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Conversation throughout the dining area ceased. There were six teams present across thirty tables, with maybe another twenty capes and ten non-capes using the edges of the hall as passages to get from point A to point B. All stopped and turned to look.
Tristan, Kenzie, Rain and I looked as well. Vista had left to go to work.
Naphtha was a Warden, but not one of the major ones, likely standing somewhere between Vista’s tier and the rookie tier. He stood on a table, decked out head to toe in glossy black, with bold yellow decoration standing out as a kind of light armor. His power made everything within fifteen feet of him, teammates excepted, slick with what looked like crude oil that periodically produced bubbles. The effect looked like it was perfectly circular if looked down on from above.
“No obligation, but if you’re up for it, we could use the help. I’m going to list off some current problems we need to address. Put your hands up or let us know if you can contribute. We have a villain group with an aggressive hold on an isolated population of non-English speakers preventing evacuation from a part of the city we’re considering high risk. They had a protection racket going, a lot of power and control, and they don’t want to give it up. Teams have tried to be as firm as they could without upsetting the locals but it’s time to break their hold and get this settled.”
“Where?” someone called out.
“West of downtown. Three city blocks with two apartment buildings.”
“What kind of non-English speakers?”
“Does it matter?” Naphtha asked.
There was no answer from the guy who’d called out. Vessel, from the Shepherds. He was one of four who sat at the same table, three on one side, one on the other. Scribe sat two seats away from Vessel, her elbows on the table and her hands covering her mouth. Her costume still didn’t suit her. She hadn’t joined the Fallen like a lot of the racist shitheads had after Gold Morning, which counted for a bit of something, but I felt like I needed to see more from her before I could stop thinking of her as Rune from Empire Eighty Eight.
And one of those things I needed to see was her speaking up instead of being silent when a question with that kind of undertone came from her corner.
“We doing any of this?” Tristan asked.
“Victoria’s sick,” Kenzie said, before I could answer.
“I could do something minor,” I said. “But-”
“Someone just took that one,” Rain cut in, pointing. A team had raised their hands. Naphtha’s teammate was briefing them now.
“It’s not our skillset,” I finished the sentence I’d been saying.
“Yeah,” Tristan said. “And I think we’re all running on empty right now.”
“Not me,” Kenzie said. “I had the best breakfast, I’m all revved up and ready to go, if you guys want to do anything.”
I held my tongue. Kenzie’s issue wasn’t that she didn’t have the energy. Kenzie’s ’empty’ was another gauge entirely, and it related to her team and her process of grieving Ashley. My concern was more that our collective energy levels and focus weren’t where they needed to be to handle a small crisis and keep an eye on Kenzie.
Naphtha called out, “Issue two! We have a broken trigger at the top of a high rise apartment complex in one of our highest-risk areas. There is no oxygen or gravity in the area, but we need to minimize the use of powers to avoid the risk of added damage! We need changers without the need to breathe, anyone with tinker suits already built to host their own oxygen supplies, or anyone comfortable wearing a bulkier suit!”
“I’m going to go suggest Love Lost,” Rain said, standing. “I know she has a mask like that, and she could handle the low gravity.”
“She’s in her cell right now, isn’t she?” Tristan asked.
“Yeah. Went back to prison after we raided this complex,” Rain said, looking around at the white walls of the dining area.
“She’s still the person that butchered a lot of us and who would probably be okay with you dying,” Tristan said. “I’m not sure how cool I am with us continually offering her hero work in exchange for lighter sentences or whatever.”
Kenzie rubbed at her fingers.
“Should I not?” Rain asked.
I spoke up, “The last mission we brought her on, she- cover your ears, Kenzie?”
She did, but while she did it, she said, “If you mean the part where she cut someone’s arms open, I saw that.”
I motioned for her to put her hands down. “That, yeah. It sort of had to happen, but it’s scary it happened that easily and that brutally.”
“Yeah,” Rain said. He was still standing by his chair, hands resting on the table. “I- yeah. I guess I want to cut her some slack over Cradle’s influence, because I want that kind of slack myself. But I’m not the only person she hurt, I guess.”
“I’m not saying don’t,” Tristan said. “I’m just saying… what happens if we do this twenty more times and she’s whittled her sentence down to nothing by deals she made? It doesn’t feel right that she’d be back on the streets anytime soon or go unpunished for what she did.”
“I’m on the same page,” I added. I was trying to keep half an ear out, because Naphtha was already on issue three, and was saying something about another group of villains. It sounded like a similar dynamic to issue one with villains messing with the evacuation, but more to do with random fuckheads stealing from people who were leaving the city with their most valuable things, complicated by more power use restrictions. Another team was asking questions, and I felt like it would be weird to interrupt Rain and Tristan and interrupt the other team that seemed to have a more avid interest in the job.
