then went to the kitchen cupboard, retrieving a bottle of headache pills.  She doled out two into her hand.  The stem of a wine glass was briefly visible as she washed them down.

The theme song had ended, and the television was high cartoon voices, now.

Love Lost buried her face in her hands and sighed.




“What is it, Everlyn?” Love Lost’s voice could only be described as barely restrained, slightly muffled with her face still in her hands.

“Can I show you something?”

“How bad is the mess?”

“Oh, that.  I’ll clean it up after.  Can I show you something?”

“Can it wait?  Please?  I’m not up for it right now.”


Love Lost remained where she was.  The sounds in the background settled into a throbbing sync.  The television show broke away to show ads, high cartoon voices replaced with adult announcers touting toys and kids screaming their glee in response.

She raised her head up, and a slice of color caught her eye.  She looked- the princess doll, sitting on the edge of the counter.  The weight of the doll held down a little booklet.

She set the doll aside, noting the paper shield stuck to the arm with two pieces of clear tape.  The cover of the book had two women on it, both with red hair.

The woman in a dress with the shield was in the book, alongside a figure that wasn’t supposed to be a woman, but Everly.  A child drawing herself as larger and more prominent, with a scarf drawn overlong, sprawling out over the page.

The red-haired wizard had once had a teacher but he was gone.  There was only the knight who had ‘raised her up’, who had red hair like her.  The knight ‘detected’ crimes and was always very tired and very grumpy.

Children on the television in the background shrieked.  The sound became a growing echo of screams.

Love Lost’s vision blurred slightly, and she paged through.  The lead-in to the book took a long time, and the confrontation at the end was brief, as the demon was slain.

Love Lost looked away, at a small collection of empty bottles on the counter, tucked beside the microwave and the wall, set out of reach.

She finished looking through the book’s ending.  She closed it, hand pressing down the front cover so it would lie flat instead of sticking straight up.  The teacher’s sticker was in the corner, a tiny superhero silhouette holding up a giant ‘A+’.  The teacher had penned out a response, saying in length how much they loved it.

Love Lost’s thumbnail dragged against the construction paper, scratching the words the teacher had put down, the edge of the nail finding the grooves where the pen nib had dug into the softer paper.

She pressed the book to her chest, and picked up the doll.  The paper shield came undone, and she carefully pressed the tape back into place along the doll’s arm.

She walked down the hallway, then pushed open the door.

Toys and stuffed animals were scattered across the floor.  Love Lost’s eyes roved, over posters on the wall, mostly wizard things, more of the goblins.    Homework assignments and one picture of Lee were taped to the wall, at waist height and below.

An eight year old Everly was on her bed, surrounded by toys.  She watched her mother, expression solemn.

“I’m sorry I forgot to turn off the tv,” Everlyn said.

“It doesn’t matter.”

Everlyn looked at the closet.  A set of metal poles with baskets had been pulled down, bringing down the basket from the back of the door in the process.  The stuffed animals from within had been emptied onto the floor of the room, with one pole leaning against the child-size chair in the corner of the room.

Everlyn nodded.

“I love this,” Love Lost said, pressing the book against her heart.

Everlyn smiled, “You do?”

“I love everything about it,” Love Lost said, for emphasis.

“There are parts I worried you wouldn’t like.”

“I love it all,” Love Lost said.  “Can I sit?”

Everlyn moved over so her mother could sit down beside her.  She took the doll back.

“When you wanted a scarf for Christmas, did you want one like this?  Like-”

“I like the one you gave me.”

“But did you want one like this?”  Love Lost looked at pictures on the wall.  The sound of her own heartbeat echoed, the sounds that the television spat out growing louder in the distance, like an onrushing train.  She pointed.  “Like that?”

Everlyn nodded, “Yes.”

“What do you say we go shopping later?  We’ll see what we can find.”

Everlyn nodded, emphatic.  “Yes please.”

Love Lost reached for her daughter and wrapped her in a hug.

“I’m going to try to be a better mom, okay?”

Everlyn nodded.

Everlyn pulled to one side.  The movement of people around her tugged her, threatening to pull her from her mother’s arms.  Her expression was so afraid.

Again, just as before, down to the last detail, the pressure of the packed crowd was such that the stacked tables couldn’t handle it.  The tables fell, sliding out and across the floor, bowling over a section of the crowd.  Again, the domino effect, again, people fell over and knocked or pulled others down with them.

Again, people climbed over the fallen.

Once again, the sound seemed to fade.  Once again, things moved in slow motion as Love Lost’s eyes moved along the same path, noting the same details, the same imminent result.

Her daughter was torn from her arms.  Love Lost watched as Everly’s face was driven into the side of a half-fallen table.

Again, the only sound was the impact, a single, hard knock.  The dull echo and the clatter after the fact.

Love Lost’s eyes traveled the exact same path as before, as if moving along a groove.  First to the slash of red, the gap between nostril and teeth, where the upper lip had split.  Then to Everly’s eyes, which each moved independently of the other.  Gone.

The dull echo of the impact against the table was the only sound as she reached for her daughter.  The movement of the crowd didn’t let her make contact.  People moved in, trampling the two of them, separating them, and Love Lost fought, with nothing knightly or good about how she clawed with fingernails.

A sound tore from her lips, a sound in many parts, for a feeling that couldn’t be put to words or wordless scream.

Then that sound, too, went quiet.

Tear-blurred vision with light from the windows slicing in through the brief gaps that appeared between people became something else.  Light on the horizon.

Love Lost sat with a ten year old Everlyn, facing the water, and the soft glow on the far side of it.  All around them, people milled, noisy.

“Do you want to do anything?” she asked.

Everlyn looked up at her, confused, then looked back.

Love Lost followed her daughter’s eyes.  The orb of the sun was behind them, peeking in between buildings.

She turned to look at the light on the horizon.  Gold.

“Do anything?” Everlyn asked.

“We could go to the ice cream truck over there, and see if we can get anything.”

Her daughter looked at her as if she was crazy.

“We could go to the shelters, but I don’t think it would help.”

People ran this way and that.  Not sure where to go.  Love Lost seemed determined to stay still, stay calm.

She reached for her daughter’s hand, and that hand trembled as she took it in hers.

As if something had swept over it, the water briefly went still, every wave stopping, the ocean appearing as a flat expanse of ice or glass for the briefest moment.

The golden light flared, and it took nearly five seconds before the effect touched the water, breaking the spell.  The ground shook as the effect carried into the ground beneath them, and some people who were running lost their balance.

Everlyn’s hands went to her mouth.  One was the hand that Love Lost held.  Love Lost gathered both hands up in her own.

“I don’t understand why the ice cream,” Everlyn said.  A sentence garbled by confusion and stress.

“I wasted so much time.  I thought-”

She didn’t finish the statement.

Her daughter gave her a look, confused.

“I don’t know what to do,” Love Lost said.

“Hug me,” Everlyn said.

Love Lost hugged her daughter without hesitation or reserve, burying her face in Everlyn’s hair.

“Too tight.  That hurts,” Everlyn said.

The sound of the crowd mounted, the distant rumbles and rattling echoing.  People brushed across Love Lost’s arm, in greater and greater numbers-

Rain found himself in the room.  He didn’t reach for the chair.  He didn’t move.

The view of Gold Morning had been the third of seven scenes.

All punctuated by the same repeated event.

It had been the same way, every fifth night for the last year, with little variation.  Sometimes more scenes, sometimes less.  He’d seen all of these before.

It never hit him any less hard.

Snag was up, standing at the dais.  Cradle, too, had approached it.  Rain could hear the murmurs of their conversation.

He hated to look, but he looked.

Love Lost was in the small chair.  The same chair that had been in Everlyn’s room.

Rain recognized the stuffed animals, the toys, and the little belongings.  Nothing too personal, none of the wizard pictures.  None of the swords-and-sorcery superhero stuff that the more moody eleven and twelve year old Everlyn had kept on her wall.  None of the toys were ones she’d indicated any attachment to.


Love Lost sat in the chair, limp, not twitching a finger or shifting her posture.  Tears marked her cheeks, darkened with the makeup from around her eyes.  Unblinking, tears flowing, she glared at Rain.

It was disconcerting to see someone cry and not blink or move.

He hated this.  He hated seeing that and he couldn’t imagine what it did to Love Lost.  He hated that it took something away from the sympathy, that he had to temper it with his awareness of her wanting him dead.

She had been a deeply flawed person, but that didn’t make the love, the pain, or the resulting emotion any less felt.  Just the opposite, in the end.

She poured hate into her glare as if she could somehow make Rain feel the loathing and anger.

With the personality bleed, he thought, she probably could.

Rain felt his heart sink further as Victoria flew higher.

“Crazy,” Erin said.

He looked back at her.  She still stood by the door of her dad’s car.  She looked so weary.  “Me?”

“Her.  The flying, I mean.  It’s crazy to go from a conversation to seeing someone take off and disappear into the sky like that.”

He’d wanted to convince Victoria more than anyone.  She was the least biased in his favor because she hadn’t spent so long in group therapy, listening to his side of things, empathizing and sharing with him.  A part of him had wanted to get her on his side because she wasn’t that far from all of the strangers he walked past or took the train with every day- every person who he knew would hate him if they knew his full, unfiltered story.

In the background, Kenzie had stood up.  She was looking in Victoria’s direction.  Sveta broke away from the group to approach her.  Disconcerting, in a very different way, to see how Sveta turned her head away, and she hadn’t fixed her hair since moving it away.  The thin-ness of her face, the fact that the only thing behind it was the muscle-like bundle of finger-thin tendrils.

He hadn’t seen that often.  It reminded him of catching a glimpse of Erin’s bra strap.  Something hidden, that he wasn’t supposed to see.  It left him feeling uncomfortable in a completely different way.

Disconcerting, to see Sveta looking at him, catching him looking, and the anger and hurt in her eyes.  He thought of Love Lost.

Sveta was one of the kindest people he knew.  Having her angry at him?  It sucked.  But Peat and Fen had been the closest thing she’d had to kin for a long time.

He couldn’t wrap his head around that, because he’d never had real kin.  He’d never been in one place for long enough, he’d never been welcomed.

“You look like you’re in shock,” Tristan said.

Rain blinked.  Was he?  “I- for a long time, yeah.”

“Did you talk to Mrs. Yamada?”

“Yesterday afternoon.  She helped me work up the courage to come.  You were right.  They all needed to know.”

Tristan nodded.

He was aware of the subset of the group that had gathered.  Ashley, Tristan, Chris, and himself, with Erin in the background.  He looked back at Erin.

He knew the accusation Moonsong had leveled against Tristan, and he had an idea of what that was about.  Ashley hadn’t hidden her past.  Three out of the five people present  had killed in the past.  It was disorienting, to track the number as it climbed.

Sveta had an especially bloody past.  She’d even gotten blood on her hands after leaving the Asylum.

“Has Victoria ever killed anyone?” Rain asked, before he realized he was asking it.

The reaction was as one might expect.  Blinks.  Surprise from Tristan.  A snort and smile from Chris.

“What are you asking?”  Chris asked.

“I thought the admission I’d killed people would have had more impact than the things the Fallen has done in the past,” Rain said.

“I can’t speak for the others, but I guessed,” Chris said.

“Someone doesn’t have your kind of guilt without something that bad or worse,” Ashley said. “You didn’t think you had a choice.”

“I didn’t,” Rain said.  “But it doesn’t change what I did.”

“I know,” Ashley said.  “When I was talking to the group about understanding what I’d done and how, I knew that sometimes Mrs. Yamada would say things and it wasn’t to me.  Most of the time, when you asked about things, it wasn’t about me, it was about you.”

“Sorry,” Rain said.

Ashley shook her head.  She looked the way Victoria had gone.  “She hasn’t killed anyone before, if I had to guess.”

“Just Victoria and the kids, then.”

“Just Victoria and Kenzie,” Chris said.

Rain looked at Chris.  Chris shrugged.  “Accidental.”

“Only Victoria and Kenzie.  Sounds right,” Ashley said.

“Yeah,” Chris said.

“Christ,” Rain said, under his breath.

“You talking like that was what got me asking about you and Church, remember?” Tristan asked.  He folded his arms.  “What’s your plan?”

“I’ve got to drive Erin back tonight.  If it’s okay, I’ll get together with the group tomorrow.  I’ve got some junk for you to drop off, if that’s okay.”

“What kind of junk?” Chris asked.

“Bear traps, wire guillotines, blades without handles.”

“Really,” Tristan said.

“He’s not lying,” Erin said.  “I helped him load the car.”

“They’re going to come after me.  I’m going to plan accordingly.  I’ll cover my escape route, and I’ll make sure I’m armed if they close the distance.”

“They run on walls,” Chris said.  “Or jump onto walls.”

“I’ll cover the ground,” Rain said, firm.  “I’ll figure something out for the walls.”

“I can help some with that.  I’m going the anxiety route, so I’ll be crawling up the walls for the next few days.  I can give you some perspective on where to put traps.”

“Thank you,” Rain said.

“You want to set traps… around the headquarters?” Tristan asked.

“And some place we can retreat to if we go into Cedar Point and have to retreat out of.  It’s going to be hard to find places that work that won’t put civilians in the target area.”

“You can talk to Kenzie for that,” Chris said.  “Make them remotely armed.”

“Okay, wait, stop, stop,” Tristan said.  “Is this really what we’re doing?”

“It’s what I’m doing,” Rain said.  “For this specific scenario, as a just-in case.  I have to do something, and this is stuff I know about.”

Tristan ran his fingers through his hair.  He turned to Erin, asked, “Are you okay with this?”

“A while ago, I wouldn’t have been,” she said.  She set her jaw a bit, “But I have a gun now, and I know how to use it.  Half of the reason I’m carrying it is in case those people come after Rain, or if they come after me as a way of hurting him.”

Rain felt so sad, hearing that.

Sadder, at knowing the other reason she had it.

He hated this.  He hated that he saw Tristan here, looking so distressed.  He hated that Sveta was so upset, that Victoria was gone, that Kenzie wasn’t rejoining the conversation when being left out was something that bothered her so much.

He hated himself, for being at the crux of so much of that.  He could remember Love Lost’s penetrating glare.

How much of this self-loathing stemmed from her loathing of him?

“I don’t know what to say,” Tristan said.  “Guns and maiming?”

“You don’t need to say anything,” Rain said.

“I feel like someone needs to say something,” Tristan said.  He looked around the group, at Ashley, Chris, Rain.  He looked back at Sveta and Kenzie. “Shit, out of the four of us, it’s supposed to be up to me to make the moral argument?”

“You don’t need to argue,” Rain said. “Really, I get it.  It’s shitty, but I thought all day yesterday about this.  I’ve got to do something.”

Tristan paced a little, then walked a short distance away.  He muttered something under his breath.

It was Byron who walked the same short distance back.

“Hey,” Rain said.

“Hey,” Byron said.  “I’m supposed to talk to you, I guess, since Tristan can’t figure out how to.”

