Flare – 2.3

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It was dark as the boy and I stepped outside.  It was a flipping of perspectives, in a way, that the city lights were going out and the tent villages off in the distance were lighting up with lamps and fires.  The city had only a small fraction of the light it might have had in the old world when power rationing wasn’t in effect, only a tenth the normal number of apartments were lit up.  Only the major roads had light, and that meant far less people were driving, which meant less head and tail lights.

It was cool out, not as cold as it had been last night, thankfully.

It was five minutes before Tempera met us at the door.  She looked a little worn out, but then again, she’d gone to the hospital, gone home, come back to the hospital, and she was juggling something with the messy situation she’d talked to me about.

“Hi Victoria.  Hi Sam.”

“Hi,” Sam said.

“On a scale of one to ten, how serious is your friend’s situation?”

“Uh.  Six?  She’s depressed, she’s scared, she doesn’t know how to use her power, and I can’t get near her to help her.  She’s afraid people are going to take her away.”

“How immediate is the situation?  Does she need help in the next five minutes, next hour, today?  Is she or anyone else in danger?”

“She’s alive, but I’d like to get her help soon.  She’s freaking out and I don’t know what to do.”

“I’m only asking like this because it’s an emergency, and since our talk on the phone it’s escalating.  I’m going to take you to the Wardens headquarters, okay?  I’m going that way already, I can walk you through the security and introduce you to some people, and they’ll have ideas on what to do with your friend.  Sound good?”

“Sounds alright.”

“What’s the emergency?” I asked.

“Citizen labor is going nuts.  They’re massing, pulling in some outside help, a lot of other angry and frustrated citizens.  I don’t have the full picture yet, but it’s all hands on deck.  Wardens are coordinating Advance Guard, Foresight, Shepherds, the Attendant and others.  They’re even bringing in the PRTCJ capes, which haven’t exactly been advertised to the public.”

Crystal’s group.  The situation was bad enough to open the can of worms that was capes serving as a military-adjunct force?  In this climate, no less.

Tempera went on, “I and some of the other prospective Wardens are being asked to go with the Wardens proper, to handle things where they’re getting out of control offworld.”

“Offworld?”

“I recommended you, said you’d help, they’ve given a tentative a-ok on that.  Things are expected to blow up when the city wakes up tomorrow, so it’s up to you if you want to help tonight or first thing tomorrow.  I sent you the address?”

“I got it,” I said.

“I should go.  Sam, with me.”

“Good luck,” I said.  “Sorry to pass the ball like this.”

“It’s fine.  Good luck to you too, Victoria.”

I checked my phone, waiting painful minutes for sites to load.

She’d said I could help tonight or tomorrow.  That things would get bad starting tomorrow.

The news sites already had multiple headlines with the word ‘war’ followed by a question mark.  And things were expected to get worse tomorrow?

No, I’d go tonight.

I’d fly, even.  I messaged Crystal.

 

I let myself into Crystal’s apartment through the balcony, using the key Crystal had given me on the sliding glass door.

“I’m here,” I called out.

I was about to step from the living room to the hallway when a red-tinted forcefield appeared across the path, blocking my way.

“One moment!” Crystal called out.

I turned my back to the forcefield and leaned against it, my arms folded.  “Can I talk to you from here?”

“Yep!”

“The headlines are saying war,” I said.  “And you’re being brought in.”

“Could go that way,” Crystal said.  “It’s wonky.  Two sides are butting heads and we’ve got another world that’s pretty upset.”

“I’ve only heard bits and pieces from some others and the news.  Is it a strike?”

“Not a strike.  I’m dressed now, you can come through,” Crystal said.  The forcefield disappeared, and I used flight to keep from falling, turning myself around before walking down the hallway and around the bend to Crystal’s room.

Crystal had already been in costume and with her group when she’d been ordered to get ready and be at the location within half an hour.  She was using the opportunity to help get me organized.  She’d showered while waiting for me, she’d donned her costume, and she was combing wet hair now.

Her costume was white, with her usual symbol on it, the arrow pointing down and to the side, with a stream of lines flowing from the back of the arrow, over one shoulder.  She wore a jacket with it, a near-black gray, given a faint magenta-red tint.  ‘PRTCJ’ was printed on the back in big white letters.  A lone stylized chevron was on the sleeve.

There were things to be said about it, about the militaristic tilt of the group, the way the PRT and the Protectorate had broken in such a way that the Wardens had sprung up from one large chunk of the image, presentation and ideals.  Crystal’s parahuman miltary thing was crudely forged from another chunk of what the PRT had been: the PRT’s old laws, rules, and discipline.  A military-esque force without a government to serve or a hard and fast system of law to back it up.

But it was Crystal’s call.  Crystal’s thing.  I held my tongue.

“My closet,” she said.  “Black trash bags.  Never throwing things away pays off.  It’s one of the sample batches.”

The bags made the clothes easy to find, even in the jam-packed closet.  The contents were hidden within the trash bags, the hooks of the hangers poking up and through.  Crystal indicated the bed, and I laid them out, peeling the plastic back.  White costumes without icons or decoration, a variety of cuts and styles.

It was a familiar range.  Back in the day, companies had periodically reached out to New Wave, wanting to pitch their product and get us to use them for our costuming.  Mom had handled those talks and periodically singled out a family member to send a bunch of proto-costumes to.  Later she would nag us for feedback that she could send the companies.

I didn’t want to think about mom.

I focused on the costumes, with some attention paid to the situation at hand.  The leotard cut was a ‘never ever’.  The full-body suit was problematic because of how it resembled Scion’s, and I didn’t want to go there.  Those were two I could eliminate right away.  I pulled the black trash bags down over them and set them aside.

Crystal explained, “People have been noting how fast we got back on our feet, and how we have something reasonably stable in currency and economy.  We kind of got our answer.”

“Yeah,” I said, before guessing, “powers?”

“I guess powers, probably,” she said.

I turned to look at Crystal.  She was arranging her damp hair over her eye, a curved swoop that her hairband held in place.  “Only probably?”

“This isn’t about powers,” she said.  “But I wouldn’t rule them out.  They helped and they may be part of this.  The key thing is that a lot of the building materials and resources we used to get started came from other worlds.”

“As in our people working in other worlds or-” I paused as Crystal shook her head.  “Or other, alternate civilizations.  Shit.  You don’t get anything of that scale for free.  What did we have to give them in exchange?”

“I have no idea,” Crystal said.  “I don’t think many people do.  There are two major groups heading the reconstruction that might have an idea but they haven’t shared.  One of those groups was the one who put out the trading dollar a few months after Gold Morning, now our de-facto regular dollar.  Same group that’s now looking at moving up into the greater political arena.”

“And those two groups are the ones butting heads?” I asked.

“No, the two construction groups are banding together, kind of.  The workers who have been doing the actual construction work seem to think they were promised a significant discount and first opportunity to buy the houses they’ve been building.  They’ve been living in a tent village, working long weeks, miserable conditions.”

“And if they think they have dibs on the houses, the work must have been a labor of love.  They’ll have a strong community too.  If they didn’t kill each other working that hard in conditions that bad, they must be close.”

“Yes,” Crystal said.  “One second, be right back.”

I glanced over the remaining outfits.  Three more options.  V-neck, long-sleeved, short skirt.  Not bad, but very reminiscent of ‘Glory Girl’.

Round neck, low enough to have a touch of cleavage, short sleeves, and shorts that cut straight across the upper thigh.  If any length were taken from them at all, they wouldn’t qualify as shorts anymore.  Hard to pull off.  I’d need to accessorize it and I wasn’t sure I could afford the time to dig for boots, belt, or other stuff I’d need, and still get filled in.

The last one had a high collar, a kind of truncated turtleneck, it was sleeveless, with leggings that ended in the mid-low calf.  Not bad but not great, and again, I’d need accessories.

Urg.

“The two construction groups are collaborating, banding together, the areas rezoned, contracts reworked.  They say workers signed and agreed, and there are no longer ‘dibs’, as you put it.”

“For something that matters as much as home and shelter, with that many employees, you’d think someone would have read the contract thoroughly enough to figure that out.”

“I have no idea,” Crystal said.

“Sounds like someone’s not being honest.”

“Again, Victoria, I don’t know,” Crystal said, sounding a little exasperated.  “I’m- we’re, if you’re coming, we’re not going there or being invited there to arbitrate or negotiate.  We’re not solving that particular problem.  We’re there to stand between the two sides, keep the peace.”

I glanced at her jacket.  “Just following orders.”

“Following orders, keeping things simple, letting others handle things,” Crystal said.  “Yeah.”

I nodded.  “Okay.”

I picked up the second costume, with the low neck, short sleeves, and short leggings, and held it up against my front.

“Go for it,” she said.  “You definitely need to dress that up.”

“I know,” I said.  “I’m going to go get changed and see if I can find footwear.  If you have a minute, could you find any belts?”

“Utility or regular?”

“Either or.  I like the idea of utility more, I think, for how I think I’ll be dressing up.”

I stepped out of Crystal’s room, pulled the curtain closed by the balcony door and quickly stripped out of my top and the skirt.  I picked both up and put them with my other clothes.

I experienced a brief moment of displaced emotion, as if my head and body were in Crystal’s apartment, and my heart was somewhere in the past.  In an exposed, open area that wasn’t mine, wasn’t comfortable, where someone could happen to step in and see me exposed at any moment.

The latent feeling of the hospital room.  Of being in the care home.

Pulling the costume on helped.  Deep breaths, the pull of the zipper as it closed at my back and pulled material tight against my chest and stomach.  I fixed the legs, checked for bunching and wrinkles, and deemed it satisfactory.  Not perfect in the way a costume made explicitly for me would be, but satisfactory.

I dug in boxes.  I’d packed my things with shoes and boots at the bottom, clothes on top.

“Belts,” Crystal said.  I heard the clatter as the things were tossed onto the couch.  “Masks.  Armband.”

The bag rustled as it bounced off the couch and landed on the floor.  the armband landed on the couch near the belts.  A black band with the Gold Morning symbol on it.

“Good throws,” I said.  Crystal was standing with her back to me.  She’d tossed them over her shoulder.  “You can turn around.”

“Thank you,” she said.  “Don’t spend too much time.  It’s late, it’s dark, people won’t care too much.”

“I won’t.  Where does the other Earth and the war fit into this?” I asked.  I pulled out a pair of white boots.  Shoes meant for a costume might have worked better, but I tended to prefer boots for the fact that they stayed on better with hard landings, kicks, and rough falls.  Fourteen year old Glory Girl had learned that lesson: it was terminally embarrassing to have a petty criminal watch as you flew over to your lost shoe and put it back on.

“The workers called a stop to all work.  They’re holding the houses, equipment, and building materials hostage, with some suggestion they’ll destroy it all before they give up what they’re owed,” Crystal said.  “The last big convoy of materials and trucks were from another Earth, and they’re part of what’s being held hostage.  The delivery folk from Earth-K aren’t budging because they aren’t abandoning their delivery, even though they’ve been told they can go.  The government from United States of K is getting upset because their people aren’t home, That’s where the murmurings of war are coming from.  Workers aren’t conceding anything else, and construction groups aren’t either.”

“And our job is to make sure the stalemate stays stale and mate until people find a resolution,” I said, pulling on the boots.

“Or mitigate the damage if it gets ugly,” Crystal said.

I did up the straps, reached for the belts, all arranged around a metal ring, and found one I was satisfied with almost right away.  Utility-belt style with small pouches.  I tore open the bag of masks.

The masks were ones that were meant to be stuck to the face.  Remove protective tape, stick to face like cosmetic band-aids.  Not my favorite, but I got why they did it when they sent out sample packs.  The glue would wear out quickly, and the real custom masks for long-term wear would then be ordered.  Quality was fine, though.  All in white, again, some with lenses.

I found one that fit around my eyes and covered my eyebrows, with white lenses, and held it up to make sure the white lenses didn’t obscure vision any.  A faint halo when I looked at sources of illumination, but nothing too bad.

“What do you think?” I asked.

“I think you look more like you than I’ve seen you in a long time,” she said.

“Maybe I’m meant to wear a costume,” I said.

“Maybe,” she said.  “But what I meant, cuz, is that from the moment you stepped into my bedroom, well before you put anything on, you looked more focused and grounded in reality than you have in a while.”

I drew in a deep breath, and glanced at the curtains.  Being told I looked better reminded me that I hadn’t looked well before, which reminded me of why I hadn’t looked well, which in turn made me feel less better.

It was easier if I didn’t focus on it.  “Thanks, I guess.”

“Whatever you were doing, I think you should do more of it.”

“I plan to.  But for now, in the interest of time, since your formation is expecting you to hurry back, I just need to know if the mask makes me look like a dork.”

“It’s good,” Crystal said.  She picked up one article of clothing that I’d put aside while digging for my boots.  A plain white sweatshirt.  “To cover up the road rash?”

I looked at my arms.  I still had the raised red marks where I’d tumbled to the road.

“Or maybe not.  It wouldn’t work with your forcefield,” she said.

It would, but I wasn’t about to explain that whole situation.

“No, actually, it could work,” I said.  “Dress up the upper body some.”

She smiled, enthusiastic that I was playing along.  “Exactly!  I was thinking we could stick a quick heat-transfer design on this.”

The sweatshirt as part of my costume?  It would be playing into that trend of working normal clothes into costumes.  Fume Hood’s group had been big on that.  A few of the villains in Lord of Loss’ group had, too, but some of that might have been them trying to fly under the radar before launching their plan.

The most significant trends in fashion and style were often a symptom of external factors.  It was hard to get good costumes with where things were at.  There was a desire, too, to appear more down to earth, to connect to the people, when sentiment was where it was at.

“Sure,” I said.  I smiled.  “That could work.”

“Question is, do you trust me to do it?” she asked, raising one hand and producing a fan of lasers from her fingertips, shooting at a forcefield she’d created.  “Or do you want to wait for the iron to get hot?”

The battle lines were drawn, so to speak.  At least it was quiet here, the forces gathering in anticipation of the coming day.  At the center of this particular battlefield was a single tall building, lit from bottom floor to top, even in the evening, with the power rationing being what it was.

The masses of construction workers had clustered in groups, the largest mass of them arranged around three sides of the building, kept on the far side of the street by the emergency services and the capes.  Surrounding one of the construction company’s headquarters.

Lights on poles, the lighting of the news crews talking to some key individuals, and the lights the workers were carrying served to illuminate that crowd.

From the bird’s eye view, we could see some of the construction sites around the area, each roughly illuminated by the lights within, that light contained by the fencing that surrounded each building in progress.  Construction vehicles, people, and collections of things cast long shadows with the lights set where they were.  Most had lookouts posted, keeping an eye out for trouble.  A couple of those lookouts turned lights our way as we flew.

Laserdream and I touched ground.

“I’ve missed flying with you,” she said.

I smiled.  My emotions were complicated enough in the moment that I didn’t want to say anything.  I didn’t trust my tone of voice or the words I might choose.

Easier to stick to the shallow, surface response.  It was nice to be around my cousin, nice that she was happy.

We walked down the length of the street, the building on one side, the crowd of workers on the other.  Walking helped to get my blood pumping and my body warmed up, where flying felt like it had frozen my blood and chilled me.  My hands were cold, and I kept them jammed in the pockets of my sweatshirt.

“Laserdream.  You’re cutting it close in getting back in a timely manner.  Who’s this?” a cape in a jacket asked.  He was a heavy guy with a very clean face, a gently curved visor covering his eyes and nose.

“Family,” Laserdream said.  “There was a call for more help, she was invited by someone named, uh…”

“Tempera,” I said.

“Tempera.  Right.  We’re paying for the extra hands on deck?”

“We are,” the man said.  “It’s not a lot.”

“That’s fine,” I said.

He looked skeptical.

“I can second the recommendation if it matters,” Laserdream said.

“It helps,” the guy said.  “If she causes trouble, you know it’s your ass in the fire.”

“Understood, sir,” she said.  “I’ve been doing patrols with her since before I could drive.  I’d trust her with my life.  I’m optimistic my ass will remain room temperature.”

“Don’t get smart.  I don’t want her with the formation.  If she wants in, she needs to apply and train.”

“She doesn’t-” Laserdream said, at the same time I said, “I don’t-”

Laserdream ceded to me.

“No disrespect intended,” I said.  “That isn’t for me.  But I get the gist of the situation, I’ll help keep the peace, I’ll follow any orders.”

“You going to be alright if I send you out to help fill in the gaps at the flanks?”

“It’s why I’m here,” I said.

“South side of the building,” he said, pointing.  “Stand on the dotted line, try not to stare down the crowd or antagonize them.  Be gentle if they get rowdy.”

“Can do,” I said.

“Should be quiet tonight,” he said.  He turned to Laserdream as he said it, but glanced at me.  Including us both in the statement.  “This is one of three locations.  The big demonstrations are supposed to start tomorrow, at another location.  Tonight they’re mainly interested in holding their ground and organizing themselves.  Holding a vigil, giving cameras something to record.  Would be nice if they got over it or got bored before things get started tomorrow, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

That would be why Tempera had said I could call in the morning.  The workers wanted time and media attention to give their side some weight before they really took action.

“Get yourself in position.  I’ll send someone your way with some cups of coffee in a short while.”

“Alright,” I said.

The parahumans along the road to the south of the building were spaced out along the painted divider in the center of the street.  One parahuman every fifteen or so feet.  There were no barricades, only the lights on tripods, connected to battery packs, helping to illuminate most of the road.  The ambient light from nearby buildings contributed.

The crowd was noisy, but it was a low, constant noise.  Talk, conversation, the occasional raised voice.  There wasn’t a car to be seen on the street.

I could remember what had happened to Fume Hood.  I closed my eyes for a moment, and I put my forcefield up, leaving it up.  It made me uncomfortable, but a bullet would be even worse on that score.

The capes down the street to my left were all wearing Advance Guard icons on their sleeves and costumes.  The stylized man bearing the ‘greater-than’ shaped shield, charging forward.  The color of the icon changed, depending on the costume’s color scheme, but it was always such that it stood out, yellow on a red and orange costume, or purple on a blue-green one.  The thick bold lines of the icon’s design tended to flow into the cape’s individual icon or the rest of the costume, the shield’s lines or the diamond-shaped frame of the icon joining the line running down the seam of the sleeve or the lines running across the chest.

“Who are you with?” the guy standing to my left asked.  He had a face plate, with the thick bold lines and angular edges that Advance Guard tended to have, and the ‘ears’ of the plate swept back to cover his ears, giving them a pointed, elfin cast.  His bodysuit was designed to accent his slim frame, a two -piece jacket and legging combo, with a very pronounced zig-zag at the waist where the upper body met the lower body.  There was a slight curl at the toes.

“I’m independent,” I said.  “For now.”

“We’re Advance Guard,” he said.  “I’m Spright.”

“I’m between names,” I said.  “And between costumes.  Don’t judge me too harshly.”

“Can I see the emblem?”

“Just a design, not an emblem,” I said, turning my back to him to show him the rush job we’d managed with the heat-transferred image, my sweatshirt lightly singed in places.  It was a circle with lines intersecting it, almost like a sun, but with the lines running into the circle.  The image was offset, so the lines were shorter to the left and top of the image.  Crystal’s idea and design, and I’d had no objection.

“Between teams, between names, between costumes?”

“More or less sums it up,” I said.  “If you need to call me anything, you can call me Victoria.”

“I’m honored, Victoria,” Spright said, bowing slightly.  “I’m glad for the company.  We might be here for a while.”

“We probably will,” I said.

“I see you’ve got the armband.  You’ve been around for at least a few years. Do you have any war stories you can share?”

“Yes, a good few,” I said.  And a lot I wouldn’t share.

“You’re experienced, huh?”

“A few years under my belt.  A few years of semi-retirement.”

“I can tell you I’m very experienced,” he said, with a bit of humor in his voice.

I looked at him, one eyebrow arched.

“I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours,” he said.

“Is that how we’re doing this?”

“Could be,” he said.  “What I’m offering is long and thoroughly satisfying.  Are you game?”

“Wow,” I said.  I smiled despite myself, looking over the crowd instead of at Spright.  “When they said Advance Guard rushes into things, they weren’t lying.”

“Once you get me going, I go all night.  I might as well get started early.”

“With an audience, though?”

“I’ve got nothing to hide.  I’d say they could join in, but I think that would get a little hectic.”

“It might just,” I said.  “Would be nice to steer clear of hectic for a while.”

“I very much agree, Victoria Between-things,” Spright said.  “You have to find a good fit, strike the right rhythm, the right pace.  Once you’re comfortable, you might be able to vary it up some.”

The woman standing to the left of Spright said something that sounded an awful lot like, “Oh my god, Spright.”

I checked, but it didn’t look like the people on the sidewalk heard us.  The buzz of conversation seemed to drown out our voices.

“Is he always like this?” I asked, raising my voice a bit.

“Yes,” Spright said.

“No,” she said.  “I dare say you’ve inspired him.  Unfortunately.”

Spright sounded almost energized by his teammate’s exasperation.  “I’m intrigued more than inspired.  I’d love to indulge in your, ahem, stories, Victoria with the stylish icon.”

“It’s not that great an icon,” I said.  “Nice try, though.  I appreciate it.”

“I wanted to work in the flattery somehow.  There’s no shortage of things I could say, by the way, and I’m not messing around when I say that.  I chose the icon because I do like it, and because when you say something nice about something like a girl’s hair or something else about their appearance, you tend to get that kneejerk resistance.”

“You do,” I said.  For me, it’s for reasons other than the usual.  It was a shame, but his moment of frankness had brought things home again.  My tone of voice was audibly different even to myself as I said, “I’m flattered, Spright, really.”

“Aw darn.  But?”

“But while I’d be happy to share a few stories, I’m not up for the other stuff you’re driving for.  It’s just not where I’m at.  Wouldn’t be fair to you.  I’ve gotta figure myself out some, first.”

“I can respect that,” he said.

“Thank you,” I said.  “I appreciate the wit.  You were pretty snappy with some of that.”

“Thanks for letting me try, I-” Spright stopped as the woman standing to his left made a sound effect with her mouth.  I didn’t hear the preceding sound, but I heard her make a sound like a small crash with her mouth.  Spright switched tacks to say, “I’ll throw things at you, Tandem.”

The woman laughed.

A moment later, another person joined us.  A ripple in the road, and he appeared almost instantly out of the gloom.  The cape I’d met early in the day the community center had been attacked, with the blades jutting from his costume.

He looked at me, sizing me up.

“Hi,” I said.

“Mmh,” he made a sound, not really a response.  “Hey, Spright, swap places with me for a bit.”

The ‘mmh’ bugged me.  “I’m enjoying his company.”

“She’s enjoying my company, Shortcut,” Spright said.  “It’s a good night.”

“It’s going to be a long night,” Shortcut said.  “I think I know her from the other day.”

He paused, glancing back at me.

“Yeah,” I said.

Shortcut turned back to talk to Spright, then paused, glancing back at me.  “What’s that sound?”

I listened, and I heard it.  Scratching.

Without trying to look too much like I was looking down, I looked down.  My forcefield, invisible to everyone present, was scratching at the road.

I took flight, lifting myself up enough that the arms couldn’t reach the ground.  About eight feet up.  From the angle, as I saw the light hit the road at a different angle, I could see the shallow gouges.

The good humor from earlier was spoiled a little at that.

“Everything okay?” Spright asked.

“Yeah, just restless, bit of power quirkery,” I said.  I realized the crowd had noticed me take flight, and the conversation had quieted a bit.

It was mildly surprising that, Spright’s flirting aside, nobody in a large collection of construction employees had called out to me.

I tested my luck, and used the opportunity to call out, “You guys doing okay!?”

“Bit cool out!” someone called back.

“Yeah!” I called back.  “Better than the alternative, isn’t it?”

That got me a fairly mixed response.

“Shoulder to shoulder in the heat, stinking of sweat?  You don’t want that!”

“We’re used to the smell of sweat, hon!” a woman called out.  There were murmurs of agreement.

“Take care of yourselves, okay?”

There were a few murmured and unintelligible responses, but a more emotional cry of, “Give us our homes and we’ll be just fucking fine!” stood out.  Some heads turned in that direction.

“It’s not up to us,” I said.  “Save that energy for tomorrow, alright?  We’re here to keep you safe and keep them safe.”

There were a few mumbled replies.

“Doesn’t help,” Shortcut said.

“I dunno,” I said.  “Letting them know we’re not against them, we care about their well being?  Reaching out and talking can’t hurt, can it?”

“I guess that’s why I’m here,” Shortcut said.

I looked his way.

“Reaching out and talking,” he said.  “I just wanted to make sure there’s no hard feelings.”

“About you not getting into Advance Guard.”

I’d emailed, they’d sent a reply a couple of hours later saying no.

“I didn’t devote a lot of thought to it,” I said.  “Sucks, but you guys have to do what you have to do.  And so does everyone else, apparently.  I’ll figure something out.”

“They didn’t tell you it was me?”

“No,” I said.  I frowned.

“I told them to tell you no and to tell you it was me, and why.”

“Alright,” I said.  “They just told me no.”

“Well fuck that.  I thought you needed to know, what you did back there, it was shitty.”

“Beg pardon?”

“I realized after your face came up on some of the events about the Norfair community center incident.  You went up against Lord of Loss?”

“I don’t see what the issue is,” I said.

“You happen to beat me to the scene, and then you use your secret identity, condescension and anti-parahuman shit to take me down a notch?  And then you want a place on Advance Guard?”

“I happened to be there.  I’m sorry, it was not my intention to come across that way.”  I tried to help you out some.

“Yeah,” he said.  “Right.  I can guess what your intentions were.”

I was pretty darn confident my handling of the situation had been alright.  I was inclined to chalk this one up to the guy having a screw loose or a few bundled up issues.  It still bothered me, and it bothered me more that a nice conversation had been interrupted, and now this guy was apparently intent on keeping me company for the night, telling me how I was responsible for his problems and issues.

I pursed my lips, doing my best to filter what he was saying, tuning out what I could and responding where necessary, so he wouldn’t add me ignoring him to his list of grievances.  He was talking about the community center now.

Voices were raised, a few shouts, both from capes at one of the other streets, and by people in the crowd.  Phones were out.

It was almost a welcome interruption, in that solitary moment between the initial commotion and when I realized that it meant people were hurt.

I rotated myself in the air, looking, trying to figure out what had happened.  I saw Crystal coming, and flew to meet her.

“Come!” she shouted, barely pausing as she flew.  I joined her, wavering as air ripped past my forcefield, lopsided in a way I couldn’t quite detect, moving.

I disabled the forcefield, and in the doing, I could fly straighter, but I flew against cold wind, unprotected.

Crystal didn’t explain.  It was left for me to see.

Our site had been quiet.  At least one of the other places workers were congregating wasn’t.  People were more spread out, and I suspected from their arrangement that some had crossed the street, approaching the building.  There were more emergency vehicles, more capes, and there was a large clearing in the center of the crowd.

Eight people were gathered toward the center of that clearing, with more scattered across the more open area.  Among them, several had eyes that glowed, or glows emanating from their mouths.  Shapes I couldn’t quite make out moved around them.  A power at work, like the outline of something that glowed slightly in the dark, too abstract to make out.

I watched as two people broke from the edge of the clearing and ran toward the center group.  A man and a woman, holding hands.

It hit me like a blow to the head.  An image in my mind’s eye, a feeling, a sense of something greater.  Forgotten in the same instant it occurred.  I dropped out of the air, and I caught myself a moment later.  Crystal did much the same.

“Get back!” someone hollered.

A megaphone blared, “Get away from the center!”

The eight people were sixteen now, including the two that had run toward the center and some of the people that hadn’t retreated to the clearing’s edge.  Eyes glowed, powers wreathed a few hands.  A spike of power-generated material was stabbing skyward in front of a woman.  A man had fallen to his knees, arms spread, and the ground was rippling around them.

People didn’t get away from the center.  Realizing what was happening, or thinking they knew what was happening, others dashed toward the group, joining it.

“Get back,” Crystal said.  “If we get knocked out-”

I retreated, looking for where the defending capes were.  Lit by flashing, noiseless sirens, the capes were clustered not far from the building.  They were getting organized.

“It’s a broken trigger,” I said.

“Is it?” Crystal asked.

I flew straight for the heroes on scene.  I didn’t get the chance to hear two words out of the leader’s mouth before we were hit again.  Every one of us winced and reacted as it hit us.  Too brief to be a trigger vision, incomplete, fractured, it still made itself felt.

The sixteen had become thirty-two.

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Flare – 2.2

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There was something to be said about the fact that the hospital was still in construction while it was running.  There were patients in the waiting room, sitting in the chairs that had been bolted to the floor, and the unhappiness of needing a hospital visit was compounded by the fact that a third of the way across the room, behind a plastic sheet that had been taped to walls, ceiling and floor, a team was using power tools and calling out in loud voices as they built the rest of the room.

The hospital staff looked pretty miserable too, most of them sequestered on the other side of a counter, walled off from the patients by a plexiglass window.  Security guards stood off to one side.

“Can I help you?” a secretary asked.

“I was wondering if it was possible for me to see a patient?”

“Visiting hours are open.  Patient’s name?”

“Fume Hood.  I don’t know her real name.”

The secretary stopped, then looked at the male secretary, who sat at the other end of the counter.  She looked past him at the security guard.

Of course.

“I was one of the people giving her medical attention when the ambulance arrived,” I said.  I knew it wouldn’t matter, that they would assume I’d been lying, but I hoped it would temper the reaction.

“She’s not accepting visitors,” the secretary said.

“One second,” I heard.  A female voice.

Two overlapping sections of the plastic sheet peeled apart.  Tempera ducked through, and put the tacky sides of the plastic back together.  She was dusty from plaster and streaked with paint that wasn’t from her power.  She wore overalls, a black t-shirt for a top, and had a different pattern to the paint she’d applied over her eyes with fingers, more like she had applied it to her fingers and pressed them to her eyes as a series of vertical bars, each bleeding into the one beside it.

“Hi, Victoria,” she said to me.

“Hi.”

She looked at the secretary, “We know her.  Can I take her back to the room?”

“Let me get her information, and I’ll buzz you two through.”

I took the clipboard with the paperwork, and I filled out the information, checking my phone to remind myself of the specifics of Crystal’s address.  She took the clipboard, read it over, and let us through.

We walked down the back halls of the hospital, past individual clinics and their signs and separate waiting areas, past patient rooms and nurse’s stations.  Tempera indicated the turns.  We didn’t rush it, an unspoken agreement that we’d take our time, have a chance to talk.

“There was one attempt on her life.  We were worried there would be another,” Tempera said.

“Are you standing guard?” I asked.

“I am keeping an eye on things, but mostly by accident.  I’ve been helping with the construction.  I like getting my hands dirty,” Tempera said.  She smiled as she held up one hand, which was covered in wet white ‘paint’ down to the elbow, the paint turning black before transitioning to her light brown skin.  “Look at you, though.  You look tidy.”

Tidy.  It was an amusing choice of words, when Tempera looked anything but.  I smiled.  “Looking around to see if any teams are looking to fill positions.”

“And?”

“Only one was actually posting any openings, a corporate team, Auzure.  Foresight and the Attendant were open to interviewing me.  There are two other big teams; one gave me a hard no, and the other is folding into the Attendant and won’t exist soon, they didn’t give me a response yet, and with how the talk with the Attendant went, I don’t think it’d work out.”

“They’re pretty conservative.  In a lot of respects.  A lot of the religious capes went to the Shepherds and will be part of the Attendant.  I’ve been paying close attention to that.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “One or two of the sketchy people from Empire Eighty-Eight, too.”

“Empire Eighty-Eight?  They sound familiar.”

“They had a presence for a while.  A few years back they broke up into two other groups.  The Pure and Fenrir’s Chosen.”

“Ah.  I know the Chosen.  They were linked to the Clans, I think?”

“Yes.  The Clans spread out across multiple cities, and would funnel anyone who got powers over to the Empire Eighty-Eight core group, back before Leviathan broke the group’s back.  They were a background element in my childhood and cape career.”

“Ahh.  Was that a factor in your wanting to join?”

A very carefully neutral question, that.  I wondered if she was prodding me, not declaring a stance while feeling me out.  I was still an unknown, in a way.

“Violent racists on the team?  Definitely a factor, big point against.  Question is, are they ex-violent, ex-racists?  Gets muddier.  Even then, I might draw the line there, and not join.  If they were contrite?  I could roll with that, I think.  Barring one or two especially scummy individuals.  Interview didn’t get far enough for me to raise the subject.”

Tempera nodded, not saying anything.

“I think… maybe I’m being unsubtle, saying it, but I think there’s a big difference between who those guys were and who Fume Hood is.”

“I think so too.”

“How is she?”

“She’s hurt by what happened.  It’s hard, to put yourself out there, face your shortcomings, try to be better, and get shot for it.”

“Partial facing of shortcomings, from what she and I talked about,” I said.

“It’s why I said face, instead of ‘admit’,” Tempera said.  “But I don’t want to quibble.  Change of subject.  You said your meeting went badly.  Can I ask what happened?”

“Fallen,” I said.

“Did you get in another fight?”

“No,” I said.  I sighed.  “No.  They did what they often do, they caused a disruption, and that’s a playing field that suits them well.  I’d call it a draw, but I’m pretty sure they’re still out there recruiting and I’m not out there counteracting that.”

“There will always be bad guys.  They will always be out there.  There will always be murders, there will be theft, there will be drugs.”

I nodded.

“Question is,” Tempera said, “Where do you want to be, in relation to that, as it happens?”

“That is a deceptively tricky question,” I said.

“You definitely put yourself out there, backing us up when things went sideways at the community center.”

“I really appreciate that you see it that way,” I said.

“You put yourself in front of Lord of Loss.  I don’t know how your power works, but it’s obvious you can bleed.  There was some danger there.”

I acknowledged that with a small nod.

“And now you’re interviewing for teams?  So soon after?  It sounds like you want to be out there, helping.”

“I do.  I’m zero for three, though.”

“You don’t want to be independent?  Hold on a second.  We’re nearly at the room, but let’s finish talking before we go in.”

We stopped midway down the hallway.  A nurse’s station was a short distance away.

“I-” I started.  “I think, the way things are going, I might end up going that way.  Teams are a complication of their own.”

“They are,” Tempera said.  “I had a phone call earlier, offering a position.  I can go right there and sign the paperwork if I want to.”

“With?”

“The Attendant, as it happens,” Tempera said.