Besides, I wasn’t in the mood to deal with random fuckheads. Over the past five days I’d been prepared to jump in if there was a pressing issue, and that held true, but I was okay taking the backseat and focusing on my team.
Losing Ashley hurt. Her absence at the table was felt.
“What if I told them she was a possibility, but stressed no special favors, or gave them a better picture?” Rain asked.
“That would be my instinct,” I said. I looked at the others, and Tristan nodded. Kenzie seemed distracted, but nodded when I sought out her eye contact.
“Cool,” Rain said. He walked over to the table to wave down one of Naphtha’s teammates.
“Four!” Naphtha called out.
Someone at a nearby table said something snarky I didn’t quite hear, about the number of crises that were popping up and how we should have it handled. The annoying thing was, this was the events that they were having trouble finding manpower for. There was a lot of other stuff going on that already had teams assigned.
“The Machine Army reached Boston in Bet. We delayed them as best as we were able, did a final sweep, and found a crude interdimensional effect that was left over from an ongoing power. We cleaned it up, but the Machine Army is reportedly building a housing for the traces of power effect and trying to build what might be an interdimensional portal.”
“What the fuck?” Vessel asked. “How? They can do that?”
“Using tech they collected elsewhere and ferried to the site. We have capes on the scenes, plenty of firepower already, but given how tenacious the threat is, the higher-ups want some secondary firepower. We want powers that can do damage. You’d be replacement for any wounded, relief, and if we had to pull some of our capes back to the city or one of the evacuation areas, you might be one of the ones asked to stay.”
“I always wanted to get a look at one of those robots, see how they ticked,” Kenzie said.
“It means going to Boston, being hours away from everything else,” Tristan said. “I hear it’s intense, relentless.”
“Kind of,” I said. “Less about constant fighting unless someone really slacked off, more about worrying there could be an IED rigged to anything you touch, or a beartrap under any patch of dirt… except it’s not an IED, it’s a giant robot that tears you apart.”
“I could help, scan with my cameras,” Kenzie said. “You could help… kind of?”
“They want unconditional firepower, Rain’s firepower comes with conditions,” I said.
“Tristan… no. You could, Victoria. Kind of?” Kenzie mused. “I want to go, though!”
“I have to stay close to the hospital, so you’d be going without me,” Tristan said.
Kenzie slumped in her seat.
Naphtha was talking to someone, “-situations where we can’t let people use powers at their full strength. If you want to help but your power is big, constantly on, or inherently reality-distorting, this is a big way to help. If you’re anti-violence or you don’t want to be in a situation like we had when we fought Teacher where we had to take lives, dealing with the Machine Army is one way to contribute. Nobody’s going to fault you if you’d rather contribute that way.”
“That’s all,” Naphtha said. “Thank you for your time. Reach out to any Warden if you change your minds.”
He stepped down from the table. The circular pool of oil moved with him, leaving things untouched. He joined the conversation between Rain and the other Warden.
We finished off the plate of deep fried chicken and zucchini. More of a brunch than a lunch, but I had the generally ravenous feeling that came with the decline of a spot of illness, and I didn’t mind the chance to fill up.
“Tristan,” I said, as I wiped my mouth and discreetly wiped my nose, before pulling the medical mask back on, “What’s the status with Barcode?”
“We’re fine. They’re appraised, they believe it wasn’t intentional, their thinker vetted me. I put them on some other stuff, a few weeks back. Finding some people. Paris was one, but then we ran into him before Barcode did.”
I looked across the table at him. “What were they supposed to do with Paris when they found him?”
“Tell me,” he said.
“Then we’d see,” he said. His expression was flat, betraying nothing. He looked back in Rain’s direction. “Moot point.”
“That’s not what moot point means.”
“What does it mean?” Kenzie asked.
“Up for debate.”
“Right. We can debate it if you want,” Tristan answered, with a hint of the stubborn tone I’d learned to watch out for, like he was willing to fight over it. He sighed. “I asked them to find other people. Goddess put us all in the worst mental states and circumstances, where we had zero reason to trust one another, only protocols and rules to go by, you know?”
“It reassured Byron, I think, that things were that bad and we could still cooperate. Reassured me. I’m not sure I trusted myself, before that, like I could’ve done something stupid again if things lined up wrong. Ever since, I’ve been reaching out to people we knew back in the day, because I wanted to own up, and I was so goddamn sick of running into random people from our past and having everyone think they needed to worry about Byron.”
“They know about his current state?”
“Sleeping ninety percent of the time, might never get full use of his right arm again? Most do. I know he was in contact with a few online. I had to keep my distance from all that, which meant he had room to reconnect and find his niche, I guess.”
“He’s grown up a lot in the past few weeks.”
Tristan nodded. “The contracting we’ve been doing with Barcode has been using them as private investigators with a deeper knowledge of the cape scene for Byron’s sake. Ninety percent of it was for Byron, five percent was me covering my ass and Breakthrough’s ass, making sure we wouldn’t be attacked by heroes with good intentions who wanted to save Byron from me or some shit.”