“I’ve got to stay alive,” Rain said.  “I can’t lie down and die, and the only way I can figure out how to get through this is to be a little more vicious.   I’ve been in these guys heads for a year.  They will kill.  They hate me that much.”

Images of Everlyn flickered through Rain’s mind’s eye.

Byron was nodding.

“Kill or be killed,” Ashley said.

“Me being killed might be deserved,” Rain added.

“You don’t deserve to be tortured to death,” Erin said.  “And I don’t believe in death for crimes committed either.  Only in self defense, if there aren’t other options.”

“Death is a reality when powers come into play and people aren’t willing to play nice.  It’s why so many of us have body counts.  Other teams aren’t that different, I’m sure,” Ashley said.  “A lot of powers don’t come with a ‘stun’ option.  A lot of other powers don’t come as part and parcel with power-users who would or could use that option if they had it.”

Rain shook his head.

“I don’t think you deserve the torture and-or murder kind of end either,” Byron said.  “I’m not going to say no to the traps, or to Erin’s gun.  If it comes to staying alive, use them.  Do whatever you have to that doesn’t put others in harm’s way.”

“Thank you,” Rain said.

“I’m going to say some other stuff, though,” Byron said.  His expression was so different from Tristan’s.  More serious by default than Tristan’s was when Tristan was being serious.  His words had weight, even spoken more quietly.  “I’m going to tick Tristan off, saying this, but I’m going to start off by saying I really don’t like the team idea.”

“That’s going to tick him off, yeah,” Chris said.

“The idea has good parts to it,” Byron said.  “It’s even cool to see people like Ashley and Kenzie talking about team names, getting excited about costumes.  But that’s where they’re at, Rain.  They’re still figuring it out.  Victoria is focused on that right now, I think.  A lot of talk of costumes and names.”

“We talked about that a fair bit,” Ashley said.

“The shitty part of the idea?” Byron asked.  “The thing that worries me?  It’s the idea that the worst things might bubble to the surface and get in the way of this being genuine or good.  Chris is talking about Kenzie making components or alerts for traps that are going to potentially maim?  No.  That’s… really not right.”

“You’re talking about me?” Kenzie asked, smiling as she asked it.

“Maiming?” Sveta asked.

The pair were rejoining the group, after their heart-to heart.

“We’re talking about how far we’re willing to go to save Rain,” Byron said.

“Oh.  That’s obvious.  All the way,” Kenzie said.

“No,” Rain said.  “Not if it compromises stuff.  Byron’s right.”

“If you’re going to take serious measures, I think it should be separate from the team,” Byron said, quiet and serious.  “Let them be heroes.  Be a hero with them, with that other stuff being secondary.  Keep it away from the hideout and headquarters.”

Rain nodded.

“It doesn’t mean these guys can’t help you,” Byron said.  “It means that if you’re planning on matching your enemy in preparing to go to war, you can’t ask others unequivocally to come with you.”

Rain nodded again.  He felt something bitter well up deep inside, and his expression twisted as he looked away.

“I missed stuff,” Kenzie said.

“I’ll tell you after,” Ashley said.

“Sorry Rain,” Byron said.  “Take that as advice from someone in the diminishing population of people with reasonably clean hands.  Advice from someone who had a very close up view of hands getting unclean.”

“I shouldn’t ruin them,” Rain said, looking at the group.

“Escalate if you have to, but don’t make it part of how the team operates,” Byron said.  “Because yeah, that might ruin them.”

“You’re overestimating how intact we were when we started,” Chris said.

“I’m estimating that the team started from a place of healing and support,” Byron said.  “If this is going to work out at all, and I really don’t think it is, sorry Tristan, it needs to hold on to that.”

“I like that,” Kenzie said.

“Thank you,” Byron said.

Ruined.  Rain had a sick feeling in his gut.  He looked back at Erin.

“I’ve spent nearly two years living with the Fallen,” Erin said.  She smiled, but her heart wasn’t really behind it.  “Don’t go thinking you ruined me, because they’ve got dibs.”

“That doesn’t make me feel better,” Rain said.

He was struck with the urge, almost panic-level, yet driven by that strong core he’d spent all of yesterday trying to dig up, to say something that would maybe save Erin.  To tell the others to grab her, or to not let her go back.  He could tell the truth and it might even work, or he could lie, and it would work slightly better, but be limited more to the short term.

She had a gun and she had it partially because she was his friend and she wanted to protect him.

She had it, in part, to protect herself against the people she was going back to.

“Thank you for hearing me out,” he said to the group.  “I guess I’ll see what Victoria says or does tomorrow.  If I’m welcome.”

“I think you are,” Sveta said.  “And I think Erin is too, but we’ll discuss if we’re okay having her in the headquarters.  If we aren’t, we’ll still hang out, talk, make sure everything’s good.”

“That sounds nice,” Erin said.  “I could do with more friends than just Rain.”

Rain nodded.  Privately, he wanted that for Erin too.  Especially if something happened to him, he wanted her to have people to reach out to.

“I wish you weren’t going back at all, Rain,” Sveta said.  “I can’t say it enough.”

I wish I wasn’t going back either, Rain thought.  I wish I wasn’t taking Erin back.

Byron blurred, his eyes flaring as he became Tristan.

“No,” Tristan said.  “I appreciate you stepping in, sorry for pushing you into that conversation.  I need to think.  Take the rest of my time.”

There was another blur.  Tristan became Byron again.

“It’s late,” Rain said.  “I think- we’ll go back?”

Erin nodded.

“Want a ride, By?” Rain offered.  “To the station?”

Byron nodded.

“Anyone else?” Erin asked.  Rain wished she hadn’t, but waited patiently while the others discussed.

They were going back to the headquarters, to check tapes and discuss, and to prepare for another patrol group that was going to do a walk-through of Cedar Point.  It would just be Byron, Rain, and Erin in the car.  Sveta had maybe noticed that Rain wanted to talk to his closer friends, and had steered the group’s arrangement slightly.

They three of them got in Erin’s dad’s car, leaving the traps and other junk in the boot.  Rain took the passenger seat, suppressing his grunts and groans of pain as bruises made themselves felt.  Byron took the back seat.

He wanted to talk to his friend, and he wasn’t sure how.  The first fifteen minutes of the drive were agony, in a way.

Any other time, he would have been just fine with the fact that Byron was someone who seemed content to be quiet, to not make conversation.

They reached the train station, and Erin pulled into a parking spot.

“You didn’t tell them about the room,” Byron said.

“The room?” Erin asked.

“Dream thing,” Rain said.

“Should I get out of the car or plug my ears or something?”

“No,” Rain said.  “I trust you.”

“Nah.  You boys talk.  I’m going to run to the vending machine, since it’s a long drive.  You can fill me in on the way back if you want.”

She climbed out of the car.

Rain watched her go, feeling a pang of sadness.

“She looks stressed,” Byron observed.

“Bad day yesterday.  It’s starting to catch up with her, Fallen being Fallen.”

“And even like this she’s so stunning it sucks the air out of the room,” Byron said.

Rain looked in the direction Erin had gone.  “Yeah.”

“I don’t know how you do it.”

“I’m not doing it.  Not well.”

Rain wasn’t just talking about Erin.

“Today wasn’t easy,” Byron said.

“Last night wasn’t easy.  If I wasn’t forced to sleep I’d have been up all night freaking out.  Instead I had to have some of the shittiest memory-dreams, and then put on a poker face so I wouldn’t show any weakness to the people who want me dead.”

Byron thought for a moment, then said, “Last night was Love Lost?”


“Yeah,” Byron echoed him.

“You said something about the air being sucked out of the room, and I feel like it’s always that way.  I can’t breathe, I can’t focus, I go from one bad moment to the next and I don’t even get the mercy of sleep.  That’s without even taking Erin into account.  Who’s-”

“You love her.”

Rain reeled at the idea.

“I don’t blame you.  I don’t think anyone would.”

“I- I spent all of last night watching someone have the one person they cared about most in the world get torn from them over and over again.  Then I saw the aftermath.  Hurting Erin would be the one way they could do that to me.  I guess I do.”

“Yeah,” Byron said.  “I think anyone in your situation, in ours, in this kind of thing, if they had someone being nice and cool, they’d cling to that.  Love would be natural and inevitable.”

Rain nodded.

“But Erin’s special, I think.  She’s someone you could fall in love with, in any situation, not just one where she’s the one port in an ugly storm.”

“Yeah,” Rain’s voice was hollow.

“Be good to her,” Byron said.

“I can’t,” Rain replied.  “Because the most ‘good’ thing I could do for her would be to kidnap her and take her away from all of this.  But if I did, she’d never talk to me again, and I’d lose my mind without her having my back.  I hate myself for it.”

Byron was silent.

“Instead, I’ve got to drive back with her, take her back to that.  Actual, serious danger.  I feel like I’m going to panic any second, I can’t figure out a clear way out, you’re right that I can’t drag the others into it, so there’s a part of it I have to do myself, the uglier, more monstrous part and-”

“That’s hard,” Byron said.

“I’m not sure I’m strong enough.  That’s why I decided at the last minute I couldn’t tell them about the room.  If I did, I feel like they’d read a selfish undercurrent into things.”

“It would tie your hands,” Byron said.

“It- kind of.  The room, and how the powers are doled out.  It incentivizes us killing each other.  I’m weak.  I’m really weak.  If I kill them, I probably get stronger.  That’s my only way out, and if I admit it to the team, and if one of the cluster die, it’s going to be something entirely different from most of us having taken lives in the past, under duress or before the amnesty.  It’s going to be real and now.”

Byron nodded slowly, looking out the window.

“Does that change how you see me?  That I’m seriously thinking about killing them?”

“Yeah,” Byron said.  “It doesn’t surprise me.  I don’t exactly blame you, or blame you for not wanting to tell the others.”


“But if you want to have that conversation, I think you should have it with Tristan, not me.  You sound an awful lot like he did, and I don’t think he liked how it ended up.”

Byron opened the car door.  He put a hand on Rain’s shoulder, brief, as he made his exit from the vehicle.  He crossed paths with Erin, who was returning, accepted a chocolate bar from her, and disappeared around the corner.

Erin dumped the collection of junk food onto the space between the two front seats, then put the sodas in an empty trash bin on the floor of the car, so they wouldn’t roll around.

“Good talk?” she asked.

“Yes, thank you.”

“I thought you two needed the elbow room,” she said.  “Sugar and caffeine is for if you want to stay awake on the way back.”

Rain was startled awake by a hand at his shoulder.  Candy wrappers fell from his lap as he sat up straighter.

It was dark out, Erin was in the driver’s seat, face illuminated by the reflection of her headlights.

She looked spooked.

The path to the camp cut through woods, and the boundary where the area had been cleared out and the settlement began was marked with posts and a signboard that hung overhead.  ‘Abandon all hope, all ye who enter here’.

It was supposed to be a cute reference.  It seemed apt now.  Standing around the two posts, on either side of the road, were Tim, Jay, Nell, Levi, Amos, Ruby and Naomi.

Tim was the oldest in the group.  His mask was a horse’s head, cut up, twisted around, and rigged to work as a mask.  The mouth pointed up and to one side, teeth bared.  Tim’s eye peered through the open eye socket of the horse’s, the back of the head and cheek of the horse serving to house the roll of Tim’s chin.  He was tattooed heavily, with more black ink than pale white skin, all textured by heavy body hair.  It was macabre enough it didn’t look ridiculous, especially in the stark light of the car’s headlights.

Not Tim, not really.  Seir.

The teenagers were in civilian clothes, the crevices of their face cast into shadow by the angled light.  Jay had his mask in hand, long hair held back by his baseball cap.

Erin’s hand went to the gearshift.

To park?

No.  To reverse.

“No,” Rain said.

It wouldn’t work, they wouldn’t get away, and they’d be punished for trying, as sure as they would be any other time they tried to make a break for it.

“Just… drive,” he told her.  “Slowly.”

Seir walked over, as the car crept forward.  He stopped by Erin’s car door, peering at them with the one eye.

“Cozy,” The side of the horse’s head parted as Tim spoke, a slit opening up between temple and the joint of the jaw.

Erin kept her eyes forward.

“What have I told you about not ignoring me?” Seir asked.

“I’m sorry, sir,” Erin said, turning her head to look at him.  Her neck and jaw were stiff.

Seir’s eye shifted, looking at Rain.

“My brother-in-law beat the shit out of you,” Seir said.

“Yeah,” Rain said.  “He did.  I literally asked for it, though.”

“So I heard.  What candy is that?”

Rain felt in the dark cab of the car, until his hand rustled a bag that wasn’t empty.  “Grape apes.”

Seir reached his hand through the window, and Erin twisted her face away.  The hand was held out, and Rain placed the bag of candy in it.

Seir ripped the bag open, and put a handful of purple monkey gummies into his mouth.  He chewed noisily.

“Your repeated absences have been noticed,” Seir said, mouth full.

Rain was silent.

“Buying candy?” Seir asked.

“And using the internet, doing research on powers.”


“Going into the city.  Shopping.”

Seir chewed more candy.  He didn’t ask any questions, and Rain didn’t volunteer anything.

The bag of candy was about the size of two fists put side-to-side.  As time passed, Seir rummaged in the bag, found more, chewed them, cramming more into the slit in the horse’s head before he was even done with the last mouthful.  He must have finished three quarters of the bag as the silence stretched on, his one eye on the pair.

Erin flinched as Seir tossed the mostly empty bag into her lap.

“Leadership wants a chat with you,” Seir said.

Rain had been sleeping minutes ago, but now he was more than awake.  Those words- if he’d gone straight to bed, no longer bound by the rhythm of his power and the demands of the room, even being as tired as he was, he wouldn’t have been able to sleep.  Not after hearing that.

“With-” he started.  He wanted to word it right.  Couldn’t show weakness.  “Me?  Now?”

If he asked if that invitation included Erin, Seir might say yes, just out of spite, might make her go.

Please don’t make Erin go.

“You.  We were to wait and bring you as soon as you turned up.  Which is now,” Seir said.

Rain opened the car door.  He didn’t look at Erin, he didn’t say a word.  He got out of the vehicle.  He closed the door.

She drove away, through the settlement center, to her parents’ house.

Rain was left with his escort.

They talked among themselves, but they avoided talking to him.  Seir remained close, ready to push at Rein’s back or shoulder if he dragged his feet.  The rest were a half-circle behind and to either side of them.  They talked among themselves, but they avoided talking to him.

Fear driving his senses to the next level, Rain was very aware of the smell of the grape apes.  A candy he’d never be able to eat or smell again without feeling nauseous.

If he even got that far.

The house wasn’t even two years old, but it looked older, because the white paint on the wooden slat exterior was haphazardly applied, brush strokes long and the paint allowed to go thin.  There was a white-painted fence, and none of the teenaged escorts went past the gate.  They stopped beyond, standing guard there.

The front door was unlocked.  Rain was ushered inside, the door was gently closed, and Rain was made to walk further.