I was momentarily lost for words.  She’d been doing what I’d thought, inviting me to answer without declaring a position, but from a different angle.

“I want to wait and see how the merger with the Shepherds shakes up, how it feels after, they said not to wait too long.  It’s decent money, decent exposure.  A lot of decency.”

“Don’t let what I said change your mind on anything.  I’m griping, it’s-”

“It’s fine,” she said.  “I invited you to gripe, if we’re going to use your word.  It’s interesting to hear that take on them.  I didn’t know about the racist ex-villains joining.  I’m curious about how they handled the Fallen there, too, in your situation.”

“I think, uh, don’t tell them I said this…”

“Of course.”

“…I think they or the people they’re taking guidance from are approaching that stance of there always being bad guys to deal with, and they’re deciding to conserve their energy.  To not fight that fight.  Maybe it’s right to.”

“You got a draw.  That’s better than a win for the bad guys there.”

“It’s- yeah,” I said.  “I tried to use reason, draw on the stuff I studied, old knowledge I had about the group.  Who they were, how they operate, the families, the names.  Put that information out there, so the potential recruits would know the key facts.  I tried to get them to say who their leader was, pressed the issue, and of course it was the least bad one, so the argument I was gunning for didn’t have much clout, and I lost steam.”

“I picture the Fallen as a group that’s pretty comfortable defying reason.”

“Them, yes.  The recruits, I think they were open to hearing it.  I threw out some more information I remembered at the last second, but the Fallen were getting pretty loud, I didn’t want to start a riot, and that was more or less it.”

“And the Attendant?”

“Weren’t keen on me making a point of things when the word from on high was to let the Fallen be.  I didn’t get my invite to the team.”

Tempera made a face.

“I don’t like ignoring the monsters.  And I do think the Fallen are monstrous, as a collective force.”

“They’re a headache I was always glad I wouldn’t have to deal with,” Tempera said.  She scratched her nose as she scrunched it up, the paint there highlighting the creases.  The scratching deposited more paint on the bridge.  “One I guess I’ll have to prepare myself for dealing with.  Or possibly not dealing with, if I take the Attendant’s offer.”

“Possibly,” I said.  “Don’t give my words too much weight.”

“I’ll try to be sensible about it.  I might end up asking those questions you didn’t get a chance to, if that’s okay.”

I nodded.

“I think I’ll be okay, whatever happens.  The Wardens facilitated Attendant’s contact with me, and from their tone, I think they’d push to get me on another team if I didn’t go with that one.”

“That’s great,” I said.

“I could put in a word for you.”

“I wouldn’t say no,” I said.  “I don’t think I’ll get my hopes up, either.”

Tempera frowned.

“Sorry.  I didn’t mean to sound negative.”

“Are you finding your way, with these setbacks?”

I shrugged.  “Complicated.  Just wanted to check in on Fume Hood, while things are quiet.  When the law or the system fail to outline a process, do what seems right.  When it’s not clear what’s right, go with the law.  When neither is clear, reach out.”

“For perspective?”

I shrugged.  “That too.  More eyes on a problem never hurts.”

“Another point for the team, instead of going independent,” Tempera said.  She looked back down the hall, in the direction we’d been walking to.  “Hold on a moment?  I’ll check if she’s decent.  I wouldn’t mind bringing Fume Hood into it, now that we’re past the semi-confidential stuff about other teams.”

I nodded.

She touched the wall by the door as she rounded the corner, stepping into the room, and she knocked on the door as she entered.

There was a brief pause.  The handprint of paint on the wall dropped to the floor with a splat as Tempera said, “Come in.”

The blob of paint on the door fell to the ground as well.  Both moved along the ground as I entered, spattering against the back of Tempera’s shoes and the back of her overalls.

Fume Hood had donned a mask, but she didn’t wear the hood.  She lay down on the bed, which was angled so she could sit up at an angle.  A blanket had been pulled up to her waist, covering her legs.

Crystalclear sat in the chair between her and the window, the crystal configuration on his head slightly different than before.  He wore a t-shirt and shorts.  There was something odd about a guy with crystals where his eyes and hair would be having very ordinary hairy legs.

“Heya,” Crystalclear said.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hey, patrol girl with a name I can’t remember,” Fume Hood said.

“Victoria,” Tempera volunteered.

“Victoria.  Right.  Thank you for helping to hold my blood in,” Fume Hood said.

“You’re very welcome,” I said.  I noted the flowers and cards sitting beneath the window.  “Sorry I didn’t bring anything.  This is my awkward ‘I was in the neighborhood’ visit.  I saw the hospital name and remembered you were brought out this way.”

“I’ve got too much as it is.  Turns out that the key to popularity and acceptance is to get yourself shot.”

Her tone was light, almost amused.  Tempera had said Fume Hood was hurt on an emotional level, but I didn’t see a sign of it.  I could remember how Tempera had acted on my first meeting with her, how in tune with her team she had been.  I was willing to put a lot of stock in her take on things.

“Victoria, what I was going to say, before deciding I’d rather say it here, was that we’re going our separate ways, yes-”

“Longscratch is already gone,” Crystalclear said.  “But I don’t think he was ever going to stick around on a permanent basis.”

“Yes,” Tempera said.  “Which is a shame.  I do hope he finds what he’s looking for.  My point is, I don’t want to lose touch.  It’s helpful and nice that Crystalclear happened to be here to help illustrate that maintenance of contact.”

“Happy to take credit,” Crystalclear said.

“Victoria said- if you don’t mind me repeating?”

“No.”

“She said that it’s important to reach out, if I’m recalling that right.  I’d like to stay friends with you,” Tempera said.  “Crystalclear, Fume Hood.  Victoria, you too.”

“Why?” Fume Hood asked.

“What do you mean?” Tempera asked.

“We’re very different people,” Fume Hood said.  “I don’t get how that works.  How do you stay in touch with people you have very little in common with?”

“Easy.  Grab a bite sometime,” I said.  “Sandwich, beer or soda, share stories, get different perspectives.  I wouldn’t mind.”

“That’d be nice,” Crystalclear said.

“But-” Fume Hood started.  She frowned.  “Okay, whatever.”

“You should find the words for what you’re trying to say,” I said.  “In case it festers or gets in the way.”

“I dunno.  I don’t get why you’re here.  I’m grateful, don’t get me wrong.  You put pressure on my wound, Tempera gave me first aid and used her paint to keep me from dying.  I probably owe you my lives.  But that whole fiasco was my fault.”

“I blame the attacking villains, not you,” Tempera said.

“Yep,” Crystalclear said.

“Are you trying to be clever and get me to keep being a hero, then?” Fume Hood asked.

“I’m here because I was interested in how you were doing,” I said.  “Obviously I’d prefer it if you stayed a hero, but that’s not the objective.”

“If you guys keep showing up with flowers or to make small talk, you make it awfully hard for me to fuck off and go back to being a villain.”

“That’s a plus,” Tempera said.  “But like Victoria said, it’s not the main point.”

“On the topic of pluses,” I said, “I’m interested in who those guys were.  So if you hear anything, I wouldn’t mind a heads up.”

“The guy who shot me did so of sound mind, no Kingdom Come in play.  Independent, apparently.  No money in his accounts, he didn’t have internet.  He was just pissed off.”

“There were the villains, too,” I said.

“There were.”

“And we don’t know what they were after,” Crystalclear said.

“Multiple conflicting stories,” I said.  “Blindside lied to me when I asked.  It bothers me, and I worry it’ll happen again.”

“Give me your cell phone number,” Tempera said.  “I’ll get in touch.”

There was a brief pause while we sorted things out, me getting the contact information from each of the others, and giving them mine.  They already knew each other.

Reaching out, making and maintaining contact.

A part of me had hoped that Fume Hood was wrong, that the team wouldn’t have dissolved, that they’d be together, willing to give things another try.  That it might have been a team I could join.

“The cards and flowers might have something to do with how you’re the topic of the moment,” I mused aloud.

“I heard something about that,” Fume Hood said, indicating Crystalclear.

“From me,” Crystalclear volunteered unnecessarily.

“If you guys were to try again, there could be more attention, more support,” I said.

“More gunshots?” Fume Hood asked.  “I’m stepping down and going into hiding.  I’ll recuperate, let the heat die down, and then figure out what I’m doing.”

“If it matters, I think more people are siding with you than not,” I said.

Fume Hood nodded a few times, taking that in.  “Weird.”

“It’s good,” Tempera said.  “I think Crystalclear already accepted the offer from Foresight, though.”

“It was a very promising offer.”

“And I’ve been contacted by Attendant.  I don’t know what I’ll do with that.  And Victoria-”

“Is not having much luck,” I said.  “But I want to do something.”

“You were thinking you might go independent?”

“Which doesn’t pay,” I said.  “Not in this environment.”

“How does that work?” Fume Hood asked.  “If you’re a crook, it’s easy, you take jobs at the villain bar, or you rob some place, or any number of things.  You just… go out on patrol?”

“There are a few other things to do,” I said.  “One way is to essentially run a protection racket that isn’t a racket.  It’s easy for that to go wrong.  There’s a higher level effect, which is easier to pull off when, say, a city has a downtown area and the shop owners gather together to pay a wage to the hero that draws attention and has a positive influence on their area…”

“Things have to be stable before that happens,” Tempera said.

“We’re not there yet,” I said.  “There’s training and support.  Offering powers for helping with the rebuilding, which Auzure was doing a bit of.  There’s merchandising, but that’s a dead market right now, I think.”

“We fished in that pond prior to getting underway and we didn’t get any bites,” Crystalclear said.

“I was selling my brain, I know a lot about capes and the community, having grown up with it.  That job’s done, and I don’t know if there’s much more opportunity for that.”

“Tell you what,” Tempera said.  “I’ll put out feelers.  See what people say.”

I nodded.  “Sure.  Thank you.”

I was lost in thought enough that my retracing of my steps on the way out of the hospital turned me in circles.  I approached the same nurse’s station for a second time, and I stopped at the desk, waiting for someone with a spare moment to give me directions.

I wanted to do something.

There weren’t any openings.  I was pretty sure Advance Guard had turned me down because of my background, the two year gap prior to Gold Morning.  Others had their reasons for rejecting me.  As it was, the field was fairly cluttered.  Villains were keeping their heads down.  As much as there was always going to be the bad guys, like Tempera had said, we didn’t have the systems in place to identify them or address them.

No way to make money off of my powers, to pay the rent and get out of Crystal’s borderline uncomfortably cluttered place.

“Yes?” a nurse asked.

I blinked.  I didn’t ask her for directions.  My thoughts went in another direction, spurred to life by my thoughts of the unpaid cape work.

“If I said ‘crisis points’, would that mean anything to you?” I asked.

“It’s been a long time since I heard that.  Yes, it means something.  Do you work with capes?”

“I… kind of am a cape.  Would you be open to me giving you a hand?”

“Let me look into it.  I’m not sure what the usual methods are, and it’s not fresh in my mind.”

“You’d want to identify the key patients, check with any parents, if they’re under eighteen, and they often are.  Then with me, you’d want to check with legal, you can call my references, which I do have on hand…”

The mask wasn’t the quality sort I was used to, more of a Halloween costume.  The top I wore was a men’s small, a little too big in the shoulder, while it simultaneously squashed my chest.

From the ages of the patients in the pediatric wing, I wasn’t sure they would pay much mind to my chest, squashed or not.  Most were twelve or younger.  A few heads turned, people paying cursory attention.

I still wore the skirt I’d worn to the interviews, the belt.

Room 5, bed C.

I entered room five.  There were four beds, one in each corner.  One monitor was beeping, the other kids were lying down, looking bored.

Bed C was a little girl, with a face chock full of freckles, and sandy blonde hair.  The curtains had been partially closed, blocking the views of the boy sitting to her left and the girl sitting across from her.

“Audrey?” I asked, peering in.

I saw only a glimpse of misery on her expression, while she stared off out the window.  Then she raised her head and the expression was gone.  She assessed me, head to toe.

“Great,” she said, after she was done.

“Great?”

“Ooh, yay, it’s Legend, except he’s a girl now,” she said, sarcastic.

The t-shirt I wore was styled after Legend’s costume.  The mask was the same.  Something the staff had kept on hand from the past Halloween.

“The nurses pointed me your way,” I said.

“Well, my day sucked, but now fake Lady Legend is here, so I’m all better.  That’s great.”

“I can take the mask off if you want,” I said.

“Oh, no, you can’t do that, fake Lady Legend.  Your secret identity might be compromised!”

The sarcasm ran strong through this one.

I pulled the curtain closed a bit more, then pulled off the mask, flying a bit as I said, “I never really had the secret identity.”

With that, at least, her eyebrows went up.  No smart retort.  She moved around her hospital bed, craning her head to see my feet, trying to spot the trick.

“I don’t know you,” she said.

“Doesn’t matter,” I said.  “The nurses mentioned you’d had an especially bad day.”

Again, that momentary look of misery.

Yeah, I knew that.

“Back before everything turned sour, when I’d come to the hospital, with, um-” I stopped, drew in a breath, and sighed.  “It’s something heroes would do.  Check in on people who had really bad days.  And when I came to the hospital, sometimes I’d do that.”

Crisis points.  More a PRT thing than a New Wave thing, but we’d done a small share.  Looking out for the recent triggers, putting our faces and names out there, staying in touch with the public.

“A nurse sat down with me for a while,” she said.  “No offense, I appreciate it, but I’m kind of talked out.”

“Instead of talking, um,” I said.  I showed her what was in my hand, letting the straps dangle.  “What would you say about going flying?”

I saw her eyes go wide.

“The hospital called your dad’s work.  He said it was okay.”

My feet left the hospital rooftop.  Flying was unwieldy, especially with my burden.  I was untrained.  Having the benefit of my forcefield to protect me in the event of a crash would mean having my forcefield up, and that had other connotations, with my power as distorted as it was, the fact that I couldn’t necessarily control the movements or know what they would do.  Not doable, when I held someone.

There was uncertainty too.  The source of that flight, it had never let me down, but if push came to shove, in a crisis, would my maneuvering be sloppier?  Would I decelerate or accelerate in a different way?  I’d carelessly trusted my power, once, and now I wasn’t sure I could.  I knew what the source of that power was, now, and what its goals were.

It was emotionally heavy, even as I felt almost weightless physically, to be reminded of what had changed so dramatically.

I could feel my charge’s intake of breath, as I held one arm across her lower ribs.  I didn’t trust the harness we’d grabbed from the physio center.  Not enough to hold someone for me.  She was strapped with her back to my front.

The ground was a good ways below us now.  I hadn’t even ascended that fast.  I’d been a little lost in thought.

I felt her laugh, nervous and small, while I turned us around, giving her a view of the area.  Norfair and its community center was off in the distance, one way.  The farms were off in another direction.  From here, it was easy to see the tall buildings of the city, the places that looked like a slice of the old world.  To look to the fringes of those areas, where the tents and shoddily erected structures stretched off, so endless it seemed they reached to the horizon.

“I got you,” I said, in answer to the nervous giggles.  Had I laughed like that, on my first real flight?

“Yeah,” was the response, a small, quiet voice.  Then more giggles.

The giggle became laughter on her part, borderline hysterical.

“You okay?”

She nodded, fast and fierce, then drew in a deep breath.

“Wooooooooo!” she whooped, top of her lungs, loud enough to be heard on the ground.

“Hood up,” I said, reaching up to tug the hood of her hoodie over her head.

“What?  Why?” she asked, panting from the cheer.

“Just in case it’s cold,” I said.

“Cold?  Why-”

Before she could fully catch her breath, I dropped from our position, diving, fast, hard, and surprising enough that even I felt my stomach’s contents lurch.

She didn’t have the ability to cheer, as the drop stole what little breath she had, but her arms went up and out, to either side of my shoulders, fingers spreading to feel the wind, the sun-warmed air.

I smiled, letting the swoop dash all of the other thoughts and feelings from my mind, vicariously enjoying the experience of flying for the first time.  Of flying at all.

“Juan?” I asked.

Juan was younger than the other kids had been.  Eight, if I had to guess, but he wasn’t well, so that might have screwed up my estimation.  He was thin at the arm and wrist, and puffy around the face.

“The first time I came to the hospital, one of the nurses wore that costume,” Juan said.  “He was a guy though.”

“How does it look on me?” I asked.

“I think it looks really nice,” he said.  “You’re very pretty.”

“Thank you,” I said.  “That’s sweet.”

“Some of the others were saying a lady superhero was going around taking people flying.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “That’s the plan.  Your mom and dad said you might enjoy it, and you should be well enough.”

“They had to go to work,” Juan said.

“That’s what I heard.”

“They always have to go.  Even when I have bad days.  And there’s nothing on television.  There’s only three channels and they’re real boring.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“I really hate hospitals,” he said.

I took a deep breath.  His words echoed my feelings, which only magnified the feelings.

Yeah.  I really hated hospitals too.

“It’s getting dark,” I said, “But if you want to try flying, maybe that’d be a bit of a break from the boring stuff, and a break from the hospital.”

“Thank you,” Juan said.  “But flying sounds like it’s very tiring.”

“It can be,” I said.  “I can go slow if you like, or we can do something else.  We could talk.”

He nodded at that last bit, then started looking around.  I pulled up a nearby chair, and sat down next to his bed.

“I got a lot of books,” Juan said.  He deposited a stack of kids’ books and comics on the edge of the bed, between me and him.  “Uh, before.  I said I didn’t want to be stuck here and be bored, my mom went and came back with books and comics, and then they both left.”

“That was nice of them,” I said.  I picked up one of the books.

“My eyes are tired today,” he said.  “The letters are blurry.”

“Do you want me to read some out loud?” I asked.

That got me a firm nod, and the first smile I’d seen out of him.

“Good Simon to start, then?” I asked.  Another nod.

There were pictures, so he shuffled over to the edge of the bed, and I sat on the other side, my ass half on the bed’s railing, and I held the book between us, so we could both see it.

Two good Simon books, which were most likely aimed at someone just a bit younger than Juan was, but he didn’t seem to complain.  I moved on to a comic involving the robot prison ship, peeking ahead so I could skip past the scenes which were aimed at someone much older than him, and then, to be safe, moved on to something aimed at a younger age again.  Kids in animal masks getting into trouble.

There wasn’t much likelihood that Juan had powers, but he’d had a bad day, and this was okay.

I was halfway through that book when I saw someone look in at the door, peeking around.  A boy.  He stopped as he spotted me.

I finished the page, then paused, partially closing the book, and checking on Juan.  Fast asleep.  I checked his pulse, because I was paranoid, then fixed his blankets, and eased myself up off the bed with flight, to not disturb him.

I used a notepad by the side of the bed, and wrote a brief farewell:

Nice to meet you, Juan.  The nurses have my number so if you want to go flying sometime, we might be able to arrange something.  🙂
-Victoria

I walked over to the door.  It wasn’t one of the ones I’d taken a flight with.  Older, thirteen or so, with what might have been his first pimples.

I saw the hesitation on his face.

“Come on,” I said.  “Let’s go to the cafeteria.  It’s late, I don’t think many people will be around.”

He nodded.

“Hello?”

“Tempera?  Hi, it’s Victoria.  I’m sorry to call you so late.”

“It’s fine.  I don’t sleep much, and the call is more than welcome.  Why the call?”

“I’m at the hospital, talking to someone-”

“You’re still at the hospital?”

“Yes.  I’ve been talking to a teenager, he’s listening in on my half of the conversation right now.  He’s got a friend with powers, but she’s not doing so hot.  It’s new and it’s scary and neither he nor she know what to do.”

“We’ve been there.”

“We’ve been there.  Yeah.  I know you’re in touch with the Wardens.  They’re decent, they have a lot of resources, they have some good people.”

“Absolutely.”

“He can describe particulars and you can let them know.”

“Not a problem.   Just so you know, it might be hard to get someone on the phone this late, but if it’s a problem, I know some people I can round up and we can go talk to her as a big supportive group.”

“Great.  I’m going to hand you off now.”

“Wait, one second.  Victoria.”

“Yes?”

“Call me back when this is over, or call me first thing in the morning.  I was sounding out some people, it’s not an invite to a team or anything, but with something this messy, we need all the hands we can get.”

“Messy?”

“I’ll explain later.  For now, we help your buddy there.”

I handed the corded phone over.  We stood at an empty nurse’s station in a hallway where the lights had been set dim.  My hands were free, and I’d intentionally used their phone so my own would be free.

There were other calls I needed to make, including one to Crystal to let her know where I was.  I put that one off.  Crystal was easygoing.

I sent one to Mrs. Yamada.

Me:
I know your caseload is full, but found a kid with some power-related troubles.  Contact is reaching out to Wardens soon.  Maybe you can keep an eye out to make sure all goes smooth?

The boy was explaining in a hushed voice about his friend’s circumstance.  An uncontrolled, messy power, and she had no place to go.  He hadn’t given me many details, but I could tell he was scared, and I could infer from that that she must be terrified.

The reply came back.

Jessica:
Absolutely.  I can’t promise I take them as a patient but I can help with initial moves.

I nodded to myself.

The boy was relaxing as he talked on the phone.  A distant, authoritative, kind voice, and the promise of some answers or help.

My phone buzzed again.

Jessica:
A patient canceled for later this week.  Do you want to meet for a late lunch?  There’s something I’d like to talk to you about.

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Flare – 2.1

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“The Wardens are cooperating with seven major cape teams and, last I checked, ten minor teams.  We are not a monolithic entity.  We are not an authority.  We are not the bad guys, Julia.”

I rummaged through a cabinet.  My life was in boxes, from my clothes to my hair and skin stuff to my files.  If it were that alone, it would have been tolerable.  I’d tried using logic and going to the most common sense places.  Not in or among the dirty dishes, not in the various jars and vases of spoons and spatulas on the counter, not behind or under something.  I’d checked the other rooms in the apartment.

“People are worried.  You have Legend as a second in command, and memories aren’t so short that we don’t remember the Alexandria fiasco.”

I moved methodically through the kitchen, left to right, while the television played on a low volume.

“I can tell you this: all we want to do is help.  We want to find the right capes for the major crises and we want to equip the teams out there with information and resources. “

“That’s admirable, but-“

“No, wait, hold on, Julia.  You told me when you asked me to have a chat with you on camera that you wanted to have a conversation.  Let me say this.”

I looked at the little TV in the corner of the kitchen.

“…that people are going to draw on what they know to fill the blanks, when they don’t have enough information.  I understand that the closest parallel that many Americans draw to the Wardens is the PRT.  Give us time to make our impression and show how we operate,” Chevalier said.

“Would you not say there are quite a few of those blanks when it comes to your organization?” the reporter asked.

“I accepted this interview because I want to fill some of those blanks.”

“Are you an open book, then?”

My eyebrows went up.  That was dirty pool from reporter Julia.  There was no way that question wouldn’t be followed by something that Chevalier couldn’t or wouldn’t want to answer, cornering him.

“Some of those blanks,” Chevalier said, stressing the ‘some’.  “We’re still figuring things out, we’re still finding our footing and we’re negotiating a comfortable and healthy position with the public, the various teams under our umbrella, teams that aren’t under our umbrella, and the authorities.  The lack of answers and the number of blanks isn’t me being evasive or underhanded.  It’s that the Wardens and society as a whole have a lot of figuring out to do.”

He was good at what he did, and he did a lot.  I wished I was in a position to study what he was saying and how he was fielding the questions, but I had more hunting to do.

I went back to the drawers I’d already checked, pulling out the cutlery drawer enough that I could check the back, behind the tray that held the forks and knives.  I was too used to drawers having a mechanism that stopped them once they were pulled out to their limit, and I’d expected it to be longer, which led to me pulling the drawer straight out of its housing.

I only barely caught it, sticking my knee out under it and moving my hands to grab the sides.  The cutlery rattled loudly, with a few miscellaneous cheese and holiday themed knives clattering to the floor.

“…would you say about the rumors circulating around Valkyrie, then?”

I put the drawer on the countertop, collected the fallen knives, and sorted through the contents, lifting up the tray to make sure nothing had fallen beneath.  No luck.

I tried to put the drawer back, failed a few times before realizing that the construction wasn’t especially sturdy, and that the back end had pulled a bit loose.  I fixed it, then resumed trying to put it back inside the hole it was meant for.

There was the saying: affordable, nice, or safe and sane.  Pick one.  It was a chronic problem with the speed they were trying to get buildings and houses up.  Shoddy construction, rush jobs, cut corners, mistakes, and general ugliness were pretty normal.  I was hopeful that in a little while we might be able to get to a point where it was ‘pick two’ instead of ‘pick one’, but we had a ways to go.

I tried to squeeze the end together where two pieces didn’t quite meet and simultaneously push it in with my stomach.  It refused to slide in.

“What are you doing to my kitchen?”

Crystal was in the doorway, her hair a mess.  She wore an oversized t-shirt and pyjama shorts, and she still looked half asleep.

“Did I wake you?” I asked.

“Uh huh,” she said, sleepy.  “Don’t tell me you’re a morning person.  That would be a problem.”

“I’m not.  I’m a person who fell asleep early last night-”

“Almost right after eating.  Yep.  And now you’re up, showered, dressed, and you’re dismantling my kitchen.  For reasons.”

“I woke up and thought I’d keep my normal work routine while I figure out what I’m doing.”

“Renovating my kitchen?”

“I’m trying to find scissors,” I said.  “I’d settle for a sharp knife.”

Crystal smiled wide, her eyes still sleepy.  She grabbed a glass from a cabinet, and she half-walked, half-floated across the kitchen.

“Don’t laugh,” I said.

“You’re such a cliche,” she said, as she passed me on her way to the sink.  “Oh my god, Victoria.  You’re that person with super strength that trashes everything she touches.”

“Just help me,” I said.

She reached over and helped me hold the drawer together.  As it slid into the confines of the front of the counter, the framing held it together where the drawer’s own construction wouldn’t.

“I wasn’t using my super strength, for the record,” I said.

“Yeah.  I’ve done that with the drawers before, I’m just making fun of you.  It’s a funny image, to walk into the kitchen and see that.”

“Ah ha,” I said.  “Then can I make fun of you for having two big jars of spatulas, whisks, spaghetti scoops, having two food processors-”

“One was a gift.”

“-And no scissors or shears anywhere I can find?  I’d settle for a sharp knife.  You have those steak knives, but they look nice and I don’t want to use them for the wrong thing and ruin them.”

She reached across the counter to get the package of bacon, holding it up.  It was inside a hard plastic tupperware-like container with a small black and white label stuck to it.  A mark stamped on it had it sourced from another world.  Even without the mark, the pricetag might have given it away.

“Thought I’d treat you to breakfast,” I said.  “Went for a walk to get some stuff.”

Still appearing half asleep, she moved one hand, creating a deep red forcefield behind the bacon, then she produced a thin laser from her fingertip, slicing off the end of the package.

She handed the bacon to me, open end up.

“You don’t have scissors?”

She shook her head, smiling.

I sighed, picking up the bowl where I’d already mixed the dry ingredients.  “Fruit crepes, bacon on the side?”

“Sounds amazing,” she said, leaning against the counter, eyes mostly closed.

“You look beat,” I said.

“It was pretty unforgiving, being there.  I timed everything so I could unwind starting with the barbecue, and unwinding didn’t happen.”

I nodded.  “Sorry.”

“That’s not on you.”

“I’m still sorry it happened.”

“You slept okay though?”

“I slept a solid ten hours.  I just… started sleeping at six thirty or something.  Then I woke up, I started thinking, and I decided to be productive.  I’m talking to some teams today.”

“If you want me to put a good word in with my guys, I’d be happy to.”

“I don’t want to do the quasi-military cape thing,” I said.  “A little bit too intense.”

“Yeah,” Crystal said.  “I’m so physically tired, two days out, that I’m not sure I would be standing if I couldn’t fly.”

I looked down at the ground.  Her feet were barely touching the ground.

It wasn’t the physical intensity that worried me.  It was the mental and emotional cost.  It was the fact that when it came to the military and the military-like stuff, the trend was to beat the individual into shape.  Organization, conformity.

I couldn’t take much more of the harsh lessons on identity or the forced redefining of the self.

“I’m just waking up, so forgive me if I got something wrong, but did you already find a place?”

I shook my head.

“You  took the sheets off the couch.”

I looked over at the living room.  There were boxes stacked around, and only half were mine.

“You said you might have friends over at some point, I thought it’d be weird if you had to navigate around my stuff, so I moved it out of the way.”

“Okay,” she said.  She paused.  “I’m tired, so I want to make sure I say this right.”

I went to the fridge to get the fruit stuff I’d already prepared.

“I don’t care,” she said.  “First of all, I know I have a lot of stuff.  You know I have a lot of stuff.”

I looked at the stuff around the kitchen and adjacent living room.  It was a bit messy, to the point counter space and table space was occupied.

“Just- I really don’t care if you add your stuff to it.  I like my places feeling lived in.  Some of the stuff is a friend’s, and they’ll take it when they get set up.  Some is mom and dad’s.  Some is yours, and that’s fine.  That leads me to my second point.  I want you to be here.  I want you to feel comfortable.”

“Thank you.”

“I know my couch isn’t much, but you need a place that you can kick your shoes off and leave them where they are.”

I might have mentioned that I wasn’t quite that personality type, but I held my tongue.  I understood the sentiment, what she wanted.

“I want you to have a place that’s yours, Vic.”

“I’ll start by asking this: why not be independent?”

Foresight had a strong aesthetic running through their costumes.  Primary among those things was a mask or helmet design where each of the members of the team lacked eyeholes.  Helmets with opaque visors, masks without eyes.  The aesthetic involved lots of paneled body armor and loose fabric elsewhere, with iconography worked into the panels.  It made me think of ninjas from movies, with the mix of lightweight costumes and armor, but without the Eastern style.

Their team symbol was a stylized eye, sans pupil, with a wildly exaggerated ‘4’ struck out in bold lines that extended well past the curved lines of the eye.

I was wearing my best civilian clothes.  I’d opted to leave the mask off.  I sat in a chair.  Two of them sat in chairs in the office, and another two stood at the side.

I gave my answer.  “If I’m being entirely honest, independent doesn’t pay unless you’re really good.  At the risk of sounding arrogant, in another time and place, I think I could scrape by because I do have that experience, I have the knowledge, and I can hold my own.”

“You don’t think you could do it now?” Countenance asked.  He was the second in command and the highest ranking team member in the room.  His outfit was heavier and draped more than the others, both in how the cloth hung loose and how the armor panels were connected so they dangled from the piece above.  The Foresight icon was in the center of his mask, like a cyclopean eye.

“I know who Foresight is and how you operate,” I said.  “I know you want to move forward, you’re interested in helping the little guys, tackling the right issues, and take decisive, needed action in a calculated, smart way.”

“You read our webpage.”

“I’ve been following Foresight since it started,” I said.  “Whatever answer  you give me today, I’ll be following you guys from here on out, because I think it’s important to know the lay of the land.  Which goes back to what I was saying.  Being calculated, being smart.  I’ve been watching and researching you guys, and I’m sure you have the mentality where, from the time I reached out about an interview, you were looking me up and asking questions.  Which means you heard about the incident at the Norfair community center.”

“Yes.  We talked to your reference about it.  I imagine he talked to you?”

“He didn’t, but he’s busy and this interview happened on short notice,” I said.  “Everything that unfolded there and a lot of what I see elsewhere, it suggests that it would be really hard to make it as an independent.  Too many want to blame parahumans for what happened, and both independents and fledgling teams are easily targeted.  Established teams absorb and diffuse that impact.  That aside, being part of a team, cooperating, having the information and sharing that information, it’s too crucial.  That’s why I’m not going independent, given the chance.  I want to help build something.”

Countenance nodded.  He reached over to his friend, who handed over the paperwork he’d been reading.  He looked down.  “Your reference sang your praises.”

“He’s a great guy.  I really respect what he’s trying to do with something as tricky as the patrol block.”

“Our problem, when it comes to assessing any candidate, is that each person we add to our teams is added strength, added power, but they’re also a possible set of complications.  It forces us to strike a balance.  We’re smaller than many of our peers because we’re selective.  We want to make sure anyone we add will be a good fit, with minimal complications.”

“I reached out to Foresight first, to you, because I like how you do things.  It’s what and who I want to be.”

“Then my next question to you would be what you think is going to happen next,” Countenance said.

“What I think is going to happen?  I think trouble is incoming.  We see hints of it, the out-of-control triggers, we hear about some scary monsters and then the big names go and try to handle it, then we have other circumstances where the big names are running off to go handle things that they don’t tell anyone about.  I think those situations might be worse than the monsters.  So far, Gimel is untouched by the worst of it.  We’ve been on top of things.  But sooner or later, something is going to hit us that we aren’t prepared for and can’t neatly handle.”

“What do you think happens then?”

“I think it depends a lot on us having the right information and tools.”

Beside Countenance, Anelace was nodding.  Anelace was a young guy, his costume the opposite of Countenance’s in how it was tighter-fitting, his mask bearing a dark gray dagger illustration on the right side of the white surface in the same exaggerated style the ‘4’ was drawn on the emblem on his chest.  The knotted area where hilt, blade, and the two prongs of the guard all met was located where one of his eyes would be.

“You said you know how we operate?”

“Support work with the megalopolis and police, patrols and events for the day to day.  Several times a week you make calculated, strategic strikes on priority targets.  It’s like what the Wardens are doing with the big, scary threats, but you’re more city-focused than whatever’s going on outside of Gimel.  A lot of your members go on to work with them, which is why you have openings.”

“She does her research,” Anelace said.

“She does,” Countenance said.  He said it in a way that suggested he was admitting it, almost reluctant.

My heart sank.

I looked over my shoulder.  The two at the side of the room were Effervescent and Relay.

Effervescent was an emotion manipulator with an emphasis on stunning people.  Relay was capable of some complex moves with teleportation I wasn’t sure I had a grasp on, most of which seemed to amount to them teleporting to where others were, shunting that person to a random position elsewhere, and he also had some ability to communicate without words, both sending and receiving.

“Can I ask?” I asked.

“Ask?” Countenance asked me.

I indicated the pair.  “I get the impression they’re communicating something to you, and you sound like you’re winding up to tell me no.  Both took some shifts at the portals, watching the refugees as they came in to make sure there was no trouble, which makes me think they’re thinkers, they read people, and they’re reading me.”

Countenance turned his head to fix the cyclopean, drawn eye on the pair.

“I can’t get a consistent read on you emotionally,” Effervescent said.  “It’s repressed.”

“My long-time boyfriend was an emotion manipulator.  He had a hard time getting a read on me too,” I said.

“I’m better than most when it comes to getting reads,” Effervescent said.  “No offense, but it’s what isn’t as repressed that concerns me.”

“Enough you’d say no,” Countenance said.

Effervescent nodded.

“Relay?”

“My read was fine.  Minimal secondary noise.”

“Sorry,” Countenance said.  “For reading you without permission.  It’d be a point in your favor that you caught on, but-”

“But you have to put stock in what the others say.  No hard feelings,” I said.  I made myself smile as I stood from my seat.  Countenance stood too.  He shook my hand.  “I’ll see you around, I hope we can work together then.”

“I hope so too.  Good luck,” Countenance said.

“Let me get the door for you,” Anelace said.  He jumped to his feet and opened the door for me.  His voice was quiet as he said.  “Sorry to see you go.”

The thinkers would have noticed that.

I wondered what Effervescent and Relay would be reporting about my emotional state as I left.

“Mrs. Dallon?”

I stood from my seat in the waiting room.

The cape had a costume that looked like a suit, metallic silver fabric, with a black dress shirt underneath.  His mask consisted of two panels that met and ran down the center of his face, creating an almost beak-like profile with how the two sides swept along the sides of his face and back.   Not bird-like, but as if his entire head was the beak.  The hair I could make out above the ‘v’ where the mask parted was longer and heavily styled.

It reminded me of the Ambassadors from Boston, but I was pretty sure they wouldn’t have worn suits as ostentatious as this, nor such a dramatic full-face mask.

“You didn’t come in costume?” he asked.  He sounded surprised.

“I’m pre-identity adjustment,” I said, caught in trying to find my footing with my rehearsed explanation as I simultaneously crossed to where he was to shake his hand.  “Moving on from the identity and methodology I had as a teenage heroine.  I’m a blank slate, and there’s a lot of room to adjust my brand moving forward.”

“Are you ex-Protectorate?” he asked.  “I might have missed that if it was in your application.”

“No.  Ex-Ward, but only very briefly.”

“I only ask because you went straight to the term ‘brand’.  I’m used to hearing it from people who were in the PRT and people from other corporate teams.  I know I read your file and there was no mention of a corporate background.  I’m Lark.  You’ll meet Dido soon, all going well.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Lark.”

“My office is this way, if you’ll join me,” he said.  He briefly touched the small of my back to guide me in the direction his other hand was indicating.

I was bothered by the contact.  Unsolicited touching, the presumed closeness, and the fact it was a hot day, my back was damp from the walk and he would have felt that.

It was such an unnecessary thing and it made both of us uncomfortable.

“Brockton Bay,” he said.

“Yes.  From birth to Endbringer and immediate aftermath.”

“A mom and pop small town team?”

“Aunt and uncle and cousins too,” I said.  “Extended family.  They passed the fifteen year mark with just donations and small events.  I think that counts for something.”

“It’s better than what Dido and I have managed, but give us time.  We have five parahumans on the team, and we’re already in the black when it comes to the business end of things.”

“I spent most of my childhood watching my mom balance the books, I did the events, the photoshoots, the merchandising as a PRT-acknowledged team.  I have something of a sense of what you’re probably going for.”

“Ah, the merchandising.  I think I have your PRT trading card from that time period in a binder in my office.”

I smiled.  “Which one?  I had one that was holographic, which you could swipe through the controller for the video game to have me as a polygon-rendered helper, and the higher quality one that had the bio on the back.”

“I think it was the second one.  My office is through this door.”

I took a seat opposite the glass-top desk while he closed the door.  He undid the button in his suit jacket before sitting down.

“Typically those of us at Auzure like to work with new parahumans,” he said.  “They’re easier to brand.  When we work with capes with a history, we like that history to be a strong one.”

“I think you get the best of both worlds with me,” I said.  “Most people assumed I was dead when everything happened in Brockton Bay, and nobody corrected that misunderstanding.  If you do dig up information about me, a lot of it is strong.”

“I think that’s where we run into problems,” he said.  “A lot of your history and presence is tied into your family’s group identity.  ‘Glory Girl’ isn’t famous beyond a certain range.  Hometown heroine, yes, with some people in Boston and New York who might know of you, but not famous.”

“Then consider me new.  Untainted by the past.”

“I would, but we use things we term perception turns, or just turns.”

“I know the term,” I said.

“I like that you do.  Branding, turns.  You do seem to know what you’re getting into here.  When we’re tracking someone’s marketability, we map out the turns.  You’re fine, nothing exceptional, for most of your career, with an upturn if you count your disappearance, after the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

I took a deep breath, then nodded.

“But if we include your family, there’s a lot of baggage.”

“You could say that,” I said.

“Downturn, death of Fleur.  Downturn, times when New Wave was subsisting, but not in the eyes of the media.”

“Four adolescents and two couples, there were weeks where school or work took priority.  That got better as my cousins and I got older.”

“Cousins… and your sister?” he asked.

I felt the shock like it was cold water.

He continued, “I think if it were up to the turns and the background alone, it would have to be a no.  At the time you should have been drawing the most attention, given your age and potential, you… died, as you put it.  You were gone for the two years before Gold Morning.”

“Yes,” I said.

“We’re offering cape services for the reconstruction, with Spell offering some massive assistance with the argriculture.  It’s a big part of what’s driving us to the front pages, giving us some upturn in the most general sense, for public perception.  What we really want is the human angle, something where we could have an attractive young lady like yourself in a photo op, or your sister-”

“No,” I said.

“Her and the right person in a photograph?  If you two paired up, Auzure could make you big.”

I winced, and I stood from my seat.

“Victoria?”

They hadn’t accepted the interview to get me for me.  I was just a stepping stone to the person they really wanted.

“Thank you for your time,” I said.

I managed to restrain myself from slamming the door on the way out.

“Thanks for meeting us out here,” Whorl said.  He didn’t shake my hand, but instead reached out to clasp my wrist.  I clasped his.

“Not a problem,” I said.  I looked up at the structure that had been erected around the portal.  It cast a shadow.  “It’s nice to be in the shade, with a decent breeze.”

Whorl wore a blue mask with a white border around the eyes and outermost edge, and his costume was a ‘preppy’ bodysuit, complete with a folded collar, like a polo shirt, a narrow belt, and leggings.  His icon was large on his chest, a circle with angled spokes at the edges.  He had an armband with the gold morning symbol on it, but the colors were the blue and white of his costume.

He grinned, showing off white teeth.  “You should have been here at noon.  It was brutal.”

“The people weren’t too irritable, with the heat?”

All around us, people were coming through the portal, forming lines.  There were buildings to the left and right of the street that people were heading into, to get the instructions and things necessary to start their lives in Gimel.

“I think they were happy for it,” Whorl said. “I’ve been going back and forth, and it’s miserable on the other side.”

“I just realized I got us started on a conversation about the weather,” I said.

“I’m kind of a weather manipulator, not really, but it’s fun to say.  Talking about the weather happens more than you’d think, when it comes to me,” he said.

Again, that smile with those very white teeth.

“I read up on you online,” I said.

“Ah, did you?  Should I be flattered or worried that I’ve been stalked?”

I was reminded of the segment on television, the reporter trying to corner Chevalier by getting him to claim a certain attitude.

“It’s not stalking,” I said.  “I’m doing my homework, is all.”

I had to admit, the preppy look with the wide shoulders, narrow waist, clean cut and nicely taken care of, it appealed to me, and it had always.  Not that I was even remotely thinking of actually moving forward with a relationship.

“I’m probably going to have to duck out and handle some minor crisis or another, but stick around and don’t disappear on me, we’ll find the time and figure out if we can place you with the Attendant.”

“That’d be great.”

“If I get caught up in something, find one of the others.  Chat with them, they’ll tell you what they think of the team.”

There were a few other capes distributed across the crowd.  It was interesting how people seemed so keen on them, even approaching them, happy to see them.  The sentiment of blame hadn’t gripped the refugees here.

A teenager with a moon design on her mask and dress-like costume.

I saw a humanoid mech the size of a car, with a glass tank for the ‘body’, something large and fishlike within the tank.   The mech sat on its ass, feet sticking out, and children were crowding around to tap the glass and climb on the feet.  The tinker, as I took it, was the one sitting on the suit’s shoulder.  Another cape was standing on the end of a rod, three stories above the ground, the end of the rod stuck into the side of the building.  He looked stern as he looked down at the scene, his arms folded, until someone waved up at him and he waved back.

“Is that the whole team?”

“Not even close.   With the teams merging, we’re taking on a lot of others.  We’ll be breaking up into three sub-teams later, but all with the same name and brand.”

“I don’t know if I’m hurting my chances saying this, but I’m kind of crossing my fingers you guys are going with the Shepherd’s name and brand, but the Attendant’s approach.”

Whorl smiled again.  “We might be.”

“I like the approach,” I said.

“How do you interpret it?”

“Giving people security.  Moving slowly, with measured steps, informed by the lessons of the past.  You guys seem pretty focused on taking and holding territories, improving neighborhoods.  After what happened at the Norfair community center, I think giving people time to get used to capes again is key.”

“I think it might be,” Whorl said.

Above, the cape that was standing on the end of the horizontal pole whistled.  As we looked up, he pointed.

“That’s my cue,” Whorl said.  “No pun intended.  I’ll be right back.”

Whorl headed toward the building that the people were filing out of, moving at a light jog, with a fog-like nimbus building at his shoulders and arms.

I looked at the various capes, debating my options.  I worried that flying up to say hello to the one at the end of the pole would spook him and make him fall from his roost, and I wasn’t that keen on flying.

That left two options.  The tinker or the teenage girl with the moon iconography.

I made my way toward the girl, because she had less people around her.  The crowd was a bit of a tide I had to work against.

“Stuck?” I heard a voice.

I turned my head.  It was a man with tattoos, a cleft chin and eyes that looked like he was perpetually squinting, even in the shade of the gate that housed the Bet-Gimel portal.  He was talking to a couple.

“It’s a big decision.  We’re not farmers.”

“It’s hard, getting started again,” the guy with the tattoos said.  “The tent cities are rough, while you wait for an available apartment.  You can work your ass off, earn fake ‘dollars’ that might not have value in a few weeks or months, you sweat, you hurt, and everyone around you is doing the same.  Stinks, when everyone’s working that hard and getting only a few minutes to shower.”

“We’ve heard of things like that.”

“If you want another option, we’ve got a settlement at Canaan.  Small city, even.  Or a big town.  We’ve got extra rooms, food, and dangerously strong alcohol.  We’re still trying to figure that out.”

I heard the rustle of papers.

“Canaan?” I asked.

“Yes.  Have you been?”

“I’ve heard stories,” I said.  I turned to the couple, “I’m ninety percent sure the Canaan area is Fallen territory.  Outskirts of the megalopolis.”

“We’re not really holding fast to all of that anymore,” the guy with the tattoos said.  “We said the world would end, we tried to draw attention to it, the world ended, we were right.  Now we make the best of things.”

“That seems like a pretty skewed take,” I said.

He rolled his eyes as he looked away from me.  He turned back to the couple.  “You have the directions.  Easy to catch a bus to New Haven, catch another bus to the Hartford Stretch.  Go to the address, we almost always have someone with a ride waiting there for the buses, to drive you into Canaan.  The hard work has been done, it’s easier, it’s more fun, and there’s actual community.  It’s one of the things that’s strangely missing from most parts in this city.  You’ll notice that.”

“Maybe,” the guy from the couple said.  “I’ll keep this.”

“McVeay, Crowley, or Mathers?” I asked.

The guy shot me an annoyed look.  “What?”

“Which family branch were or are you?”  I asked.  I turned to the couple.  “Three branches, each loosely themed after one of the Endbringers.  There was a nascent fourth in twenty-thirteen that was based on one or all of the other three, but I missed the memo on that.”

“Crowley,” the guy said.  “We were the jackasses.”

“McVeays were the ultra-religious, more violent ones, loosely themed after Behemoth,” I said.  “Mathers were the ones themed after the Simurgh.  They’re still around too, they did a lot of the kidnappings of kids and capes, with intent to force marriages.  Then you have the Crowleys, who were a little bit more than jackasses.  Stirring panic, scaring people, violence.”

“To draw attention to the imminent end of the world,” the guy with the tattoos said.  “Do you want us to apologize for trying to get people’s attention and failing?  Or should we not have tried?  We were right.

“Is there a problem?”

A woman’s voice.  I thought it was the girl with the moons on her costume.  It wasn’t.  Another woman with tattoos, with friends.  One of the tattoos was of a bat-winged schlong.  Another was of a cartoon character I didn’t recognize getting spit-roasted, in the metal pole, open fire sense.

She had others, but I couldn’t see enough of them to tell what they were.  I could guess they were similarly tasteful.  Her top was tied at the sternum, exposing ribs and stomach.

“Just a bit of one,” I said.  “You guys are openly recruiting from this crowd here?”

“Recruiting is an strange way to put it,” the guy with the tattoos said.

I looked at the couple.  “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.  Free rent, free food, drinks, company?”

“Cheap rent,” the woman with the tattoos said.  “A lot of people stay just long enough to make some extra money while commuting to Hartford and paying rent to us.”

“All we ask is that people who decide to go make sure to tell people that hey, we aren’t assholes,” the tattooed guy said.

“We aren’t assholes!” the burly guys who were keeping the woman company cheered in near-unison.

“Which Crowley is in charge?” I asked.

“Hey, bitch,” the woman said.  “Just move on.  Fuck off.”

The cheering had drawn attention.  The teenage girl with the moons on her costume approached, ducking beneath one of the burly guy’s arms.  She spotted me, saw that last exchange, and drew close to me, putting one hand on my shoulder.

“You’re the one Whorl was talking to?” she asked.

“Yeah.”

“Take it from me, it’s not worth it.  Come on.”

The guy with the tattoos smirked.

“You know they’re recruiting here, right?” I asked.

“We know,” she said.  “We’ve drawn attention to it.  We were told to keep out of it, so long as they behave.”

She put pressure on my shoulder, urging me to move.  I took one step back.

I didn’t want to let this go.  I would have more regrets if I walked away.

“Which Crowley?” I asked.  “There were three brothers and one sister, last I heard.”

“Doesn’t matter,” the tattooed guy said.

“Eldest brother was a murderer, got ousted from the family for that, back in twenty-eleven, when the Fallen were still minor.  But around the time their numbers swelled in twenty-twelve, early twenty-thirteen, he got accepted back, head of the Crowley branch.  He killed two of his own family members after that.  I think that matters a lot, since if he’s in charge, you can’t really call yourselves mere jackasses.”

“Not him.”

There were a few more faces appearing in the crowd.  Unfriendly.

The girl with the moon design leaned in close, murmuring in my ear, “They have someone with powers in the crowd.  They send people out to fish for recruits, and if there’s trouble, they have these reinforcements summoned into the middle of the crowd and they’ll shout you down.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Middle brother and the sister were pretty skeevy too.  They didn’t kidnap anyone directly, but they networked with the other families, gave shelter to some McVeays who needed to duck the attention of the law, and they traded a few of their family members for some of the kidnapped minors and capes the Mathers family had.  I’d be concerned about going to that camp.”

“The little brother,” the guy with the tattoos said.

“The party animal,” I said.

“That’s what we’re about!” were the shouts.  There was more of a raucous response from the other reinforcements.  Cries and shouts of ‘party’.  People throughout the crowd were looking.

“He’ll try to steal your girlfriend before he makes you welcome!” I had to raise my voice to be heard.  The people who were pushing forward made it harder for me to see the couple.  “It’s not worth it.  You can look him up at a library.  Jake Crowley!  Four wives, all half his age!”

There were shouts and bellows of denial, a few swears directed my way.  One ‘cunt’, from someone close enough to have punched me if he’d felt the desire.

“Throw away the paper,” I called out.  “It’s not worth it!”

With the press of bodies, I didn’t see the paper get thrown away.  But I saw the guy hugging his girlfriend closer, I saw the fractional nod.

That was all I got.  The moon girl pushed me harder, and I allowed myself to be pushed this time.

I walked backward out of the crowd, looking at the group.  They were still making a lot of noise.

Whorl was waiting for me as I made my exit from the thicker part of the crowd.  The mech tinker was standing on the head of his suit, now, and the suit was standing too, which gave him a decent vantage point overlooking everything.

“It’s going to take an hour before they settle down,” Whorl said.  “What was that about?”

“Fallen recruiters,” I said.

“I know that much.”

“I wanted to make sure the people they were talking to knew,” I said.  “Told them who the family was, how they operated, who the leader was.”

“You think they listened?” Moon girl asked.

“They might have,” I said.  “I didn’t get the impression I was going to start a riot, so I thought I’d be okay trying.”

“Nah,” Whorl said, “Your impression was fine.  No riot.  They know to keep their hands to themselves, and just to be loud.  They stick to the rules so they can keep coming back.  We were told to let them, which sucks, but we have to work with the authorities.”

“I told her that,” Moon girl said.  “That we were supposed to leave it be.”

“Before or after she stirred them up?”

“Before,” I answered for her.  “I knew, I went ahead anyway.”

Whorl frowned.

“I knew it would probably cost me my spot on the team,” I said.

Whorl nodded slowly.

“But if it stops one person from going over to that town of theirs… I guess it’s worth it.”

“It might have worked,” Whorl said, “But they’ve got the reinforcements, they’ll double down.  They’ll try harder, make up for it.”

“You guys are all about learning from the mistakes of the past,” I said.  “Paying respect to the casualties.  You have to know they can’t be allowed to get a foothold.  They’re too monstrous, and the people they’re going after are too vulnerable.”

“They have a foothold already,” he said.  “We’re the guys who failed to stop the end of the world, and they’re the ones who were right about it.  To some people that’s all that matters.  It doesn’t matter that they’re scumbags or that they’re dangerous.  Not everyone, but even one out of every thirty is a lot.”

“We should go calm things down,” Moon girl said.

“Yeah,” Whorl said.  “Distract the people from the tattooed hooligans.”

“Good luck with that,” I said.

“Take care, Victoria.  Keep fighting the good fight, whatever you end up doing.”

I gave him a two finger salute.

I braced myself, both in balance and emotionally, then took to the air, moving slowly.  I raised myself up to the same level as the guy at the end of the pole, staying within his field of vision so I wouldn’t surprise him.

They were using the powers to teleport people in.  I couldn’t see where the fade-in happened or where the teleportation destination was, but as the crowd shuffled, there were more of the people with tattoos, trashy people, and people that didn’t look like refugees.

The guy on the end of the pole pointed.  I moved closer to him, and followed the line of his arm and finger to see.

A man with a daughter, sitting on a blanket at the base of a fence.

“The girl or the man?” I asked.

“The man.  He’s the one bringing them in.  Keeps the kid close as a shield, in case someone catches on.  Different kids, some days.”

I nodded.

“I think every day of going over there and taking him out of the picture.  Letting him know I know.”

“Wouldn’t be worth it,” I said.

The noises of the crowd of Fallen increased, a fresh chant.  Heads were turning and people were smiling, because they didn’t know, and positivity and high energy meant a lot when they were as tired and despondent as they were.  Some would have spent a long time waiting for their chance to come through.

A dangerous and vulnerable thing, to have no place to go.

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Daybreak – Interlude 1

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The truck stopped at the gate, producing the occasional sputter and knocking sound as it sat there.  The driver extended a hand out the window, waving for the camera, and the gate opened by way of remotely operated pulley.

It was another minute to the top of the hill, where the truck rolled to a stop in the parking lot, an expanse of gravel without any defined parking spots.  The three people within remained where they were, warily observing the restaurant from a distance.

It was a log cabin writ large, the cedars stripped of their bark and stained with something that made them almost glossy, a warm yellow under the sun.  The third floor was half the size of the other two, allowing the other half of what would have been the third floor to be a rooftop patio instead.  A series of tables was scattered around the building, some close together and others a considerable distance away, as if they were trying to escape into the woods.  Beyond the building was a cliff, and a vast expanse of forests, hills, mountains, and a small lake.

“Nice view,” Moose said, from the backseat.

Linc was settled in the passenger seat, reclining a bit with his seat angled back and his legs folded under him.  With Moose in the back, he’d had to slide his seat as far forward as it could go, and it didn’t leave him much legroom.  “Just think, past that view there isn’t nothing at all.  If you headed straight ahead and kept going, you might not find any habitation until you ended up on the backside of this settlement here.”

“If you headed straight ahead,” the driver said, pausing to take a swig of the bottle of water she’d wedged into her cup holder, making a face at how warm it was, “You’d put yourself into that lake down there.  Or you’d end up in the ocean.  You’d drown either way.”

Linc smirked.

“People would call you an idiot,” she said.  “Why would you go straight ahead like that?  Are you proving a point?”

“I don’t think that’s what Linc was getting at,” Moose said.

“Harper knows what I’m getting at,” Linc said, turning around in his seat to look at Moose as he said it.

Moose was a big guy, with tousled blond hair.  He’d undone some of the straps of his mask and had the mask laying over one muscular shoulder.  The mask was metal, crude, and Moose wore something cloth under it for padding, which he had on now.  He wore a sleeveless undershirt, jeans, boots, and had two gauntlets sitting next to him on the car seat.  Even with the truck being large and Moose lying down across the length of the seat, he barely fit.  He didn’t seem to mind much.

Behind Moose and the truck was the gravel road that led up the hill, the gate checkpoint, and a ways below that, the simple settlement where most visitors would be made to feel unwelcome.  One to two thousand people would be living there at most.

“They built this place and situated it on the very edge of civilization,” Linc said, to round off his earlier thought.

“You two always seemed like the kind of edge of civilization people to me,” Moose asked.

“We do okay,” Linc said.  “Put us in the middle of a city, we do fine, eh babe?”

“Mm,” Harper made a vaguely affirmative sound.  “This a trap, y’think?”

Linc turned his attention to the building at the top of the hill.  “Nah.  Why would you build a nice place like this and use it for a nefarious purpose.”

“Well, y’know, it’s gonna be nefarious.  That’s why we’re here,” she said.  “It’s a question of if it’s a murderous sort of nefarious.”

“That’s a good question, I admit,” Linc said.

“I knew a guy,” Moose said.  “He had a mansion.  Inherited or somethin’.  Super nice.”

“The guy or the house?” Linc asked.

“Hm?”

“The guy was nice or the house was nice?”

“The house.  That’s what I’m gettin’ at.  The guy was as nefarious as they get.  He renovated the insides.  He wanted to make a whole business of holdin’ people that needed holdin’.  For ransom.  Said he’d deal with ’em and clean up the mess if ransoms weren’t paid.  Wanted to be a contractor for disposin’ of people in horrible ways.”

“You’re supposed to just drop them off at the nice, conspicuous mansion, hand over cash?” Harper asked.

“That was it, I think.  He’d make sure they died slow and horrible for you, clean them up, make sure they weren’t found.”

“Definitely not a nice guy then,” Linc said.

“I dare say he wasn’t,” Moose said.

“That’s a terrible idea for a business,” Harper said.

“It kind of is,” Linc said.

“Might’ve been,” Moose said.  “He didn’t seem in it for the money, gotta say.  I highly suspect he was more focused on the part where he would do horrible things to people.  Guy has a nice place, he wants to do creatively bad things to people, and he wanted a bit of pocket money.  Draw lines between each of those things and you end up with something shaped like his game plan there.”

“A triangle?” Linc asked, looking back at Moose.  At Moose’s shrug, he elaborated, “If you draw straight lines between three things, you get a triangle.”

“Maybe the lines weren’t straight,” Moose said.  “But if you’re wondering if this is a trap, I don’t think it being fancy is ruling anythin’ out.”

“It’s a log building, Moose.  Nothing that fancy.”

“Fancy to me.”

Harper leaned forward against the steering wheel, to get closer to the windshield, squinting against the sun.

“What do you think, babe?” Linc asked.  “Is it a murderous nefarious or a prosperous nefarious.”

“It’s something,” she said.  “The people on the roof are in costume and some of them are looking at us.  I think we better get ourselves inside or they’re going to start laughing at us.”

“They’re going to laugh whatever happens,” Linc said.  “Your truck has seen better days-”

“Don’t go talking about my truck, Linc.”

“And we’ve got Moose with us, no offense Moose.”

“Some offense taken, thank you very much,” Moose said, indignant.

“You call yourself Moose.  People are going to laugh.  That’s when you show your merits and make them stop laughing, is the way it works.”

“People shouldn’t laugh in the first place,” Moose said.  “The Moose is a terrifying and noble creature.  If you wouldn’t fuck with a rhino, you shouldn’t fuck with a moose.  It’s one of the only proper prehistoric, giant animal species to have the grit to last to today.”

Harper turned off the truck.  The truck sputtered, coughed, and died abruptly, in a way that suggested it wouldn’t revive again.

“I know, bud,” Linc said, taking his eye off the truck’s much-abused, dust-caked dash.  “I know that much, I’ve seen one up close.  I’ve seen one run through snow that a normal person couldn’t walk in and hit a car hard enough to roll it.  I have a healthy respect.”

“Damn right,” Moose said.

Harper gave Linc a look, pulling her full mask on and flipping up her hood.

“But they don’t all know it,” Linc said.  “You gotta work with that.  You picked a jokey name, you gotta put up with the jokes.”

“Hope was they’d be laughing with, not laughing at,” Moose said.  “At least I’d hope you weren’t the ones poking fun at me.  It’s unkind, Linc.”

Harper climbed out of the truck.

“I’m not laughing at, bud.  I’m just saying they might be.  That’s all,” Linc said.  He pulled his mask on, fixed his hair and beard with few sweeps of his hand, and climbed out, then hit the lever to flip his seat forward and give Moose room to squeeze out.

Moose kept the cloth mask on over his upper face,  leaving the metal mask on his shoulder.  He stretched, his joints popping audibly, and pulled his fur-lined gauntlets on.

“You’re going to have to take those off again if we end up eating,” Linc said.

“It’s about presentation,” Moose said.  “Besides, the name doesn’t make sense if I don’t got ’em.”

Harper was in costume, though the costume part was mostly a hooded, sleeveless top in her namesake velvet color, lopsided in how it trailed down over one leg in a robe-like aesthetic.  She wore skintight shorts underneath.  A black mask covered her upper face, and had truncated, forking horns that poked out through the top of the hood and kept the hood from falling back.

Linc wore a mask like Velvet’s, but his traced the area around his eye sockets and eyebrows, with the edges tracing back and into his hair, forking as they did.  He wore a bodysuit for the upper body and pants.  His costume had always been meant to be layered, but the heat had forced him to strip down to the base layer, with the pants only because he felt like a clown if he wore only the skintight stuff.

People leaning against and over the railing on the roof watched them as they approached the door.

“This place is a hell of a lot better than the last couple we visited,” Prancer remarked.

“More expensive too,” Velvet said.  She was looking at the blackboard posted by the door, with prices.  “Twenty dollars for a chicken sandwich?”

“Come on,” Prancer said, pushing the door open.

The inside was expansive, with the kitchen as an island in the middle, counters and surrounding it, booths around the edges of the room, and tables in the space in between.  There were only eleven non-staff people within, but the ground floor could have seated a hundred or more.

Prancer approached the kitchen island.  He spoke to a black, twenty-something woman in a tan polo shirt and apron, “Who do I talk to for the rules?”

She jerked a thumb over her shoulder, indicating an elderly black man who was wiping out a glass.  The man was watching, squinting with one eye, as he carried out the routine motion of cleaning the glass.

“He’s in charge?” Prancer asked.

The employee gave Prancer a single nod.

“What can I do for you?” the man asked, as the three approached.

“We’ve been around the block a couple of times, I’m just looking for a primer on customs, and any special rules.”

“Payment up front for what you’re ordering, have the money ready when you order if it’s busy.  Don’t cause trouble, don’t draw weapons, don’t be loud, give us a heads up and use the side door or the patio if your power is going to bother anyone.  Upstairs is the bar, you don’t go upstairs unless you’re invited or you already know you qualify to go upstairs.”

“What kind of qualification?” Velvet asked.

“If you have to ask, you don’t have it,” the old man said.  He put the glass down and picked up another.  “Roof is for more private meetings than you’d have on the second floor.  Don’t go taking yourself up there if you wouldn’t be allowed on the second floor.”

“Noted,” Prancer said.  “Anyone to avoid, watch out for, anything like that?”

“That’s more for you to watch out for than for me to bother with.  If they’re causing a problem or being a bother to others, they’ll get kicked out.  If you help with the kicking out, I’ll give you something on the house.”

“Right,” Prancer said.  “Got it.”

“Do you serve drinks down here?” Moose asked.

“We do.  Anything fancier than beer or wine, we’ll have to send someone upstairs to fetch it.”

“Could I grab a mightyman?” Moose asked.  He pulled off a gauntlet and retrieved a wallet from his pocket.  He held out a twenty.  “Long, hot drive.”

“Name?” the old man asked, gesturing at an employee.  The employee set to getting the beer.  The old man pulled a pad and pen out of his apron.

“Name?  Uh, M.K.,” Moose said.

“No initials,” the man said.

“Just Moose then,” Moose said, sliding the twenty across the bar.  “We can order food at the tables?”

“You can,” the old man said.  He picked up the money, then pulled out a fiver from the pocket of his apron and passed it back to Moose.  He looked at the others.  “Names?”

“Prancer.  She’s Velvet.”

“Do I need to worry about you?”

“Nah.  We’re pretty tame.  We’re here to make contacts and get our names out there for the small stuff.”

“If you do any business, be discreet enough I and my staff don’t see it.  If you use powers, don’t bother the person next to you.”

“Got it.  Can I grab a beer?  What my buddy Moose is having,” Prancer handed over the bills.

“Me too,” Velvet said.

Prancer withdrew a larger bill from his wallet, and set it on the counter, sliding it toward the old man.  “Gratuity?”

“No need,” the old man said.  “Service fees and peace of mind are worked into the food prices.  Order something, if you want to thank me.”

Beers in hand, they briefly considered sitting at the counter before Moose took a seat at one of the tables.

“Where you sit is important,” Prancer said.  “Booth, you’re minding your own business, you’ve got walls around you.  Sitting at the counter, you’re open to people approaching you and joining you, I think.  Not entirely sure how it works here in particular.”

“I hear you,” Moose said, “But I was sittin’ funny the entire drive here, and if I sit on one of those stools then I’m going to have my back spasming the entire way back.  I need a sturdy chair, here.”

“Sure, doesn’t matter that much,” Prancer said.  He twisted around in his seat, one hand on his beer, taking a look at the others who were present.  “Pretty laid back here.”

“Could be a quieter time of the day,” Velvet said.

“Out of the way place, too,” Prancer said.  “You heard what he said about using powers?  How many places have we been to, and how many allowed use of powers at all?”

“Ten.  Ten places,” Velvet said, hunkering down over her beer.  “This is the only one, I think.  Might have been a rule in The Well, but that was more the kind of place where you don’t know the rules until someone’s punching your face in for violating them.”

Prancer watched as a faint speck of dust traveled across his vision, pink-tinted.  He smiled.

Four teenagers in the corner booth.  They wore dark clothes with symbols and designs spray painted on and bleached into the fabric.  One with a bandanna on his head looked their way, and Prancer flashed the guy a smile.

Three in another booth, against a wall.  Tinkers.  There was a cloth strewn out over the table, and parts were laid out.  They ranged from twists of metal to a glass tube housing something that looked like a large, chewed wad of gum.  The wad was throwing itself against the sides of its glass cage.

He wondered how that worked with the ‘no business’ rule.  Were they only talking shop?  Where was the line drawn?

Sitting alone in one booth was a woman with a mask covering her lower face, long black hair, and a long red dress with a slit down one side, exposing a tantalizing bit of leg.  She wore an intricate framework of metal at her arms and hands, a series of bands at the elbow, wrist, knuckles, and rings at the finger, with thin rods of steel extending between each, along the back of each finger, and stopping at each finger and thumbtip.  Each tip was enveloped by an ornate claw.

Her heels were much the same, Prancer noted.  Heels were unusual for someone in costume, and hers were more unusual still.   She wore something similar to her gloves, with the same bands at her leg, ankle, and foot, with the thin metal bars extending between each.  Her toes were covered with the same metal claws, there was a strap of metal below the balls of her feet, and at her heel, one large claw-point served as the ‘heel’ of her heel, stabbing straight down.

When she moved one leg to fold one knee over the other, the claw tips moved on their own, twitching, recalibrating, the heel shifting back to stay pointed at the ground, flick back and away, then flick down.

She undid one side of her mask so it swung toward Prancer, still blocking his view of her mouth, helped by the draping of long hair, and she leaned down, taking a bite of her wrap.  She put one hand to the loose end of her mask while she chewed, and fastened the end as she swallowed.

She saw him looking, turning her head his way.  He smiled at her.

She only stared.

“Someone’s coming,” Moose said.

One of the spray painted kids.  The guy Prancer had smiled at.

“You’re new.”

“Prancer, Velvet, M.K.,” Prancer introduced the group.

“Where are you from?”

“Alaska, believe it or not.”

“Long way,” the teenager said.

“Especially when you’re driving it,” Prancer said.  “Who are you guys?”

“The group’s Ripcord.  I’m Gorgos.  We raid stores and resell, mostly.  We’re nobodies.  It’s the B-listers and small fry down here.  The people with name recognition go upstairs.”

“Meaning the people we want to do business with are upstairs,” Velvet said, still leaning heavily over her beer.

“It’s fine,” Prancer said.  “We’ll work it out.”

“What do you guys do?”

“We wheel and deal,” Prancer said.

“Prancer likes to be clever, but he doesn’t get that sometimes you have to explain why it’s clever, otherwise you only confuse people,” Velvet said.

“It’s why I have you, babe.”

“The wheel part is getaway driving and transporting,” she explained.

The kid leaned forward.  The decoration on his outfit looked like the sort done with a stencil and a spray bottle filled with bleach, strategically bleaching fabric.  Snakes and a woman’s face as a recurring motif.  He had a bandanna over the top of his head and one over his nose and mouth.  “What do you deal?”

“Grass, mostly,” Prancer said.

“You actually have some?”

“Not here, but we have it.  Brand new and in high demand, given the times,” Prancer said.

“Are you looking for resellers?”

“For the right price.  Mostly we’re looking for new friends, and we’re trying to get the lay of the land before we do anything too enterprising.”

“Can I get back to you?” the guy asked.

“You’re welcome to,” Prancer said.  “We wouldn’t mind company either, if you guys wanted to join us.”