In the living room, six of the senior Fallen were seated.  Drinks sat on side tables, assorted snacks sat on a platter on the coffee table.  The domestic scene was made eerie by the masks they wore.  Demonic faces, many homemade.  Several had been farm animals, the flesh altered with the power of a man Rain didn’t see present, so the pigs and sheep would have half-human, distorted faces before they were killed and skinned.  Women in nice dresses with nice hair had heavy tattoos that reached up their necks and beneath their masks.  A man wore the hide of an animal around his waist, wearing no shirt so the letters carved out and left to scar on his belly and chest would be visible.

Rain could trace his family connection to most of those present.

He could trace his connection to the meek young women who stood by, ready to serve anything requested.  The one with her back to Rain had old lines of red dots soaked through the back of her blouse, criss-crossing.

The assembly was silent, wordless, watching from behind masks as Rain was urged to the stairs.

Even Seir didn’t go upstairs if he could help it.

Rain felt every ache and pain, every human doubt he’d experienced over the past two days, as he ascended those ten stairs.  The second floor was spartan, with a long rug, a small table with a vase of wilted flowers on it, and a light overhead.  The hallway extended to rooms to the left and the right.

He knew the door was to the left, but he looked the other way, as if there could somehow be an out.

He saw Lachlan, standing in the hallway, toothbrush sticking out of his mouth.  He reached up to pull the toothbrush free.

“Rain,” Lachlan said, smiling.  His voice was a hush.  “Hey, good to see you.”

Rain didn’t have the words to respond.  It was surreal, seeing Lachlan here.

“Did you talk to Allie?” Lachlan asked.

Rain stared at Lachlan.  “Not the time, Lachlan.”

“Leave the boy be, Lachlan,” Seir said.

A faint thump from the left end of the hallway made all of their heads turn.

One of the meek servant-girls from the living room stepped into the hallway to stand next to Seir, even though she looked like she didn’t want to.  She looked up, checking.

“Go,” Seir said.

Rain didn’t need to be told.  He walked to the end of the hallway.  The doorknob squeaked.

The inside of the room wasn’t all that decorated.  Dresser, bedside table, and a four-poster bed with sheer drapes winding up the posts.

“Mama,” he said.

She wasn’t his mother, but it was how she was addressed.

Rain averted his eyes, but he could see the white drape of the nightgown, the feet on the floor.  She was sitting so the post and the sheer drape kept him from seeing a lot of her.

But he saw some.  Her presence jumped into his head.  He looked away, but it didn’t help.

Mama Mathers.  Taller than him, gaunt, wispy of hair.  She wasn’t old, but she had the presence of an old woman, thin enough that it seemed like she would break or crumple into a heap if struck.  She stood right next to him, leaning over him.  She touched his face, and he flinched.

“You’ve been pulling away,” she said.  Her voice was just as ethereal as the rest of her.  “There is no away, Rain.  You should know that.”

He remained still, trying not to look.

“We give the young ones so many allowances, and we’ve given you more than most.  We thought you would find yourself.  Have you?”

“Working on it,” he said, his voice quiet.

“How long has it been since we last talked?”

“Years, mama,” he said.

Her fingers traced his shoulder-length hair.  “I told you to grow your hair long, back then.”

“Yes, mama,” he said.

“Do you remember why?  Any boy of mine that does anything to catch my eye, good or bad,  I have them do it.”

Rain nodded.  No words would have come out if he’d said anything, so he didn’t try.

“The girls know it, but the boys sometimes need to learn it.  I’m content to let either be my soldiers, but that requires zeal.  Not everyone has it.  Not everyone cleaves to their role and position.  Everyone has responsibilities, and it takes a soldier to obey.”

Rain nodded again.

Her voice took on a different tone.  No less ethereal, but haunting-ethereal, now.  “The hair is to remind you that if you won’t be a soldier for the families, we’ll have you be a slut.  We’ll get children out of you.  If you fail at that, if they’re sickly or disobedient, we’ll geld you like we would any of the farm animals.”

Rain’s nod was stiff.

“You’re so distant.  Have your aunt and uncle failed us?  I’d thought your uncle was so dutiful.”

“They’ve done everything right,” Rain said, eyes on the corner of the rug on the floor.

“Your uncle beat you.  You’re weak but you’re one of our blessed,” she said, speaking in his ear.  “We could have him crippled or killed.”

“I asked him to, mama.”

“Even so,” she said.

“He is- he’s everything you want in a soldier,” Rain said, and his words were halting as he tried to defend a man he didn’t even love or like.  “Hurting him to make a point or impart something onto me would hurt the Fallen more than it helped anything.”

“Allie then,” she said.  Her voice was a whisper now.  “Has she said things to you, to make you pull away?”

“Allie will be as dutiful a wife as my uncle is a soldier,” Rain said.  His neck was so stiff his head shook slightly as he talked.

“Have you talked about it with her,” Mama Mathers said.  She leaned over to put her face in front of Rain’s.  He closed his eyes.  “Leaving?”

“We both know you don’t ever leave,” Rain said.

“Then where have you been, Rain?” she asked.

He couldn’t voice a response.

“Anyone who can’t answer my questions isn’t a soldier,” she said.  “If I can’t get an answer when you’re right in front of me, I won’t breed you, either.  We’ll take your mind and identity, or we’ll take your balls.”

“I’m weak,” Rain said.  “I’ll be your soldier, but I need to figure that out first.”

“You’ve had a year.”

The words echoed Lee’s response to Love Lost.

“I’m going to kill the people who triggered alongside me.  Hopefully, I can take their power.”

Her hand brushed his cheek.

“You have a time limit,” she said.

He nodded, stiff.

“I’ll be watching,” she said.

He nodded again.

There was only silence after that.

“May I go, mama?” he asked.

“Rain,” the voice came from the bed, even more ethereal and thin than it had been.  He felt chills, hearing the voice.  He felt the words worm into his head.

The bedsprings creaked as she stood, holding the pole to steady herself.  He looked away.  She only now stood from the bed.

“Rain,” she said.  “Look at me.”

He resisted.

“I will have you killed if you do not,” she said.

He looked.

He’d only seen her leg and foot, and she’d jumped into his head, tactile, audible, present, impossible to ignore.

Now, seeing her in full, it was more pronounced, heavier, insofar as the frail woman could be ‘heavy’.  Her hair was long, bleached silver, and frayed.  Her face was thin enough that it appeared older.

It was worse.

“Why would you leave, when we haven’t talked?” she asked.  “You’ve been standing there, talking to yourself.”

“Sorry, mama,” he said.

He knew how she worked, but he couldn’t ignore the apparition in situations like this, because ignoring her and having her turn out to be real was the sort of thing that got him killed.

“Everything I said to you before now, it came from within you.  I saw and heard much of it,” she said.

He hated seeing her, hated hearing her.  He hated knowing it was for real.

“You should know these things to be absolute truth, divine and malign both,” she said.  “The fears, the promise you made.”

“Yes, mama,” he said.

“Every time you think of me or mention me, I will be there.  I will know where you are and see what you are doing.  I will take stock and I will make my judgments.  You will think of me, while saying your prayers on waking and on retiring, kneeling by your bed.  Before each meal.”

He nodded, stiff.

“It’s been years,” she said.  “You only think about me a few times a day.  I thought it was time we were reacquainted.  You have your mission.”

“I’ll kill my cluster.”

“And be a loyal soldier.  Think of me,” she said.  “If you don’t, you know what will happen.”

“Yes mama,” he said.

“Allie.  Your aunt and uncle.  Erin, her family.  And you won’t see me.  You’ll see other things.”

“Yes mama,” he said.

“Give me a kiss, now.”

She didn’t bend down, so he had to raise himself up to give her a peck on the cheek.  He hated the contact, he hated how large she loomed in his vision, how that would give her more of a foothold.

He hated everything.

“Go, now, it’s late.”

He escaped the room, doorknob squeaking.  In the process, he nearly collided with Elijah.  It was only his own doing that stopped him.

Elijah held a bowl of water with a sponge floating in it in the crook of one arm.  He had a slight smile on his face, barely visible through the long white-dyed hair he had.  it was long enough to drape around his collarbone.

Behind that hair, his eyes were a milky cataract white.  Not just for show.  Seeing his cane was the only reason Rain hadn’t walked into him and spilled the water.

“Elijah.  Escort Rain to the door, please.  He seems unsteady on his feet.”

“Yes, mama,” Elijah said.  He fumbled, and found a place to set the bowl down on a dresser.

Rain didn’t want the escort, but he didn’t want to refuse.  Mama Mathers-

Rain flinched as she appeared, standing further down the hallway.

The figure made a small sound of amusement.

Elijah fumbled for his arm, then seized it tight.

The blind leading the sighted.  Rain went, reaching out for the railing as soon as it was in reach, so he could have something to hold onto, and so he could keep Elijah from falling if it came down to it.

“Only the guilty are as upset as you seem to be,” Elijah said, his voice smooth, silky, and dangerous.

Rain didn’t reply, focusing instead on the stairs, trying not to think-

Mama Mathers appeared at the bottom of the flight.

He’d gotten so good at controlling his thinking, and it was all for nothing, now.  Even thinking about not thinking about her was now enough.  It might be for weeks or months.

“It’s hard, I know,” Elijah said.  “I had a hard time with it for the first few years.”

They made it far enough down the stairs for Rain to see that the living room was empty, now, but for the meek women who acted as servants in the white cabin, cleaning up bottles and glasses,.

“I fixed it myself, after getting powers,” Elijah said.  “Looked myself in the eye, mirror right in front of me, and I told myself to enjoy it.  To like it, my own mother a mere thought away.  To be loyal.”

When Rain heard the word ‘mother’, Mama Mathers appeared in the living room.  They were fleeting images, each lasting for seconds, five or ten at a time.  Her head would turn, and she would look around herself, or she would stare at him.

“I’m sorry,” Rain said.  He wasn’t sure why he’d said it.  Dangerous words.  “I’m sorry you had to go that far to find loyalty.”

Not better words, but he wasn’t thinking straight.

Elijah’s fingers dug into Rain’s arm.

“I can’t see anymore, Rain.  My eyes have no power.”

Rain nodded.  They were at the door now.  Elijah didn’t let him go.

“But what I say?  My words have more power than before.  All I have to do is tell you to, and you’d want it.  I could tell you to be gleeful to have the worst punishment we can offer, and you would be, because it would be in service of the Fallen and Mama.”

Again, the image, standing outside, wearing her nightgown, hair blowing in the wind.

“Like I did for Lachlan,” Elijah said.

Rain nodded.  “I know.  But I don’t need that.  I don’t want it.”

“Whether you want it or not has nothing to do with it, Rain, and never did.  Don’t disappoint mama.”

He let go of Rain’s arm.  Rain stumbled on his way down the stairs.

“Be careful walking home,” Elijah said, his tone light.  “It must be dark out.”

Rain pushed past the gate, passed Nell and Jay, who were still standing guard.

They started to approach him, and for the briefest moment, as he felt panic flare, his power appeared at his hands.  They stopped, and Rain stumbled back more steps.

“Sorry, Rain Man,” Jay said.  “I know it sucks.”

Nell sounded less sympathetic.  “Don’t do anything reckless now.  Never goes well.”

Rain shook his head, turned and jogged away, down the dark dirt road, with scarce lighting.

When he couldn’t see anyone or anything around, he leaned over the ditch and emptied his stomach’s contents.  It tasted like all of the preservatives in the candies he’d taken, so he could stay awake and keep Erin company.  That reminded him of Seir, of Tim, and that only made his stomach churn more.

Mama Mathers crossed his mind and was standing on the road above, watching him, as he straightened.

He staggered past her.

He couldn’t go home.  Too far away.

His workshop.  It wasn’t far.  Dark, it required fumbling.  He let himself in, made his way up the stairs, and collapsed to the floor as soon as he had it shut behind him.

The fact that the light was on was slow to register.

“Rain,” Erin said.

“Don’t,” he said.  He didn’t want her to see him like this.

She knelt beside him.  He shook his head.

She wasn’t strong enough to move him, but when he realized what she was doing, he didn’t have the willpower left to resist.  She pulled him closer, so his head was in her lap.

She stroked his hair and shushed him.

Mama Mathers stood above the two of them, watching, and he couldn’t bring himself to mention it.

When the cluster dream whisked his consciousness away, it was a mercy.

Previous Chapter                                                                                           Next Chapter

Shade – 4.7

Previous Chapter                                                                                           Next Chapter

“Hello?  This is Andre Giannone.”

“Andre, hello.  We were hoping you could help us out.  We want to rent some locations in Cedar Point.”

“Where did you get this number?”

“We went to the source.  Mortari Construction handled the building in Cedar Point, and they gave us the name of… Andrea Giannone?  Could it be your daughter we’re wanting to contact?”

“I am Andrea, I go by Andre.  Easier, not having to explain that I’m not a woman.  It’s a man’s name where I was born.”

“That’s great.  Andre, aren’t you the one charged with leasing the properties?”

“Their records are out of date.  I’ve washed my hands of the business.  Look elsewhere.”

“Can you give us the number of the person we can call?”

“No.  There are no vacancies in Cedar Point right now, and I won’t give you the number because I don’t know who is handling things.”

‘Won’t give you the number’, I noted.  Not ‘can’t give you the number‘.  Despite not knowing?

“A cursory internet search suggests there are a lot of vacancies in Cedar Point.  People are noting it and asking why.”

“I wouldn’t know.”

“You live there.”

“I keep to myself.  Look elsewhere.  Stop bothering an old man.”

“Mr. Giannone, I understand if you’re scared.  Don’t answer me if you’re worried people are listening in.  We’re heroes.”

Was the summary silence on the other end because he was worried people were listening in, or was it shock?

“We’re heroes.  We’re a corporate team with plans of settling in.  We know there are vacancies, and we know you still have signs up.  If we can get this working, we’re going to look after you and the people in Cedar Point.”

“What?  A corporate team?”

“Of heroes, Mr. Giannone.  We call ourselves Auzure.  Au for the chemical symbol for gold, azure for blue, I don’t know if that will help you remember.  You’ll see us around, if we can do this without stepping on anyone else’s toes.”

“Toes?  What?”

I glanced over the others, and saw Tristan doing the same thing.  His eyes met mine.  I wondered if he had the same thought I did, about how Dido’s clarification about the name would only confuse people.

“Jurisdictions, Mr. Giannone.  It wouldn’t be good if we turned up there and ended up in a turf war with fellow heroes over who gets to help.”

“Why would there be fighting to- there’s nothing here.  There’s nobody here.  It’s a nowhere place.  Everyone who could leave left.  Everyone else wants to be left alone.”

Was he aware of the contradiction in what he’d said?  That there were no vacancies, but there was nobody there?

Dido went on, taking on a tone that made me think she was in sales.  “It might be a nowhere place right now, Mr. Giannone, but I promise you, Auzure can change that.  The other heroes want to change it.  Whatever happens, you’re going to get some stellar heroes in your neighborhood.  Hopefully it’s us, and we can clear the way so that everyone that left can come back.”