“I’d have to get back to you on that too,” the guy said.  “We’re trying to find our way these days.  We agreed in the beginning we wouldn’t have one leader, and that was great then, but right now we’ve got two different leadership styles butting heads.”

Prancer looked over at the table, where those seated were having a very fierce, hushed discussion.

“If you want to just sit and trade stories, we’d be happy to have you,” Prancer said.  “Get away from all that, maybe come away with some fresh perspective.”

“I might take you up on that.  For now I’d better get back and make sure nobody reaches across the table to strangle someone.”

“Question before you go,” Moose said.  “Is it always this quiet?”

“It’s about to get noisier,” Gorgos said.  “Keep an eye on the guy at the end of the kitchen there.  He communicates with people in town.  He was talking to the boss about something and the boss put another cook on the stove.  Wait ten minutes and I bet he’ll hit the button to open the gate.  If he holds it down it’s a lot of people.  My guess is the ferry from NYC hit the shore near the G-N portal twenty minutes ago.”

“Good to know, thanks,” Prancer said.

Gorgos jogged back to his team.

“You’re dwellin’ a lot on going upstairs,” Moose observed.

“Reminds me of being a kid and being told I had to stay downstairs with my cousins and their friends during the holidays.  My cousins were assholes,” Velvet said.  “One good thing about Gold Morning is it took them out of the picture.”

Moose whistled.

“She’s wearing the purple cloak, that’s a sign of royalty, don’t you know?” Prancer plucked at Velvet’s hood.  Velvet batted his hand away.  “And royalty doesn’t not go upstairs.  Royalty doesn’t show mercy.”

“Y’know I went to prison because of you, Prance,” she said, quiet.

“Well, yeah.  I will point out we survived Gold Morning because we weren’t home when Alaska got hit.”

“I went to prison for you,” she said, again.  “That counts for a lot.”

“‘Course.  How does that connect, though?”

“Just sayin’,” she said, her accent thicker as her voice became softer.  “You said things would be different.”

“They will,” he said.  He put a hand around her shoulders and pulled her closer, then kissed the top of her head.  “We’ve got a decent crop, a lot of demand.  We’ll do okay.  We’ll make inroads.”

“I’m optimistic,” Moose said.

“I’m not unoptimistic,” Velvet said.

“You’re not enthused either, doesn’t sound like,” Moose said.

“Just sorta hoping for more, sooner,” she said.

“Yeah,” he said.  There wasn’t much more to say.

Velvet reached out, and the menu flew from the tabletop to her hand.  It was tinted red and dusty, but much of their table and glasses were, now.

Prancer took stock of the other three capes in the room before the newest batch of arrivals reached the front door.

There was one, who might have been a bouncer, who had stepped out the side door momentarily and was now taking a seat by that same door.  He wore a mask of metal bars that looked like they’d been welded to one another, all vertical, but he also wore a black apron.

That left only the couple at the bar.  Matching costumes, white armor with jet black iconography, multiple circles and crescents in various patterns, with the armor sprayed black around each icon, so it looked like the darkness glowed.  The man wore full armor, the woman wore only scattered pieces of armor, with white chainmail to cover the rest of her.

They drank white wine, in the middle of the afternoon.

Capes were strange people, Prancer mused.

“I want to be the kind of person who earns her way upstairs,” Velvet said.  Her head still rested against his shoulder, where he’d pulled her close.

“That’s really stuck in you, huh?”

“It’s stuck,” she said.  Without moving her head, she raised the beer to her lips and took a careful sip.

“You might have to lose the beater of a truck, babe, if you want to dress the part.”

“Don’t go talkin’ about my truck, Prance.”

“Every time you turn it off, it sounds like it’s off for good.  I say a little prayer to myself that it will be, even knowing it’s a long, long walk back to home.  Then I can take the money I’ve got saved up and buy you something nice.  All the bells and whistles.”

“When I got out of prison, I only had two things, babe.  That truck, and you.  I wasn’t feeling especially fond of you at the time, either.  It’s the only thing I’ve had for myself since I was old enough to have anything, that I’ve been able to keep.”

“Counts for somethin’, that,” Moose said.

“It does,” Velvet said, frowning down at her beer.

Prancer frowned at Moose, who only shrugged.  Guy wasn’t making it any easier.

“What if we overhauled the outside, got someone to give the engine a real solid lookin’-at?” Prancer asked.

“So long as it stays my truck.  I don’t want you ship-of-Theseusing it.”

Prancer resisted swearing under his breath.  So that tactic wouldn’t work.

There was more of the pink dust in the air, now.  He gave Velvet a kiss on top of the head, then shrugged slightly.  She moved her head off of his shoulder, sitting upright.

“Things will be better,” he said.

She reached for his hand and squeezed it.  “I’m going to go find the ladies’ room.  Order food before things get hairy.  I’ll have the chicken caesar sandwich and grab a few bottled waters while you’re at it.  For the drive back.”

“You know the markup on those will be insane,” Prancer said.

“Just get me my water,” she said.

She walked away.  Prancer watched her walk away, feeling wistful.

He signaled the waitress.  He made sure to give Velvet’s order while he remembered it, and then gave his own.  Moose put in enough of an order for two people.

When they were alone again, Moose commented, “Sorry, for interjectin’.”

“Interjecting?”

“When you were talking about the truck, and about prison.”

“Ah.  Yep.  Apology accepted.”

“Hard to be the third wheel sometimes.  Especially when things get complicated, relationship-wise.”

“Can’t speak about the third-wheeling.  That’s for you to figure out.  But for the relationship part, it’s the simplest thing in the world, Moose,” Prancer said.  “She’s my girlfriend, I’m her boyfriend.  Sometimes you and she enjoy each other’s company, sometimes I enjoy someone else’s company, but that doesn’t change that it’s me and it’s her as the boyfriend and girlfriend.”

His voice had become progressively more stern as he’d talked.  He paused, meeting Moose’s eyes.

“Makes sense,” Moose said.  Prancer smiled.

“Doesn’t seem like you’ve had anyone but her keeping you company, gotta say,” Moose said.

Prancer looked at the woman with the mask on her lower face and the claw-heels.  “Trying to be better.”

“Good for you,” Moose said, before taking a drink of his beer.

“I’m going to marry that Velvet sometime soon,” Prancer said.  “I’ve just got to make amends for old wrongs first.  Can’t ask her to marry me when the last momentous event in our lives was me being a screwup.”

“The prison thing?”

“Everything before, too.  Trying to be better.”

“I don’t want to step on any toes or get into anythin’ too sensitive here,” Moose said.  “But can I ask?  Would be easier to not step on toes if I can ask.”

“It’s the whole thing.  Get powers as a kid, sixteen years old, make friends with the right people, start dealing.  It’s an elevation in status, y’know?  I was the guy who the cool kids in high school went to for product.  Had money, had girls throwing themselves at me, I was invited to all the parties, and I meet Velvet there.  One of many girls in one of many cities.  But she gets powers and comes back to me, wants in, wants out of her house, especially.  I oblige, and she doesn’t make me regret it.”

Moose nodded.

“Years pass, we find our fit.  She’s got more financial sense, I’ve got the salesmanship.  Most capes, there’s going to be conflict.  She’s got her thing, you know how her power works.  She hangs around somewhere, and this dust collects, and she can telekinetically control stuff, more dust there is on it.  It’s how she gets that fucking truck going again, when it refuses to move.  She makes us sit there for five minutes and then gives it another try, and it works, and she’ll fiddle with it later and get it tuned up just enough it starts going.”

“She must care an awful lot about it,” Moose observed.

“She does.  But that’s her whole psychology.  She wants to settle in, wants to have a place she can call hers, whether it’s that truck cab or, I don’t know, going upstairs.  I get restless.  The mover thing.  That causes friction.  But we work despite it.  We’re as soulmate as you can get when you’ve got… whatever these things are giving us our powers.  Parasites.  You had the visions when we were on the battlefield, that day.”

“Sure,” Moose said.

“As yin-yang soulmate as you can get with these things screwing up the fit,” Prancer said.  “But we got comfortable.  I graduate school, barely, she graduates a year after me, we keep up the routine.  Some wheeling, mostly dealing.  The parties every weekend, tooth and nail fights because we’re both the type to flirt with others, before we realized we were fine just not worrying about it.  Couple more years pass, I’m twenty-one, she’s twenty, still in the routine.”

“A rut?” Moose asked.

“Just the way things were.  Somewhere along the line, you know, I’m twenty-seven, she’s twenty-six, and I’m still boning boys and girls from high school.  Still partying.”

Moose’s eyes had widened.

“Legal, mind you,” Prancer said.  “But… sketchy, in retrospect.”

“More than a little, no offense,” Moose said.

“None taken.  I deserve it.  I didn’t realize until they came after us.  Capes, police.  You get into a groove and you don’t think about things and somehow a decade gets away from you.  You’re not the cool guy people are excited to get to know.  You’re the guy they’re into because they have to be if they want a discount, or if they want someone accessible that’s older.  Sad.  Pathetic.  Slapped me in the face while people were talking to and about me in court.  Forced me to take a long, hard look at who I was and who I wanted to be.”

“That’s good,” Moose said.

A young woman entered the restaurant.  Prancer almost thought it was the first of the influx, but she was alone.  She was an older teenager or twenty-something, with long white hair, wearing a black dress and black makeup, and she took a seat alone at the table.  She rummaged in a bag to find a book.

The waitress approached her, kettle already in hand.  The money was passed across the table, and the tea was poured.  A regular.

Her mask was so simple it might as well have not been there.  Curious, too, that she’d come this far to read a book.  Maybe someone would be joining her.

Prancer watched the new arrival, but he kept talking, “She told me, over and over again, I needed to be better.  That she wanted better.  That we needed to be careful.  I didn’t listen.  We got out of prison, she took me back, and I owe her for that.”

“If your critical flaw was not listening, might be you’ve gotta listen when she’s saying she loves that vehicle out there.”

Prancer nodded slowly.  Then he let his head loll back, and he groaned.  “I’ve put up with that thing for so many damn years.”

Velvet’s glass of beer slid across the table, and Prancer caught it just before it could reach the edge of the table and tip into his lap.

“You’re talking about my truck?” Velvet asked, making her way back from the restroom.

“Moose is telling me to let it go,” Prancer said.  “I’m trying to come to terms with the idea.”

“You’re a good boy, Moose,” Velvet said, taking her seat.  The glass pulled out of Prancer’s hands, sliding across the table to slap into Velvet’s hand.

“Appreciate that, Velvet.”

“Did you order or did you forget?” she asked.

“Remembered,” Prancer said.  “It’s coming soon.”

The front door opened.

A large collection of capes entered and immediately headed off to find their booths and tables.  One of the new arrivals stepped inside and loitered by the door.  She was a woman with a slender figure and a bag over her head, for lack of a better description.  The bag was cloth, with a pink animal pattern on it.  The rest of her form-fitting outfit matched, including the shawl she wore.

Prancer leaned in the direction of the door, putting his mouth near Velvet’s ear.  “I see Nursery.  I wonder if Blindside is around.”

“I hope the kid’s okay,” Velvet said.  She looked at Moose.  “Were you there when we talked to ’em?”

“I was.”

“They were up to something.”

“I remember.”

A man in armor was one of the last to arrive.  The armor was white, and looked like it was fashioned of strips, woven and wound around him, the ends left frayed and sticking out to the sides and behind him.  There was no face to it.  Only a Y-shaped set of ridges.  He stood between Nursery, a man in a black outfit and heavy hood, and a heavyset man with long hair, a dense beard, and a mechanical arm that extended to the ground.

At his arrival, people across the room started applauding, from Ripcord to the people at the counter, to the white haired girl and the woman with the mask.  Even the kitchen staff.  The man in armor laughed, the sound mingling with the general applause.

Moose joined in, and Velvet and Prancer offered their own light, confused applause.

“Thank you.  Thank you.  Is Marquis here?” the man in armor asked.

The old man at the kitchen pointed skyward.  “Roof.”

The man in armor saluted, then ducked back through the door.

Velvet raised her hand to get Nursery’s attention.  The woman’s group was already splitting up.  The man in black joined the people in white armor.  The bearded man with the mechanical arm walked over to the woman with the claws, sitting in her booth.

Nursery approached the table.

“Good to see you,” Prancer said.

“I didn’t think I would see you three all the way out here,” Nursery said.

“We’re trying to see who’s out there.  The other places have been a little seedy.”

“They are.  Seedy can be fun, though,” Nursery said.  “Reminds me of the old days.”

“You keep updating your costume,” Velvet said.

“Silly thing, isn’t it?  It’s easier to make a new one than to wash the blood and slime out.  I feel ridiculous.”

“What was happening with the applause?” Prancer asked.

“Mission success,” Nursery said.  “In a roundabout, unexpected way, but that’s often how these things go.”

“Congratulations,” Moose said.

“Thank you, Moose.  It was a thing.  We took a week to figure out what we were doing, we had to check with a few people, a number of thinkers, make sure we weren’t stepping on toes.  The peace being what it is, we didn’t want to cause too much trouble.”

“Was it a big mission?” Prancer asked.

“Big,” Nursery said.  “Plenty of room for things to go very wrong, with some bad repercussions that could be felt by everyone.”

Prancer’s eyebrows went up.

“But we were careful, we had the right people-”

“You included among those people,” Velvet said.

“Yes,” Nursery said, clasping her hands together.

“What was the job?” Prancer asked.

“To kidnap someone, and have her disappear for long enough that people would get upset about it.”

“Huh,” Prancer said.

“They’re anxious out there.  They feel powerless.  The idea was to pick someone controversial, and take them out of the picture.  Make them the topic of debate.  Is vigilante justice right or wrong?  In this case, where the wrong isn’t so terribly wrong?  Well, that was their idea.  I do think she did something horrible.  It’s why I agreed to the job.”

“What was that?”

“Hurt a woman and made her miscarry.  They say it was a mistake.”

“I can see where that hits close to home.”

“Sorry to hear,” Moose said.

“Thank you.  You’re kind.  The plan was to provoke the debate and raise the issue before things reached a more critical point.  Venting off the steam before things exploded.  The debate seems to be trending that way.”

“Sounds like it needed a fine hand,” Velvet said.  “That’s some good work.”

“I didn’t do it alone,” Nursery said.

“Your first time working with the others?”

“It was.  Lord of Loss is sweet, good at what he does.”

“He went straight to the roof, I’m guessing that means he isn’t the type to work with B-listers like us.”

“No, I suppose not.  He doesn’t like being indoors.  You’re recruiting?  That’s what you’re asking after?”

“Or looking for a spot of work,” Prancer said.

“Snag, sitting over there, is looking to hire people for a project down the road.  He wants to do test runs first, make sure he succeeds on the first try.  Those two hired the same information broker we worked with for that job.”

“You had an information broker?”

“She was ops too.  Talked to us on the earpieces.  A little shaky on some things, surprisingly quick on others.  But I think you run into that with any thinker.”

Prancer nodded.

“Snag is a few months new, a rookie, with a rookie’s mindset, but he has good instincts.  If I can say this in confidence…”

“Of course,” Velvet said.

“…I wouldn’t want to be on a team with him long-term,” Nursery said.  “He’s mean.  Unkind, impatient.  Emotional.  You get that with a lot of the new ones.  Too close to whatever set them off.”

Prancer nodded slowly.  “Old ones have their own problems.  Ruts and routines.”

“They do.  Um, I should hurry.  Blindside has a mouth but I do like them.  They do a decent job, if you can work around the limitations.  They’re outside now, sitting on the patio by the side door.  Can’t come inside without turning a few heads.”

Prancer smiled at the bad joke.

“Kingdom Come likes his bible verses, I earned some considerable brownie points by knowing the names and numbers to go with most of them.  Benefit of bible school until I was eighteen.  He’s a consummate professional.  Very gentle, very efficient.”

“Expensive?” Velvet asked.

“Not too bad, I don’t think.  I don’t know what he was paid, but if it’s close to my own wage, it shouldn’t be horrendous.  He’s very selective about the jobs he’ll accept.”

“What about you?” Prancer asked.

“Me?  I’m boring.  I’m not even a parahuman, not really.”

“Wait, what?” Moose asked.

“I’m not,” Nursery said.  She had a light tone of voice, like she was smiling from the other side of the cloth mask.  “It’s why I feel so out of place in costume.”

Prancer watched as others came through the door.  He recognized Biter but failed to get Biter’s attention with a wave.

“How does that work?” Moose asked.

“Show him the bump,” Velvet said, smiling.

“The bump?” Moose asked.  “Oh.”

Prancer glanced over at Nursery, who was holding her cloth costume tighter against her stomach, showing her slightly protruding belly.

“They’re the parahuman,” Nursery said.  “I’m the ride.”

“Oh,” Moose said.  “Oh wow.  Sorry.”

“No need to be sorry.  It’s a bond unlike any other,” Nursery said.  She gave Moose a pat on the cheek.  “It’s hard sometimes, but I owe it to them.  Making up for mistakes I’ve made.”

“Yeah,” Prancer said, staring at his beer.  He looked from his glass to Nursery.  “Don’t be too hard on yourself, hm?”

“I’ll try,” she said.  “I should go.  Take care and wish me luck.”

“Good luck,” Moose said.  He still looked shell-shocked.

“What’s next?” Velvet asked, smiling.

“What we did yesterday is only one instance.  They’ll have to do it again when the pressure builds.  Sooner or later, however many thinkers they work with, however good the people they hire, there will be a mistake.  Something will happen, it could be too much, too little, and then everything goes to hell in a handbasket.”

“Heavy,” Prancer said.

“But I’ve stayed too long.  My baby and I earned ourselves an invite upstairs, because they might hire me again, and because we showed our stuff, I don’t want the offer to expire,” Nursery said, excited.  “We can’t drink at the bar, but it’s still a chance to meet some of the people running the corner worlds, the major players.  A huge opportunity.”

“That’s amazing,” Moose said, looking down at the bump.  “Congratulations.  Both of you.”

“You’re so sweet.  I should go, excuse me,” Nursery said, leaving.

“We’ll talk again,” Prancer said.

Velvet raised a hand, her smile frozen on her face.  Prancer reached over to squeeze her thigh.

“I think I hate her now,” Velvet said.

He gave her leg another squeeze.

His thoughts turned over as he watched the people enter.  Some headed upstairs.  Ones with nice costumes, scary ones.  He recognized quite a few.

There were also the others.  The B-listers, the dregs, the people who weren’t yet established, filling up the ground floor, ordering their food and drinks.

“Hey Moose,” he said.

Moose stared off into space, in the direction of the stairs.

“Moose,” Velvet said.  “I’m pretty sure she’s a loon.  I wouldn’t worry too much about it.”

“Moose,” Prancer tried again.

Moose frowned, glancing back at the stairs.  “Yeah?”

“Look at the room.  Tell me, who do you know here?”

“Some of the big guys.  Biter, you and I had drinks with him.  Etna, Crested, Beast of Burden, Bitter Pill, Nailbiter, Hookline, Kitchen Sink.”

“Do me a favor?”

“Sure.”

“Round ’em up.  Anyone you get along with, who you think wouldn’t cause a fuss.”

“What are you doing?”

“Still figuring it out,” Prancer said.  “You recognize anyone?”

“Few people.  You want me to gather ’em?”

“Please.  We might have to take it outside.  Actually, let’s definitely take it outside.  By the side door.  So the owner doesn’t complain.”

“You’ve piqued my interest,” Velvet said.

Prancer nodded, still lost in thought.  He watched as she walked away, pausing to feel a moment of fondness for her, and then resumed his thinking.  He made his way to the side door.

“Hey,” Blindside said.

“Hey.  Gathering some people.  Thought we’d come to you, invite you to hear me out.”

“Thanks, Prancer.  What’s this about?”

“Give me a second to think.  I’m a salesman, and I’ve got to figure out exactly what I’m pitching.”

“Sure.”

Prancer stuck his fist out, stopped where Blindside’s power made it stop.  He felt Blindside tap a fist against the side of his hand.

The others assembled.  The people who had been invited, then the people who hadn’t, who were curious.

“I want to organize,” he started.  “I’m not the person to lead it, don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a power play.  I’m not a power player.  But I think, right now, while we’re still at peace, while there aren’t so many people who have beefs with one another, or the beefs have had two years to go quiet, this would be the chance to do it.”

“You wouldn’t be the first person to think about doing this,” Biter said.

“No?”

“No, some other groups, some small, some large.  They’re banding together, a mutual peace.  Forming a set of rules and expectations that aren’t unwritten, that we actually discuss and work out.”

“With the little guys?” Prancer asked.  “B-listers?  Those of us who aren’t being focused on while the big guys are laying out tracts of territory and settlements?”

“Some of them.  Those groups are smaller than you’d be talking, if you’re talking about everyone here.”

Prancer nodded.

He glanced at Velvet, and he saw the way she was looking at him, and he felt like a proper man for the first time.  She reached for his hand and squeezed it, hard.

Then, more alive and excited than he’d seen her in a long, long time, Velvet spoke, “You think they’d be open to talking?”

“I think they might,” Biter said.

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Daybreak – 1.8

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Daylight streamed in at a low angle as I stepped back into my office.  The light was blurred as it came through the condensation on the window, spotted with dots of darkness due to the melted frost that still clung to the window’s surface in lines and constellations of droplets.  Ninety percent of my books were packed up, the boxes that were still here were stacked near the door and the bookshelf, labeled in thick marker, with shorthand notes on the most interesting and essential files within written on the boxes in pen.  I’d left a few of the more interesting files available.  I’d put them in a box on their own, in case I needed something to read.

My phone was plugged into the computer.  I checked it, and made a small and sleepy pump of my fist as it lit up.  Then I saw the red number on the digital-display dial, and let my hand drop.  Missed messages: too many.

It wasn’t that I cared that much about the phone.  It was that the phone being on meant there was power again.  That the power was on again meant I could turn the space heater on.  I flicked the switch, turned on my computer, then lit the candles for what little good heat they offered and wrapped a blanket around me before settling in my computer chair.

I was freshly showered, towel around my hair, and I’d gotten dressed in a slightly musty spare change of clothes.  I had a blanket, candles, and a computer booting up.  I watched as it started the struggle of fighting every other computer out there that was wanting a piece of the web.

There were worse ways to take things easy on myself.

I slid my to-do list across the desk until it was beside my keyboard.  I’d need a car.  Plenty of people were willing to offer the use of theirs in order to pay for fuel.  Food, a place to stay.

Living accommodations might be tricky.  Demand was high, and it was a pretty steep drop in quality from the central areas and the fringes.  Many companies were putting up five or more houses a day or an apartment complex over the course of a week, slapping them together like there was a gun to their heads.  When it came time to find renters, they were more interested in filling the spaces fast.  They had no reason to answer questions or have a potential buyer investigating the nooks and crannies or checking the plumbing if they could turn that person away and have someone else on their doorstep within minutes.

It was a minefield.  Word of mouth, cash, contacts, or luck were required to get a proper house that wouldn’t start falling apart after the fact.  Fume Hood was one of the ones who’d been unlucky.

In more than one way.

My homepage was parahumans online, though.  On top of the missed calls and messages on my phone, I had a slew on the site.

♦  Unread Private Messages from NW_Brandish (2)
♦  Unread Private Messages from Glitzglam (8)

I deleted the messages from my mother.

I opened the second link.

♦  Private Messages from Glitzglam:

Point_Me_@_The_Sky: Staying the night at work.  Don’t fuss about me.  Tell the Dallon parental units if you think it’s necessary to keep them from going on warpath.  I want to be left alone for now

Glitzglam *New Message*: i can field them
Glitzglam *New Message*: I’m *so* sorry that happened i want to explain
Glitzglam *New Message*: I arrived and then Amy did and my eyes must have bugged out of my skull but your mom said it was okay we were trying this and you knew it was a reunion and I was wtf
Glitzglam *New Message*: It didn’t sound like you but I thought ok if you thought you were down I could roll with and back you up
Glitzglam *New Message*: Then Uncle M came and oh man if a man could shit crocodiles and piss bears Uncle M would have been doing that he was so fucking pissed b/c HE wasn’t told and he knew the story from the funerals right?
Glitzglam *New Message*: and he brought his wife/kids there
Glitzglam *New Message*: I knew something was up and tried to call but no answer? & then you didn’t show so I let my guard down. I thought u knew and had cold feet and was relieved
Glitzglam *New Message*: I am so sorry. I had no part in this. I should have been smarter. I did not know really truly

I marked it as unread and minimized it.  I didn’t want to think about it for the moment.

News.  Inquiry into the circumstances of Lachlan Hund.  Not a trial, but an inquiry, some questions by people with more official standing.  He’d fallen in with some sketchy people, and there were thoughts about there being powers involved.

The inquiry was the story of the hour, it seemed.  Heroes stood by to step in and take him away to get help if officials were suspicious he’d been manipulated, but it was sounding like he would go home with his new family.  That sucked.

Other articles, further down the pages.  Fume Hood was alive, and she was a contentious topic.  The actions on the part of the shooter seemed to have split people into two factions, with the ones supporting Fume Hood slightly edging out the ones who condemned her.  Strange to see.

I wanted more info on her situation, and unfortunately, that was all I got.

I added another note to my to-do list.  I’d reach out to Fume Hood, check in.  I’d satisfy my curiosity and nag her about the name choice, which I’d been meaning to do but hadn’t had the chance to.

My eye traveled up to the unread messages.  Crystal’s responses.

It all felt like I was taking a massive backward step.  Like I was back in the immediate aftermath of Gold Morning.  Two legs, two arms, bewildered, emotional.  I was bothered, upset.  I didn’t know what to do with myself.

I’d been angry at my parents then too.  For various reasons.  Angry at a lot of people and things.

I hadn’t and didn’t want that to define me.

I clicked on Crystal’s account name again.

Glitzglam *New Message*: I am so sorry. I had no part in this. I should have been smarter. I did not know really truly

Point_Me_@_The_Sky: S’okay.
Point_Me_@_The_Sky: I know how these things go.
Point_Me_@_The_Sky: I saw this sort of thing play out when it wasn’t aimed at me.   I can read between the lines and speak Carol-ese and I picked up on what she was saying about you being skeptical about the situation
Point_Me_@_The_Sky: I absolve you on the condition of one get together where we have some good eating, your treat, and you need to let me know if you hear of any good apartments or things because I am not good going back to my dads

I drummed my fingers on my desk, mused that my motivations might have to do with my being hungry.

More news articles.  Some capes were taking on roles as icons and iconoclasts for the various movements in the civilian sectors.  Four hero teams led the ‘icon’ groups.  Advance Guard, Foresight, the Shepherds and the Attendant.

The first two were aimed at pushing forward.  New approaches, doing things right this time.  The opinions on what that way forward looked like it differed, feeding into the division between the two groups.

Things were changing.  The Shepherds and Attendant had been groups divided along similar lines, but the Shepherds were self-combusting, and the remaining members were folding into the Attendant.  There was some debate over what the name of the resulting team would be.

And then there were three, I thought.

I idly browsed, caught between liking the Shepherd’s aesthetic and icons better while liking the Attendant’s mindset of moving slowly, with caution.  I was suspicious it might end up being the opposite.  As it was, the Attendant’s approach tacked on a bit too much ‘remember what we lost’ for my liking, clinging to the past, being defined by it, but-

There was a knock on the door.

“Come in,” I said.

Gil opened the door.  He had two coffees in a tray in one hand and a bag in the other, and he had to juggle them both as he opened the door.

I rose to my feet.

“Sit,” he said.  He nearly dropped his drink as he saw the boxes.  “Shit on me, you’re packed.”

“I’ll be done in time to be gone before the students turn up,” I said, sitting.

“I’m not so concerned about that right now,” he said.  He put the bag and coffees on the desk.  “How are you?”

I shrugged.

“You look better.”

I had a headache from not sleeping and not eating, and from the post-stress hangover, but I also felt lighter than air in a euphoric, fragile way.  It was as if I’d just gotten over a bad round of the flu, and I was at the point where I was getting over the worst of it, but if I did the wrong thing or tested my body in the wrong way I’d be sick and hurting again.

Better.

I shrugged again.  “Yeah.  That word could apply.”

“Did you sleep at all?”

I snorted air out of my nose.  “I’ll sleep when I’m so tired I have no other choice.”

“But you’re feeling better than you were?”

“Yeah.  Better than I was.  Thanks for letting me stay over,” I said.

He pulled a breakfast burger out of the paper bag, and my eyes must have lit up, because he smiled, passing it to me.

A double-decker English muffin, with bacon, two eggs, lettuce, tomato and very sharp mustard.

I wasn’t normally one to eat egg, but I didn’t let that stop me.

I’d taken too big of a bite.  I swallowed hard.

It was good.  Visceral.  Like Snag’s power, the hit of emotion as I enjoyed it was like a bit of metal, closing an electrical connection.  Rounding off a thought I hadn’t wanted to make.

Feeding tubes.  The insertions, the removals.  The tube being there, one eye watching the beige fluid moving through steadily.  Really wanting something good.  Going almost four months without, because they weren’t sure I could.  Then having it be a chore.  It had been better than the alternative, but a chore, to force myself to eat it right, to chew it thoroughly enough.

I swallowed hard again, not because I had another bite to swallow.

Gilpatrick was looking at my files and notes, his back to me, my English muffin sandwich in my hands.

He glanced at me, saw the blinking, and looked away.  “If you want to talk, I’m all ears.”

“I don’t, thank you,” I said.  “I had a bad day, the part you knew about, then it got worse.  Now I’m trying to get centered.”

He nodded.

“This is really good,” I said.

“They are, I took a bite of mine in the car and then ate it before I got here,” he said.  He bent over a box, looking at the notes.  “Man, I wish I still had access to these files and books.  I’d try bribing you if I could do it in good conscience.”

I swallowed again.  “They’re mine and I’m too straightlaced to be bribed.  You can call me if you want to ask about any of it.”

“Then I owe you more favors, am I right?”

“I thought we weren’t counting anymore,” I said.

He didn’t respond to that.  He picked up a file, paging through it.

“Which one is that?”

“Ossuary.  Why leave it out?”

“They’re back, or they will be soon,” I said.  “Activist villains with a heavy focus on environment.  They wouldn’t call themselves villains, I don’t think.  Long list of really messy executions, longer list of leaders with very short tenures, who try to pull a very disparate group together, fail, and abdicate.”

“Were they the ones who used to call themselves Elephant Graveyard?”

“That’s the one.  One of the early leaders pushed the name change along with a shift away from focusing on animals and animal welfare,” I said.  “I liked Elephant Graveyard more, I think.  Clunky, but clunky in a way that stands out, and it made for really good imagery, when they left a spray painted calling card.”

“I don’t want to pry,” Gilpatrick said.

“About Ossuary?”

“About you.  I spent a while thinking about what to do.  I’ve had some good bosses and bad bosses over the years.  When you throw yourself into the fray like you do when you’re a PRT squaddie, you really need to know that the people above you are looking out for you.  That your back is covered.”

“Yeah,” I said.  Same applied to family, to parents.

“I don’t want to push boundaries or cross any lines, and I don’t want to ask the wrong thing.  When you say you don’t want to talk, can I ask why?  Any answer you gave could help me make sure I’m covering your back as you move on to better things.”

“Because I’d have to fill you in on years of background and that’s not stuff I want to relive,” I said.

“Ah.”

“Because it’s confidential, because it’s messy, because… as cool as a guy as you can be, you can’t make it better.  You can’t give me the answers or guidance I need because there’s a whole ream of things that’s separate and aside from the years of my background that you’d need to get into or know and… I’m going overboard with this.”

“I do want to hear,” he said.  “Anything else?”

“That’s mostly it,” I said.

He nodded.  He rubbed his head for a second, thinking.  “You want company?”

“Nah,” I said.  “I’d just be packing the last few boxes.  I wouldn’t mind a hand getting them out to the car, just to speed things up when the time comes.”

“You have a car?”

“I’ll get someone off of a listing or something.  I’ve got to figure out what I’m doing, so there’s that too.  I wouldn’t be good company, while I’m working through all of that.”

“You don’t have to be packed up and gone today,” he said.

“I kind of need to,” I said.

He nodded, rubbing his head again.  “I’ll cover the car.  I’ll pay the driver.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“You know where to find me.  Place is empty, so you can shout from the stairs and I’ll hear you.”

“Right,” I said.

“I’m going to head to my office.  I’ve got something to do.”

I gave him a little salute.

Energized by food and coffee, still feeling lightweight, I worked on getting my boxes packed up.  Along the way, I slotted my files and folders into the box I’d reserved for the most pertinent factors.  The villains of the area, the heroes, and the villains turned hero.  The hoods.

The day was warming up.  The light from the sun was warm enough to counteract the lower temperature.  By midday, if yesterday was any indication, it would be short-sleeves and shorts weather again.

A message popped up on my screen.

♦  Private Messages from Glitzglam:

Glitzglam: game plan. u situate yourself at my place until you have apartment ur happy with.  u & I raid ur dads place while he at work, get ur stuff.  standard attack formation, I play defense, make sure coast is clear, I support you, u take point and do what u need

I fired off my response.  That worked.  I had a couch to sleep on.

One thing off of my to-do list.  I liked the progress.  Progress was good.  So long as I moved forward, I could stay aloft.

I cleared off the remainder of the bookshelves, stacking the boxes.  I scribbled out my notes on the lid, checking the contents.

There was a knock at the door.

“Come in,” I said.

Gilpatrick.

“Time for me to go?” I asked.

“Nah,” he said.  “There’s a bit.  I don’t want to force you out the door like that.”

“Okay,” I said.  I raised an eyebrow.

“I was thinking, over the past twelve hours, if you were my student, I wouldn’t want to let you go with things like this.  Normally I’d contact a guardian.”

My heart skipped a beat at that.  No.

“But you said last night you had a family thing to do.  I can connect dots.”

I nodded.

“I made some phone calls,” he said.

He stepped out of the doorway.

Mrs. Yamada.  Shorter than me, hair tied back in a simple ponytail, wearing a skirt, white top, and jacket, with a simple, short string of pearls at her collarbone.

“Oh wow,” she said.  “Look at you.”

I didn’t have words, so I just lifted my arms to either side and let them fall.

“Is this okay?” Gilpatrick asked.

“Yeah,” I said.  I swallowed.  “Yeah.  Just about perfect.”

“I’ll leave you to it,” he said.

Jessica blinked a few times, before fanning herself.  “I’m a little misty eyed.  Sorry.”

I was a little misty eyed myself.

“Can I give you a hug?” she asked.  When I nodded, she did so.  I hugged her back.

“You put me down as your emergency contact?” she asked.

“Sorry,” I said.  “I- I honestly forgot I did that.  It was more than a year ago.”

I’d had to name someone, and I hadn’t named my parents because-

Because.

“It’s more than alright,” she said.  “Your boss said he was worried about you.”

I opened my mouth to reply, and then the waterworks started instead.

Jessica slammed the back hatch of her car, most of the boxes settled inside.

“Do you want to walk?” she asked.  “Around the block, maybe?  Or we could step back inside.”

If I was going to start crying again.

Students were just now starting to appear, and I didn’t want to sit still.

“We can walk,” I said.

“It’s been amazing to hear your voice,” she said.  “I know you were often frustrated, trying to communicate with the means you had available.  I was frustrated too, but I wasn’t allowed to say that.”

“I could tell,” I said.

“You were a challenging patient, those first few months-”

I snorted.

“-but much like many teachers say they grow to care most about the class clowns and problem students, I came to hold you close to my heart.  I wanted so badly to give you answers and to hear you out without having to rely on text to speech and letters you wrote between appointments.  I wanted to dialogue, and it was so very hard to do that.”

“It was,” I said.

Why was it so much easier to talk about the things that I couldn’t normally even think about, like this?

“How did you find your way back from that?”

How did I become Victoria again, instead of the wretched thing in the hospital room, or in the home for invalids?

“My sister,” I said, my voice soft.

“Oh.  That’s not an easy thing,” she said.

“No,” I said, my voice even softer.

I’d already filled her in on the details of yesterday and the past few months.  She’d offered a listening ear.  I’d spent all night working out my next few steps, I knew what the situation was, I didn’t really need more angles to view it from.

This, though… if I was going to make the most of the time I had with her here, then I wanted to at least get a handle on this.

“We were all brought to the battlefield during Gold Morning.  There’s… that’s a hard topic to field.”

“There’s an unspoken agreement that the civilians don’t get to know,” she said.

“But you’re not really a civilian,” I said.

“No,” she said.  “I’ve heard reports.  Some from very close to the center of the action.  I know what happened.”

“Body, mind, and heart, you know how that’s a thing?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“I lost my body, two years before Gold Morning.  My heart was… twisted into something unrecognizable.”

“Yes.”

“And… Gold Morning hit.  And the-” I paused.  There were people on the street, walking toward the school gate and the various block buildings as we walked away from it all.  A tide we walked against.  I had to shut up until people were mostly out of earshot.  “And I was controlled in mind.  I didn’t have much, but I could make my decisions.  I could decide to use my power or not.  She took that away from me, for a brief time.”

“I’ve talked to a number of people who had a very hard time with that.”

“You know who she was?”

“I do.”

I nodded to myself.

“Yeah,” I said.  “My sister told me.”

Even if I was free to talk, the words still carried their ugly weight.  The words and associated mental pictures still dragged my mood down.

“She knew me or knew of me, or she knew my sister.  She decided in the end that she’d put my sister right next to me.  She didn’t do that for many people at all, as far as I can tell.”

“And your sister healed you?”

“Gave me a body again.  Um.  She made me seventeen again.  Walked back the clock, as if it… I don’t know.  So she didn’t take two years of my life from me in body, like she did in everything else.  I’m physically nineteen now, apparently.”

“You said body, mind and spirit.  She fixed one of the three.  Did she undo the effect on your emotions?”

I drew in a breath, sighed heavily.  I nodded.  “She actually- she turned off my emotions.  Suppressed them.  Then she asked me what I wanted.”

“What did you want?”

“I remember thinking, you know, it was really possible she wanted me to say that I wanted to go back to liking her.  And if she did think that, then it was unconscionable.  Divorced from all emotion, I thought it was unconscionable.”

“Okay.”

“And divorced from all emotion, I thought I’d be fair.  That I’d give her the benefit of a doubt.  That I’d assume that wasn’t what she meant or wanted.  I told her I wanted to remember.”

“To remember?”

“Those two years,” I said, my voice hollow.  I drew in another deep breath.

Further down the street, a nine or ten year old boy with straight black hair and brown skin looked at Jessica, his eyes widening, then he looked at me.  He raised his hand, extending it toward Jessica as they passed one another.

She gave him a high five, then pushed his head, sending him on his way, toward the school.

“They weren’t good years.”

“Rationally?  Divorced from emotion?  I knew.  I can’t forgive her.  Ever.  I can’t forget what she did, or she might do it again.  To someone else.  To me.  I told her to fix my feelings and leave my brain alone otherwise.”

“It’s a heavy weight to carry,” she said.

“Those two years are really damn heavy,” I said.  “Everything else is.  But I’ve been holding on to that moment.  I hate that I hold onto it, because she did it, but everything is tainted by her, so what can I do?”

“You hold onto it?  How?”

“Being emotionless, putting those feelings away.  My feelings and impulses got me into that whole mess in the first place.  I hurt an awful lot of awful people, you know.”

“We’ve talked about that.  You wrote letters outlining your thoughts and how you wanted to apologize to some of those affected.”

“My entire life leading up to that basketball game, I wanted so horribly badly to be a hero, you know?  It felt like I thought about it every ten minutes.  My parents were heroes, my cousin was, my aunt and uncle were, and everything revolved around it.  I wanted it all so badly it hurt, and I didn’t have it for years.  Then that basketball game, and I wanted to have something where I was the hero, where I got to stand out.  Because sometimes it felt like my parents didn’t see me.”

“That’s been a recurring idea.  You talked about their missed visits.”

“They came a lot,” I said.  “I know that.  My dad more than my mom.  But every missed visit was a horrible thing, and the little things mattered so much when I had nothing else.  Um.  And this basketball game, I know I’ve talked about this before.  But this one girl kicked my freaking ass.  In my face, knocking me over, intercepting every pass, blocking every shot.  She didn’t have any powers or anything, she was just… good.  Better.”

“A lot of things came into focus in that moment.”

“Every time she or one of her teammates beat me, I could see the look of disappointment on my parent’s faces.  In the other moments, they looked so bored.  And it was boring, you know.  No parent wants to go sit through amateurs doing badly at a high school sport.”

“Some do.”

“Anyway, she hit me hard, she said something about me being overrated, and it was the last straw.  Realizing I stood so far from family, that I didn’t want to be there, but I had no other choice, my sternum was hurting where she’d driven her elbow into me.  I got my powers.”

“Years of wanting, leading up to that.”

She’d caught the thread I’d wanted to lay out.  It helped.  “And then just under three years as Victoria-slash-Glory-Girl.  And then… hospital.”

“Which was undeniably horrible.”

“It felt like my life had ended.  No hope or help.  All I had to cling to were those memories of the three years I was Glory Girl.  I could look back, think about every fight, every encounter.  The ones I was proud of.  The ones I wasn’t.  I had so much regret, replaying events out in my head.  It started with me thinking about- that moment when it all went so wrong.  When she messed with my emotions, then going backward.”

Emotions caught me.  I made my expression a scowl, because I was worried what my face might do otherwise.

“I was such a stupid fucking kid,” I said.

“That’s allowed,” she said.

I shook my head.  “Not when you’re as strong as I am.”

“And you want to be emotionless?  I don’t know if that’s healthy.”

“Not emotionless.  But… smarter about it.  The idea I keep coming back to is I want to be a warrior monk.”

“A warrior monk?”

“Just- centered when it counts, I guess?”

“Why the warrior part?  Do you envision yourself fighting?”

“I don’t honestly know.  It never occurred to me.”

Jessica smiled.

“What’s next for Victoria Dallon?” she asked.

“You need to mock me, say Victoria Dallon, warrior monk,” I said.  “I deserve it.”

“I wouldn’t,” she said.  “If everyone in costume could remain centered while doing what they do, it would make a world of difference.  I think it’s good.  I’d think about that more as you take your next steps.”

“I know I want to move forward, because… I dunno.  I feel like I’m a shark that drowns if it stops moving, or a bird that drops out of the air like a stone if I’m not flying forward.  I know I need to get some of the basics of life squared away.  I’m okay for money for a couple of months, but I can’t stay on Crystal’s couch.”

“In my brief interactions with Crystal, I did like her,” Jessica said.

“She’s great.  But not great to live with long-term, I don’t think.  You’d never know it to look at her, she’s beautiful, she’s fashionable, and very well put together, but if you looked at her apartment…”

I trailed off, using my expression to convey a bit of the horror to Jessica.

“Ah,” Jessica said.  She smiled again.

“I don’t know what to do next.”

“Well, I’d think about how to apply the warrior monk role to your day to day life,” she said.  She pulled off her jacket.  The weather had warmed up enough.  “What it means to you, why it’s the first thing or the recurring thing in your thought processes.”

“I just want to… do.”

“You said you regretted yesterday, but Jasper thanked you.  Would you rather have not done it?  Is it the ‘want’ in wanting to do things that’s problematic, or is it the ‘do’?”

I drew in a deep breath.  “That’s… a very complicated question, I think.”

“You don’t have to answer it right now,” she said.

“I think I can, though.  I think… I had to.  And as much as it was hard and cost me my job, I preferred it to the alternative.  I can’t not do things that help out.  I just want to do it in a good, centered way.”

“Could it be a mundane job?  Construction?  Desk work?  Would you want to do something like you were doing with the patrol?”

I thought about it.

I couldn’t see it.  Not long-term.

“What’s the first thing that comes to mind?” she asked.

“I think… fuck me, I think even now, I can’t quite see myself being anything but a hero.  There are good people I’ve gotten to know.  People I want to protect and help.  Like Gilpatrick, like Weld and Vista and my cousin and a couple of the teenagers I was working with in patrol block.  You.  I want good things for them.”

“Thank you,” she said.  “That means a lot to me.”

“I’ve been trying to convince myself there’s some other way, but… I can’t not do anything.”

“There’s worse things.  Especially if you can do it smart and centered.”

“I don’t want to be Glory Girl,” I said.  “Someone remarked yesterday that they’d thought she died and… good.  She can stay dead.”

“Sounds like you have an idea of what you’re doing next.”

“It’s the wrong climate for it,” I said.  “I just watched a team of heroes get eaten alive by the public.  One took a bullet.”

“Figure it out,” she said.

I frowned.

“Again, there’s no rush,” she said.

“I can’t sit still,” I said.  “There’s a bit of a rush.”

“Touch base with me,” she said.  “We’ll go out for coffee, catch up.  I can offer unofficial, more-friend-than-therapist advice.  I think you’ll figure it out, and I can give you a few nudges here and there.”

That gave me pause.

“You’re not a therapist anymore?” I asked.

“Just the opposite,” she said.  “I’m very much a therapist.  Ten hour days, six or seven days a week, and other peripheral obligations.  I’m afraid I’m not in a position to take you on as a patient again, Victoria, as much as I would dearly like to.”

That hurt.  I didn’t want to say it, but it did hurt.

“I just joined the Wardens as a staff psychologist for their junior members and some special cases, and I’m just not equipped, unfortunately.  If you want it, I could try finding a colleague who you could talk to.  Most are as busy as I am, so it might take a bit of time.”

I want you.

I want-

“Sorry to take up your time today, when you’re as busy as you are.”

“It’s more than alright, Victoria,” she said.  She was looking straight ahead as she talked, one hand on her jacket as she walked.  “With the hours I work, I lose objectivity.  It becomes the work, and I lose sight of the patients.  Sometimes it’s hard to see the wins.  Like I said, you were a patient close to my own heart, and I thought you were one of the ones we lost.  Seeing you, hearing you?  It means the world to me.  It gives me a measure of hope.”

I nodded.

She looked over at me.  “I’ll reach out to a colleague.  I’ll see what I can do, if that’s okay.  Give you some reassurance there.”

“I-” I started.

“Yes?”

“It’s okay, but… if you wanted to reassure me-” I said.

It felt a little less like I could talk about certain topics with her, now.

“If it’s within my power, I’ll try anything,” she said.

“My sister,” I said, my voice soft.  “Send someone her way.”

Mrs. Yamada raised one eyebrow.

I knew what she was thinking.  She wondered if it was selflessness, or if I was a surprisingly good person.  I wasn’t.

“She’s the scariest damn person in the world, Jessica,” I said.  “And I don’t think that’s bias.  There’s a chance she’s going to do something bad, and she’s so damn powerful, that when and if it happens, it’s going to be so much worse than what happened to me, and it’s going to affect an awful lot more people.”

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Daybreak – 1.7

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The sun was just starting to set when the police were wrapping up with us.  They’d had to arrive first, of course, the ones who had been on the scene were compromised, victims as much as anything.

Nobody Kingdom Come had affected remembered much of anything.  It was as though they’d fallen asleep – they remembered losing awareness, some reported briefly coming to in the middle of things as the building had shook or they had been knocked around, and they hadn’t really processed or understood much of those glimmers.

A few had reported me as a recurring image.

There was some concern that Kingdom Come might have absconded with someone or that not everyone that had been in the crowd was accounted for, but from what I could tell, it had been an all or nothing thing.  People remembered coming to, many of them dangerously close to a superhero fight in progress, but the recollections were hazy.

I sat on the sidewalk near the front door of the community center, aware that it was very late in the day.  The sky was orange-yellow now, with darkness on the eastern horizon.  The thickest parts of the clouds overhead were cast in shadow, zig-zags of darkness through the amber.

The heat of the day was subsiding, helped by the cloud cover.  Dust and sweat had left my arms mottled with grime and tracks where sweat had wiped it away.  I’d washed my hands after helping Fume Hood, and I’d realized I hadn’t gotten all of Tempera’s paint and the blood on the backs of my hands.  I was painfully conscious of the sweat, grime and blood, yet I couldn’t bring myself to go wash up because that would require attention to it.

Paradoxical, I was well aware.

I turned my attention back to the kids.  Making sure they were okay.  At some point where I had been lost in thought, Gilpatrick had showed up.  I watched until he glanced my way.  He raised a hand, and I raised mine.  Then he turned his attention back to the teenagers.  As it should be.

I’d figured I would be working late.  I’d just thought it would be paperwork and talking to the students.  I’d really liked that part.  It was fascinating stuff when it wasn’t so close to home.

I could relax some, seeing Gilpatrick.  Not because it meant great things, but because it meant I didn’t have to think about finding Gil after, getting the details, putting off hearing the news or delivering the essential details.

I put my hands behind me where I wouldn’t see the blood or the places where the paint had settled into the cracks, oil-black, and I leaned back, eyes closed, trying to focus on the voices and the sounds, on the breezy wind and the ambient warmth.

“I’m sorry,” Gilpatrick said.  He’d approached me.

I kept my eyes closed.  I said, “Are the students okay?  The others?”

“They’re fine.  Some have parents here, I’ve got a bus coming for the others.  Psychologically, emotionally, I don’t know.  It was scary and it was hard to know what was happening.  The staff of the community center are obviously upset about the building, but that’s not on us.”

I opened my eyes.

Gilpatrick wasn’t wearing his vest.  A sleeveless undershirt tucked into black pants, a sweatshirt slung over one shoulder.  Bald, bushy eyebrows, hairy, hairy arms.

“Jasper filled me in on most of it,” he said.  “He’s reliable when it counts, it seems.”

“He’s a good guy,” I agreed.  “There’s a reason I wanted him with me.”

“I get it now, I think.”

“If you want this project to be a positive thing, at least at our school, you’ll want more Jaspers.  You wanted a verdict on the kids you sent with me?  I wouldn’t put them in leadership roles.  Not if there are going to be capes on scene.  What I heard and saw wasn’t very positive, and if there were any who disagreed, they didn’t feel confident enough to say it out loud.”

Gilpatrick ran his hand over the skin of his head, not giving me a response.

My arms were tired from propping myself up.  I leaned forward instead.

“Alright.  Thanks.  Not good to hear, but I appreciate it,” he said.  “I’ll take that under serious advisement.”

“They follow orders, at least.”

“I was really hoping to have more hands to help out,” he said.  “Really unfortunate.”

Some parents were joining students who were talking to the police.  I watched them.  Parent and child side by side, parents concerned as they listened, getting the details at the same time the officers were.

“I am sorry this happened,” Gilpatrick said.  “I meant it when I said it.  I mean it now.”

“I gave my point-by-point retelling of events to the police,” I said.  I stared at my hands.  “Including the part where I was hit by a few emotion-affecting attacks.  It’ll take some of the responsibility off your shoulders, if anyone asks.”

“It’s not that important,” he said.  “Well, it’s important, obviously, thank you, but I don’t want to dwell on that.  If people make an issue out of it, I’ll handle it.  I knew what I was doing when I brought you on board.  That’s not what I want to talk to you about.”

“I stuck around,” I said.  “To be something like a guardian for the students who were acting as witnesses, making sure they weren’t pressed too hard or made uncomfortable.  I stopped when I realized being there was making some things harder, because they didn’t like being around me, or that it looked like I was trying to protect myself by inserting myself into things and influencing their testimony.”

“Yeah,” Gilpatrick said.

“I backed off, Jasper and Landon took my cues, I think.”

“That’s good.”

I thought that’d be the time he followed the thread of the conversation and got around to saying what he needed to say.  He didn’t.

There was a break in the convo.  More cars were pulling into spaces along either side of the ‘square’ of grass, sidewalk, and fountain in front of the community center.  Some more parents.

“Did they mention Fume Hood?” I asked.

“Only that she was taken to the hospital and all signs were good when she left.  Tempera was staying close to her.  Something to do with paint?”

No news then.  “Tempera stopped the worst of the blood loss.  She poured paint in the wound, shaped it, and solidified it.  We might have lost Fume Hood in another way, though.  We might not keep her as a hero after this.”

“Did she say that?”

“There was a brief twilight between when the pain meds kicked in and when the meds knocked her out,” I said.  I moved my fingers, felt how unlike skin the backs of my hands felt, stiff with the stuff I hadn’t managed to wash off.  I’d rushed, because I’d wanted to get back to keeping an eye on the students from the patrol group.

“Are you going to finish that thought?” Gilpatrick asked, his voice soft.

I closed my eyes.  “Um.  We chatted.  She said she was staying with a family member already, so she’d have someone to look after her if she needed it.”

Thinking about family pulled my thoughts in a few different directions.  I could have tried picking a safer one, but I wasn’t sure I was that on the ball, being as tired and discouraged as I was.

I went on, “Her brother cut ties with her when she went villain.  She was living in that area where all the building foundations were screwed up because they were rushed, and everyone had to leave the homes they’d just settled in, reached out to her brother, and she’s been staying with him, reconnecting.  It might give me some hope for her, having that positive influence, but she sounded pretty cynical about it all when we had the conversation right after meeting, before everything happened.”

“Cynicism is understandable, to a degree.  That’s where she’s at.  Where are you at, Victoria?”

“Similar to Fume Hood, really.  I wasn’t evicted because of rushed apartment construction, but I’ve been staying with my dad because it means we each pay half the rent, and I want to keep my options open with things being what they are.”

“I wasn’t talking about living accommodations,” Gilpatrick said.  “Your head, your heart.  Are there any lingering effects from the emotion effect?”

“For the last two years,” I whispered.

“Sorry?  I didn’t catch that,” he said.

“It’s gone.  It really sucked while it was in effect, but it’s gone.  Right now I’m in that heavyhearted, almost-blameless-but-guilty ‘morning after’ phase, where I’m reflecting on everything I did when I was under the influence,” I said.

“I know that well enough.  I’ve been hit a few times by those, back when I was a squaddie and squad leader.  And by you, once.”

“You asked me to,” I pointed out, looking up at Gilpatrick, “and this was a bad one.  Snag?  I read about a thing online, keeping tabs on who was out there.  I’m pretty sure he’s part of a new multitrigger cluster.  It might have been amplified by the tinkering, if it wasn’t, then something else was in play.  That didn’t hit me like it was a minor or secondary power.”

“Sorry,” he said.

He wasn’t a bad guy.  I wanted to be angry but I couldn’t justify it.

“I’m sorry it happened like this,” he said.  “It wasn’t supposed to be anything like this.  I thought it’d get a bit nasty with the civilian protesters but I didn’t think it’d be anything like this.  Not the capes, not the gunshot at the end.”

I hadn’t either.

“Jasper said you guessed why I sent those students with you.”

“Yeah,” I said.  I climbed to my feet.

“I’m especially sorry for that,” he said.  “If it was up to me, I wouldn’t have ever tested you like that.  It wasn’t wholly up to me.”

“Who?” I asked.

“Everyone,” he said.  “No-one.  It’s complicated.  Wardens and the hero teams are being pressured to be mindful of who is out there, touching base, and they reached out to some of the other patrol groups with concerns.  They wanted to coordinate, so teenagers wouldn’t be out interviewing or exposing themselves to anyone dangerous.  School got to talking, and they got into CYA mode.”

“Cover your ass,” I said.

“They wanted to be able to say that they’d made a reasonable effort to check that the parahumans the students were exposed to were reasonable and safe, in case anything happened down the line.  I could have kept quiet about you, but…”

He trailed off.

“I wouldn’t have asked you to,” I said.

“…I didn’t get the impression you wanted me to, either.  You weren’t being secretive.  I don’t want to operate that way, either.”

“No.  I wouldn’t want you to,” I said.

“You know I can’t keep you on the staff,” he said.

I nodded.

There it was.

Fuck.

I hadn’t been super attached to the job, but… fuck.

“Using power on kids, the contention about possible conflict of interest, undue influence, danger.  I think things will stay at that, I don’t think it’ll follow you.”

I nodded.

“There’s a dim chance of a student claiming emotional distress because of your aura and pursuing things in court, I’ve already talked to one officer to get them on board and we’ll get something in writing.  I’ll vouch for you and for the events as Jasper described them, one hundred percent, if you end up needing someone to stand for you.  None of this was you.”

“Courts are a million years behind as it stands, and getting further behind every day we don’t have an established system of government,” I said.  “By the time things get that far it’ll be forgotten.”

“That is a factor,” Gilpatrick said.

I wasn’t worried about that side of things.  I was hurt, but I wasn’t worried.

“Do you need a hand getting things cleared out of the office?” he asked.

I shook my head.  I didn’t want to think about that.

“Can-” I started.  I cleared my throat.  “Can I get back to you on that?  I’ve- I guess I’ve got a family thing I should go to.”

“For sure,” he said.  “Anytime outside of usual school or work hours.”

I might have flinched in a way that he saw, hearing that.  I knew why he’d said it, but it still sucked to hear.

I started to walk away.

“Victoria,” he said.

“Yeah?”

“Any favor you need, reference letter, intel, if you need Jasper or some other trustworthy faces in uniform to lend a hand with something…”

“Thank you,” I said, my voice lighter and more cheerful than I felt.  “I’ll be in touch.”

I took off.

There was something very human about the desire to gather around a fire.  Power rationing meant every household had only a certain amount, more if there were more people in the house.  Conversely, there was a lot of cheap firewood.  Streetlights flickered on, and many house lights went off.  In back yards there were three other families on the city block that were gathering around fire pits.  Two of the families were playing different kinds of music, but it wasn’t too discordant.  There were trees in each yard, front and back, and that helped to dampen the sound.

The entire street smelled like burning charcoal, and the light from the streetlights was just a little bit hazy with the ambient smoke.

It was a nice neighborhood, even if it had what I felt was the artificial quality.  Houses with character, sufficiently different from one another in style and architecture, but still so new that they looked more like movie sets than lived-in places.  Time and clutter would wear at those crisp edges.  Paint and attention would turn fences of new wood with the occasional edge still frayed from the saw’s touch into something more personal.

This was the flip side to the hostility and the street-wide gap between protester and community center.  Boyfriend and girlfriend sat on an outdoor love seat together, arms around each other, bathed in fire’s warmth.  Friends sat and talked, beers in hand.  Kids in another yard played with their dog.

With the path I’d taken, I reached the backyard first.  The driveway was wider than it was long, crushed gravel, with room for multiple vehicles, and a fence stretched from the house at one corner to the garage at the other.  My mom had invited neighbors, so it was a thing, even if things had reached a more relaxed point.

My dad sat on one of the lawn chairs, fire pit in front of him with the fire having burned down to just glowing coals.  The barbecue was to his right, lid open, tiny bits of meat clinging to the grill.

He was forty-two but looked younger.  The fact that he was as fit as he was played into it- only the white in his beard stubble really gave it away.  His hair, too, was short.  He was the only one who hadn’t put a sweatshirt or jacket on, owing to the proximity of the two heat sources- he was wearing a t-shirt that was form-fitting in a way that showed off his muscles.  Pretty darn gross, given he was a dad,  my dad, and he was supposed to dress his age.  I would have insisted on clothes that hid any sign of muscle at all, really, had I been given a say.

He looked relaxed though.  As relaxed as I’d seen him in a while, really, and I’d seen him passed out on the couch back at the apartment.

I was aware that my mom had seated herself so that two neighbors sat between her and my dad.  Where my dad had dressed in a t-shirt and sports pants for the occasion, she had dressed up.  Just a bit of lipstick, her hair short and styled, a ruffly sort of white blouse and pencil skirt.  She’d kicked off her shoes earlier in the evening, leaving them beneath her chair.

I was aware of the distinction in how they’d dressed, too.  In another time, before everything, there would have been more… connection, I supposed.  Each influencing the other, until they matched more.

She was smiling.  She folded one knee over the other, then a moment later was undoing the position, both feet on the porch again as she leaned forward, laughing at something someone had said.

I smiled.

The lights were on inside the house, too.  The door was open, and people were scattered through the space between the stairs down to the porch, the back hallway, and the kitchen on the other side of the hallway.  The room to the left of the hallway was dark.  The neighbors kids, I presumed, teens to twenty-somethings.  I saw a glimpse of Crystal stepping into the unlit room, tried to catch her eye with a raised hand as she looked toward the window, and failed.

I did get the attention of someone sitting next to my mom, though.  She touched my mom’s arm and pointed.

I remained where I was, arms folded on the top of the wooden-slat fence, chin on my hands, while my mom approached.

“You’re hurt,” she said, touching my arm, where the road rash was.

“Scuffed up.”

“Did you get the other guy?” she asked.  She reached out and touched my hair, fixing it by moving strands to one side.

“No,” I said.  “But there were five of them.”

“Do you want to talk about it?  I’m interested.”

“Not really,” I said.  “Today-”

My breath caught.

“-Kind of not a good day,” I said.

I saw her expression change, even though the light source was behind her.

“What?” I asked.  “Don’t tell me you didn’t save me the dessert you promised.  Looking forward to that is pretty much the only thing keeping me going right now.”

She smiled, touching my cheek, before kissing me on the forehead.  “I saved you dessert with extras to take home, in case you want pie or pastries for breakfast tomorrow.”

“You’ve done your duty then,” I said, with mock seriousness.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve failed a mission,” she said, in the same tone.  She put her hand on the side of my head.  “You missed Uncle Mike, I’m afraid.”

“Oh shoot,” I said.  “I barely remember him.  How is he?”

“He’s Uncle Mike.  He brought his wife and your cousins, and I haven’t child-proofed at all.  It was… something, in the brief time he was here.  A whirlwind of chaos and emotion, and then he was gone.”

“Ah, too bad,” I said.

In the background, my dad was trying to get my attention.  He’d sat up, and didn’t look relaxed anymore.  He offered me a small smile.  I acknowledged him by lifting one hand up from where it sat on my elbow, in a mini-wave.

“Thank you for coming,” my mom said.  “I know the family stuff is hard, after everything, but it means so much to me.  To everyone.”

“I’m here for the desserts,” I said.  I amended it to, “…and a bit for family.”

My mom lightly rapped me on the side of the head before stepping away.  “Come on in, then.  Meet people, I’ll get your pie.”

As she stepped over to the gate by the garage to unlock it, Crystal stepped out into the backyard, joined by a few others in our age group.  She glanced in my direction, saw me, and froze like a deer in the headlights.

Her arms folded, defensive, like something was wrong.

She mouthed words at me, and I couldn’t see her face well enough at a distance to know what the words were, but I could draw conclusions from context.

My dad’s posture, still sitting upright now, both feet planted on the ground.

My mom’s earlier change in expression.  Even the wording-

I backed away from the fence a few steps.  My mom froze, the gate only slightly open.

“You invited her,” I said.  I wasn’t talking about Crystal.

In reaction to that, my mother didn’t look confused, she didn’t negate.  She looked toward the house, to see what I’d seen that had clued me in.

Whirlwind of fucking chaos and emotion indeed.

“You invited her,” I said, again.  More emotional this time.  “She’s in the house?”

My mother rallied, composing herself.  Now she looked confused.  “I told you I invited everyone.”

“She’s actually in the house,” I said.

I backed away again, and my mother threw the gate open, taking several steps on the driveway, stepping on crushed gravel with bare feet.

I raised my hand, indicating for her to stop.  She continued forward.

I threw my aura out, one push.

My mother stopped.  Crystal stopped in her tracks, already at the fence.  People rose from their seats.

“I thought you knew,” she said.  “I very clearly said everyone.  It was supposed to be a family reunion with everyone getting together again for the first time in… in a really long time.”

“You’re a lawyer,” I said.  “You’re too clever with wording to be that fucking stupid.”

“Please,” she said, with a tone like she was the one who needed to exercise patience and restraint here.  “Let’s keep things civil.”

I couldn’t even look at her.  I trembled as my eyes dropped to the ground.

“I’ve made mistakes, as your sister has,” my mother said.  “She’s been doing so well.  I want to make up for past wrongs and be a mother to both of you, like I should have been from the beginning.”

I looked up, staring at her.

The lipstick, the composed outfit, the words, the everything about this all seemed so false now, so forced.  I didn’t even recognize her.

“You’re kind of fucking it up,” I said, in the kind of whisper that was the only tone I could manage that wasn’t outright screaming at her.  My hands were clenched at their sides.

“That’s not fair.”

“You’re kind of really fucking it up,” I said, in the same strangled whisper.

“Victoria-”

“You’re fucking it up, mother,” I said.  “You’re fucking- you’re fucking- did dad play along with this?”

“I told him everyone was coming.  You, your sister, Crystal, Uncle Mike.  He was surprised, but… pleasantly surprised.”

Dad too, then.  There was that heart-wrenched-out feeling again.  I screwed my eyes shut, inadvertently squeezing out tears.  I was aware her neighbors were seeing.

“Don’t- don’t get emotional, Victoria,” my mom said.  “Please, I didn’t do this to hurt you.  The furthest thing from it.”

“You fucked that up too,” I whispered.

“Stop saying that.  Please,” my mother said.  “It’s the age of second chances, she’s worked very hard to get to this point.  I’ve talked to people who worked with her and she’s getting back into her routine in a good way.  I want all of us to have a second shot at this, and do it right this time.”

I shook my head.

“Leaving things as unresolved as they are is doing more harm than good.  To both you and to her.”

“So you thought you’d invite me to dinner and surprise me with her, and you thought there was nothing I could say or do because people are here?”

“You’re putting thoughts and conspiracy in my head,” she said.  “I want you to be sisters again.  I want us to be a family again.”

“That’s not for you to decide,” I said.  “Holy shit.  Holy shit.  Holy shit.”

“Please, don’t wind yourself up.  You’re getting out of breath.  Let’s communicate.  Please.”

I was getting out of breath.  I gulped in a breath of air.  “You’re aware I can’t set foot in that house again, right?  I’ll see her looming in the shadows, potentially another surprise invite.”

“I want you to find reconciliation, so you wouldn’t feel upset even if she did appear by surprise.”

“I can’t accept any invites from you,” I said.  My face started to contort, and I forced it back into something more normal before I lost the ability to see my mother or focus on her altogether.  “I can’t grab dessert from you or do anything with you again because she might be there, surprise.  I can’t trust you.  How can I trust you again?”

“I’m sorry you feel that way.  I did not realize that was where things stood.  You’ve been doing so well, and she’s been doing well.”

“How-” I started.  I gulped in another breath of air.  My voice was a whisper again when I managed to speak again.  “How do you not realize when you saw me at the hospital?  How do you even think rec- how do you think this is ever possible?  How does-”

I closed my eyes.  More tears.

“How does Dad?  How could you see me then, how could you- how- how-”

My chest hurt.

“Crystal-” I said, I looked toward the house.

Crystal was still on the porch.  Standing guard by the back door, red shield up.  She watched me talking with my mom over one shoulder.

“I told Crystal the same thing I told your father.  She was skeptical but she agreed it was for the best.”

I didn’t trust my mom’s version of events on that.  Crystal at least had my back in this moment.

I tried to find words, and I didn’t have the oxygen.

“Catch your breath.  We can talk this out.”

I worked at it, swallowing air.

“I’ll wait,” she said.

The sound of her voice made it harder, not easier.

When I spoke, my voice was very small.  It gained more strength as I went.

“How can you have not been there, missed visits, or come to the visit and spend more time talking to doctors than to me because it was hard to be around me?  How can you have come to see me then, and have had to avert your eyes mid-conversation with me, and found that hard, and not realize that I had to live it for two years, and had that be a million times harder for me?”

“I know it was hard, honey.  I get it, I really do.  But you can’t dwell in the past.  It’s not good for you.  You can’t carry that.”

“You say that, when you still sleep with the lights on,” I said.

It was her turn to not have words.

“That’s different,” she said, finally.  She didn’t say how it was different.

I stared at her.

“I want all of us to conquer our demons,” she said.  “I think you want that too.”

I continued to stare.

Finally, I said, “I want that too.”

“We can talk this out.  We can find things we all want,” she said.  “We can make inroads on this.”

She looked nearly as upset as I felt, even as composed as she was.

But in the end, and I’d known this from very early on, seeing her with- with her, she wasn’t a whole and complete person.  She tried, she put on a good face, but my mother had been broken long, long ago, and with the way she’d put herself together, she retained only sufficient compassion, understanding, and empathy for a very small number of people.  For one daughter, at most.

Second chances.  Second go-around, and I wasn’t that daughter, this time.

“In the interest of putting my demons to rest,” I said.  “I’m going to keep my distance.  Don’t call, because I can’t trust a thing you say.  I’ll figure out what I’ll do about Dad later.”

“Don’t,” she said.  “Nothing gets better if you close off communication.”

There were things I wanted to say to that.

It wasn’t worth it.

I turned to go.

I heard the gravel under her feet as she gave chase, and I pushed out with my aura, hard.

“Do not use your power on me, Victoria Dallon.  That has never been okay, and it doesn’t work anyway.”