Dido’s earnest, almost painful optimism toward the end was contrasted by the sputtering reply.

“You’ll make this place a warzone.”

“We’ll handle things in a good way.  Trust us.  Auzure is gentle but we get the job done.”

There was inarticulate sputtering on the other side for a few seconds.  “I’m not the person to bother with this.  Don’t call me again.”

Mr. Andre Giannone hung up the phone.

“Kenzie,” Tristan said, putting a hand on the back of Kenzie’s chair.

The camera shifted, focusing on a small house on the edge of the downtown strip.  Tall windows and a realty sign, with the second floor having suggestions of an upstairs apartment.

“I feel bad,” Dido said, speaking to the dead air.

“Can we talk back to her?” Sveta asked.

“No, but-” Kenzie hit a few keys.  The call ended, and then the phone rang.

“Here you are,” Dido said.  “Beautiful.  Was that what you needed?”

“We’re going to see,” Tristan said.  “The man you called is going out for a walk.”

Mr. Giannone was dressed in a suit jacket over what might have been a thin sweater or long-sleeved shirt, with nice hair combed straight back from his face, but where he might have looked dashing, gray hair or no, he had bad posture that made him look older than he probably was.  He walked with what I could only call alacrity.

“Patching in,” Kenzie said.  “We’ll send you the video after, but for now it’s going to be audio only.”

“Lovely!  I get to see and hear the rest?”

“It’s part of the deal,” Tristan said.  “We’ll pass on info about villains and the greater villain network as we pull things together.  We’re hoping you’ll keep from stepping on our toes in the meantime, as you put it.  Houndstooth was saying you were better than some of your teammates about jumping into something like this without regard for us.”

“Hmm.  I could see it if we were itching for something to do, but I don’t think it’s likely.  Right now, I don’t think we could.  Too much to do already.”

“The war?” I asked.

“That’s a big part of it.”

“How is it?  How bad?” Sveta asked.

“I have no idea.  It feels like none of the people doing the talking and negotiations want it to happen, especially as we’re getting hints about how bitter a war it could be.  Earth C doesn’t mess around.”

“Do you think it’s going to happen?” Sveta asked.  She sounded more anxious now.

“The diplomats and most of the people at the very top on both sides are fighting it, but it seems like things are moving inexorably in that direction.  Yes.”

Sveta’s chin dropped a bit as she looked down at the ground.  I reached out for her, and stopped as I heard a small ‘thup’ sound, followed by another.

Her arms and legs hadn’t moved, so I took it as her tendrils striking at the interior of her body in the same way a prisoner might punch the wall of their cell.

“My hope is we’ll keep moving at this steady, unwilling pace, there will be an initial exchange of blows, and both sides back off,” Dido said.  “My worry is that something explosive will happen.  Another broken trigger, an attack from Earth C doomsday radicals, an attack from the Fourth Sect, someone stupid from our world trying to take territory over there.  I could go on.  It might spark something lasting.”

I approached Sveta in a way that let her see I was coming, moving slowly.  I wanted to ask if it was okay to make contact, and I didn’t want to say it out loud, where the others or Dido might hear.

“Fourth Sect?” Tristan asked.  “Have I heard of this before?”

Sveta saw me and reached out.  I took her hand in mine, and reached out with the other arm to put it around her shoulders.

“I’d call it a cult but I’m not sure it’s the right term.  They’re a minority power with a strong political voice.  They want war, to thin their own populations after too much ‘be fruitful and multiply’.  Hard to get into in any detail on that cycle.  Some of Gimel’s biggest allies in Earth C are people who want to postpone war because it makes the Fourth Sect weaker.”

“Your thinking is if they get to the point where they’re desperate, they’ll try to spark something,” Tristan said.

“Not my thinking.  People higher than me.  They’re some of what we’re watching out for.”

Tristan glanced at Sveta, then said, “We’re okay, right?  We do have the edge on powers.  Makes for an incredible toolbox.”

“We have an edge, but it’s not as big as you might think,” Dido said.  “Our side has people who can detect or see powers, and what we keep hearing from them is that this guy has powers, but on the down-low.  That woman has powers, nobody seems to be aware.  A lot of them are using their abilities to maneuver into positions of power.”

“Can we stop talking about this?” Sveta asked.  It felt strange hearing so abrupt a question when I hadn’t felt it in her body or breathing.

“We can,” Tristan said.

“Sorry,” Sveta said.  “To cut in like that.”

“I don’t mind, love,” Dido said.  “We can talk about other things.  I’d welcome the distractions.”

“Mr. Giannone is at the center of town.  He seems to know where to go to talk to the villains,” Tristan reported.

“Lovely,” Dido said.  “Some silliness to take my mind off of things.”

Silliness.  We were treating this situation as serious, we were trying to save Cedar Point and the people within, and we were trying to break up a criminal organization before it extended its reach too far or imploded.  With all of our various issues, with one team member’s life on the line, we were making sacrifices and devoting ourselves to this in the long term.


To someone that was trying to head off a war with another universe?  I could concede her that, but I could also think she could have worded it way more respectfully.

I decided to write her off as a bit of a ditz and let it be.

Giannone entered the bar, and my first thought was that we wouldn’t have the audio or video.

Moments later, however, he emerged with Prancer.

“…not involved in this.”

“Andre, if you don’t want to be involved, walking into the bar where we gather isn’t the way to do it.  Not voicing your issues in earshot of ten people with powers.  Let’s talk in my office.”

“Being seen walking into your office isn’t any better,” Andre Giannone said, resisting being led by the arm.   Prancer stopped trying, and the older man said, “Thank you.”

“We’ll keep it polite,” Prancer said, “Both in what we talk about, and in appearing civil.”

The people in the bar could see out the window.

“They called me.  What am I supposed to say?  If this goes to court-”

“Let’s not talk about court.”

“What if?” Andre said.

“It’s not going to.  The courts have too much to do to bother with someone like you.  Even with people like us.”

“You said the heroes wouldn’t bother either, and how many have we seen or heard about now?”

“Andre.  Listen.  If they decide they’ll bother with petty crime, they’ll come after me, the other villains.  They won’t go after the scared citizens.  If they thought someone had done something, they would think it was because the people were forced.”

Prancer’s tone changed at the end there.  Too light to be anything but joking.  I wondered how tone would play out with the court, if Giannone was charged.  I let go of Sveta and walked over to the whiteboard to note the question.  Something for a future discussion with Natalie or someone like her.

“I don’t want this hassle,” Andre Giannone said.

“I understand.  We’re already taking steps.  We’re getting information, we’re getting help.  We’ll have more in a bit, and we’ll fill you in.”

“What am I supposed to do when they call?”

“Hang up.  Say whatever you said.  Tell them you have no space.  Do whatever you have to, but don’t rent to them.  And don’t show up at the bar.  Call me.”

“I wanted to get you sooner than that.”

“Call.  Now, who was it that called?”

“Something about blue and gold.”


“No.  I don’t know.  Maybe.”

I felt a kind of satisfaction at the confusion.  Dido was a salesman, maybe, or a face-person, but she wasn’t a marketing person.  The way she’d described Auzure hadn’t been a good way to make it memorable.

“Could it have been Auzure?” Prancer asked.

“That’s it, I think.”

“Okay,” Prancer said.  “I know someone I can ask for more details on what they’re doing.  That’s good.  Useful.”

“Who do you know?” Dido asked, as if Prancer could hear her.

Prancer continued talking, oblivious.  “Next time, remember.  That’s all you need to do.  Leave it to me to decide if we need to worry.”

He laid a hand on Andre Giannone’s shoulder as he said it.  It was a way to show support, and also a way to steer his conversation partner, suggesting the man walk back the way he came.

“I’ve held up my end so far,” Andre said, resisting being guided as he said it.

“And you get allowances others in the neighborhood don’t.  Nobody knocks on your door.  You have tenants.”

“Nobody’s knocking on my door, maybe, but I’m getting calls.”

“A call.  One,” Prancer said.  He walked, one hand on Andre Giannone’s shoulder, getting Andre started on his way.  “And we’re taking steps to rectify the unwelcome attention.  Things should calm down soon.”

“Okay,” Andre said.  He looked at Prancer.  “I don’t need to worry?”

“You don’t need to worry.”

Andre walked away.  Prancer stood where he was, hooking thumbs in his jacket pockets, head tilted.  The camera got a good angled view of his expression as he turned around.  A confident smile.

A smile for the people in the window who might be looking at him, but he spoke under his breath, too quiet for even Kenzie’s camera to pick up.

“Can you get that for us?” Tristan asked.


It took a short bit, and Prancer didn’t re-enter the bar, instead walking over to the building across the street, where his ‘office’ apparently was.

“What the hell is going on?” Prancer’s hiss came through the speakers.

“We’re going on,” Chris said.

“Thank you for the help, Dido,” Tristan said.

“I’m glad to, hon.  I was worried I’d bothered an old man for nothing, but he’s in this, isn’t he?”

“We had cues he was.”

“Let us know if you need anything else.”

“Thanks,” Tristan said.

The conversation wrapped up with some goodbyes, and the call ended.  Windows closed, and parts of Kenzie’s computer-cube went dark.

“We’ve got one group passing through later this afternoon.  We could postpone it if needed.  These guys are Houndstooth’s recommends,” Tristan said.  “Victoria?  You’ll handle it?”

“My cousin will come with.  Just in case they’re keeping an eye out for me and have surface-to-air planned.”

“Missiles?” Chris asked.

“Anything,” I said.

“They’re starting to adapt,” Tristan said.  “Info and help?”

“As far as info goes,” I said, “Natalie said someone tried hacking into the Wardens’ headquarters, specifically targeting my mom.”

“Wasn’t me,” Kenzie said.

“I feel like if it was Tattletale, they would have been cleverer about it.  Sveta, since you were seen too, though they probably can’t connect you to your past self, you might want to make sure all accounts are secure.”

“Okay,” Sveta said.

“Then that only leaves Rain,” Tristan said.  “Decompress, take notes, do whatever.  We leave to meet him in a few minutes.”

He was taking on the leadership role.  Ashley had seemed to want it, and she’d included herself when Houndstooth had wanted to meet people in charge, but she wasn’t fighting him on this.

I noted that, and I wondered.

I watched as the tight cluster of the group broke up.  No longer gathered around the screen, standing behind Kenzie’s desk, they moved toward their individual spaces.  Chris had the largest bubble around him, where he didn’t have people within it.  His gait was different than it had been.

Ashley went to her board.  She’d been quiet throughout, and now she stopped in front of her whiteboard.  A mix of her writing and Kenzie’s marked it, with her writing along the center, each line slanted as if it was written on an angle, like a tower of stacked coins that was about to buckle and fall.  Kenzie’s writing marked the bottom third, with a few drawings of eyes.

Whatever means of communication they had devised between them, I couldn’t decipher it.  I couldn’t even begin to read Ashley’s handwriting.  Kenzie went to Ashley to resume their prior discussion.

“You okay?” Tristan asked.  I turned to look.  He was talking to Sveta.  “You didn’t like that talk about war.”

Sveta shrugged.  She smiled as I joined their conversation.  “Thank you for the hug.  I didn’t even realize how upset I was until you came up to me.”

“Anytime,” I said.

“Was it the thought of Weld over there that got you?” Tristan asked.

Sveta shrugged, but it wasn’t too effective with her suit.  “What threw me was when Dido talked about how people with powers were getting positions.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because it might not be only that.  The people with positions might be getting powers.”

“Cauldron?” I asked.

Sveta nodded.  “Earth C is a major reason we had the supplies to rebuild.  They say they did it out of goodwill.  I think Cauldron made it happen.  Gave powers to key people so they would agree, made deals.”

She put out one arm, indicating the window and the city beyond it.

“How much of that was bought and paid for with crimes against humanity?  I saw some of what they did.  I heard a lot more about it.  My entire life, this body of mine, it’s because of them,” Sveta said.  “It’s awful to think about.”

I looked out at the city that gleamed with traces of yellow and gold in the light of the early afternoon.

“I don’t know a lot about them,” Tristan said.

“I only know some,” I said.  “The info came out after, but it trickles out, there’s a lot of guessing to be done.”

“I don’t have to guess,” Sveta said.  “I can tell you more some day.  But it’s going to take a few minutes longer than it takes to talk to Rain.”

Chris had joined Kenzie and Ashley’s conversation.  Kenzie was bouncing with excitement, trying to get Chris’ input.  He seemed reluctant to dish, but quick to shoot down this idea or that idea.

“You want to sit on this, skip out on the Rain conversation?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Sveta said.  “I think I have to go, because I’m one of the only people who knows most of the story.  It feels like I’m the only one who knows most of everyone’s story.  I know yours, Victoria.  I know Rain’s, I think. I have my suspicions about what he’s going to say.”

“I think I know,” Tristan said.  “And I have a few big worries.”

I flew around the area before settling down.  Everyone was gathered.

Erin drove a different vehicle than the last time.  It was a sedan, small and very dusty.  The accumulated fine dirt on the side had settled into waves that looked like very flat, spread out sand dunes, set on a vertical surface, with peaks, valleys, and patterns.

Erin opened the door.  The dark makeup around her eyes was heavier, her hair was unwashed, and she wore a slim-fit sweatshirt with the sleeves rolled up, a cat on the sleeve.  Her low-rise jeans were tucked into calf-height boots.

“Hi Erin,” Kenzie said.

“Hi, critter,” Erin said.  “How are you doing?”

“I was having a good day, but now this is happening.  Feels ominous.”

“Yeah,” Erin said.

Rain took more time to get out of the passenger seat.  He moved like an old man, shutting the door, letting a backpack fall to the ground by one of the car’s wheels.  He had a black eye, his ear was swollen and scraped up, and his face looked asymmetrical in a way that suggested swelling on one side, with no distinct source.  His knuckles and fingers were badly scraped up, with tape covering up some of them.

He was wearing a raglan tee with black sleeves, and jeans so old that they must have been as soft as sweatpants.  The knees were worn through, and the knees beneath were speckled with scabs.

“You’re hurt,” Kenzie said.

Rain nodded.

“Did you get attacked?” Chris asked.

Rain shook his head.  “Not by Snag’s group.”

It was hard, to pull back and watch.  I’d tried for the call with Dido, stepped back to observe, letting Tristan take point with directing the others.  He was good at it.  Sveta being the one who had struggled had pulled me in a bit.

I wasn’t sure strict objectivity was the way to handle this, but getting too close didn’t help either.

That line of thought got me thinking about how I hadn’t ever really had to watch my back.  Not among those I considered allies.  Not among friends.  Not among family.

And that, in turn, made me think about my sister, and the sick, hollow, angry experience of being betrayed by someone I’d thought I could trust more than I trusted myself.