I drew in a deep breath.  There were things I wanted to say to that, too.

I settled for, “Let me go.  If you follow me, I’m liable to hit you with something harder than my aura.  I’m pretty sure that would work.”

It might have been a good line, if I hadn’t been choking back emotion as I said it.

I walked away.  I didn’t trust myself to fly when I couldn’t see straight.  Having a panic attack in the air made for an embarrassing moment.

People stood in rows at the fences that bounded their yards, staring and watching.  I wiped away my tears once, then resolved not to shed more, not where people could see.  I set my jaw.

In the background, I could hear my father’s raised voice.

Breathe.  Center yourself.  Move forward.  Plan.

I thought about what I’d need to do next.  I couldn’t go back to the apartment I shared with my dad.

For the time being, I only walked, out in the general direction of the water.  Streetlights lit up in advance of imminent cars and as I stepped onto the streets, turning off otherwise.  Here and there they would turn on for wildlife, illuminating a lost deer or raccoon mid-scurry down the road.  We’d set ourselves up so abruptly that the animals were still confused.

It was getting cooler.  I wore my skirt, my clothes from earlier.  My forcefield shielded against the wind, which kept it from lowering the temperature even further, but it didn’t do a lot to shield me from the ambient heat or lack thereof.

I tensed as I heard running footsteps behind me.  I stopped in my tracks.

Not Crystal.  She would have flown, and she would have set down well in front of me.  She wouldn’t have chased, maybe.

Her, then.

I didn’t want to look.  I didn’t want to speak to her.

I pushed out with my aura, instead.

Another footstep, closer.

Our mother’s daughter.

I threw my arm back and to the side, a backhand swipe.  I tore through lawn, through slabs of sidewalk, and the edge of the road.  Dirt flew across the street alongside clumps of grass and chunks of sidewalk.

A long pause, and then I heard the footsteps again, running.  This time the other way.

Gilpatrick jumped as I appeared in the doorway of his office, nearly knocking over a paper container of noodles in red sauce that rested on a stack of paper.  Paperwork I would have been helping him with, had the day gone differently.

“Victoria?  What’s wrong?” he asked.

So it was that obvious something was wrong.

“I need to call in a favor,” I said.

Okay, hearing my voice, I could get why he’d known.  I sounded like another person entirely.

“If it’s okay,” I said.

“Of course it’s okay,” he said.  “What’s wrong?  Are you cold?  The temperature dropped steeply tonight.  What can I get you?  Sit.”

He stood, circling around his desk.  I backed away a little as he did, which was his cue to stop.

I wasn’t sure how to respond, how to ask.

“By the way,” he said.  “As far as I’m concerned, there’s no need to count.  I consider you a friend, and I feel like a piece of shit for setting you up to fail like that.”

“It’s not that,” I said.  “I just need a place to stay tonight.  While I figure some things out.  I’ll be gone before the students arrive first thing.”

I noted the hesitation before he responded.

“Sure,” he said.

“You paused.”

“Only because it’s not really a great place for staying overnight.  You could come to my apartment, but that’s-”

“I kind of want space to think,” I said.  “Offer’s appreciated.”

“There’s an issue with power rations and temperature is supposed to drop a few more degrees, and this place isn’t insulated well.  It was a bitch last winter.”

“I remember,” I said.

“Of course,” Gilpatrick said.

He kept giving me very deeply concerned looks.  Almost pity.

I really hated those.  I’d had a lifetime’s fill and then some.

“Okay,” he said.  “I’ve got a space heater right by my desk here.  You’ll want to be careful if you’re leaving it running for a while, fire hazard.”

“I’ll be careful,” I said.

“There are blankets we stowed in the locker rooms that you can use if you want to sleep.  You could get something serviceable if you gather a bunch.  I laundered them not too long ago, too.”

“I know where to find them.”

“There are candles too, in case the power runs out.  But again, fire hazard.”

“It’s okay,” I said.  “I’ll be careful.”

“Okay,” he said.  “You sure you don’t want company?  We can talk it out, if you haven’t eaten I can go grab something, or…”

I was already shaking my head.

“Sure,” he said.  “I was needing an excuse to go home, this will do.  Unless maybe I should stay around?  You could settle in upstairs, and I’ll be all the way down here, you can have your space to think and you can still have me to talk to in case you decide you need it.”

“No,” I said.  “Don’t let me keep you.  Go home.  You’ll have angry parents to talk to first thing tomorrow, once they’ve figured out what happened and had time to get angry.”

He frowned.  “Yeah.”

“Please,” I said.  “I know where everything is.”

“Yeah,” he said.  “You sure you’re okay?  You’re not going to…”

He trailed off.

“If I was going to do anything, I’d take someone out with me.”

He scrutinized me.

“I’m worried here, for the record,” he said.

“I’ll manage,” I said.  “I’ve managed this far.”

“You have my number,” he said.

“Yeah.”

“You call if you need anything.”

“Yeah.”

“And you… be here in the morning when I show up.  Which will be well before the kids do.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Okay,” he said.

He gathered up his paper container, a stack of his papers.  He was trying to pick up the remainder when I approached, picking it up myself.

Silent, I walked him to his car, handing over the papers when it was time.  I walked inside and locked the door behind me.  The place was big and it was dark, with the open gymnasium space unlit.

I carted the space heater upstairs, and then I got the blankets.  I got the candles and the matches, and then I found the file boxes, collapsed and gathered in piles.

I situated myself in my office, which wasn’t technically my office anymore, and I set to making the boxes, pulling my things off the shelves, and getting them stowed away.

The space heater hummed and the computer monitor clicked, as I periodically checked something or followed up on something I’d seen on a file.

I made a stack of the things I wanted to read, the files that intrigued or that I’d forgotten about, the magazines I liked.  I was a third of the way through my shelves, twelve boxes filled, when I finally settled down in my chair, pulling blankets over me, and started to read.

I got about two pages read before deciding I didn’t have it in me to read more.

I didn’t have it in me to sit still, when my anxieties were churning.

I stood, dropping blankets on the floor, and walked over to the window.  With the cold, the space heater, and the imperfect seal, moisture and fog had collected on it.

I reached out toward the window, a foot away from touching it.  I turned on my forcefield.

A pause.

Then a handprint on the window, in the condensation.  Then another.

A circular smudge that streaked, a naked breast pressed against the glass, moving.

Then the mark that couldn’t be anything but one half of a face, beneath the circular smudge.

They moved, and I wasn’t asking them to move.  The window rattled a bit as it was pushed against. The prints smudged.

A fingernail dragged against the glass, and produced a high pitched squeal, almost ear-splitting.

I dropped the forcefield.  I sank back into my seat, and it protested the landing.

Not a second trigger.  I was well aware of that.  When I’d first had my forcefield, it hadn’t protected my costume.  I had two theories as to why.

The first theory was that I’d grown, and the boundaries that the forcefield used to define ‘me’ had changed.  I’d breathe out, breathe in, gain a pound here, lose a pound there, and it would adjust for the maximum bounds.  It didn’t explain how my skirt was often protected, but I’d mused on that too, that my legs moved, my hair had been long at one point, I’d been shorter…

I’d been that, the forcefield had adjusted, and that was the new upper bound of what I was, forever with me.

It felt thin, as theories went.

The second theory was that it was the Manton effect, that broad-as-bells term for the built in protections and limitations of the power.  The theory was that the built-in protections of the power only protected what I saw as a part of me, and it had taken some time before the costume was that much a part of my identity.

That that was me, now, as much as the costume I wore.

I couldn’t be that.  I couldn’t sit still and be crushed under the weight of that thing.

I needed to do something, and taking books off the shelves felt like it was moving backward, not forward.

I spun around in my seat, and I loaded up the webpage.  Something to do.  Methodically filling out details on the group I’d seen, researching, filling myself in, and letting others know what they were up against.

Something constructive to keep me occupied until the power ran out, or until I was so tired I had no choice but to sleep.

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Daybreak – 1.6

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Snag’s power hurt, and it hurt in a way that had nothing to do with shedding blood or breaking bones.  Emotion.  My body still reacted, my heart rate picking up, breathing choked, adrenaline churning, hormones shifting.  My thoughts were scattered, thrusting me into a state where I could either only reel or I could grope for a position in familiar ground.

I didn’t want familiar.

Reeling meant trying not to think, letting it wash over me and through me, and not letting my thoughts go where the feelings pointed.  It meant I still had a metal gauntlet on my face and a metal arm pulled against my throat, and I was handling the situation with instinct.  Fight or flight.

Fight-

No.  I only barely stopped myself.  I’d kill him if I fought.

Fly then.

I pushed out with my aura, hard.  The flip side of my observation moments ago was true.  I was supposed to be resistant to hits to my emotions because I could deliver those hits myself.  Snag would be resistant to my aura for similar reasons.

He still let go, arms slipping back through the wall.  I had a moment where I thought about grabbing one of his wrists as it passed me, and I hesitated a moment too long.

I backed away, staggering until I bumped into the window next to the broken one.  My chest hurt as if I’d had my heart ripped out, and thoughts of Dean flickered through my head.  It was a continuation of my thoughts from earlier, one sample in a long, long series of thoughts I hadn’t let myself finish over the past few months and years that the surge of emotion was now filling in and pushing to the surface.

It was loss, if I had to put a name to it.  Nothing to do with the man on the roof.

It was me in the hospital, with Auntie Sarah and Crystal, not knowing what to say because Uncle Neil and Eric had just died.  Crystal had been hurt too, and the place had been so busy and crowded that we’d gathered in the small curtained enclosure where her hospital bed was.  My mom had been gone, trying to get news on my dad’s situation, and my sister-

It was going from that, the horrible feeling of helplessness and hopelessness, to hearing the curtain move.   I’d known it wasn’t my mom – she’d left only a minute ago.  It was as if someone had taken a want, desire, even a need equal to what I’d experienced in my childhood and early teens, when I’d wanted to be a hero, when I’d written letters to Santa and wished it during every birthday candle extinguishing and for every shooting star I’d seen from when I was four to when I was fourteen, if someone had gathered all of that feeling and compressed it into a single, concentrated moment of wanting it to be Dean coming into the enclosure to give me a hug.  And then not getting what I wanted.

The PRT staff member had come in to let me know Gallant had wanted to see me while there was still time.  Dean had.

Heart ripped out of my chest, just like that, just like this feeling here.  Losses, losses, fucking losses.  That ambiguous fucking word they’d used when they’d delivered the mass report.  Not deaths, not the ‘downs’ that were injured just enough they were out of the fight, just losses because they’d needed to be brief with the list of names so long.  Dean’s name had been on that list.

Where?  It had taken me three tries to get the word out.  They’d told me where, but I hadn’t traveled  a straight line to get there.  I’d zig-zagged, from doctor to nurse to PRT staff.  I’d asked people who had no cause or reason to know, tried describing her.  Asking, asking.  Pleading.

Where was she?  Had they seen her?  Where was the last place anyone saw her?  I need-

Where?  I shook my head, trying to rattle my brain and get centered in the present.  Where was Snag?  He’d disappeared into the next room.  I stepped forward, feeling unwieldy, and thrust my hand at the door, taking it off of the hinges, damaging the door’s frame.  Empty room.  Nowhere to be found.

My hand shook from the emotion, extended out in front of me.  I clenched it into a fist.

She’d been nowhere to be found too.

I’d arrived alone, no help to offer.  Too late to say anything or hear anything from him.  I’d choked on my words when it came to saying something to his parents.  There’d been this feeling like I couldn’t react the way I’d wanted and needed to, because his parents were there and they were somehow maintaining their composure.  Upset, yes, but they were wealthy and dignified enough they would do their crying in private.  They had weathered their losses years before and it had been the same then, according to Dean.  Now it was on Dean’s behalf.

What options did that leave me?  Break down into hysterical sobbing and act like I was hurting more than his own family was?  It might have been dismissed as the drama of a teenager and I hadn’t wanted that to be the final note on Dean and me, in their eyes, in the eyes of bystanders.

Like I imagined anyone in a relationship did, I’d wondered if we were in love, and then I’d known we were in love, and I’d grown close enough to him to wonder if he was a soulmate, dismissed the term just as easily as it had come up because it was silly and it didn’t matter either way, did it?  I’d received my answer on the question as I’d felt a part of me die during those long minutes of me trying and failing to say something to his family.

From that to home.  Southwest end of the city, our house mostly untouched by the attack.  To dad being ‘impaired’, mom’s word, and mom being business as usual, emphasis on business, because that was how she dealt.

To… a family member acting like they’d been replaced by a fucking pod person from another planet, gradually realizing that replacement had been a long time ago, and it was only now in context and crisis that I’d seen the alien-ness clearly, in the then-present and in retrospect.

Painful, in its own way, to have nobody to turn to.  The hurt had been there like a block of ice, melting too slowly when I hadn’t had any warmth to reach out for, not any less cold as the water pooled.  Not any less for the time that passed.  Just… more ambient.

This was like that.  Snag’s emotional effect was temporary.  The pain ebbed out, made my fingers feel numb and tingly, made it hard to breathe, and made me feel more physically weak and less coordinated than I should have been.

I stumbled a few steps, and reached out to touch the wall for support as I resumed moving, entering the room Snag had been in when he’d punched his arms through the wall.  It was reminiscent of a hotel room, but rustic enough it could have been a bed and breakfast.  Two small beds, a bedside table, a desk, and a flatscreen television sitting on a dresser.

He had a mover classification, I was pretty sure.  He’d used a trick to jump after the bus.  I made sure to look up, to avoid any ambush in case he jumped at me from the space between the top of the door and the ceiling.

The room was empty.

“Snag?” I asked.

No response.

My emotions were jumping around as I bucked the worst of the effect.  I wanted to have him to talk to, to pull me out of the mire of past feelings and into the present.  It made for a wild, disturbed kind of familiarity, almost a longing, as distorted emotions tried to find reconciliation with my head.  It ended up parsing him as if he was an old friend I was trying to reconnect with.  The same kind of weird emotional fixations that made Stockholm syndrome a thing.  Cult leaders and abusers used it.

When you had nothing, you groped for anything, even if it was the person who’d brought you to that point.

I’d reached out back then, too.  I’d turned to the Wards, because my mom had been the only person doing anything to keep New Wave in motion, the team had been falling apart, and I’d needed something.  Because the tests and briefings made me feel closer to Dean, reminded me of the study sessions.  Because the first time I saw her after the Endbringer attack, Vista had hugged me, because Dean, and it meant something to me that there was someone else properly upset for him.

“Guys,” I said, loud enough to be heard in the next room.

“Victoria?  Are you okay?” the voice was muffled.

I opened my mouth to respond.  My failure to form words reminded me of talking to Dean’s parents again.

I stopped myself, trying to focus and put myself in the present.  I took a deep breath that shook a little on the way in and the way out.

“Step back from the wall,” I said.

“Don’t,” was the immediate response.  “Don’t touch the bomb.”

“I’m not touching the bomb,” I said.  “Get away from the door and the wall to the right of the door.”

Snag had felt secure enough to stick his arms through the wall and not jar the bomb too badly.

I’d take his cue.

I put my arm through the wall, felt my forcefield go down.  I heard the exclamations.  Once I was sure I was good to move, I dragged it to one side, tearing a hole, felt one of the studs, moved it to the other side, and felt another.  About two feet of clearance between the studs.

I saw the faces on the other side.  Worried.  Angry.

The window shattered.  Snag reached through, seizing me by the throat.  He swung by one arm outside the building, dragging his other arm through the windows and slats, shattering them with explosive force, as he drove me toward the wall opposite the hole I’d just made.

I still had my forcefield up.  He hadn’t grabbed me that hard.  Flight and forcefield together helped to stop me in my tracks.  Floorboards shattered under me, and a window beside me broke as the force was transferred out.

Seizing his arm, I swung it like a bat, hurling him into the room.  I maintained my grip on him as I did it.

He touched the ground with one foot, then changed trajectory.  Dust fell from the ceiling as he landed on it, upside-down, his arm still extended my way.

I felt the machinery hum with activity, and tore the hand away, pushing it away from my throat and face.  The emotion effect grazed me, minor, but I hadn’t recovered from the last hit.

A small kind of loss, this.  The hit didn’t do what the first had, rounding out a memory.  It did buzz through other memories.  Ones that were more minor, that I’d never put to rest.

Being in the bus stop with my mom.  Weird, because it had once been a happy memory.  She’d been stitching up a cut on my forehead while I suppressed my forcefield.  The rain had been pouring, streaking the graffiti-covered walls of the bus stop.  A moment for just my mom and me.  She’d paused midway through the first aid to tell me that she was proud of me.  We’d got the guy we were after.  Then we had talked about how I’d have to change my hair for a short while to hide the stitches.  One of my first times officially out in costume.

It was a memory I kept going back to.  One I’d brought up several times in the hospital.  Bittersweet somehow, and it had become more bitter and less sweet over time.

It bothered me, brought me down just a bit, because it was something unresolved that had weighed on me, because I was already down a ways.

Stop,” I said.  I didn’t sound like myself.

His hands freed, he reached back to his boot with one gauntlet.

He threw a trio of fat shurikens at me.  My forcefield blocked them, saw them bounce off, one landing on the bed, two falling to the floor beside me.

I kicked the bed to bring the more solid bedframe to where I could grab it, and rammed the end of the bed at the corner where he was.  The shurikens detonated behind me, and on the bed in front of me.  Something that wasn’t fire or anything of the sort.  Something jumped between them, like electricity but not.  Where it touched me, my heart jumped, my mind stumbled, and feelings welled.

All of the doubts, fears, and hesitations inside me magnified, multiplied.  It paralyzed me for the moment.

This, at least, was something I’d been trying to get a handle on.  Here, my resistance applied.

He’d dropped down to the ground before the bed struck him, landing on both feet, arms spread out, hands planted on the ground.  He sprung back using his mover power, landing with one hand and one boot near the ceiling and another hand and boot beneath and on the window as he clung to the wall.

With the damage I’d done to the bed already by using it as a weapon, the swipe I used to get it out of my way destroyed it, only the mattress surviving.  I still had to pick my way past a slat.

He seemed surprised that I was already moving.  After pausing momentarily in shock, he used the moment of me navigating the wreckage of the bed to spring off to the right, down the hallway.

I passed through the doorway, pursuing, and my head turned against my will.  I heard glass break, saw Snag vault through the window he’d broken.

He was nimble, for a guy that big, but it seemed his mover power was responsible for most of it, his mechanical arms only helping with the legwork.  He was strong in many respects for what I was gathering was a multi-trigger.  Robust tinkerings, what felt like a full-fledged emotion affecting ability, a decent mover power.

My attention was more on the other two further down the hallway.  Blindside, I assumed, and a hint of the pink and grey coloring to the carpet that might have been Nursery.

Blindside’s bat tinked against a solid surface as they loitered there.

“Damn it, Snag,” Blindside muttered.  “Running off and leaving us with this?”

“He’s a character,” Nursery said.

“You’re a character,” Blindside said.

I could hear wet slurping sounds and I couldn’t see what was making them because Blindside was standing close to Nursery.

“Stop this,” I said.  “It doesn’t end anyplace good.”

I didn’t hear the response, because Snag reached up through the floorboards, seized my leg, and hauled me halfway through the floor.  I might have gone further, but I braced myself with flight and forcefield.

It left me kneeling with one leg, the other stuck straight out and down through the floor, my hands on the ground in front of me.

I heard Blindside’s running approach.

Bat in hand, probably.  I pushed out with my aura, hoping to give them a reason to think twice, buy myself a second.

Lurching to my feet, I brought Snag’s arm up above the ground.  I reached down to grab his hand, and then kicked nearer to the elbow.

The mechanical arm broke off.  With a bat of my own, I shifted my grip to the wrist rather than the now-limp hand, and held my weapon out, waving the broken end of the arm in Blindside’s general direction.

No blood.  I’d broken it off far enough down.  That was good.

I was breathing hard, my heart was racing, and old wounds felt fresh again, but I was finding some equilibrium again.  I-

The arm I was holding self-destructed, or the emotional battery within it did.  It stayed in one piece and it dashed me to pieces.

Again, the ripped-out heart feeling.  Again, the heavy sense of despair.  Deeper-seated now, because I hadn’t recovered entirely from either of the other two hits, the big one and the graze.

I saw double, more than double.

Months and years of seeing double.  One eye on the computer screen beside me, watching the time, looking for chat notifications.  One eye on the television.  One eye on the door.

Twenty past two.  Fifteen minutes late.  I counted the minutes.  Twenty one past two.

Twenty two past two.  The sound from the television was almost abrasive, made to be attention-getting.

I wanted to say something, protest, and I didn’t have a voice.  The computer was in arm’s reach, but it was a herculean effort to get a message out.

The door opening and the wrong person being on the other side.  Just like with Dean.  It wasn’t the staff member who came on weekdays at two-oh-five when I had visitors.  It was someone else, with a face I knew, a name I didn’t, and a gentle voice that was telling me that another patient was throwing a tantrum and the facility was on lockdown, they had contacted my visitors.

My visitors, my family, had decided that because they didn’t know how long the lockdown would be, they would come another day.  It was a long trip.

I reached for the laptop, started to type out my message for the text-to-speech speaker, using keys that were oversized and spaced out, with screwholes in the middle of each key for knobs and joysticks to be screwed in for when other patients had their turn.  It was supposed to double as physical therapy for me, coordinating myself, making the effort to reach and reposition.

The staff member had apologized, then turned to go notify other patients, closing the door behind her.  I’d tried to vocalize and of course I’d failed.  It was too long and byzantine a way from lung to mouth.

The message had been left unfinished on my screen, only a few words of what I’d wanted to say.  Even completed, the statement wouldn’t have meant anything to the staff member, and they wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.  All I’d wanted to express was that my family had missed the last two visiting days as well.

My eye had found the clock on the laptop, noted the ‘F’.  Friday.

One eye on the clock, watching the minutes.  One eye on the television.  One eye on the F, counting the days to Monday.  One eye for the email icon on the computer screen, waiting for the apology email that would come.  When it did, I would check the time, comparing it to other apology emails, to try and figure out if they were getting further apart, less.  To see if they would stop entirely, a prelude to the visits ceasing altogether, because it was easier to forget me than to do otherwise.

Something inside of me had broken at that.  I’d known it would cost me privileges.  Maybe even visits.  I’d known it would hamper or hurt other patients and staff across the hospital.  Ones who didn’t deserve it.

But I had nothing else.

I’d pushed out with my aura, as hard as I could, as far as I could.

I pushed out with my aura, as hard as I could, as far as I could.

Things had been happening while I was elsewhere.  The building shook.  The villains were gone.

“Victoria!”

Jasper.

He was with others.  I barely recognized them.  The heroes in particular took me a second.  The kid who looked a little bit flamboyant, hair gelled back, wearing what was almost a crop top, a beast’s upper face with fangs pointing down at his chest, the lower jaw and fangs on the belt, with diagonal slashes worked into either side of both parts of the icon, painted on his abs in a faint color that might have been missed in dimmer light.  Tempera with more of the white paint on her, a bit of blood.  Fume Hood was using one hand to press a bandage to her shoulder.  Crystalclear was missing more than a few chunks from his head.  One of his eyes was exposed now, peering from between one chunk that grew from the bridge of his nose and one that grew from his temple, very blue.

They looked frightened of me.

That was what my aura did, really.  Another of those contextual emotional things, like the Stockholm syndrome.  Awe and admiration if they liked me, fear if they didn’t.

Just fear, here.

“S-stop.”

Not my voice this time.  Jasper’s.

I stopped.

I trembled as I made myself get back to my feet.  I wiped my cheeks where they were wet.  My hair was a mess from being thrown around.  I used numb fingers to pry at it, undoing the tie.

“Christ,” Mar said.

For the first time, Jasper didn’t shut him up.

The building shook.  Daylight reached parts of the indoors it wasn’t supposed to.  This would be their plan B.  Property damage indeed.  Lord of Loss was tearing off the roof.

“We need to go,” Tempera said.

I nodded.  I looked back for the hole I’d made.  I saw the teenagers in uniform in the trashed room.  They’d opened the hole the rest of the way and filed out.  Now they stood as far away from me as the room’s boundaries allowed.

They would have seen me throw the bed.

“Yeah,” I said.  My voice sounded hollow.

The partial uniform I wore, still without the vest that I’d left outside, dusty  blood-spotted, it didn’t fit me anymore.  I felt choked by it, because I knew I’d just lost my job.

I led the way down the stairs.  I stumbled in one place where a trace of Nursery’s effect made the stair a different shape, carpeted when it shouldn’t have been.  Flight helped keep me from sprawling.

“You’re Glory Girl,” Landon said.

I’m not, I thought.

“People said you died when the Slaughterhouse Nine attacked Brockton Bay back in twenty-eleven.”

“Landon,” Jasper said.  One word.

The people who had been gathered inside were evacuating.  Kingdom Come wasn’t making it easy, either.  As they reached a safe distance, near where people had been protesting, they were gathering in offset rows, so we would have to move diagonally or zig-zag through their ranks to get past them.  A fence.

It was hard to tell what the villains were doing when Blindside was part of the group and they were already distant, but I could turn my head and see a bit of them out of the corner of one eye.  They were backing up, moving away without actually fleeing the scene.  Nursery was creating her effect.

The kids I’d brought with me were backing away, putting themselves  a distance away from us.

I looked up for the branches overhead and I didn’t see them.

“Watch out for Lord of Loss,” Tempera said, following my line of sight.

Where was he?

“He’s up there,” Crystalclear said.  “He’s changing.  Centaur?”

“That’s his combat form,” I said.  I still didn’t sound like myself.  “One of them.  It’s mobile.”

“I’ll keep the others busy,” Longscratch said.  He swiped one of the weapons he held, the buckler with the three swords mounted on the back, and three deep furrows appeared on the ground, stretching out beneath the feet of the crowd.

“Wait,” Tempera said.

Longscratch flickered, appearing momentarily at two of the points on the far side of the crowd where the furrows ended, before finalizing at the third.

“Help him,” she told Crystalclear, touching his shoulder, leaving white fingerprints.  “Fume Hood, stay close.  They’re still targeting you.”

Tempera moved her hand, and deposited what looked like fifty gallons of the white paint with black edges on the street.   We spread out as it appeared.  She moved her fingers, and it spread out.

“Tempe!” Crystalclear shouted.  He extended one hand out to the side, pointing.

The paint moved, a tidal wave, leaving a streak where it went.

I chased it.

Lord of Loss leaped from the rooftop.  Ten feet tall, a centaur in vague shape only.  His lower body looked more rhino-like, though the legs were longer, and he was plated in those same straps that looked like twists of smoke frozen in place, or wispy bands of metal that peeled away from him at the end.  He carried a heavy shield on one side, cut in a way that let its bottom left edge rest against the shoulder of his foreleg when he held it tilted forward, and he carried a heavy lance in the other hand.

His face was a helmet, the slits for the eyes and lower face were closed up, so the face was only a series of ridges where bands met and poked out, Y-shaped.  His hair was a mane of bands left to flow like smoke.

He landed in the streak of Tempera’s paint, and he lost traction, falling to one side.

The paint rose up and over him, then solidified.  He shattered it, lurched to his feet.  The paint liquified and rose up and over his legs, and he shattered it again.

Was it more easily than he’d shattered it the first time?

Actions he repeated were supposed to be stronger.

To give Tempera a hand, I threw myself forward at Lord of Loss.  Flight, forcefield up.  He twisted around and raised the shield, blocking me.  I still hit him hard enough to cost him footing.  Paint covered him, hardened.

He broke the paint, swung his lance around, hitting me with the broad side.

Forcefield down, impact dampened but not entirely broken.  I hit the ground and it hurt.

He broke through the paint yet again, found his feet, hit me again, this time while my feet were planted on the ground.  My forcefield came back up just in time to be broken again.

Yeah, that hit had been harder.

Fume Hood shot him, hit him in the face.  The paint crawled up to his upper body and joints, hardened there, trying to limit his movement, and he broke it again.

He laughed.  Then he hit me again.  I deflected the hit, swatting at his lance with one hand.

He was advancing, pressing closer to Fume Hood, and as much as I retreated, as much as I was sure Fume Hood was backing up, he had longer legs.

When he hit me yet again, pavement cracked beneath me, around my feet, the forcefield pushing the impact out and around me.  I almost lost my step backing away, with the cracked ground.

Each hit stronger than the last by a significant margin.

This was the point I was supposed to throw my hands up and surrender, or get out of the way.  If he decided to hit me more frequently, or if he lurched forward and kicked me with one of those feet of his after swatting me with his lance-

Crystalclear had turned around, was using his blasts on Lord of Loss now.

Loss, losses, losses, losses.

I threw myself forward, flying, seizing him by one leg, twisting, trying to knock him over.

I got him off balance, and then he hit me.  Only a moment of me holding onto him kept me from getting smacked into the ground with no forcefield.  I fell to the ground and scrambled out of the way of his legs.

I waited until my forcefield was back, then threw myself at him, bowling him over.  I tore at strips, peeling away at him.

In the background, Kingdom Come had abandoned his control over the crowd.  They woke as if from a deep sleep, and they seemed surprised by what was happening around them.  They fled.  Away from the brutes fighting, away from the chaos and the damaged building.

He elbowed me.  It took him long enough to rise to his feet again that I was able to get in front of him again.

I could do this.

I needed to do this.

It-

It wasn’t my day to get what I wanted.  I barely registered the sound.  A crack, coinciding with the noise of the crowd.  Lord of Loss went still.

My back had been turned, so I hadn’t been in a position to see it.

One bullet, from somewhere nearby.  Fume Hood on the ground, Tempera beside her.

It wasn’t my day to get what I wanted.

I’d frozen.  A lot of people had.

“Go to her,” Lord of Loss said.  “Help.  I’ll let you go if you let us go.”

Numb, I nodded.

“Let people know it wasn’t us.  This wasn’t our plan,” he said, behind me.

I flew as much as I walked, and dropped to my knees at Fume Hood’s side.  I put my forcefield up, tried to position myself where I could be a wall for her.

“Put your hands here,” Tempera told me.

I did, pressing down on the stomach wound.  Blood pooled out, covering the backs of my hands.

The crowd had gone still.  There was a murmuring, and people were drawing closer to watch and to see.

Reminiscent of Vikare.

In the background, Longscratch and Crystalclear had already apprehended the suspect.  A protester that had been in a building nearby.  Hunting rifle.  The villains were leaving.

“Not-” Fume Hood grunted.

“Not?” I asked.

“Not a good day,” she muttered, through gasps.

“No,” I agreed.  Very much agreed.

Landon had come closer, and was helping by getting the first aid kit out.  Tempera took the components.

“Not a good day for any of us,” Tempera said, giving the crowd a glance.

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Daybreak – 1.5

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I paused at one of the doors of the kitchen.  I’d come in one door and there were two more.  One led to a hallway with people standing stationary at the end.  Another led to the main room, where everyone had been seated before this had begun.

Crystalclear hadn’t signaled me further, and I took that to mean I was supposed to pause or wait.  People in the main room were moving around.  I peered through a crack in the door to see if there was an opening, a break in the ranks I could use to slip through or get something done.

I saw the people Kingdom Come had controlled had settled in, most finding seats in the folding chairs that had been set up throughout the room.  Some stood around the side or sat with their backs to the wall.  Others stood at the windows, watching outside.

The majority of the crowd was at rest.  The ones who weren’t had guns drawn.  The police officers were among them.

The officer with the sad mustache was at the front of the room, face streaked with blood.  He was talking, and I couldn’t see who he was talking to.

I listened to the conversation, two people talking against a faint background of a chorus of hums and music box sounds.

“You want me to negotiate with terrorists,” a woman said.

“We want you to do what is best for your community,” the police officer said, in a very different voice than he’d used earlier.

“By playing along?”

“This started with civilians, it involves cape on cape violence,” the officer said.  “If you cooperate, we’ll pay for damage done, we’ll extend our protection over your community in a way that keeps capes out of sight and mostly out of mind.”

“A protection racket?”

“Not a racket.  No money or expectations.  We’ll take the woman and we’ll tell you what to do in order to smooth things over.”

“I don’t understand why.  What does this serve?  Fume Hood was upfront about her history.  She wanted to serve her time in this way.”

“If we tell you why, will you cooperate?”

“I can’t promise that,” the woman said.  I was assuming she was the District Rep.  Why had she left the others?

“The City is like a pressure cooker.  The pressure is mounting and has been for a while.  Things inside are heating up and winter is fast approaching.  A number of great thinkers seem to think we need to vent the-”

“Vent the pressure?” the District Rep asked.

“Yes,” the police officer said.  “The-”

There was an explosion overhead.  Another of Crystalclear’s shots.  Two more, leading from one corner of the room and away.

I looked at the crowd, and I saw the person closest to me staring at me.

Kingdom Come knew, he’d seen.

“We’ll continue this conversation shortly.  You’ve got a cape with a gun inside the building.”

I backed away.  Crystalclear created more explosions close to the other door.  The people who had been standing guard at the end of the hallway, probably.

I retreated, ducking behind a counter.

They entered the room simultaneously, doors banging against the wall.

I ducked down, staying behind cover.

“You’re the one who fought Blindside?” the one at the door asked.  The police officer.

I remained silent.

“I don’t want to shed any blood that isn’t mine,” he said.  He was moving deeper into the room.  I heard the door squeak, peeked, and saw the corner of it.  It had been opened and was being held open.  Another person?

“Alright,” he said.

One of the issues of being a parahuman was that there wasn’t a history to build on or a peerage to draw from.  We had powers, yes.  Some of those powers were similar to the powers others had, but there were almost always tricks and caveats, strengths one person had that another didn’t.  I couldn’t copy Alexandria’s old tactics and style because my invincibility worked differently.  Timing was so much more important to me.

I could be shot, if my timing was wrong, or if their timing was especially right.

A person like Jasper could take classes in martial arts and get lessons on the range, and he could use tools and draw on the experience of millions of others who had bodies that worked like his did, a set of capabilities that were virtually identical to his own.

There was only one Victoria Dallon with Victoria Dallon’s powers.  I had to lean heavily on my own experience.  In exercising my abilities, there was a point beyond which I was the only person that could teach myself – nobody resembled me closely enough to be an instructor in how to fight, how to process, or how to or pass on their experience.

But my own experience was a drawback if I was caught in the moment, where I had to rely on instinct but that instinct pointed me right back to my old ways.