I stood across from Rain and I felt like I had in the bank.  The bank had been dusty, partially my fault, the floor scratched up by the passage of giant dogs, littered with discarded pieces of paper and dropped belongings.  It had been dark, the rain pattering outside.

Much like Rain stood by the front of the car, hurting, his life in danger, my sister had stood a distance away from me, a knife to her throat.

Following that there had been the revelation of secrets.  It wasn’t that I held Rain close to my heart or anything.  It wasn’t even that I particularly trusted him.  Only that I recognized the pattern.

“Shit,” Rain said.

“If you’re going to draw this out, at least tell me this isn’t you explaining everything and dropping something heavy on me,” Tristan said.

“No big news for you,” Rain said.

Tristan nodded.

“You’re going to tell us what’s been going on with you?” Sveta asked.

Rain looked at Erin.  “Yeah.”

“She’s tied to this?” Sveta asked.

“Yeah,” Rain said.  “Kind of.  She could walk away free and clear if she wanted, I think.  She knows most of my situation.  Not all.”

“I’m moral support,” Erin said.

“No,” Rain said.  “Because there’s stuff you don’t know.  Kind of.  It’s complicated.”

“You’ve got a look in your eyes,” Ashley said.  “Fiercer.”

“I spent a good day and got a beating trying to find that fierceness,” Rain said.  “That thing that would let me say this.  Tristan called me out, said I needed to tell you guys, because it impacts what we’re doing.  I needed to do some figuring out before I was able.”

“Yeah,” Tristan said.

I was silent.  I could only see the parallels.  I held my tongue because I didn’t trust it.  If this was an echo of that situation in the bank, I had no better idea on how to handle it now in the present.

No rain, no enclosed area.  We were at the edge of a park.  It was sunny out.

No knife to anyone’s throat, not that Rain’s expression said any different.

“You’ve been hiding with powerful people,” Ashley said.  “Capes, probably.”

Rain opened his mouth, then nodded.

“A gang.”

“A family,” Rain said.  “Gang doesn’t really say it.”

“It was always us and them.  And there was a lot of hate directed at them,” Rain said.

The in-group, out-group… and family.  I could connect dots.  I deliberately avoided doing so.

I focused on the situation instead, on the others.  Chris was quiet, smiling slightly, but the smile had been a small, persistent thing since he’d nose-dived into indulgence.  Tristan was quiet, but most of what he had to add were things that it was Rain’s responsibility to share.  Ashley handled the questions.

No- Sveta joined her voice to Ashley’s.  “You’re related to those powers.  It’s why you have such a hard time pulling away.”

“The Fallen,” Rain said.

I winced.  There were a lot of implications to that.

“Oh,” Kenzie said.

“I kind of connected the dots already,” Sveta said.  She put a hand on Kenzie’s shoulder.  “You first connected to Tristan after the God thing.”

“Religion came up in therapy,” Rain said, for the benefit of the rest of us.  “Tristan came up to me after and asked about which church my family attended.  I’d had a bad week.  Nearly as bad as this week has been.  We’d already connected some.  Both of us have people invading our heads, questions of self, we talked a lot together in therapy.  I cracked.  I told him.”

“Yeah,” Tristan said.  “Mom and dad were looking for a church.  I thought I’d ask Rain.  I don’t think Rain’s church would’ve suited them.”

“It’s not funny,” Kenzie said.  “Don’t make jokes.”

“I’m not laughing, Kenzie,” Tristan said.

“They hate black people, don’t they?” Kenzie asked Rain.

“They’re a big group,” Rain said.  “It’s hard to get into just how varied the branches are, the different beliefs, how they add up, some of the leaders that have come and gone.  It’s hard to just point at them and say they hate this or they hate that.”

“Most of them hate black people,” Kenzie said.


“Did your family?  Did you?  Do you?”

Rain looked back at Erin.  “Yeah.  I did.  Once.  You have to understand- it’s hatred for anyone and everyone, because that way it keeps everyone close to the family.  So ‘black’ was just one more label, you know?”

“Back at the first meeting with Mrs. Yamada.  You kept giving me looks,” Kenzie said.  “They weren’t because I pay attention to the clothes I wear and dress nice, or because you were trying to figure out what was wrong with me.”

“It wasn’t about you,” Rain said.  “I was figuring stuff out then.  I was trying to reassess my whole way of thinking.  It was me, not you.”

“It was you,” Kenzie said.  She paused.  “Being uncomfortable with me being there.”

“It was-” Rain started.  “Me being uncomfortable with everything.”

“Including me.  Especially me, right then,” Kenzie said.  She paused, waited for a response.  When Rain didn’t deny her, she added, “That… sucks.”

“Yeah,” Rain said.

“I’m not saying you suck.  It sucks to hear it.”

“If it helps,” Rain said.  “I’ve changed a lot since then.  I’m still figuring some stuff out.”

“A lot of different groups to un-hate,” Chris said.

“I- kind of,” Rain said.  “I still catch myself a lot.  I think of things, I realize I’m making these assumptions.  Then I want to change and I don’t know how.  I try to use you guys as role models or talk to Mrs. Yamada, or I read, look up and watch a movie.  But it’s a lot to re-teach myself.”

“Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Natives, Middle Easterners, then gay, trans,” Tristan rattled off.

“Deeper than that,” Rain said.  “I had to start with re-figuring women and how I thought about them.  I’m still pretty shitty, as much as I’m trying, because I hear you rattle that off and my first thought is ‘some of these aren’t like the others’ and I have to stop myself.”

“You’ve said a few things,” Chris said.


“I figured you were a redneck.”

“Worse,” Rain said.

“They get in your head,” Erin jumped in.  “They got my parents.  My little brother.   They got Rain when he was little.  I accept he’s trying.”

“There was a Fallen group that found a pair of people like me,” Sveta said.

Rain closed his eyes, looked down.

“Boy and a girl.  Case fifty-threes.  Arizona.  Peat and Fen.  They showed up in a few cities, did some stunts, hero-ish.  Junior level stuff.  But they were juniors, we think.”

“I know the story,” Rain said.

“They were terrified of vehicles and they hated the idea of the PRT.  They had a lot of peculiarities.  They couldn’t stay in one place for long.  Communities pulled together.  It was a really cool thing, they’d get motel rooms paid for by fans, they had tutors come to visit.  There was talk of trying to get them into the school system.  It was tricky because they were tricky.”

Rain nodded.

“It was a really cool thing,” Sveta said.  “There were blogs that followed them, and they were really positive.  There was art drawn of them- I really liked that.  A couple of times a week there would be articles talking about how they were doing something new and better and it was a step forward.”

“I knew some of it,” Rain said.

“You should know all of it.  There was a time in my life when I could only vicariously enjoy those sorts of things, and I’d wake up and I’d tell myself I would check the blog after lunch and I would check the art page after dinner, and that was the sort of thing that helped me get through the days.  Weld stuff was first thing.  There were others.  But Peat and Fen were big.”

“I know,” Rain said.

“They went down the wrong stretch of road and some Fallen jackasses on motorcycles thought they’d get a good reaction from people by holding the pair down and taking a chainsaw to their horns.  To decorate their fucking helmets!”

Rain nodded, averting his eyes.

“Knife marks suggested someone tried to cut off one of their faces to wear it as a mask.  You can imagine how I felt,” Sveta said.  She moved her hair, showing the edge of her face, the mass of pencil-thin black tendrils behind it.  “Since I’m only a mask and an assortment of lethal weapons.  You can imagine how I felt, when instead of my daily pick-me up I got the news that they’d died from loss of their horns.”

Kenzie ducked her head, and started to walk away.  When I went to follow and check her head, Ashley held up a hand and bid me to stop, following Kenzie instead.

“This isn’t an inquisition,” Erin said.  “Rain isn’t responsible for everything the Fallen have done.”

Sveta ignored Erin for the moment.  “Other Fallen groups have taken us for freak shows.  The embodiments of the end times.  Tom and Jake Crowley.  I know that’s not on you, Rain, but you have to realize they aren’t good people.”

“I’m more than aware.”

“Then at least tell me you’re not going to go back,” Sveta said.

“I have to,” Rain said.

I could see Sveta’s face fall.

“I have to,” Rain said.  “I have no choice.  Really.”

“Okay,” Sveta said, her voice sad.  “I think you have more choice than you think you do.”

“I really don’t.  If I could do anything else, I would.  I’m aware of a lot of things that are worse than Peat and Fen,” Rain said.

“What happened to Peat and Fen is pretty fucking bad,” Sveta said.  She turned to Erin.  “You’re not responsible for what others did, but if you’re leaning on them for protection or strength, then that’s not okay.  You can’t use that strength.”

“They have my family,” Erin said.

“And they don’t let you go,” Rain said.  “It’s all… very complicated.”

Ashley returned to the group.  Kenzie was still sitting in the grass, a distance away, her back to us.

When I looked, Ashley gestured.  Telling me to stay.

Rain looked pretty battered.  Dejected.

He met my eyes.

“There’s more to it,” Ashley said.

“Oh yeah,” Rain said.

“If you won’t say it, then I will,” Ashley said.  “I’ll guess.  You killed people.”

Rain went very still.

I could remember a similar look on my sister’s face.

He huffed out a breath, hands at his lap as he slouched back against the front of the sedan, sitting against the hood.  He didn’t seem to know what to do with his hands.

“Yeah,” he finally said.

“Innocents,” she said.

“Kids,” Rain said.  He looked in Kenzie’s direction.  At Chris.  Then he looked over his shoulder at Erin.

“Why?” Chris asked.

“I’ve been asking myself that a lot.”

“You maimed people,” Ashley said.  Still on the offense.

“Long term injuries.  Burns,” Rain said.  “To people of all ages.”

“For fun?” Ashley asked.

“For respect, if anything.  I don’t know,” Rain said.  He looked back to Chris, since he was really answering his question.  “Because a large part of me had only ever known the family, the lifestyle.  All of the language – outsiders were… less.  It was okay to hurt ten of them if you helped one of the family’s.”

“They had your whole childhood to work on you,” Erin said.

“Doesn’t excuse it,” Rain said.

“No.  But it explains it,” she said.

“Your whole life?” I asked.  My first time speaking in this conversation, maybe.  I wasn’t sure – I was in a different mode.

“My parents were early adopters, mostly on the fringe.  They got more into it as it grew.  Renamed me early enough I don’t remember my original name.  Rain O’Fire Frazier.”

“That’s terrible,” Chris said.

“Shush,” Sveta said.

“Everything about the Fallen is terrible,” Rain said.  “A few years after the name change, they sold me to a family halfway across the country, used the money to fuck off traveling like they’d always talked about.  My guardians right now are people I’ve called my aunt and uncle my whole life.  I got powers with the cluster trigger, at a time I was just one more set of hands and a weapon, a henchman.  That was supposed to elevate me and… it did the opposite.  That was my wake-up call.”

“It’s good you had one,” Tristan said.

“I don’t like the idea of you going back,” Sveta said.  “When you pull away is when things get worse, when violence happens.”

“It’s why I’m not pulling away,” Rain said.

“You’re with us,” Tristan said.  “You’re doing your own thing.”

From the bank robbery to the period after.  Trying to find normal again. Rain had been more open.  Did that change the course of this particular river, compared to the one I’d known?  Or were the key elements all there, still?  The discomfort, the ‘I’m trying but I’m not going to do anything different’?

Did it still lead to disaster in the end?

“Is the critter okay?” Erin asked.  “Kenz?”

“She’ll be fine if this ends and the group is still together,” Ashley said.

“Are we?” Rain asked.

“I’m not going to say no,” Sveta said.  “But I think you need to go.  Yesterday.  Get out of there.  Trust the Wardens.”

“I would if I thought they would protect me,” Rain said.  “But they’re busy.  The news articles say they’re not even here lot of the time.”

“I’m okay,” Tristan said.  “This is ninety-five percent known stuff, and elaboration on other stuff.”

The voices of the others were a jumble.  Chris didn’t care about anything.  Ashley, as odd as it was, seemed most uncomfortable.

“Victoria,” Rain said.  “You’ve been quiet.”

“Yeah,” I said.

I was aware of the silence that followed my statement.

“Snag’s army.  They’re after the Fallen,” I said.

“Yeah,” Rain said.

“But they want you.”

“Yeah,” Rain said.  His expression darkened as he said it.  No illusions about what was in store for him if that happened.

“Because of the kids, and the others you killed.  Because they blame you.”

“Yeah,” Rain said.

I nodded.

“I can tell you the details, if-”

“I’m going to go,” I said, interrupting.  I was aware of the looks I got.  “Tell Kenzie everything’s cool.  I’ll be back.  I just need to think on this.”

No actions out of instinct.  I’d think, piece everything together.

I flew away from the scene before I could say or do something I’d regret.

Another group was patrolling the area that afternoon.  Crystal and I stood on a square of crimson forcefield, well above Cedar Point, watching.

They were an older group, a bit of armor, some swords, a spear.  One of them was a Brute who carried a crossbow bigger than I was.  I’d always liked those things.

Simple.  Easy.  Bad guys bad and a bit lame.  Good guys a bit lame and doing good work.

“I’m going back to the PRTCJ,” Crystal said.  “Next week.”

I didn’t want her to go back.  There was very little to like about the group.

Ironically, the advice I was following in regards to that had to do with cults.  Not putting up too much of an offense, not scaring them into throwing up walls.

“It’s been two weeks,” I said.  “How do they handle that?”

“No idea.  Pay deduction, extra drills, demotion.”

“I told you what I heard from D.  There’s war on the horizon.”

D.  Dido.  In case we were being listened to.  Prancer’s clairvoyants could have been listening in, and he could have hired additional intelligence gathering.  No telling.  We dodged particulars.

“That’s part of why I’m going,” Crystal said.

“Spooks me,” I said.

“You doing this spooks me,” Crystal said.  “I want to meet everyone at some point.”

I nodded.  “Okay.”

“You think you have a handle on this?”

“I think so,” I said.  If ‘this’ meant Cedar Point.  “On other stuff?  Less sure.”

“What can I do?  We want you more sure.”

“Looks like our guests are free and clear.  We’ll see what they say later.  I’ve got a meeting.  Do you mind flying with me?”

“I’m glad to.  But we gotta eat.”

I wasn’t hungry, I was rarely hungry after thinking too much about the past, and I’d been thinking about it a lot during the discussion with Rain.  Still, I nodded.

I picked up the bag and the books I’d placed atop the field, putting everything away.  Crystal dropped the forcefield, and we flew with me leading the way.

It was already getting dark.  The flight wasn’t a short one.  I put on my music, because conversation was hard with the wind in my ears.

Time to think about Crystal and the PRTCJ.  The war with Earth C.  Rain.  Kenzie.  About what the hell I was doing here.

The sun had set by the time we arrived.  The waterfront had a railing with oversized posts a boat could be lashed to.  I leaned against the railing, checked my phone, and sent a message.

Mrs. Yamada approached from our right.  She had food from a nearby food truck.

“Crystal,” she said.  “It’s so nice to see you.”