These people were innocent.  The officer, the others at the door.  Maybe some had been protesters.  Kingdom Come had no issue in using them, but I couldn’t hurt his pawns.

He could have moved them as a group, but he didn’t.  He moved like a chessmaster played chess.  One person taking a new position, pausing, checking the area, then another person moving.  The police officer in charge -chief or sheriff, I wasn’t sure-  had stopped in the center of the room.  Others were moving around the perimeter.

I caught a glimpse of one by the gun he was holding, and moved around the corner.  They all moved the same way when they moved, pistols held up, gripped in two hands that were dotted in drops of drying blood, pointed at the ceiling.  I saw the gun before I saw the rest of him.

The lullaby continued, faint and distant.  It wasn’t enough to obscure any scuffle I made.  I didn’t want to make noise, and whatever the movies showed, it was hard to crawl around while wearing boots and be sure to not make any sound.

I didn’t like flying.  I wasn’t confident in it like I had been.  Two years had passed in the hospital, and my sense of flight had been as disturbed as the movement of my arm or my attempts at vocalization.  It was supposed to be back, but it was a muscle I hadn’t exercised.

I wanted to fly, but it was tainted.

I raised myself off the ground, still hunched over, staying low enough that the counters would block me from sight, and used flight as much as light pushes on the sides of the cabinet to propel myself away from the advancing gunman.

I had other training to draw on that wasn’t self-taught.  There was what I’d learned and absorbed from time with family, but that whole experience was so full of pitfalls I barely wanted to touch on it.

The Wards.  I hadn’t been with them for long.  I’d absorbed some things from Dean, because I lived the cape stuff and Dean was willing to teach it.  I’d studied up and I’d taken the tests.  I knew the numbers and the labels.  I knew the approach formations for squads.  Simple, making conflict with parahumans as textbook as possible, black ink on white paper, sans serif.

In fighting that perpetual battle of trying to think things through and still act in time, the classifications were a nice shortcut.  Apply the label, assume what worked against most people of one classification, and if it clearly didn’t, it was still a starting point.

He was edging closer.

Kingdom Come was a breaker and a master.  He had a toggled state that changed the rules as they pertained to him.  Shake, blow up, and he was now a horde of people controlled by the bodily fluids on them.  Masters were second highest priority as targets, breakers were targets that required timing, often hitting them when they were in the state that they were weakest.

Kingdom Come made that complicated by not giving me a body to target.

They were closing in.  They’d crossed the length of the room and if I had to guess, four of them were standing within fifteen feet of me, guns held high, where it would be that much harder for me to lunge for the weapon.  He didn’t have perfect coordination of their movements, I had to assume, unless they were all doing the same thing, like when the crowd had turned their heads.

The old me would have dealt with this by blitzing them.  Hit each hard, fast, before they had a chance to react.  Some minor harm would have come to innocents, but the situation would be resolved.

The current me waited, staying silent, letting them get close.  One to my left, one in the middle avenue of the kitchen, between the two rows of counter-islands, and one on the far right, furthest from me.

As I set my boot down on the floor, ready to move, Crystalclear volunteered his help.  An explosion at the ceiling, a few feet behind the guy to my left.

He spun around, looking, and I took advantage, leaping over the counter, reaching for the gun he held aloft.  I seized it and his hands, and pulled both to the ground, where the counters kept us out of sight of the other two.

They started to approach at a run, each around one end of the counter, so they’d catch me on both sides, and Crystalclear offered another blast between me and them.  It took out the light fixture above, and cast the corner of the room into shadow, illuminated by periodic sparks.

It gave me a moment’s pause to think.  I ignored the man I’d brought to the ground, as I held his hands and the gun.  I didn’t even need my strength- only leverage and my body weight.

I couldn’t do anything to him that would put him down for good without risking hurting the real person.  I couldn’t do anything to Kingdom Come, as much as the rule for dealing with masters said I should.  He didn’t have a material body.

I used a burst of strength and tore the gun from the one man’s hands, sliding it along the floor so it went under one of the appliances.  I’d gone high to go after the first one, so I went low as I went after the officer to my left, throwing myself around the counter, using a bit of flight to help keep up my speed as I went around the corner.

I tackled him to the ground, holding him as we went down to keep the impact from being too hard.  I’d managed to get one hand around his wrist, and as he pulled his other hand away, gripping the gun, I seized that wrist too.

That left one in the middle of the room, one unarmed and on the ground and no doubt climbing to his feet, and one coming around the corner, gun ready.

I flew, sliding the police officer along the floor.  I twisted to hit the cabinet with my shoulder as we reached the end of the row.  That would bruise tomorrow.  I flew again, to move another direction, keeping away from the rest.

As we stopped, the officer had enough in the way of bearings to drop the gun.  He drew his knee toward his chest, and then kicked the gun so it would slide on the kitchen floor.

Someone stepped through the doorway, stooping low and catching the gun in a way that wouldn’t have been possible if they hadn’t had a greater awareness.

No, as much as he was a master in execution, he was also a breaker.  I had to be sensible.  It didn’t make sense to fight a breaker like this when he was in his breaker state.

I pushed the police chief away, and then, reorienting, I flew straight up, through the ceiling.  I felt my forcefield go down, bracing myself in case I brushed up against any wiring.

Second floor.  I checked my surroundings.  None of Kingdom Come’s people.  The lullaby music was louder.  The drones would arrive soon.  I moved, hurrying down the hall.

I found the stairwell.  I stepped into it, glancing down.  No sign of an approach.

I peeled some of the metal away from the railing, stepped back into the hallway, and leveraged my strength to twist the metal around the door handle, to seal it shut.  I knew there could be other stairwells, but at least this way I’d hear them if they tried coming this way.

Covering my back.

Priorities.  Blindside was as classic a stranger as I’d ever dealt with.  Out of action or out of consideration for now.

Lord of Loss was a brute.  Textbook answer when faced with a brute was to ignore them as much as they allowed you to.  It would take too much effort and it would take too much time when dealing with someone who couldn’t be decisively dealt with.

I could remember studying the PRT paperwork with Dean, doing the quizzes.  He’d said the rule for brutes had an unofficial second part.  That as much as you might try to put them off, they had a way of making you deal with them.

What had I said in response to that?  I was a brute on paper.

Had that been the study session we’d had in my room?  Dean would have been leaning against a pile of pillows at the head of my bed, Lyo-Leo on his lap, while Dean pretended to have him read the answers.  I’d been sitting at the foot of the bed, papers and books strewn between us.  Real homework and superhero stuff.

The door had been left open, at my dad’s insistence.  One foot tucked under me, I’d snuck my one foot across the bed until I could touch Dean’s knee, trace my toe along his leg.  Seeing if I could break his focus enough to make him mess up while reading aloud.

No, wait, that had been a few days after Dean had reminded me of the brute rule.  I’d been studying it with more interest because Dean was turning eighteen before long, and we were worried he’d get moved to another city, even with his family situation being what it was.  I’d seriously been considering joining the Wards and then the Protectorate, so I could follow him.

But I’d told my stuffed lion that he needed to remind Dean that brutes like me had a way of making you deal with them.  They could only be ignored for so long.

Normally clever Dean had been at a loss for words.  He’d grabbed my toe and squeezed it.  I’d wiggled it in his hand.  We’d been familiar enough with each other that the silence that followed didn’t feel bad.  Awkward in a good way, even.

He’d, after a long pause, found the clever thing to say, but he’d stumbled his way through it.  It would be my pleasure.  Pause.  To deal with you.

It hadn’t been long after that that we’d had our first night together.  It had taken two days of desperate attempts at coordinating schedules and patrols, for me to get out without family wanting to join me, for Dean to avoid the ‘sidekick’ situation and go out in costume without a Protectorate member joining him.

My heart hurt, thinking of Dean.  My knight in shining armor.

Still, I smiled as I remembered some of the emails we’d exchanged, my hands resting on the metal I’d used to lock the door.  Dean, ever the gentleman, had wanted to negotiate and check everything, from my comfort levels about X, Y, and Z to how my personal forcefield would factor into our time together.

I’d laughed at that, which had been the tip-off for Amy to realize something was up.  She’d-

And I’d gone and done it.  Let my guard down, tripped over the stumbling block, stepped on the emotional landmine.  There was only the hurt, now, none of the mixed, warm feeling that came from thinking about Dean.

I pushed it all out of mind.  It wasn’t the time for that anyway.  I was prone to getting lost in thought, even though it sometimes felt like every path led to the same, regrettable destination.

Dry, deliberate classifications.  Moving forward.  Deep breaths, when my chest hurt enough that breathing was hard.  Back to numbers and labels.  Lord of Loss and Kingdom Come had to be ignored, but I could trust that Lord of Loss would come into the picture somewhere along the line.  We still had to get out of here or deal with him.

Nursery was close enough for me to hear the hums and chimes.  Shaker, clearly.  Not dissimilar to Labyrinth from back in Brockton Bay.  The rule for dealing with shakers was to avoid fighting them on their own turf.

Snag was changer or tinker, possibly striker.  Those arms.  He had something mover going on with how he’d gone after the bus Jasper was driving.

Still, there might be another in play.

I ventured down the hallway, still feeling that ache in my chest, feeling acutely aware of my own body, the way clothes constrained me, reaffirmed me, yet every reaffirmation was a reminder that I needed that small reminder in the first place, and why.

My hand brushed against the wall as I walked.  The closer to the north end of the building I got, the more of the lullaby I could hear.  Multiple sources formed the humming, soft around the edges, each slightly out of sync with the others in a way that suggested they all came from different places.

I felt the texture of the wall change.  Smoother.  I felt and saw the difference in texture and color, respectively.  Gray and dusty rose shades, as if seen through a filter.  The wall had become a painted surface that felt as if it had been painted over many times, some droplets having run down the wall and set in place, ridges elsewhere where similar bumps had been painted over and become a faint rise.

I could hear her now.  Nursery.  A human’s hum, joined by all the others.  She was close.

Peering around the corner of the T-shaped junction, I didn’t see her, but I saw the change.  Her turf, as it was.  Dusty rose carpet, picture frames with simple things like animals and boats in grays, blacks, and pale pinks.  A crib, white, covered with a quilt.

I stayed at the edges of it, going further down the hall rather than turning the corner and venturing into her realm.  Only the wall to my right was affected.  A baby carriage draped in a blanket was parked beside a small bookshelf that had been stacked with children’s books and building blocks.  The cloth stuck as if it had been taped down or the sheer amount of time it had been there had nearly fused it to the fabric of the carriage, producing a tearing sound reminiscent of Velcro.  The carriage was empty, except for a vague oblong stain on the seat’s back and the seat itself.

When I left it behind, though, I could tell that there was humming coming from that vicinity, one of the soft, vague hums in the grander chorus.

Fuck me.

Every five or ten feet, there were more.  A car seat removed from the car, handle up, blanket over it.  Another crib, a much-used blanket tangled in the mobile, a child’s wagon.  Toys, clocks, wall decorations, cardboard boxes stuffed of baby clothes, marked for ages zero to three.  A rocking horse and more.

I was forced to venture further into it to get closer to the true sound’s source.

I saw her.  Nursery was a woman with an ankle-length dress, a shawl over her shoulders.  She clutched the shawl and rocked from side to side, speaking the inarticulate sounds rather than humming.

Beside her was Snag.  He was heavyset.  Two hundred and fifty pounds, at least, possibly three hundred pounds, and he wasn’t quite six feet tall.  That mass was made even bulkier by his coat, which was fastened closed, draping down to his ankles, where his boots were.  The sleeves had been modified to be longer, fitting the arms, which reached to the floor.

It was my first chance at seeing his face, though.  He had long black hair and a thick beard, both in the loose heavy-metal take.  His mask looked like he’d taken handfuls of black clay and layered it over the skin his hair and beard didn’t cover.  The mask created a kind of neanderthal brow with a permanent glare built into it; the circles under his eyes were so dark it was hard to tell exactly where the eyeholes of the black clay mask started.  It might have been thick rubber, melted to be in the crude shape needed, the texture left unrefined.

Nursery barely flinched as the door opened.  Fume Hood stuck her head and arm out, and she fired three projectiles.  One hit the slash of white paint that separated Nursery’s realm from the door, exploding into a cloud of gas.  Two hit near where Nursery and Snag were, going to pieces instead of exploding or producing gas.

The gas from the first shot expanded to fill the space between Nursery’s pocket world and the door at the end of the hall.

“Speed it up,” Snag said.

Nursery turned his way.  She wore a cloth mask with holes cut out for the eyes.  The cloth had a floral print and was bound close to her neck with a series of chokers.  She continued to mumble and hum, but she’d stopped rocking in place.

“Come on now,” Snag growled.  “We’re expecting trouble.”

The humming stopped.  The music box chimes that seemed to be plucking and pealing from the light fixtures and behind the walls grew noticeably quieter.

“Every time I have to stop to respond to you, Snag, it slows us down.  Be a good boy and be patient, trust us.  We’re making progress, even if you can’t see it.”

“If we get caught between the new player and Bad Apple’s team-”

Nursery let go of her shawl to reach out, placing her hand flat on Snag’s face, covering eyes, nose and mouth.  He pulled back, and I ducked back behind the corner, so he wouldn’t catch a glimpse of me.

“Hush,” she said.  “We’re safe even if that happens.  This is my sanctuary.”

“I will bite you if you touch my face again.”

“You’re not as scary as you pretend to be, Snag.  I know scary.  You’re just a man that’s dressing up,” Nursery said.  She sounded gentle, calm even after being threatened.

“Try me.”

“Please, hush,” she said.  “Let me do my work.”

“If you take any longer, I’m going to push for plan B.”

Nursery resumed humming.

No more feedback from Crystalclear.  The group at the end of the hall weren’t doing much of anything.

More to the point, I was rather concerned that the area of the building I was in didn’t entirely map to the layout of the building that I’d seen from the outside.  There was just a little too much room to either side of Nursery and Snag.

“Tell me the details,” Snag said, his voice growl-like even when he wasn’t threatening Nursery.  He’d walked a distance away from her and toward me.

A pause, long.  Snag picked up a child’s plush and threw it down the hall, bowling over a stack of thin hardcover books.

“Well, it’s taking plenty of time.  So is Nursery,” he said.  “What’s Kingdom’s status?”

Another pause.

“At this stage I’d settle for plan B,” he said.  “I’d pay for the property damage.”

Pause.

“They’re trying to buy time and it’s working.  Tell Blindside to hurry up.”

Blindside.

I stood with my back to the wall, listening in.  Crystalclear hadn’t communicated, but I wasn’t sure he could.  Fume Hood and Tempera weren’t doing much but holding the fort and delaying.

Nursery continued humming, but she piqued the last hum with an inquisitive note.

“Blindside faked being out.  Should arrive soon.  We’ve got some details on our mystery guest.  Dressed like one of the troopers I stashed in the room back there.  Untouchable but still wary of being hit.  Emotion control.”

The humming stopped.

I expected Snag to complain.  He didn’t.

I chanced a look around the corner.

Nursery had turned around.  She faced me.  Snag was gone.

I stepped out of cover, one hand on my gun, glancing around to see where Snag had disappeared to.

I wasn’t supposed to fight a shaker in her domain.  But here she was, standing with her hands clasped in front of her, defenseless.  She was also the only thing standing between me and the room where Fume Hood was.

“Let me through,” I said.

“No,” she said.

I pushed out my aura, as hard as I could manage.

She didn’t flinch.  It didn’t reach her.

That was what this was.  Her sanctuary was a protection from shaker effects.  She overrode everything by transplanting this screwed up baby decor into the area.

I wondered if I could hit her.  I looked around for Snag and didn’t see him.

“Wake up,” she said.

“What?” I asked.

“Wake up, sweetie.”

The crib, a little red wagon with blankets heaped over it, and a carriage nearby jumped, rattling as if something had moved within.

I heard wet sounds.  Throughout the hazy altered space, the meaty squelching started to overtake the background hums.

I stopped in my tracks.

Things moved beneath the blankets.  She still hadn’t budged.

I turned around and ran.

Fuck this.

I got away as fast as my legs would take me.  I hit the wall at the end of the hallway and stopped myself with my hands rather than slow down with my legs.  I turned right and headed away, past more cribs, more strollers, baby seats and bouncy chairs, all draped in their blankets of varying types and quality.  Some tipped over from the violence of the agitation.

Yeah, no, whatever it was she was doing, I wasn’t going to mess with it.

There had to be other ways.

I escaped the area of Nursery’s shaker effect, stepping back into ordinary community center hallway.  I was in the opposite corner of the second floor from where I’d started.

Looking out the window, I could see the shadows cast by Lord of Loss’ branches.  Was it worth chancing flying outside, then flying into the room where Fume Hood was, when Lord of Loss could try hitting me or grabbing me?

There was another stairwell at the end of the hall- one I hadn’t sealed.

The door opposite it had something hanging on it.  A gauntlet with clawed fingertips, the ‘arm’ something electronic.  The claw’s tips were embedded in the wood of doorframe and door both.

“Hello?” I called out.  I glanced back to make sure Nursery and Snag hadn’t followed me.

“Don’t touch the door!” was the rushed response.

“Who is it?” I asked.

“Patrol from the high school, community center staff,” the voice from the other side said.  “Don’t touch the door.  There’s a bomb!”

“I see it,” I said.

“They said they’d disable it when they left.  You said to stay safe, so we cooperated and let them lock us in.”

“That’s- that’s good,” I said.  My heart was still pounding from Nursery’s thing.  I was pretty sure Blindside wasn’t around, because my senses weren’t being affected.  “We’ll get this figured out.”

I wasn’t sure how.  They had a shaker power to override Tempera and Fume Hood.  Potentially Crystalclear and Longscratch as well, depending.  They had Lord of Loss sequestering the outside and they had Nursery taking over the inside.

In the same moment I turned my thoughts to Snag and his disappearance, two mechanical arms stabbed out of the nearest wall as if the wall was paper.  One hand caught me around the neck.  The other across the face.  I was slammed into the window, hard enough to shatter it and take out my forcefield.  Glass tinkled onto my head, into my hair, and all around me.

Before I could get my bearings, he hauled me into the wall.  My head cracked into the drywall and I felt it break with the impact.  His hand gripped my mouth and the length of his long forearm caught me around the throat.

I put my hands on his arms, and I felt the whir as machinery kicked into life.

As someone with the ability to control emotions, I was supposed to be harder to read and affect.  It was why I’d deflected Crystalclear earlier.

It was why Dean and I had gotten along.  Even why we’d been possible.

Maybe that resistance came into play.  Maybe it turned Snag’s power from an emotional uppercut to a mere slap.  Negative emotions poured into me like liquid from a syringe.

But a slap on an open wound could be enough to bring someone to their knees.  The walls came tumbling down, the memories flooding in, and my last coherent, present thought was that I hoped I wouldn’t maim or kill anyone in the meantime.

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Daybreak – 1.4

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There was no way to process the series of collisions that followed me hurling myself down between the logging truck and the school bus.  My focus was on deflecting the impact, clawing at the logging truck with everything I had to try to put it off course, before the bus made contact and hopefully moved it further.  As the two vehicles came together, I extended my whole body, trying to push them apart in a way that would keep the collision from being the head-on sort that might kill Jasper.

In no particular order, the school bus hit the logging truck, the logging truck  hit the school bus and the wall, and I, my forcefields down, hit the ground rolling.

I came to a stop and lay where I was, face down.  I felt the sting of the scrapes where I’d come into contact with the road, and waited for the real pain to start.  I wanted to know where the real damage was before I moved the wrong part and made it worse.  My ears rang from the sharp noises and impacts.  Playing dead helped, too, because the villains were rousing, opening the door of the truck cab, glass tinkling down to the street below.

“What the hell?” someone asked.  They were younger- probably teenager.  I couldn’t pinpoint if they were male or female.

“Are you okay?” a deeper voice asked.  The nature of the voice made me think brute.  “Any injuries?”

“I think I have whiplash,” the teenager said.  “I wasn’t expecting that.  What the hell?”

“You were intercepted before impact.  It looks like teenagers in uniform.  With a bus.”

“I can see that,” the teenager said.

“You missed the side door you were supposed to drive through.”

“I can see that too,” the teenager said.

“I can’t tell what you’re looking at, Blindside.  Let me know if you need help.  Snag?”

“I’m fine,” was the response, a rasp.  I heard metal creak.

“Your arm isn’t,” the teenager said.  They would be Blindside, going by what the Brute had said.

“I’m fine.”

I heard the sound of someone hopping down to land on the street, not all that far away from me.  Metal struck the road shortly after.

I only saw a glimpse of him.  Work boots, a long coat that hung down low enough that it almost looked like his legs were only two feet long, and arms long enough that his wrists made contact with the ground.  The hands rested flat on the road, fingers splayed.  He wore gauntlets.

I wanted to see something more than just his feet, but as I started to raise my eyes, looking through the hair that had come loose from my braid, my eyes were forced down, until they were staring at the road.  I heard the scrape of another person’s feet as they climbed down from the truck to the street.

“My fucking neck,” Blindside said.  The person in question.

Try as I might, I couldn’t look at them.  My eyes and head refused to cooperate and do what was necessary to put them in my field of vision.

“Don’t complain,” said the Brute.

“You weren’t on the truck.  You don’t get to tell me what I can or can’t complain about.  Fuck, I wasn’t expecting that hit.  Did both K.C. and Nursery fuck up?”

“The timing was wrong,” a woman said.  Nursery, I assumed.

There were so many of them.  The Brute, Snag, Blindside, Nursery, and K.C.- I really hoped that K.C. was the mass-master I’d seen in the crowd.  If they weren’t, then there were six of them in total.  Six and the crowd that the exploding parahuman had control of.

We had four capes on the inside, me, and a bunch of high schoolers, some of whom had guns.  None of whom, cape or student, that I wanted involved in this conflict.

The five or six attacking capes wouldn’t be attacking like this if they weren’t sure they could win.

“Don’t be stupid,” Snag said, his voice a rough growl, volume raised.

He wasn’t talking to me.  He was directing that at Jasper and the other two.

Drive away, I thought, willing Jasper to think the same.  Be okay, drive away.  Leave me.

I heard the chugging of the bus, the battered engine protesting as the vehicle started to reverse, pulling away.

At the edge of my Blindside-limited field of vision, Snag’s metal, long-fingered hand lifted from the ground.  He leaped toward the bus without making the movements necessary to jump.  I didn’t want to move my head and risk being seen just to see him land, but I heard the metal-on-metal sound, the impact of a heavy body on the hood.

Every set of eyes, mine excepted, had to be on him and the retreating bus.  It was an opening, and it was an opening our side opted to use.  The side door of the building opened without a sound.  Fume Hood and Crystalclear were in the doorway.

Crystalclear threw a chunk of crystal at the ground, and the chunk passed through without sound or apparent impact.  Fume Hood had six green orbs with her, all around her hand.  She sent one out in the direction of the bus, then, a moment later, sent a second.  Both exploded, off to one side.

Crystalclear’s shot passed through walls.  Tempera had let me know that.  Apparently, it needed to pass through walls, or the ground in this case.  He’d thrown it into the ground, and a moment after Fume had released her two shots, both landing, Crystalclear’s shot emerged from the ground, an explosion of vapor, glass splinters, and fragments of road.

One of the villains, the Brute, only laughed.

Fume Hood paused, her four orbs around her hand.  Her head was turned so she could only see me with one eye- Blindside’s power was limiting them there.

Through the hair that had fallen over my face, I could see Fume Hood look at me.  Making eye contact.

I couldn’t see the villains, so I knew the action was risky.  I had to hope they were more focused on her than on me.

I raised my head up and  motioned for her to go, moving one hand, swiping my fingers toward her.

The pattern was much the same as with her first shot.  One shot, then firing the remaining three all at once.  One to gauge how it would fly, then the rest to deliver the hit.

They slammed the door shut, just before the three near-simultaneous explosions.  The detonations were small and sharp, and produced a wind that blew my hair away from my face.  I held my breath.

The Brute laughed again.

I really didn’t want to pick a fight with four capes at once.  The bus was gone, the door was shut.

“This is going to slow us down,” the Brute said.

“You don’t have to sound so happy about it,” Blindside said.

The Brute chuckled, and climbed down from the roof of the truck, and in the doing, he put himself between me and Blindside.  It blocked my view of Blindside, and it gave me a chance to get a glimpse of him.  The ground smoked around where his boots touched pavement, and the smoke solidified into formations that looked like branches and twists of metal, all in an ashen white-grey.  His entire body was made of the stuff, as if he wore armor made of white-grey bandages made solid and immobile by resin, all of the ends curling up and away from him in horns or branches.

I knew him, even just seeing his legs.  Or I knew of him, to be precise.  Yeah, based on what I knew of Fume Hood’s group, they might be outclassed.

The big guy was the Lord of Loss.  There were two ways a cape could go with a name like that.  The most obvious was to fuck up just once, and forever after have people wondering out loud what he was thinking, taking a name like that.  Being called a loser.

The other way was to succeed and ascend the name, to take that name and make it a title.  The Lord of Loss had managed that.

He had been one of the villains in a big city on the West coast, and now he was one of the villains running a settlement on one of the corner worlds.  Was it Earth-N?  Not far from here, if it was.  He wasn’t top tier, as capes went, but he was A-list.

He was a Brute with Breaker flavor.  He cloaked himself in abstract forms, with a set selection.  I knew one resembled a bird, which he would have been using to fly alongside the truck.  He was versatile, big, strong, and his breaker power multiplied his efforts over time.  That multiplication played into how he flew, how he grew, and back before Gold Morning, a few occasions where he’d been able to slug away at a bank vault until he’d torn it open, or even drag a smaller vault away with him.

He turned his attention toward me, turning around and approaching me as the others backed away from the cloud of gas.  My chin jerked toward my chest as Blindside stepped out to the side, back in my field of view.

I would’ve rather had just about anyone else step close enough for me to get my hands on them.  It had to be the guy I couldn’t take out of the fight.

“Miss,” Lord of Loss said.  “Are you injured?”

I couldn’t pretend to be unconscious- I’d just moved because of Blindside.  I settled for an inarticulate, small moan.

Lord of Loss knelt beside me.  “Can you walk?”

I shook my head, keeping the movement small.

“Is it because your back is hurt?  Can you feel my hand, here?” he asked.

I felt his hand touch my knee.

I nodded, again, small.  I screwed up my face, feigning more pain than I was in.

I didn’t like this.  I didn’t like being so close to the guy, I didn’t like the scrutiny, the eyes on me, the attention.  I didn’t like being treated like I was an invalid.  I didn’t like suppressing my forcefield and aura.

I didn’t like being still.

It was easier to keep my composure if I was moving, doing.

“Blindside,” Lord of Loss said.  “Watch her.”

“What?”

“You were always going to be the lookout, with Kingdom Come helping.  We stick to the plan.  We’re going in, we’ll get our target, you’ll be the lookout, and you’ll look out for this junior soldier while you’re at it.”

“Pain in the ass.”

“Plans change,” Lord of Loss said.  “You’ll learn that sooner or later.  Our clients hired us to capture an ex-villain who made a bystander lose her child.  I don’t think they’d be pleased if we let another bystander get hurt while we carry out the task.”

“Yeah, no, I get it.  Just go.  Let’s get this over with.”

“Keep an eye out for the vehicle with the other soldiers.  They drove in Kingdom’s direction.  If they can’t get through or around, they might come back.”

“I get it.  It’s fine.  Go.  I can handle my shit.”

My eyes had closed, because it kept my head from being jerked around as Blindside kept compelling me to move to avoid seeing them, but I could tell when Lord of Loss moved away, as the bulk of his body ceased blocking the light of the sun above us.

“Snag,” Lord of Loss said.  “Any injury?”

I heard a cough.  “No.”

“Then go with Nursery,” Lord of Loss said.  He paused.  “Kingdom Come?”

Another pause.

“It’s time.  Move in,” Lord of Loss said.  “I can’t go inside, so I’ll take the roof, I’ll watch the other sides of the building, and do what I can to help.”

I cracked my eyes open.  Nursery and Snag were walking up to the door.  Lord of Loss was breaking into pieces, his arms spreading out as the wispy smoke formed into the ‘feathers’ of his wings.  He wasn’t fast at all as he started to flap, lifting off the ground.

That would be the downside of his breaker power.  It let him hit harder every time he hit something, and that included the beats of wing against air, but it took time.

Still, it let him move in the direction of the roof.  He paused, circling, as Snag raised one long arm and pushed at the door.  White paint leaked around the doorframe.

Sealed shut.

“This would be why I’m here,” Nursery said, her voice soft.  She began humming, and it was a lullaby sort of hum.

A music box sort of chiming joined the humming.

“Fuck that shit,” Blindside said.  I was the closest person to them as they stood somewhere near me.   I lay near the butt end of the eighteen wheeler, which had its nose in the wall of the building.  Nursery and Snag were at the door.  I wasn’t sure if Blindside was talking to me.

The humming seemed to be picked up elsewhere, and the music box noises intensified, with new notes and a higher tempo.  The area near the door blurred.  It was a window into another world, what had to be a pocket dimension, but for the most part it seemed unsure if it was our world or the pocket world.

An indoor setting, at a glance.  Beds and walls that didn’t line up with things in our world.

I felt Blindside’s hand on my neck.  They felt for my pulse.

“Asshole is invincible, and so he doesn’t even think to get your gun from you.  You’re lying on it,” Blindside said.  “If I roll you onto your back, will it kill you?”

It was a question I’d heard variants of before, in a tone I’d heard before.  A tone from someone that didn’t really care about me.

We’re going to roll you over now and check for sores.  Is that alright?

We’re going to wash you now.  Can you try to move this arm?

Can I get you anything?  Would you like water, or something to eat?

Condescending, caring more about themselves, feigning concern or consideration.  They just wanted to get on with their day.  Even the ones that did care lost patience sometimes.  Stubborn, aggressive people like me made it easy to lose patience.

I made myself be calm.  I exhaled slowly, and the exhalation came out as a shudder.  It wasn’t because I was hurt, but because the memories were close to the surface.

Blindside eased me onto my back, then I felt them touch my gun.

My eyes snapped open.  My arm lashed out, one swing, mindful that they were probably just a fragile human being.

I didn’t make contact.  Muscles in my arm wrenched, seized, and cramped as the entire arm locked up, just in time to keep me from touching them.

“Aha,” Blindside said.

I felt them grip my gun hard.  My initial fumble to grab the gun ran into the same problem.  My hand hit an imaginary wall.

The gun had a buckle keeping it in the hip holster.  They hadn’t undone the buckle, and they weren’t able to pull the gun free before I jumped up to my feet, backing a short distance away.  The hand pulled free.

I still couldn’t see them.  My head was turned to one side, I had a glare on my face, and I walked slowly, keeping track of them by keeping them at the very edge of my field of view.

I imagined I looked a little feral, pacing as I was, trying to track them with my other senses, being unable to make eye contact.

I moved my hand experimentally.  I hit the wall.

I couldn’t point at them, then.  I couldn’t hit them, based on my earlier issue.

“What do they feed you shits?” Blindside asked.  “You get thrown from a bus mid-impact and you have it in you to pull this?  I’m impressed.”

The dreamy blur was disappearing, the way in closing behind Nursery and Snag.  The background humming and chiming was fading.

I hoped the others were retreating, finding a place in the building they could hunker down until help came.

“Listen,” Blindside said.  “I don’t want trouble.  I don’t want to hurt a civilian.  I’m keeping to the rules.  Lie down, put your hands on your head, let me take the gun.  I’ll give it back when I’m done.”

“You’re going to kidnap Fume Hood.  I can’t stand by and let that happen.”

“You can’t do anything about it,” Blindside said.  “We’re going to borrow them, then we’ll be on our way.”

“Borrow?  You’re giving her back after?  Unharmed?”

“Yep.  Mostly unharmed.  The woman who lost her kid wants to have words with her.  Shout at her, make her feel bad.  She and some others paid a lot of money to make it happen.  Then we drop her back off somewhere near here and drive off.”

“For that, you drive a truck into a building and traumatize a crowd?”

“Intel said we were good to hit the building there, use that as our entry point.  Scaring her was part of the deal, so was fucking her over,” Blindside said.  “Stirring up the crowd, it doesn’t affect us much.  We live in one of the corners.  For her, it keeps her from finding any success.”

“For the sake of the woman who lost her child?”

“Yeah.”

“And she’s personally going to shout at Fume Hood there?”

“Fume Hood, Bad Apple, Horse Apple, Apple Cider, whatever you want to call her.  Yeah.”

I nodded slowly.

“Just lie down.  Let it be.  Give up the gun, stop fighting, we do our cape shit and you carry on with your day.  Police are under our control, nearest capes are half an hour away.  This is the way it is sometimes.”

“The files I got when I accepted this job said the woman in question died,” I said.  “The pregnant lady who lost her child.”

“Really?”

I nodded, my eyes still fixed on the ground, as close to Blindside as I could get.  If they moved into my field of vision, a forced movement of my eye and head would let me know.

“At Gold Morning.  Her home address was one of the cities hit hard.  No sign of her after the fact.  Authorities investigated when the word about this attack first came up.  Which leads me to think you’re lying through your teeth.”

“People visit family, go out of town for work, have stays in the hospital…  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to people who narrowly dodged being in the wrong place at that one critical time.”

“Stop,” I said.  “I caught you in one lie, let’s leave it at that.”

Blindside fell silent.

I heard a scuff.  My head turned-was allowed to turn- as Blindside moved around to my side.  I backed away a few paces.

I heard Blindside stop moving.

“Change your stance,” Blindside said.

“My stance?”

“Your head is turned as far to the right as it can go.  If I move to your right, the reflex is going to be to move your head further right.  You could snap your neck.  You’d probably close your eyes first, but I’d rather not risk it.”

I obliged, shifting where my shoulders were, so my left shoulder pointed at them.  I was aware that it made it easier to circle behind me.

“And raise your chin a bit.”

“Why?” I asked.

I heard the sound of Blindside moving too late.  I reached out to block or catch the incoming attack, and hit the wall where I couldn’t move my arm too far toward them.

Something swung at an angle that avoided my arm.  I brought my forcefield up just in time for the thing to hit me on the chin.  An uppercut with a blunt instrument that should have broken my jaw.

Before Blindside could recover or figure out what had happened, I went on the offense.  I couldn’t hit them with my hand, I couldn’t point at them, but if I swung my hand at them, elbow jutting out-

I felt muscles seize, locking up.  Blindside caught my arm, pushing me in the direction I’d already been going, and shoved me to the ground.  Martial art.