“You too,” Crystal said.  She gushed just a bit as she said it.  She’d met Mrs. Yamada at the hospital.  They’d had talks about things.  About Crystal losing Uncle Neil and Eric.  About me.

There was a brief catching-up.  Pleasantries.  I chimed in once or twice, then found I didn’t have it in me.  I stared out over the water.

“I think- do you mind giving us privacy?” Mrs. Yamada asked.

“Sure.  How’s the food here?”

“This?  It’s good.”

“Wave when you want me to come back.  I’ll be enjoying the view until then.”

Mrs. Yamada leaned against the railing next to me.  Her dinner smelled amazing and I still didn’t want to eat anything.

“Sorry to be eating while we talk.  I haven’t had a bite to eat since grabbing a protein bar and a pear at five forty-five this morning.”

“It’s okay,” I said.  “Please eat.  Thank you for seeing me.”

“Thank you.  Is everyone okay?”

“Intact, yes.  Okay?  Were they okay when I met them?”

“They were in a place where I felt like they could finish their own journeys.  Most of them.  I imagine there’s some backsliding here and there, difficulties and things that aren’t okay because of external stresses and internal factors within the group.”

“Some,” I said.  “Some figuring things out from moment to moment.  Small triumphs.”

“That’s good.  More or less what I expected.”

“Rain revealed his situation,” I said.

“I heard,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “You wanted to do some thinking.”

“I did,” I said.

“I can’t do that thinking for you.  But if you want to talk out loud, I can help you along the way.”

“When it comes to Rain, I think I get it,” I said.  “I’m not okay with it, but not in a way that’s going to ruin anything.  It sucks to see the big and little things that affect the others.  Some issues close to Sveta’s heart.”

“You’re thinking about something else,” she concluded.

“Yeah,” I said.  “When Weld showed up at the first session, he said he was sorry he couldn’t sit in.”

“He did.”

“You asked him to counsel the group on their hero idea before you asked me.”

“Before the community center, before your boss called me.  Yes.”

“He said no, but he could help in a while.”

“More or less.”

“But you chose me in the end.  You could have waited and had him sit in, and he’s… a great guy who everyone respects.  You chose me, for reasons besides timing.”

“I’m not much of a schemer.”

“That’s not saying I’m wrong,” I said.

“No it isn’t.  But I’m worried if I say yes, then there’s expectations, and there’s disappointment if this doesn’t end up going well.  I’m far from superhuman, I make mistakes, and this could be another.  What are you thinking this is?”

“You wanted a quality I had, that Weld might not.  I was thinking about the team, the traps we could fall into.  Is it the paranoia?  The fact I can’t quite trust people?”

“That seems like an unkind way to describe yourself.”

“It’s true.”

“Unkind, still.”

“You wanted someone that isn’t too enmeshed into the group.  Someone wary that’s seen the Asylum and knows the sort of thing that comes out of there.  Someone that might see how they operate within the dynamic now that most have let their guards down.  You think something’s up, and you didn’t tell me what it is because you didn’t want me going in with too many preconceived ideas.  Because… you wanted to see if I drew the same conclusions.  Something bad’s in play with this group.”

She nodded to herself.

“Am I wrong?” I asked.

“You’re not wrong,” she said.

Previous Chapter                                                                                           Next Chapter

Shade – 4.6

Previous Chapter                                                                                           Next Chapter

“Help me understand how this makes any sense at all,” Natalie said.

We were outside of a bagel place, close to the station nearest the Wardens’ Headquarters.  Natalie had bought a salad with chicken bits in it.  I’d never liked eating cold chicken, so I’d picked up a salad without the extras, and a toasted bagel sandwich with fish, black olives, tomatoes and cream cheese.  We sat at a table outside.

Natalie was wearing a shirt with a folded collar under a work-suitable navy-blue sweater, with black slacks.  I’d seen Kenzie wear a similar outfit a few days earlier, though Kenzie had had a skirt, and Kenzie had worn it better.

The group’s ‘lawyer’.  She was just a student, but mom’s verdict was that she knew her stuff well enough to serve, and she had a good sense of what was happening in the future.

I explained, “The area we were surveilling had a team of heroes come through, at our urging.  They had a brief interaction with the embedded villain population, suggested they might be sticking around, and then left.”

“And they were followed?  By the entire group of villains?”

“By two, Hookline and Kitchen Sink,” I said.  “They were angry following the discussion, were previously established as exceedingly violent, and they have criminal acts that are awaiting process.”

“They’re not in the nine percent?”

“Is it nine, now?  I was hoping the number would go up, not down.”

“Nine now,” Natalie said.

“They aren’t.  I think most of the villains in Cedar Point are trying to stay clear of that line,” I said.  I took a bite of my sandwich, then wiped the cream cheese from the corner of my mouth with a flick of my thumb.  Thoroughly disappointing.

Nine percent.  I’d known it as the ten percent, which had been a neater, rounder number.  With the courts badly behind, only a certain number of crimes and criminals were being rushed through court, and it wasn’t based on the time of the deed.  There was something which might have resembled a balance right now, but it was slipping fast.  People wanted to focus on getting themselves sorted out, there was plenty of work with reasonable pay, and the people who thought they could game the system ended up falling into the ten percent.  For those who did, the hammer came down hard and decisively.

There was, however, a population of people who’d realized they could get away with things if they avoided being among the nine or ten percent worst offenders.  It seemed to me that the gap was widening as people got more settled in and dissatisfied.  I knew some areas were using a lottery system to deter the lesser criminals, choosing the crimes they’d act on and prosecute by drawing them at random.

“Do you and did you know the crimes these two have awaiting process?”

“Hookline dangled someone out of a fourth story window.  Witnesses saw.  He was presumed to be acting as collections for a money lender.  The neighbors heard shouting about debt, not when Hookline was there, but in general, with the victim and his partner.”

“And you know this how, if it wasn’t pursued?”

“It was reported on in the paper for that area, a few months ago.  I have a copy of the article on my laptop.  I had to take the picture with my phone so it’s not the best.  Do you want to see it?”

Natalie shook her head.  “I’ll believe you.”

“After the article there was a reaction to Hookline.  Some public gatherings, anger, some backlash against the money lender.  Hookline left.  No telling if he was made to, fired, or if he wanted something easier.  Ended up at Cedar Point.”

“And the other one?  Kitchen Sink.”

“One of a couple who worked under Beast of Burden, who was crime boss for New Haven.  Sink handled collections for the protection racket.”

“Any serious crimes?”

“He trashed one business in a way that made it very clear his power was at use.  He creates semi-random items and flings them around, and the business had a lot of semi-random items flung around, shelves trashed, windows broken.”

“Was anyone hurt?”

“I have no idea,” I said.  “Victim didn’t pursue anything.  Authorities aren’t going to do anything if the victim isn’t talking.”

Natalie’s forehead wrinkled.  It was a weird contrast for someone who had a whimsical pixie cut with a curl at the front and oversized glasses, to seem as joyless as she did.  She didn’t seem to like her meal, and she seemed interested but not excited or engaged by this.

I ate more of my bagel sandwich, letting her think.  It would have been so much better if it was salmon, but it wasn’t.  The olives were mushy and lacked bite, which made me wonder if they were old, scavenged, imitation, or if they’d lost something in transport.  The worst thing was the bagel – I’d eaten here before and it had been better then.

“You assaulted and battered two individuals,” Natalie said.

“Let me get my laptop out.”

“They didn’t make the first move, by your own admission.”

“Their intent was clear.  They had weapons.  I’ll show you the video.”


I fished my laptop out of my bag, packed up my bagel and set it aside, and set the laptop down so Natalie could see.  It was a bit warm from being in my bag and being left on low-energy mode, but the boot-up was fast.  I already had the pertinent files and videos in a folder.

“First video, overhead view.  Do you have headphones?”

“I do.”

I waited until she had them out.  She put them on, and I plugged in the jack.  I hit the spacebar to start the video.  She watched, putting her arm up and over the top of the screen, to shield it from the sun.  I offered my own arm to help.  The video came in at an angle, zooming in, and showed most of the conversation, followed by Hookline and Sink’s retreat.

When she started to take off her headphones, I held up a finger, then navigated to the second video.  It showed same events, but a better view of Houndstooth’s group, and then expanded out to show how Hookline and Sink were closing in.

Natalie watched the fight and the follow-up, with Sveta and I retreating.  Moose did the work of freeing Hookline from underneath the car I’d blocked in.

It was hard to see in the noonday sun, especially when I was half-standing, my arm out to help shade the screen, but I could see Hookline’s reaction, slapping away Moose’s hand.  He stalked off, and Sink belatedly followed, something held to his bleeding nose.

“Clear intent to injure,” Natalie said.

“That’s what I said.  I did mention the weapons.”

“There’s a view, and it isn’t my view,” Natalie said, reaching for her salad, “that if you have a power then you’re armed at all times.  Sometimes judges hold that view.  I would rather assume that you would have a judge that held that perspective and be wrong, than to assume the opposite and be wrong.”

“Right,” I said.

“A better option would be to inform the heroes.”

“Couldn’t.  Clairvoyants with some clairaudience,” I said.  I opened a sub-folder, clicked an image, and let it pop up.  A boy in a wheelchair, a woman pushing it.  He wore a helmet with a fake brain under glass at the top.  She wore a bird mask.  “They’d hear anything we communicated, so it was radio silence.”

“You could have dropped down in front of Houndstooth and told him about the situation.”

“Similar risk.  We don’t want to hint at the prior relationship and we do want to suggest there’s a growing presence of heroes, to give them reason to second guess.”

Natalie sighed.  “I’m not a very conservative person in reality, but I do think your situation needs a conservative eye.”

“I can agree with that,” I said.

“With a citizen’s arrest, there needs to be an actual arrest.  I recognize you had to leave after the other villains showed up, but normally the process of performing an arrest like that needs clear indication of a crime in progress or one just committed, and it needs the authorities to be involved.”

“Citizen’s arrest?” I asked.  “Capes get a lot more leeway with those.”

“One second.  The process would be for you to contact me and contact the authorities, before anything happened.”

I opened my mouth to respond.

“Where possible, and it wasn’t possible here.  I get that.”


“You would, with my counsel and go-ahead, step in, take action, and then wait for the authorities to arrive.”

“Authorities who are only acting on nine percent of the cases,” I said.  “Why a citizen’s arrest and not an arrest with standing?”

“A costumed arrest?  We don’t know for sure if they’re going to allow those with the new legal system.  I’d rather lean on something tidier that we can be fairly sure will carry forward.”

I leaned back in my seat.  “That’s a lot more conservative than I anticipated.  Operating as if capes aren’t a thing?”

“I think capes are going to be a thing,” Natalie said.  “But we have reason to believe they’re going to be a thing people are going to want to handle in a different, more careful way, now.”

I packed up my sandwich and pitched it into a nearby trash can.

“No good?” Natalie asked.

“Bagel was flavorless and textureless.  It looked great and tasted… not like it looked.”

“They got popular, so they started freezing excess bagels and defrosting them to serve.”

I made a face.

“We’re making strides, Victoria, but I think we’re in for a culture shock when people realize that as much as they’ve been waiting eagerly for things to get closer to normal, we’re not going to get a lot of the old normal we’re eager for, and we’re going to get some of the less pleasant parts.”

“You’re talking about the law?”

Natalie shrugged.  She was holding her plastic thing of salad, spearing some with a plastic fork.  Before popping it into her mouth, she said, “Lots of stuff.”

My laptop was taking up some of her table real-estate, so I closed it and pulled it closer to me.

“Expectations,” she said, once she was done swallowing.  “If I’m working with you, I need to know what yours are.”

“That’s a simple question with an answer that could take me a day to get through.”

“Your mom wanted me to ask you if you were still looking for work,” Natalie said.

I tensed a little.

“I was asked to ask the question and pass on the response if you gave it.”

“When we pay you, it’s not for you to be a messenger between me and my mom.  If I want to talk to her I can call her.”

“Okay,” Natalie said.  “She had something else to pass on.”

“And I’m not interested,” I said, my voice firmer.  “Thank you.  I will get up and walk away.”

“Please don’t.  Really, please don’t.  There are a lot of things I want to talk about sooner than later,” she said.  “During our last meeting, I know it was brief, but I wanted the lay of the land.  I was hoping this meeting would be a chance to get a more comprehensive sense of what you wanted to do, and what I’m doing for you.  Both of your mother’s questions tie into that.”

“Did you talk to her about our meeting?”

“No.  Not for the last one.  For this one, I went to someone lateral to her.  She approached me independently with these things, and told me to reach out to you if you didn’t reach out anytime soon.  Because you would want to know.”

I wished I hadn’t thrown my lunch away.  I would’ve liked to have something to violently toss into the wastebasket, as an outlet for what I was feeling.  I shook my head a little.

“It’s relevant,” Natalie said.  “And it’s important.  I promise.”

I shook my head more.  All around us, people were going to and from lunch.  There was actually a city-like stream of cars on the road toward the center of the megalopolis proper.

“Tell me then,” I said.

“There were two attempted breaches into our email server last night.  It looked like it was directed at your mother.  They put a moratorium on sending and receiving email for three hours while they did some backend stuff, and there was another attempted breach partway through that.  Tech people are looking into it.”

I nodded.  I looked at my laptop.  Cedar Point, except I wasn’t aware of anyone who would be especially good at that stuff there.  The speedrunners were tinkers, but nothing suggested they were tinkers with talents that translated to hacking into the email servers in the Wardens’ headquarters.  Bitter Pill was a full tinker, but her specialty put her even further from that kind of operation.

Houndstooth appears, adding to pressure, Sveta and I make our appearance, and a little while later, an attempted look at a close relation’s emails.  I could see the thread.

Would Tattletale have succeeded?  If she had the power to see weaknesses, it could extend to security systems.  During the bank robbery, she’d done something to gain access, though I couldn’t remember particulars.  It had been ambient noise around then.  She’d also collected info on Empire Eighty-Eight.

Someone they hired?  Was the fact that they didn’t go straight to Tattletale important?  A sign of a schism?

“My mother thinks it has something to do with me,” I concluded.

“She was called in for confidential discussion this morning, she got out of the meeting, said she couldn’t get in touch with you, and told me to reach out.  I think so, yeah.”

“I can’t have you being her messenger.  It’d impact how this arrangment works,” I said.

“Even if it’s pertinent?  Letting you know things like the possible breach into emails?  That they’re looking into people close to you?”

“The problem is that it’s always going to sound like a good reason.”

“Could it sound like a good reason because it is one?  Sometimes, even?”

I drew in a deep breath.  I collected my laptop and put it into my bag.

“Don’t leave, please.  I don’t want to drive you away.  I do want to understand,” Natalie said.  “The first and last thing I said at our last meeting was that I was concerned.  I’m more concerned now.”

“Why ask me about whether I was looking for work?”

“Because she asked me to ask you, if I thought it was appropriate, and I thought it might be.”

“Of fucking course,” I said.

“Don’t get angry,” Natalie said.

“I’m not angry with you.”

“Before we got derailed, I was talking about expectations.  You flew into that scene with no hesitation.”

“I’m invincible,” I said.  A lie, yes, but I wasn’t about to trust her with the truth.

“I know that, but isn’t there always some risk you’ll be hurt, or that there will be some consequence?  You’re paying me, you’re involving your family, and the hack could be the tip of the iceberg.  I have to wonder, how much are you putting into this?”

“I know my own limits, Natalie.”

Are you looking for work?”

“Are you going to report to my mother and tell her if I’m not?”

“No,” Natalie said.  “And I’m offended that you’d ask.”

“I’ve been pulling occasional shifts here and there doing cape work.  Keeping the peace at protests, standing guard here or there, in the general vicinity of cape functions.  I volunteer too.”

“Is the volunteer stuff as a cape?”

I sat back in my chair, and shifted the position of my bag.  “Yeah.  Pretty much.”

“It doesn’t seem like much of a balance.”

“You’re aware I’ve never had that balance?” I asked, in my best ‘get real’ tone.

“You went to high school once upon a time, didn’t you?”

“As the girl that was an out and open superheroine,” I said.  “Because of a decision my parents made.”

“I haven’t seen my dad in years.  I don’t even know if he survived.  I know what it’s like to have parent issues,” Natalie said.  “I do get it.  But is this really what you want?  Your mother is concerned-”

I grit my teeth.

“-I’m concerned.  I can definitely see the similarities between you two.  You’re both firm in your convictions and it seems like you both give things your all.  She’s usually the first one in and the last one out at work.”

“Can we stop talking about my mom?” I asked.  Angrier than I’d intended.

“Okay,” Natalie said.  She stopped there.  “Give me a second.  I’ll compose my thoughts.”

I gave her a few seconds.  My ankle crossed over the other, and the top foot tapped against the ground.  My fingers fidgeted with the strap of the bag that laid against my chair.

“I’m your lawyer.  For you and your team.”

“Not my team.  Just a team I’m looking after.”

“There’s an implication of overseeing and ownership, but okay.  I’m the lawyer.  I can give you counsel, and if I know who you are and who you want to be, I can tailor that counsel.  My tendency is to be conservative, because there’s a lot we don’t and won’t know.”

I nodded.  “There’s a degree to which I want conservative.”

“I hear you.  I would strongly encourage something more lawful.  Calling first, letting authorities know, checking with the lawyer, doing what you’ll do, working with authorities after.”

“Not every situation allows for that.  Having a plan is great, and I’m all about laying stuff out and being smart about things.  Sometimes there’s no time, and you have to make choices.”

“Yes,” Natalie said.  She paused, fixing her glasses.  “Yes.  If these are the three stages of the plan, with prelude, action, follow-up, maybe you can skip one, and you can explain it away to the authorities.”

I nodded.  “That’s not unreasonable.”

“Except…  If you have to skip two and rush the other, is it possible that you shouldn’t have acted at all?”

“We should have just let Houndstooth’s group get attacked from behind?”

“Or waited to send them in,” Natalie suggested.  “Or not had them come in at all, if you couldn’t be sure you’d be able to handle the lead-in and follow-up.”

I drummed my fingers on the table.  “There’s more to it.  These guys are in contact with people.  If we let them operate as normal, try to catch them in the act, they’ll use their leverage and catch us first.  We have to apply some sustained pressure.  Test their relationship with their contacts.  We’ve talked it over with other groups and they agree it makes a degree of sense.”


“They were one.  They really liked it, even.”

Natalie’s brow wrinkled.  “You said sustained.  Do you have more lined up?”

“A team is going to call a local realtor, looking into the possibility of moving in.  We’ll see if they react.”

“Then?” she asked.

“We might have some more people lined up.  Another group might be passing through, and we’ll be more ready if something comes up.  My cousin is swinging by.”

More brow wrinkles.  “You’ll pressure them until they crack.”

“Until they start to.  Then we or someone we trust targets that weak point.”

“When things crack, it’s often sudden.  Hook and Sink would be an example of that.”

I nodded.

“If it’s sudden, it’s hard to take the necessary steps before and after,” Natalie said.

“It could be,” I said.

“You don’t have to give me an answer right now, but please think about what you want this to be.  You can act faster and more flexibly if you’re loose with the law, but you’ll lose your chance at getting a big success past a judge’s desk.  I can help you if that’s the route you need to go.”

“But you think we shouldn’t go that way.”

“The people on the team are young, so you need to think about what you’re teaching them.  You need to think about your balance of real life and cape life.”

“I’m not-” I started.  “I never got that.  Even before I had powers, the cape life had taken over.”

“I can understand why you would resent her for that, but-”

“That’s not it,” I said.

She sat there, waiting like she was expecting me to elaborate.

I almost got angry.  I pushed that back.

“I’m not going to get into particulars,” I said, calm.  “It’s between me and her, and it would make things messy.  Nobody benefits from that.  Least of all you.”

“I’ll take your word for it.”

“Thank you,” I said.  “I’ll think about what you said.  About what I want, what I’m doing, keeping an eye out for balance.  The team and what they need.”

“The kind of counsel you need me to be.”

“Yes,” I said.  “Absolutely.  But I need something from you too.”

Natalie nodded.

“Don’t involve my mother in this.  Don’t pass on information, give hints, or respond to hints.  Lawyer-client confidentiality should be in effect.”

“I’m not a lawyer, exactly.  I can and do intend to do that, absolutely, but-”

“Act like one, here.  Please.  She’ll convey her side of the story, probably not in an obvious way, and I need you to be neutral.  I won’t be sharing my side, but assume I have one.”

“Okay,” Natalie said.

“I can’t get into that stuff.  I can’t afford to,” I said.

“She does care about you, you know,” Natalie said.  “She might not handle it in the best way, I don’t know the details, but I know that she is smart and caring, and both of those things are magnified when it comes to you.”

I stared at her.  My first thought was that I wanted to strangle her, because of the frustration I felt even before what I’d just said, her going against it, and how she seemed to not get it at all.  Even with an absent parent?  I wondered if it was something wholly different, like a parent that had left and cut contact of their own volition, rather than a parent that she’d cut herself off from.

My second thought was to tell Natalie what my mother had done, and to hope she understood.  Even if I knew it would blow things up, cause chaos, screw up Natalie’s relationship with a superior.

I could see the worry on her forehead, as she looked at me.  In that look, I could see that I was the bad guy here.  I was the one Natalie thought she had to worry about, and my mother was the smart, capable, caring professional.

Anything I did in reaction to this would only make me seem more unreasonable.

“Thank you for meeting with me,” I said, pushing the emotion back, doing my best to sound normal.  “Are phone payments okay?”

“They are,” Natalie said.

I took a minute to get everything sorted out, glad to have something to focus on, then tapped my phone against hers.

Sixty dollars out of my account.  A glance at the screen verified my account standing.  I had two hundred for rent to Crystal, seventy five for utilities.  Even before any possible temp jobs in costume, I had enough to get through next month, two or three more meetings with Natalie or even fewer with anyone we replaced her with.  Natalie was cheap and willing and I didn’t disagree with her non-family related advice.  It made sense.

“Thank you,” she said.  “And thank you for lunch.”

“I’ll see you later,” I said.

She was the pawn, not the problem.  My mother had chosen her for a reason.  A play of a sort, possibly unintentional or automatic.  It wasn’t a play my mom had made because she was a mastermind, natural or otherwise.  It was just how she was, how she navigated people.  Everyone close to her had had to learn how to deal with it.

The tragedy was that as much as it was a conscious or unconscious bid for a reconnection with me, it would achieve the opposite.

I put my music on, and walked to the nearest bit of park so I could take off without causing too much of a commotion.

I let myself into the headquarters.  I was secretly glad to find I wasn’t the first person in, seeing Kenzie at the desk, wearing the same clothes from yesterday.

As that fleeting sentiment passed, I was alarmed, seeing Kenzie at the desk, wearing the same clothes from yesterday.

“Kenzie?” I asked.

“Oh!” I heard her speak, though she didn’t move.  Kenzie-at-the-desk winked out of existence.

“…Kenzie?” I tried again.

“I’m on my way!” she said, through the computer speaker.  “I was hooked in by phone and forgot I had a virtual me set up to appear if I called.  It’s only half done.  I’ll be there soon!  How are you?”

“Don’t dive too deep into the team stuff or tinkertech, Kenzie,” I said.  “Take a break, turn off your brain every once in a while.”

“I turn off my brain by tinkering,” she said.  “It’s like how on some computers you can push the number so high it goes back to zero, except it’s brain activity.”

“Kenzie,” I said.  “Put the phone away.  Close your eyes.  Don’t fuss about things.”


“Is there an emergency?”


“Then hang up, put the phone away, close your eyes, and don’t worry.  Everyone’s coming, we’ll tackle some things, compare notes, and all will be good.”


“Bye Kenzie.  See you soon.”

“In… twelve minutes.  About.  And Rain is coming, but he’s going to be later.  He’ll arrive in-”

“Hang up the phone,” I said.  “Or I’m going to start unplugging things at random.”

“Bye then.”

I didn’t respond, because it was apparent that Kenzie had to get the last word.  The ambient noise came through the phone for another few seconds before she hung up.  The cube to the right of her desk went dark.

It was strange to be in the space when the others had yet to arrive.  Normally, my focus was on the task at hand, here.  I wanted to be the rock, unmovable, in case others needed to reach out.  It was hard to be that with Natalie’s words in my mind and the room empty.

The whiteboards were people’s thoughts encapsulated.  Mine was numbers to call, things to do, a rough timeline of events, with the next being Auzure’s call to Cedar Point.  They were Houndstooth’s recommendation.  I added notes about the hack.

Kenzie had her costume notes, tinker notes, some drawings in erasable marker of her face, a circle with large eyes, a kiss-shaped mouth, and two buns, and various hearts and stars.  She had two boards, one mounted on the wall behind the one with two legs and four wheels, and the tinker notes spilled out from the side of the one in front to the one in the back.  So did the stars and hearts, for that matter.

Chris’ was at the other end, opposite her desk.  I walked over to it, glancing at the others on the way.  There were some names written down, but most had been erased.

Zoological or Zoologic?
Hodgepodge or Hodge?  Podge?

Note to self: bring books for Rain

All written in the bottom left corner.  ‘Chris’ was in the top right corner, the ‘h’ smudged where a sleeve had rubbed up against it mid-write.

Ashley’s board was empty, except for a very elaborate, stylized rendition of her name.  Kenzie had found some fonts and displayed them on the whiteboard for tracing.  Ashley had okayed this one.

Just ‘Ashley’.  Nothing else figured out.

Rain had two boards, like Kenzie.  One on wheels, another on the wall behind.  Unlike Kenzie, they weren’t even remotely organized by topic.  Snag, Love Lost, Cradle, ‘5’, known acquaintances, tinker hands, contact pads, timeline for Snag’s operations, known places the cluster had been with lines drawn to names of acquaintances, name ideas with ‘handbreak’ crossed out because Tristan had apparently vetoed it, a crude calendar with the names of cluster members filling in blanks, Love Lost due tonight… and so on.

Just red marker and some brown, presumably to put in different words in gaps yet keep them distinct.  Or because Kenzie had stolen the red marker to draw hearts.

Tristan’s was next to Rain’s, and Tristan’s was mostly devoted to team name ideas, room layouts, broader organization and schedule, and some minor notes on money spent.  Byron hadn’t really showed up in the hideout, but Tristan had still devoted a quarter of the board to him.  A list of movies.  Aimed at letting Byron maintain a degree of communication with Chris and Rain, it seemed, from the comments on the side.

Sveta was taken up by a mix of art and names.  She’d written out names not in a list, but as solitary words.  Images had been drawn around them.  Beneath ‘Moor’, a girl’s hair, wavy, with a fish head poking out to the right from between the two curtains of hair.  It was very detailed for art on a whiteboard, with each scale getting a texture.  Above ‘Lash’ was a feminine figure in stark black lines with back arched, head back, and breasts pointed skyward, the breasts so pointed they could have been used for Kenzie’s geometry homework.  To the right of ‘Cirrus’ was a face drawn out in lines, frowning.  ‘Berth’ was sitting in the bottom right corner in tiny text.  The image was so small it was barely legible.  It might have been Sveta’s rendition of herself, potato-shaped with arms and legs flailing.  A line was drawn between its head and the word ‘no’, a speech bubble without the bubble.

I felt oddly fond at seeing it.  That kind of mental working was inexplicable to me, but I liked seeing the hints of it.

After Sveta was my whiteboard, neatly organized, then Kenzie’s two, which I’d already noted.

I wanted to help them.

No.  The boards didn’t convey it, the boards were things as they should be, even, but they needed help.

On so many levels, they needed help.

The by-proxy interaction with my mother had affected my mood.  Natalie’s words and concerns had too, but it was hard to know how many of those were my mother’s and how many were her.

The concern, with emphasis on the word like I could remember Ashley doing…  Even after I’d been hurt by the Nine, had worse done to me by my sister, and gone to the hospital, I couldn’t remember my mother ever expressing concern for my activities as a cape.  If such was expressed in Natalie’s expression and words, then I could believe it was Natalie’s.

Concern for what I was doing, the path I was walking?  I could see it being my mother’s, through Natalie-as-proxy.

It made me sad and angry and frustrated all at the same time, and I didn’t have any outlets for that.  The punching bag hadn’t yet arrived and been set up, and I wasn’t about to throw myself at the villains.  Not that I wanted to operate that way.

The villains were so simple, so easy.  Cedar point.  Bad guy central.  I was supposed to dislike what they did and I did dislike it.  I didn’t see anything redeeming in them, I had the power to stop them, and I wholly planned to.  If I could mess with Tattletale in the process?  Bad guy, I was supposed to dislike her, she’d done little that redeemed her, and it was personal, besides?  Yeah.  Fuck yes.  But I’d do it smart, not by impulse.

Others… not so easy.  My dad.  Gilpatrick.  Mrs. Yamada, even.  They were the good guys and they hadn’t handled things perfectly.  I felt varying degrees of heartbreak because of them but I couldn’t blame them.  Not easy.

My life was filled with people I wanted to get angry at and couldn’t, because they were fundamentally broken and flawed.  My mother.  My sister.  Amelia.  Amy.  I’d said her name and thought about her for ten lifetimes’ worth, in just the span of two years.  I felt vaguely ill that I was doing so now, even if it was for the sake of doing as Natalie had asked me to.

The only thing I hated more than being victim to other people’s emotional impulses and fucked-upness was when those other people were so close to me that it all came down on my head.  The furthest thing from easy.

The door opened, interrupting my thoughts.  I turned my head to see.

Sveta and Ashley.  Tristan absent, even though he would normally catch the same train.

“Hi,” I said.

“What are you doing standing in the dark?  At least turn the lights on,” Sveta chided me.

“There’s more than enough light from the windows,” I said.  “It’s bright out.”