The blunt instrument-I saw the tip of a metal bat- struck down toward my shin.

It rebounded off of the forcefield as the field came back.  The metal sang.

“Ah fucking hah,” Blindside said.  “Fuck me.  You’re a cape.”

I lurched to my feet, putting some distance between myself and them.

Elbows didn’t work either.

The muscles in my arm and shoulder twitched with the lingering strain or sprain that had gone with the interruption.

I backed away until my forcefield came back up.  I drew in a deep breath.

“You’re full of surprises,” Blindside said.

I undid a buckle and pulled my armored vest over my head in one smooth motion.

“That’s not very surprising though,” they said.  “I can see where you’re going with this.  I’ve been at this a few years.  Some of the workarounds and tricks are getting old by now.”

I shifted my grip so I held the vest by the shoulder.

“The bus is back.  Are they capes in disguise too?”

The bus was back?  I couldn’t see without looking past Blindside, and I didn’t want to lose my bearings.

They were watching then?

Well, I imagined Blindside made it hard to watch.

I swung, using the vest as a bludgeon.  My arm stopped, but the vest continued.

I felt hands against my back, gripping the back of my top.  Another move, Judo or Aikido, stepping into arm’s reach, too close for the vest to hit me, trusting their power to keep my arm from hitting them, and throwing me to the ground.

I used my forcefield, and I used its strength to arrest the movement, stopping myself.  A bit of my flight.

With Blindside directly behind me, I drew my gun, and I turned to the right this time, swinging out with gun in hand.

“Nope,” Blindside said.  “That won’t-”

I dropped the vest, my hand going to my ear, and I fired the instant my arm stopped moving.  I shot the stone wall of the community center eight times.

The volume of it was such that I only barely heard Blindside’s exclamation of pain.  My ears rang- but the gun had to have been right next to the villain mercenary’s ear.

This was how I operated.  Even if I was trying not to be too blatant with others watching.  I was trying to consider more before I acted and took this route, moderating myself.

Shock.  Shake them on a sensory level.

I stooped low to pick up the vest, then swung it as I had before.   Blindside stumbled forward, much as they had before, into my reach, both forearms pressing against my back.

I’d had to moderate my aura, back at the hospital.  My mood darkened even thinking about that time, much as it had darkened when I saw myself in the mirror and remembered what I had been.

It took all I had to not let that darkness affect how I handled the aura.  I’d told myself, so many times, I wanted to be better.  Regrets weren’t worth anything if I didn’t let them drive me to do it better in the future.

For two months my aura had been one of the only real communication tools that I had, that didn’t require rounds of blinking and interpretation, or fumbling at a special keyboard with hands that didn’t map to how my brain thought my body should move.  I’d had some practice with the nuance of it.

Blindside was pressing against my back, and my aura was stronger the closer people were to me.  I controlled the aura’s expression to keep it small and more concentrated.

Awe.  Catch them on an emotional level.

Blindside stumbled back.

I spun around in the other direction, and bludgeoned them with the weight of my vest, using it like a flail.  They bounced off of the logging truck and collapsed.

Destroy was my usual third step.  I hoped I’d held back enough.  I’d wanted to disable only, but it was hard to know my own strength.

“You conscious?” I asked the villain.  My own voice sounded far away, distorted, hard to hear over the ringing.

I should have heard any response.  I didn’t.  Silence.

Blindside’s power didn’t let me check their condition, visually or otherwise.

I bent over them, fumbling, tracing their outline with the back of my hand, and finding walls even there, somehow.  I found their head, medium length hair, and tried to press the back of my hand against their ear.  My arm muscles seized.

I tried to use my knuckles to get into the ear, since I couldn’t use my fingertips without pointing or driving them toward Blindside, and I still hit the wall.

Blindside had been using something to communicate with others.  If it was a walkie-talkie, phone, or earpiece, it wasn’t anywhere I could access it.  Blindside’s power protected them.

The movement in the corner of my eye caught me off guard.  The bus.  The front corner was badly damaged, but it was chugging along somehow.  I hadn’t heard it approaching.  Where the paint had been black, it had broken away, revealing some of the bright yellow paint that it had once had, when it had been a school bus.

Jasper was waving his arm out the window, pointing.  I could hear his shouts, but the words were muted.

Incoming.

The villains would have heard the shots.

I looked up, and I saw Lord of Loss at the roof’s edge.  He’d turned himself into something resembling a tree.  A static emplacement, less able to move, but with roots that would extend into the building and secure his position so he could leverage his full strength.

He was growing by the second, smoke billowing out and solidifying into branching points.  He might just have the reach to hit us down on the street level, big as he was.

There were two entry points that weren’t windows.  Two courses of action stood out to me.  The first was to simply fly to a window, abandon Jasper.  I’d lose my job, but I would have to trust they would leave and be safe while I did what I could to help Fume Hood.

But I had something I wanted to ask.

I motioned for them to come, to hurry.

There were two doors into the building that I knew about.  The front door was no doubt seized by the mind-controlled army.  The side door had been painted.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to tear my way in and find out that the paint was a problem.

I didn’t want to charge in, only to find that they were securing their retreat.  They’d be looking for trouble coming from either of the entrances after hearing the shots.

There might have been a third way in.

I ran toward the nose of the eighteen wheeled logging truck, and I climbed over the nose of it.  It had collided with the wall, and it had done some damage.

Reaching up, I pulled at the damaged part overhead, and I leveraged the strength my forcefield provided to tear it away.  I pushed at another part, widening the gap.

The bus parked so its nose was tucked into the corner between the nose of the logging truck and the wall.  Jasper, Mar, and Landon climbed out of the bus.

“Are you okay?” Jasper asked.

I liked that it was the first thing he’d asked.  Gilpatrick’s five pound of gun speech taken to heart.  Less than five pounds of weaponry, more than fifteen pounds of protection, twenty five pounds of support and problem solving.  Jasper’s first thoughts were on the latter.  Those were supposed to be the priorities, the ratios.

“A bit of road rash,” I said, examining my arms.  “Too much adrenaline to feel the pain.”

Shadows shifted.  Lord of Loss had decided to detach from the roof, and was pulling himself together enough to start climbing down.

“Come on,” I said.

We ducked in through the gap, into a staff washroom.  I couldn’t see the source of the water, but it pooled on the floor below.  We passed through the door and into the hallway.

“So you’re a cape,” Mar said.  He’d been the kid who’d sat behind me on the bus and made smug insinuations about my name and background.

I gave him a dark look.  It looked like Landon was on his side.

“You’ve got blood on your upper lip,” Mar said.  “It looks like you’ve got a mustache.”

“Fuck off, Mar,” Jasper said.

I rubbed at my upper lip with the side of my hand, looking back to make sure Lord of Loss hadn’t followed us.

I could hear the humming and the music box.  Upstairs somewhere.  I could hear people in the building.

“Jasper,” I said.

“What?”

“I have to ask.  How much of this is setup?”

“Setup?” Mar asked, incredulous.

“I know I sound paranoid,” I said.  “I know if there’s a scenario or something, it’s probably against the rules to ask or answer, but I need the honest truth here, no bullshit.”

“You sound really fucking paranoid,” Mar said.  “Holy fuck, you capes are screwed up in the head.”

“Shut up, Mar,” Jasper said.

“Just answer, please,” I said, my eyes fixed on the end of the hallway, watching for the mind-controlled soldiers.  “Gilpatrick set me up with a bunch of new soldiers I don’t know that he can somehow vouch for, he insisted on them, and he sent me into a situation that was liable to get messy.  It doesn’t make sense unless I somehow imagine I’m being set up to fail.”

“Fuck me,” Mar said.

“It’s not really setup,” Jasper said.  “Gilpatrick explained before I left.”

I nodded to myself.

“They wanted to make sure you could be trusted.  They thought they’d stick you with some objective observers for three, four routine jobs, make sure you stuck to the rules, grade you, leave it at that.”

Objective.  I looked at Mar.

Yeah.  Right.

“And if I didn’t accept the job?  If I’d told Gilpatrick I didn’t want to do this patrol?”

“He really thought you would,” Jasper said.  “He told me that.  He was a bit stuck, caught between superiors saying he had to make you or he couldn’t keep you on, and thinking you wouldn’t.  Then you said yes.”

I frowned.  One impulse.  One spur-of-the-moment decision.

Cause and effect.  Every time I acted on impulse, bad things happened.  Some of the worst things had happened.  People around me got hurt.  I got hurt.  Two years in the hospital.

It was so much of why I’d wanted to slow down.

“I’m pretty fucking glad you said yes,” Jasper said.  “If it had been me in charge here I’m pretty sure most of us would be dead already.”

I exhaled.  Deep breaths.  I couldn’t fall into the mindset of dwelling on the past.

“You’re a good guy, Jasper.”

“I try,” he said.

I paused, thinking for a moment, listening to the noises elsewhere in the building.

I glanced at Landon and Mar.

“I’m a good guy too,” Mar said.

“Stay put,” I said, firm.

“You’re going alone?” Jasper asked.

“Yeah.  Just find a corner of the building to hole up in.  Hide, be safe.”

There was a balance to be struck.  I wanted to think I’d reasoned this through, as much as I could with the time constraint, the enemy no doubt closing in on the capes.  It was too risky to bring these guys with.

Going alone.

“Stay,” I said.  “Be safe.”

I sprinted off, raising my forcefield for good measure.

I entered the kitchen by another door.  Where I’d talked with Fume Hood.

Something exploded overhead.

I looked up.

Vapor, shards of crystal.

A moment later, there were two more small explosions, one after another, in a line.

Crystal clear, Crystalclear.

Not alone, then.  I hurried in the direction indicated.

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Daybreak – 1.3

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This was the point in time that I would have liked to be able to take to the skies.  Information was important, and if I didn’t have surveillance cameras, I would have been pretty content with a bird’s eye view of the scene.

I clenched one fist, cracking my knuckles, before wrapping my other hand around it, cracking them again for good measure.

I turned to look at the people from the patrol.  “Set up around the building.  Watch what’s going on outside, stay in touch, report anything unusual.  Jasper?  Hang back.”

The others turned to go, some looking back at the capes one last time before leaving.  Interest, other things.

“Can’t hurt,” the painted lady said.

“I’m Victoria,” I said.  “That’s Jasper.  I know Fume Hood from the notes we got, and I caught Crystalclear’s name.”

“Longscratch is the one who just left,” the painted lady said.  “I’m Tempera.”

“Thanks,” I said.  “Good to meet you.  Crystalclear, can you fill me in on your power?  What are you getting?”

“I see through everything,” Crystalclear said, tapping the chunk of crystal that stood out from the lower edge of his eye socket.  “As if everything was crystal.  I’ve learned there’s a lot of nuance to it.  A little bit of seeing into the past, a little bit of seeing into the future, a little bit of a sense of people’s focus.”

“He has a blaster power too,” Tempera said.  “Goes through walls and the ground.  Synergy.”

“I really hope it doesn’t come to actually using that.  Right now, I’m more interested in how this points to possible trouble in the future,” I said.

“Uh,” Crystalclear said.  He looked around.  “It’s hard to explain because it’s not a sense anyone else has.  Say I was looking at a wall.  It looks like a chunk of clear glass and the light catches at the edges and corners and they’re highlighted.”

My eye roved over the room.  It was reminiscent of a teacher’s lounge, but it had less of an emphasis on the lounging.  Coffee cups sat on windowsills and there were places where furniture had been stacked once, and the furniture had been moved out into the open room at the front of the building, where all the people were or had been seated.  Glass cases with model buildings had been brought inside and carefully stacked against the wall.  A long table that might have served as a conference table was folded up in one corner.

I tried to imagine it like Crystalclear was describing it.  A sketch in three dimensions, only the lines visible.  “I follow you so far.”

“The edges of walls and floor are usually clear, crisp, and closer to white.  Solid objects don’t change, so there’s no reason for that to change.  It’s blurred.  Blue tinted.”

“Future sight,” Tempera added.  “Past-sight is red, future-sight is blue.  Like the doppler.”

Crystalclear went on, “In the future, that wall vibrates.  Similar effect with people, but they move around more.  I see you all as streaks, shifting around, white-edged where you’re resting in present.  There is refraction and some fractures around people’s heads, representing focus and kind of thinking.”

“That gets blueshifted redshifted?” I asked.  “It’s not displayed as color?”

Crystalclear nodded his head.  It was a motion made more weighty by the heavy growth at the top of his head.  “Not as color.  It’s… edges to the light around them, sharpness and softness, distortions like how you can look at a glass of water with a straw in it and the straw isn’t straight, or you see multiple straws.   The worst breaks in focus look like grooves or outright breaks.  A lot of people here are going to be distorted soon.  Or were.  They’re leaving and they’re clearing up.”

His head turned as he focused on things on the other sides of the walls.

“What about, say, Jasper?”  I asked.

“Hey,” Jasper said.  “Use yourself as an example.”

Crystalclear looked at Jasper.  “Hard to say.  Whatever it is, it’s small or it’s distant.”

Crystalclear glanced over at Tempetera and Fume Hood.  “Not just him either.  It doesn’t give me much to work with.”

He turned his attention to me.

I cut right to asking my next question, before he could comment.  “Do you see the direction of it?  Anything big and blue that’s suggesting a major thing coming in sometime in the future?  One section of the building that gets hit harder?”

He shook his head.  “I’d have to see it before I saw how things were around it, and even then there’s nuance.”

“You’re thinking of a parahuman or weapon?” Tempera asked.

“I have no idea,” I said.  “If I was a civilian with an issue, and I was going after capes, I’d go big or I wouldn’t try at all.  If we’re talking something that shakes this whole community center… bomb?  Parahumans are definitely possible, except I’m not sure how using parahumans squares with the sentiment toward parahumans.”

Fume Hood spoke up from the background.  “Set us against each other, they benefit either way.”

“Could be,” I said.  I paused.  “As soon as the crowd has dispersed enough, I want to get you guys clear of here.  Do you have a decent mover power to use?”

“Longscratch does,” Tempera said.

“Not a mass mover power, is it?” I asked.  At the negation, I turned to Jasper.  “Can you bring the bus close?  If the crowd is thinning out, you should be able to pull right up to the door.  Take someone with you, if we’re delayed, do like I discussed earlier.  Keep an eye out.”

Jasper saluted, turning to go.

The bus wasn’t elegant, but hopefully it would take us away from vulnerable civilians or areas.

“How is Longscratch?” Tempera asked Crystalclear.

“He’s fine.  Stalked off.  He’s keeping an eye out for trouble,” Crystalclear said.  He pointed up and off to one side.  On an upper floor, it seemed, or on the roof.

“That’s how he is.  I won’t bother him.  I’ll go talk to the district representative, instead, if that’s alright,” Tempera said, looking my way.

“If the coast is clear,” I said.

“Most people have cleared out of the main hall,” Crystalclear said.  “The ones who are hanging back seem like the types to be doing it for good reason.  Parents with kids, teenagers hoping to get a glimpse of the heroes they came to see.”

“That’s positive,” Tempera said.  “I’ll give them a glimpse then.  Thank you, Victoria.”

“I’m going to get a glass of water and get my head straight,” Fume Hood said.  “I’ll catch up with the rest of you in a minute.”

“Don’t go running off,” Tempera said.  “Get your water, take a minute, but come back after.  I don’t want you to throw yourselves to the wolves.”

“I won’t,” Fume Hood said.

“Or whatever variant on that plan you might be thinking.  I can see you trying to lead the enemy way from us,” Tempera said.

“I won’t,” Fume Hood said, annoyed.

“It wouldn’t work anyway,” Crystalclear added.

“Your future sight telling you that?” Fume Hood asked, her annoyance becoming something more bitter.

“I don’t see the future like that.  You know that.  But I do know that they’re mad at all of us.  Our fortunes are intertwined, and their hate is- it’s not very targeted.”

“Not hate,” I said.

They looked my way.

“It’s easy to see it as hate, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot,” I said.  “It’s not that.  It’s blame.

“Blame,” Fume Hood said.

“I don’t think it’s a reflection on you.  Humanity is hurt.  It’s hurt in a way that makes it a little bit animal.  Reactive.  They’re snapping at any target that presents itself, because the hurt is fresh.  They’re taking that hurt and they’re looking for anyone they can put it onto.  You…”

I trailed off.

“We presented ourselves,” Tempera said.

“Not in a bad way,” I said.  “This isn’t your fault.”

“I’ll get my water,” Fume Hood said, curt.  She didn’t wait for a response, heading into the adjacent room, further from the front of the building.

Once Fume Hood was gone, Tempera nudged Crystalclear.  “Keep an eye on them?”

Crystalclear nodded.

Tempera gave me a nod before stepping out the door.

“Is Fume Hood going to be okay?” I asked.

“Who knows?” he asked.

“Trouble still isn’t imminent?”

Crystalclear shook his head.  “At least fifteen minutes off.  I’m thinking we should go get a better vantage point, see if I can’t spot any troublemakers.”

“Watch out for my guys,” I said.

“Watch out for what?”

I glanced at the door.  “Blame.”

“Got it,” he said.  “I shouldn’t stick my neck out or draw attention to myself, then?”

“Not unless I’m there.”

“And where will you be?” he asked.

I looked at the other door.  The one Fume Hood had taken.   “I was thinking I’d get a glass of water.  Unless you think that would be overstepping.”

He looked in the direction Fume Hood had gone.  His voice was soft as he said, “I have no fucking idea.”

“I’ll catch up with you,” I said, clapping a hand on his shoulder in passing.

The area adjacent to the conference room was a kitchen, set up with multiple stovetops and long counters.  Catering-focused, at a glance.  The stoves were of different makes and models.  Scavenged.

Fume Hood was standing by the sink, a glass of water in hand.  She looked at me, her eyes barely visible with the surrounding mask and the overhanging hood.

“Can I grab some water?  The bus ride was warm, even with the windows rolled down.”

She filled a glass, then slid it along the counter to me, so it met me halfway as I made my approach.

“What was the plan?” I asked.

“The plan?”

“Corporate?  Sponsored?  Ideology-driven?  There are a lot of those nowadays.  Move forward, rebuild, hold to the past, unity in strength, religion…”

“No ideology,” she said.  “No sponsorship.  No business partnerships.  I’m not even sure what we would have done about the money.”

“That can be hard,” I said.  I drank my water.

“It wasn’t supposed to be easy.”

I finished my water, then approached the sink to get more.  Fume Hood turned around, leaning against the counter just beside me.

She said, “It was community focused.  Serving the area, hometown heroes like the old days.  I thought of it as community service, in more than one way.”

“I like that,” I said.

She shrugged.  “I’m not sure if there’s anything to like about it.”

“It’s a good idea.  It sounds positive.  Maybe it’s worth trying again later.”

“It won’t come together again like this later.  Tempera is pretty good at this whole thing, and she needs to do the cape stuff, so she’ll find a team to join.  Crystalclear will get poached because decent thinker powers are in demand.  Longscratch… I don’t know why he’s even here.  Tempera suggested it to him, for some reason, he accepted for some reason.  He’s upset it fell apart.  Next time, he’ll just say no.  He’ll steer clear so he doesn’t have reason to get upset again.”

“Mover psychology?” I asked.

“I don’t know about that stuff.  I just know he’s a weird mix of wants and needs and he’s really cool when things are good and he’s impossible to understand when they aren’t.  Which they aren’t.”

“Sorry,” I said.

“You wouldn’t be sorry if you knew,” she said.  She stood taller, stretching a bit.  She tossed the empty glass between her hands.  “It’s my fault.”

“You orchestrated this?” I asked.

“I hurt a pregnant lady and she lost her child and I don’t even feel that bad about it,” Fume Hood said.  “I turned myself in, but it was because people thought I’d become a PR problem for capes in general.  I’d run out of friends and places to run to.  It seemed like the only way to get things to cool down.”

The glass smacked against each of her hands as she tossed it back and forth.

I drank my water, still watching her.

“I’m pissed,” she said.  “People are making such a big deal over this, and I can’t bring myself to see it their way.  It was an accident.  I told the civilians to sit and stay put, and this stupid-

She stopped there, clenching her fist.

Fume Hood continued, “-stupid fucking woman.  She ran right to where I was shooting out a display window, gets knocked on her ass, breathes in the gas.”

“I wonder what she was thinking,” I said.

“I’ve wondered that every day since.  I’m mostly caught between thinking she wanted to get hurt and lose the baby, it was so blatant, or that she thought the broken display window was an escape route, even though there were others she could have run for,” Fume Hood said.  “I was so pissed.  I shouted at people to take her outside and get her some fresh air, even though I knew it made everything harder with the robbery.  They’d contact authorities, we’d have to protect ourselves, whatever.  I thought I was pretty fair.  She got medical attention and shit.”

“Could have been worse,” I said.

“I shouldn’t have pulled that robbery at the mall.  I know that.  But it’s not one of my big regrets.  Her being a stupid fucking idiot isn’t one of them either, obviously.”

“You turned yourself in after that.”

“The heat got too much, like I said.  And- and I was tired, you know?”

Her voice had cracked on the ‘tired’.

She sounded tired now.

“It had been years, trying to get by.  A lot of it was fun.  The drugs, the robberies and mercenary work, the adventure, new places and really interesting people.  Some shitty people, lots of scary people, but they were always interesting.  Capes are interesting in a way you probably wouldn’t get if you didn’t know any for real.”

“I grew up with capes,” I said.

She stopped passing the glass from hand to hand, holding it in both instead.  “Did you?  Huh.”

I shrugged.  My glass was empty.  I put it on the counter and, finger on the inside, spun it in a circle, the bottom rattling on the metal countertop.

She continued, “Well, all I know is, the crime stuff started to feel like work.  The drugs stopped feeling like they were a plus and started feeling like they were something I had to do.  I was never addicted, I never craved it, I never had withdrawal after.  This analogy I’ve been thinking of is it’s like I had to go to the bathroom every half hour and who wants to do that, you know?  Who wants to keep interrupting their day for something they aren’t even enjoying anymore?”

“No idea,” I said.  “But I can see what you’re saying.”

“The cool people started dropping away.  A couple dead, others just stopped being cool.  High people are really boring to be around.  So like a genius, I thought hey, let’s just go to prison.  I made a deal.  I wanted a bit of an education, training at some job or another, safety, I didn’t want to be stuck in there too long.”

“How’d it work out?”

“Deal worked out fine.  Judge agreed, heroes agreed, it was one less parahuman on the streets that people were really upset about.  Jail isn’t fun, but it was what I needed, I think.”

“Shows character, I think,” I said.  “Realizing where you were at, where you were headed, and changing course.”

“I don’t have character,” Fume Hood said.  “It was selfish and self-centered.  It was me, me, me, I’m bored, I’m done with the drugs, I’m scared of being caught by angry people, I want this deal, I want some education.  I don’t and I never cared about that pregnant idiot.”

She met my eyes as she said that last bit.

Challenging me.

I spun the glass on the countertop again.  “The community service hero stuff?”

“Me, me, me,” she said, her voice quiet.  “I thought it gave me the best chance of dodging any lingering heat.  Ha.”

I took my finger away from the glass.  It spun in a circle before settling with a rattle.

“I don’t buy it,” I said.

She shrugged, tossing the glass into the air, catching it.

“You said before that you have real regrets,” I said.  “And you can call yourself selfish, but I think the dots connect here.  Your reasons, your regrets.”

She tossed the glass into the air, caught it.

She did it a few more times.

“We should go,” she said.  “Check on the others.  Do our part.”

“We should,” I said.

The water from the faucet we’d used deposited a fat droplet on the metal bottom of the large sink, producing a hollow sound.  Neither of us budged.

“I got friends into the soft drugs and I egged them on instead of stopping them when they got themselves into the harder stuff.  I regret that, I turned myself in for that, even though I was supposed to be serving the punishment for the pregnant woman.  For other stuff, more on that level.  I turned myself in for the” -she took a deep breath, as if to signify magnitude- “years of being a low to mid tier nusiance.  For being tiresome.  And because I was tired of it.”

“I’m not a priest,” I said.  “I don’t have the power to say some words and absolve you.  It’s up to society to decide how angry they are and how they come to terms with it.  It’s up to you to decide how willing you are to face your deeds.  When it comes to me… I can say I respect a lot of what you’re saying.   I definitely think you should own up more to what you did to that woman, stop calling her stupid.  It’s not a point in your favor.”

Fume Hood nodded.

“Honestly,” I said, “I really like the community hero idea.  I’d really like you to try it again, after a bit.  For that to be your way of working through it all, from influencing your friends to hurting that woman.  We’re dealing with blame, not hate, and blame finds a place to roost eventually.  There has to be another shot at making this happen.”

“Blame seems like too small a word for what Crystal was saying.”

“Blame can be big,” I said.  “Blame has led to the ruin of nations.”

She nodded.  “That sort of helps, actually.”

“I’m glad to have sort of helped.”

“Blame can become something else, given time, can’t it?” she asked.

“It can,” I admitted.  “I’m spooked at the idea it will.  For now, just… be a hero,” I said.  “Don’t walk away from this sort of thing for good.”

“You guys keep saying stuff to me, like, don’t run off, don’t sacrifice yourself, be a hero, as if it’s implied I’ve got ideas I haven’t said out loud.”

“You’re a self-described shitty person and an ex-villain.  We’re not allowed to be suspicious?” I asked.

That got a half-smile out of her.

“Come on,” I said.  “I’m getting worried about my guys and I’ll get yelled at by my boss if I leave them to their own devices for too long.”

“This is your thing, then?” she asked.  She followed me as I left, setting her glass next to where I’d left mine.  “You joined the junior-PRT to convince shitty people to be less shitty?”

“On the most basic level, I got into this because capes are what I know,” I said.

“Because you grew up with them.”

“Yeah, but keep that under the lid for now,” I said.  “I’m not broadcasting it to the world.”

“Lips zipped.”

I pushed the door open, stepping back into the now-empty conference room.  “I want to help.  I could have helped with construction or farming or whatever else, but like I said-”

“Capes are what you know.”

“Yeah.  I knew so many great people and I don’t know if all of them made it, but I want to be in a position to help them through whatever comes next.  I want to figure things out, because the lack of answers is what fucks us over, and fucks them over.  I want to talk to people like you, if you happen to be on the fence, so maybe you land on the side where you’re more likely to help out those really cool, great people.”

“I thought you junior-PRT kids were all about training so you can go after the monsters.”

She’d created a hard green sphere, the size of a billiard ball.  She tossed it between her hands as she had the glass.  It smacked against each palm.

I answered her, “Don’t get me wrong, but I have pretty strong feelings when it comes to the monsters.  I’m pretty far from being okay with them.”

She gave me a sidelong glance while opening the door to the main room.

“But I don’t think you’re one of them,” I said.  “Sorry, but you’re safe from me.”

She threw the ball to the right, but instead of smacking into her palm, it curved in the air, orbiting her hand in a long ellipse as a moon might a planet.

“What a relief,” she said.  She was smiling a bit more, now.

The smile faltered a bit more as we faced the situation at hand.

Some of the police had come inside.  My guys were standing near the windows, looking out.  Some were talking to the police.

A share of the crowd had remained behind.  Community leaders, possibly.

Fume Hood hung back as I approached them all.

“You’re in charge?” a police officer asked.  He had a mustache.  It bothered me, because I’d never really got mustaches, barring the truly awesome ones.  This was lip decoration, bristly and at odds with how his hair was combed back and close to his head.

“Yessir.  I’m Victoria, I take my orders from Instructor Gilpatrick at Wayfair High School.”

“They said you told them to follow our orders?”

“Or to keep a lookout for trouble.  There’s still people here?  Is there a problem?”

“No,” the officer said.  He sighed.  “I don’t know what to do with them.  Yours or with the others.  Situation seems to be resolving itself, but the teenagers in uniform are insisting it isn’t.”

“The capes say it isn’t,” I said.  “I’d believe them.”

“Huh,” he said.

I took a deep breath, exhaling slowly, while the officer took a look around at the situation.

“Haven’t you talked to them?” I asked.  “The capes?”

“A little bit,” he said.  “Not recently.  I don’t really know how.”

“They’re people,” I said.  “Capable people who want to help.”

“They’ve got the eye thing, and the masks.  One doesn’t have eyes at all,” he said.  “He has these crystals.  He pulled one out of the top of his head earlier, and it made a wet sound.  It was in so deep it should’ve been inside his brain.”

“They’re people,” I said, again.

“It’s disconcerting,” the man said.

I wanted to say things to that, but I bit my tongue.  I could hardly criticize when I’d been talking to Fume Hood.

I’d just- I’d really hoped for better.

“If you need me to be a liason, let me know,” I said.  He didn’t give me an immediate response, so I called out to the squaddies.  “Get back from the windows, guys!  The working theory is a bomb, heavy impact, cape power, or something like an earthquake, and you don’t want your nose pressed against the glass when it comes!”

They shuffled back.

“Bomb?” the officer asked.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Can you get everyone here clear of danger?”

“To somewhere inside or further outside?”

I looked around.  Crystalclear and the others hadn’t come to find us, so I was left to imagine the danger wasn’t super imminent.  Inside posed risks.

I didn’t like making the calls, but I said, “Outside, but hurry it up.  If there’s any remaining crowd outside, get them further back or get them to go.”

“Alright,” he said.  “Makes sense.”

He whistled for the attention of his people and the crowd that had gathered closer to the front door.

While he handled that, I looked at the others, “Where’s Jasper?”

“Still out there.  He has Mar and Landon with him.  The crowd is in their way.”

I hurried to approach the window.  I could hear a commotion behind me, as others entered the room, but my focus was on the commotion outside.  My view was briefly blocked by the cops and the people they were leading outside and across the street to our left, away from both the building and the lingering protesters.

“Victoria,” Crystalclear said, behind me.  He was with a small few members of the community center staff, including the district rep, and he had Longscratch and Tempera with him.

He would be here because trouble was imminent.

“How soon?” I asked.

“Two impacts in a couple of minutes.  Six or seven.”

Two.  Six or seven minutes gave us a window to act.

I watched the scene in progress through the window.  Jasper wouldn’t make it to the front door in two or three minutes.  Some of the protest had dispersed, but a lot of it had spread out from the square of grass, sidewalks, fountain and trees just in front of the community center, dotting the streets.  A share of them occupied the street Jasper needed to come down to reach us, and a lot of them had their back to him.  He honked, not for the first time, and one of them gave him the finger.

“I’m going to help Jasper out, get us our bus so we can drive out of here without being mobbed,” I said.  “Is there a side door?”

Crystalclear pointed at what would have been the south side of the building, to my left.

“Go there, stay clear of windows.  Protect my people, keep them clear of danger.  The moment there’s real trouble, they’re just high schoolers and should be treated as such.  High schoolers- you guys protect Fume Hood.  Protect the capes.  Be good.”

“Do you need help?” Tempera asked.

She couldn’t help.  She would cause more problems than she fixed, being in costume.

No.  I shook my head, heading to the front door.

Was this an emergency?  Yes.

Did I like using my power?  No.

I marched toward the bus, glaring at the first person in my way.  I activated my aura.

“Move,” I said, and I pushed out with my power.  Heads turned, noticing.  Maybe they would put their finger on why they’d noticed.  Maybe not.  I was nudging, here.

I could see the man’s reaction.  He took a partial step back.

I stepped it up a notch, not with more use of my power, but by raising the volume of my voice.  “Out of the way!”

He got out of the way.  That and me drawing nearer made it easier for the next person to come through.

“Bus!” I called out to Jasper.  “Get moving!  Side door to the right of the building!  South side!”

People looking back at the bus and back to me had more pressure to deal with.  That was easier.  They got clear of the bus’ path.

The one who had given Jasper the finger, though, he had just a little bit more to prove.  I put my hands on him.  I pushed him, and he resisted.

I pushed him with my aura, small, closer to center, a pulse of intimidation just for him, to break his posture and resolve.  My hands pushed him the rest of the way.  He landed on his ass.

He wasn’t wholly out of the way, but Jasper was able to drive up on the sidewalk.  His door was open and the stairs leading up to his seat were there.  I hopped up, grabbing the bar that the driver used to climb into the seat, hanging off the side.

“Things okay?” he asked.

“They’re about to be not okay,” I said.  “We’ve got four or five minutes, probably.  I want to be gone by-”

Jasper’s two passengers, Mar and Landon, were at the window behind Jasper’s seat.  They were looking out and over my shoulder.

I turned to look.  In the crowd, a man was standing there, shuddering.  People were backing away from him.

He wore a black hooded sweatshirt and black pants, and he stood so the hood hid his face.  His arms were at his side, vibrating.  Head, arms, body and legs all moved like he had a paint shaker wedged up his ass, moving more violently by the second.

Building up to something.

“Take cover!” I shouted the words.

Some people did.  They ran, they sprinted for mailboxes, for trees.  But it was too open an area for everyone to find something.

I threw up my personal forcefield, shielding Jasper, my arm out toward the windows the other two were looking at.

The man in the crowd exploded, showering the crowd with chunks of bone, flesh, and a mist of blood.  More than should have been contained in a human body.  Some of the windows in the bus had cracked, and my forcefield was down.

The people over the square of grass, around the fountain, on the sidewalks and the streets surrounding the explosion all stood, calm.

Streaked with blood, they looked around, every single head turning left, then turning right.  All in unison.

“Drive,” I said.

Jasper stomped on the gas.

Further up the street, the cops that had been evacuating people from the building and across the road were standing near the street.  They’d been touched by the gore-explosion, and now they were drawing their guns.

“Don’t hit them!”

“I’m not going to hit them!” Jasper called out, swerving so the side and then the rear of the bus was between us and them.

It hadn’t been five or six minutes yet.  It couldn’t have been.  The building hadn’t been hit yet.

I climbed up higher, standing on the headrest of Jasper’s seat to reach a higher point on the bus, looking over the roof.

Where?

The worst possible location.

An eighteen wheeled logging truck was coming down the road.  The front had been reinforced with metal braces.  It was coming from the direction of the water, only four hundred or so feet of road between the waterline they’d started near and the community center, but it was going full speed, straight for the side door.

“Fuck me.”  Jasper’s voice.

Even if Crystalclear saw-

“Hit it!” I called out.

“What?  Are you insane?”

“Hit it!  The others are waiting on the other side of the door!”

I scrambled to get in position.

“Trusting you,” Jasper said, and the bus picked up speed.

You shouldn’t, I thought.

I had one partial glimpse of the inside of the truck.

Multiple costumes.

And then the impact.

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