“I’d expect that behavior from Ashley, not you,” Sveta said.

“Sounds right,” Ashley said.

Sveta flicked the switch, looking up as the lights took their time coming on.  It made me think of my mom.  Turning on the lights, even when not strictly necessary.  I could remember visiting friend’s houses and feeling like something was odd when other parents didn’t do it.

“What are you doing?” Sveta asked.


“Uh oh.”

“Constructive thinking.  I think.  I hope.  Had a chat with Natalie.”

“Uh oh,” Sveta said, again, as she sidled up to me.

I gave her a light push.  She smiled, righted herself, and half-stepped, half-stumbled right next to me.  She gave me a hug from behind, setting her chin on my shoulder.

Familiar sensation, there, in an eerie not-familiar way.

“Tristan’s walking the sprogs,” Sveta said.  “Rain’s late.”

“Kenzie mentioned,” I said.  “The second part.  Sprogs?”

“Chris and Kenzie.  I thought it was clever.”

“It was.”

She nodded, head moving against my shoulder.  “You’re looking at the boards?”

I gestured in the direction of the whiteboards.  “Natalie wants to know our mission statement, so she can fine-tune her advice.  She wanted a lot of things, some harder to put into words than others.  I’m looking at the whiteboards, trying to figure out what the thread is and how I can help.”

“Your board is empty, Ashley,” Sveta said.


“Are you going to call yourself Damsel of Distress?” I asked.  “For that matter, what are you doing, costume-wise?”

“If you’re going to tell me not to wear a dress while I’m out with you all, you can fuck off,” Ashley said.

“Not wearing a dress could help with the Manton issues.  You’re more likely to use your power to blow up the edge of a flapping dress than the part that hugs your body.”

“You can fuck off,” she said, again.

“Ashley likes dresses,” Sveta said.  “We’ve had conversations about it.  She thinks I should wear some, and I’ve had to repeatedly reinforce that I don’t have the legs for it, because I don’t have legs.”

“They multiply a lady’s grace,” Ashley said.

“You can’t exaggerate a negative,” Sveta said.

“You’re attached to the image,” I observed.

“Obviously,” Ashley said, turning to face me.

She was attached to just that image.  I wasn’t sure if she had multiple versions of the same dress, but she didn’t change things up much.  She had, however, bought the new dress in Cedar Point, and we’d seen on camera as she considered nail polish.

She wanted to change, maybe.  But… how long had she stuck to this style?  I’d fancied taking Sveta shopping, but now I was intrigued by this puzzle.

“It’s a shame you damage your dresses,” I said.  I indicated the hem of her dress.  “Are you learning to tailor or do you hire someone?”

“I’m studying it.  Saves me money.”

“Okay, so… I have a bit of a crazy idea,” I said.

She narrowed her eyes.

“Bear with me,” I said.

“Bear with her,” Sveta said.  “Victoria knows fashion.”

“You’re leading up to this like you know I’ll hate it.”

I nodded.

“Out with it, then,” Ashley said.

“Hair,” I said.

“No,” was the response, without a beat missed.

“I can’t promise it would work, but hair can confuse the Manton effect.  It might be that the power gets confused because it’s a part of your identity and a part of you, but it’s not alive either.  There are parahumans who impregnate their costumes with hair to make them resistant to their own powers.  There are some who have costumes that are just hair, or mostly hair, but those are pretty scanty, as you can probably imagine.”

“I think I’ve heard of that parahuman,” Sveta said.  When I arched an eyebrow, she said, “The hair impregnation thing.”

“I’m not going to cut it off,” Ashley said.

“That’s fine.  I’m not even sure it would work, and it would be a shame to do it if it didn’t.”

She nodded.

“You could try saving the hairs that come free while you’re sleeping or brushing your hair,” I said.

“How much would I need?” Ashley asked.

“If it did work, you might not even need much.  A strand every quarter-inch or so, along the length, or along the parts that are likely to get clipped by your power.  Maybe a bit more.”

“And it’d be white hairs on a black background,” she said.

“You could, you know, not wear black?” I ventured.

“I like black,” she said.  “It’s elegant.  It works.  The black dress every woman has in her closet for occasions is black for a reason.”

I was actually enjoying myself, because of the puzzle, and because it was my longest interaction with Ashley that hadn’t come to blows.

“Dye it?” Sveta asked.

“Doesn’t work,” Ashley said.  “I have natural silver-blonde hair, but I use my power-”

She put her hand to the side of her head and used her power.  I stepped back, stumbled into Sveta, then reached out to help her catch her balance.

Ashley’s hair settled back into place.  Her pupils took a long few seconds to reappear.

The door swung open.  It was Tristan, looking alarmed.

“We good,” Sveta said.

“My eyes and hair lose their color,” Ashley said, in a non-sequitur for Tristan.

“You’d lose the dye,” I said.  “Probably.”

Kenzie and Chris appeared behind Tristan.  He let them in.

“What happened?” Chris asked.

“Talking fashion,” Sveta offered.

“Which involves reality-shattering explosions, naturally,” Chris said.  He grinned.

He was wearing a newer t-shirt, with a gorn-metal band’s album cover on the front.   Not my style.  He was broader around the middle, but I diplomatically avoided mentioning it.

“You’re taller,” I observed.

“One and a half inches taller,” Chris said.

“He went with the indulgence thing yesterday,” Tristan said.

“Yeah,” Chris said.  “I knew there was a risk I might be useless for the day, putting myself in a state where I just sit around, eat, play games.  So I fucked off.  I’ll hit anxiety a few times in the next while, but I’ll make it mad twitchiness so there’s some more motive behind it, instead of it being paralyzing.  That’ll be fun.”

“That sounds like you’re going overboard.  Shouldn’t you be balancing things out?” I asked.

“Shouldn’t you be minding your own business?” Chris asked.  “Go talk fashion.  I’m fine.”

He walked over to his corner, near where his whiteboard was.  Kenzie moved to follow, and Chris turned around, reached out to grab her by the shoulders, and turned her to face us, before going back on his way, to his whiteboard.

“Fashion,” Tristan said.  “Okay.  We’ve got some stylish and artsy people here.  I’m not so up there on girl-fashion, but I’ll contribute what I can.”

“Ashley is married to this look,” I said.

“Married is the wrong word,” Ashley said.

“How would you put it?” Sveta asked.

“A long time ago, when I was still finding my way, I didn’t even have the clothes on my back, not intact ones.  I had no friends, no family, and law enforcement was after me.  I had nothing.  I spent a lot of time thinking about who and what I wanted to be.  Characters I liked, clothes I liked, people I’d thought were elegant and imposing.  I found this.  I built this,” Ashley said.

What had her role models been, for aesthetics?  Cartoon movie villains?  Evil sorceresses and witches?

“When you had nothing, you found this, and you want to hold onto that,” Sveta said.  “I can understand that.  I hold onto things that were important to me once.”

“Like Weld,” Kenzie said.

“Among others,” Sveta said, giving me more of a hug.

“I don’t want to hold onto anything,” Ashley said.  “I am that.  People spend their entire lives trying to find the right image for themselves and I found it when I was Kenzie’s age.”

“I don’t think you’re going to win this one, Victoria,” Tristan said.

“Theoretically speaking,” I started.

“Alright.  I’m getting out of the line of fire,” Tristan said.

“Don’t be mean,” Kenzie said.

“Call with Auzure in a short bit.  Rain might miss it,” Tristan said.

Theoretically speaking… can I put something out there?” I asked.

“Can I stop you?” Ashley asked.

“Tell me to and I’ll stop right here.  You can do your thing.”

Sveta rocked her head left and right on my shoulder, chin digging in, until I shrugged her off.  Ashley considered.

“Theoretically,” Ashley said.

“Theoretically,” I picked up the prompt, “You’re going to be a hero.  You have a crystal clear image of what you’ll look like as a villain.  Your every expectation is that you’ll stop being a hero at one point and return to villainy.”

“That’s not theory.  That’s fact.”

“But what is theory is… what if, to avoid your hero self and villain self getting mixed up, you tried something different, in the here and now?  It keeps your villain persona distinct.”

Ashley folded her arms.

“Different how?  I get the impression you have something in mind,” Sveta said.

“Pshht!” Ashley made the sound, shushing Sveta.

“Don’t pshht me.”

“What if, theoretically,” I said, “You cut off the hair?  White hair for a white costume.  You can still do something with black accents here and there, but we can go more… white goth.  Or something in that vein.”

“I’m not goth,” Ashley said.  “And I’m not cutting my hair.”

“Theoret-” I started.

I saw her expression change.

More seriously, I said, “You cutting your hair could be a commitment.  You could go back to being the long-haired villainess, but only after a period of time.  You’d be locking yourself into being a hero in the meantime.”

“A hair-based time commitment,” Sveta said.

“There’s no reason to do it,” Ashley said.  “To preserve my costume?  For that minor gain, I’m supposed to risk looking like a simpleton?  No.”

“What kind of black accents?” Kenzie asked.

“No,” Ashley said.

“Black around the eyes, like heavy eyeliner, maybe decoration in the hair, or as part of the mask, something to frame the edges of sleeves and dress.”

Kenzie went still.  She gave Ashley a sidelong glance.

“What?” Ashley asked.

“Back before Mrs. Yamada told me I wasn’t supposed to give anyone a birthday present, I was thinking about what to get you.”

“If Mrs. Yamada said no, then there’s probably a reason,” I said.

“The group was new and Ashley and I were only just starting to talk, so it would’ve been weird, I think.  It wouldn’t be for just Ashley either, it’d be for the group.”

“Spit it out,” Ashley said.

“Eyes,” Kenzie said.  “I can put these things in your mask and it would project over your eyes.  We could have you wear a white costume, and then there would be bits that are black, and then we could make your eyes totally, one hundred percent black, or totally white.”

“Hold up,” I said.

Kenzie turned my way.

“When you say something like ‘I can make this’, I have to ask… how easily?”

“Super easily.  A few hours easy,” Kenzie said.  When I didn’t shut her down, she turned to Ashley, “We could have it so smoke comes off of your eyes and trails behind you as you walk.  or blurry light, like when you wave a sparkler in the dark, or particles, like shapes, or blurs like your power makes, or-”

Ashley put a hand on top of Kenzie’s head.  Kenzie stopped talking.

“Do you want to?  Do you like it?”

“If I went to buy you a gift, to balance it out, so it was equal, what would you want?”

“Went?  I don’t want you to go anywhere.”

“I meant some other time.”

“No gift,” Kenzie said.  “Hang out.  Talk with me.  Come on, we can use your whiteboard.  We’ll talk and take notes, and figure out what your costume might be.  Let me search for things on my phone-”

Kenzie took Ashley’s hand and led her to the whiteboard, tugging her along.  Ashley didn’t object too much along the way.

Near Kenzie’s computers, Tristan had his arms folded, his eyebrow raised.  Sveta had her head cocked to one side as she studied me.  Chris was dumping his bag out on his little table.

“She’s not hard to figure out or anything,” I said, quiet enough that only Sveta would hear me.  “At one point she said we were pretty similar people.”

“That leaves me with way more questions than answers,” Sveta said.

Tristan called out, “Don’t get too into it, you two!  We’re listening in on the call with Auzure soon!”

Ashley raised a hand, waving him off.  Kenzie was just nonstop background chatter now.

“What are you thinking?” Sveta asked.  “You’re introspective today.”

“Extraspective, right this moment,” I said.  “Thinking about the big picture.”

“Think out loud.”

I shrugged.  “The team.  How it fits together.  How I fit into it.”

“A bit of introspection then.”

“No, not exactly,” I said, the thought clarifying as I said it.  “How’s Weld doing?”

“If he could get tired he’d be dog tired.  I need to have a talk with him soon, before things get to a point where I don’t see him ever,” Sveta said.  “I hate to add anything to his plate, but I have to be assertive.”

“I’m glad you have him,” I said.

Sveta smiled.  “I’m glad I have him too.  Even if he’s tired and gone most of the time.  Why are you asking about him?”

“When Jessica- When Mrs. Yamada asked me to sit in with the group and help out.  She asked Weld first, didn’t she?”

“Ah, you caught that,” Sveta said.  The smile disappeared.  “I’m sorry.  I wasn’t sure if you did, and I didn’t want to risk hurting your feelings.”

“Was I second choice?” I asked.

“I don’t think so.  Sorry, I don’t know for sure, but Weld was asked and he said no, but he said he’d be free a little while after.  She could have waited and had Weld sit in, but she chose you.”

“And she seemed okay, almost relieved, at me doing this,” I said.

“As okay as she is with any of this,” Sveta said.

The display on the wall lit up.  The trill of the phone filled the room.

“They’re calling us first,” Tristan said.  “Everyone come.  Seems like Rain is going to miss this.  Sucks.”

We gathered at the desk.

“We need something to call you,” the woman’s voice on the other line said.  “Dido speaking, with Auzure.”

“Dido, this is Capricorn.  You’re on speaker with most of the rest of the team listening in.  We’re working on the team name.  We’ll have something soon.”

“I wanted to go over the particulars, make sure we do this right.  We’re going to be calling…”

I mostly tuned it out.  Tristan had it handled, and it wasn’t rocket science.  I wasn’t that fond of Auzure, either.

Natalie had asked me what I was doing.

I’d been asked to be here.  I was damaged, and Mrs. Yamada knew it.  Why was I here, then?  Yesterday, I might have said it was so I could provide this kind of direction and guidance.  So I could talk to the lawyer, handle situations like Kenzie’s and Ashley’s, and be a friend to Sveta.

Was I right?  Thinking that Yamada had felt like she’d done her job in putting me here?  Was I overthinking things after my talk with Natalie, paranoia rearing its ugly head again?

“Beautiful,” Dido said.  “Should we conference you in?”

“No,” Tristan said.  “We’ve got a number you can call, it’ll route through to them, and it won’t be as blatant as a conference call.”

“Lovely.  I wondered if I should mention something.  Good to work with people who know what they’re doing.  What number?”

Sveta mouthed the word ‘slimy’ at me.

Water off my back, now.  I’d just dealt with my mom and this was easy by comparison.

Tristan gave the number, and the call was terminated.

He checked his phone.

“Rain wants to know if people are okay with him inviting Erin.  They’re still half an hour away.  She gave him a ride and they stopped along the way.  He says he’s safe, no trouble, but he wants to talk, and he wants her here when he does.”

Tristan’s voice was just a bit tight.

“I have suspicions,” Sveta said.

“I know, I think,” Tristan said.

With that, I felt like the musings crystallized.  I wouldn’t know until I talked to Jessica, but I had more of an idea.  Things made a degree of sense.

“Not here,” I said.

“Hm?” Tristan asked.

“Gut feeling, but we’ll meet him to talk somewhere nearby, as soon as this call is wrapped up and we’ve seen how they respond.  Half an hour should be plenty of time.  But let’s not do it here,” I said.

Previous Chapter                                                                                           Next Chapter