I thought of Moonsong attacking us in the old Warden’s headquarters and nodded. Beside me, Kenzie turned and waved. It was the ‘eyes in the back of her head’ thing, given the timing of it. I followed her gaze and saw Sveta navigating her way between the tables and chairs of the dining area. Behind her, I had a glimpse of Weld and Slician.
“What’s the other five percent?” Kenzie asked.
“Me looking up an old boyfriend,” Tristan said. “I haven’t had the guts to make the call. I’m ninety percent sure he hates me, and I rationalized away the fact I hadn’t called by telling myself I couldn’t even do anything with him if he was forgiving and single. Except now I theoretically could.”
“Ahhhh,” I said.
“I think that’s great,” Kenzie leaned forward as she talked to Tristan. “Love, making up for old mistakes. I think you should go for it. Life’s too lonely to not be with people.”
Sveta took her seat beside me, giving me a bit of a hug. She handed me a manila envelope with some heft to it. “Present.”
“I can deal with lonely,” Tristan told Kenzie. “I tried to murder my brother and get away with it. Right under this guy’s nose. I lied to his face a thousand times. I felt like utter shit doing it, but I’m not sure that matters. And… I’ve had years to think about it, but I’m wondering if he suspected or knew.”
“He knew?” I asked.
“I think he got an inkling when I couldn’t… wouldn’t. Not while Byron was in there.”
“Marriage?” Kenzie asked.
“No,” Tristan said, blinking. “No, I just saw stars and lost track of my thoughts at the thought of marriage. Don’t hit me with that sudden mental image at ten in the morning when I’ve only had one cup of coffee.”
“Oh,” Kenzie said. “Boning. That’s how Candy puts it.”
Christ. I looked around to see if anyone had overheard. How the fuck was I supposed to navigate this?
Tristan, meanwhile, had put his face into his hands. I wasn’t sure if it was laughter, crying, cringing, or some combination of those.
“Heartbroken are giving you a mis-education, huh Kenz?” Sveta asked.
“Oh yeah,” Kenzie said. “Tristan, Tristan, look at me. Maybe he figured it out, maybe ten percent of him knew, and that’s why he’s so angry, because the whole of him is angry at that ten percent of him. But if you call, sure, he might be angry, you might be upset, but at least you’d know.”
“That could be worse.”
“It could be! But maybe, maybe he’d be willing to forgive you and things would be better. You could do what you couldn’t and wouldn’t do before, which is probably a lot of things, considering you told Rain and Chris you and Byron uh… can’t and won’t, even alone and that’s a lot of not over years and years.”
Tristan stabbed a finger in her direction. “We need to ban you from talking about certain things. It’s uncomfortable. Serious ban. Really.”
“My point is, If you don’t call, then it’s the same as the worst case scenario. Him angry, you miserable.”
Tristan sighed. “I’m trying to think of a nice way to phrase this. This is where I kind of miss having Chris around, because he’d just say it.”
Kenzie nodded, but I could see her shrink into herself a hair.
I put my hand at her back and gave it a little rub.
“Uh, the sentiment is very much appreciated. I think you’re probably right, Kenz.”
“Cool,” Kenzie said, bouncing a little in her seat, before leaning forward to grab the paper basket that had held the deep fried zucchini and tipping crumbs into her palm. “That’s not something Chris would say.”
“But… take this as gently and lightly as it can be taken, with a pinch of good humor?”
“Can do,” Kenzie said, before tossing the handful of crumbs into her mouth. “I always do, I think.”
“It’s a huge step forward that you’re giving what sounds like good relationship advice,” Tristan said.
Yeah. That was probably as diplomatically stated as it could be, considering. Chris would’ve been meaner about it. Maybe it would have been better to leave it unsaid, though.
“Thank you,” Kenzie said. “I know I’m a fuckup when it comes to relationships.”
“Not how I’d put it,” Tristan said.
“I am, though. I always was and now I’ve gone and fucked up my whole relationship with the new team, and they don’t want anything to do with me. When I saw them because I had to it was super awkward and stiff and…” she huffed out a breath, smiling. “Really, really sad, because of how awkward it was. I get why you’re afraid, Tristan. They say it’s better to have loved and lost and it really, really isn’t.”
“Isn’t it?” Sveta asked.
“Not when you put your everything into that love,” Kenzie said. “Not when it happens over and over. You can only lose everything so many times.”
I put my arm around her shoulders and hugged her closer. I could feel the vibrations through her head as she crunched down on bits of deep fried food that were still in her mouth. Given the force of the chew, the bits had probably deep-fried into chunks of pure carbon.
“I didn’t mean to rub a sore spot,” Tristan said.
“You didn’t. I’m just sore in general. So you need to go find your romance so I can live vicariously through you, okay? Or try. But make the call.”
“Okay,” Tristan said. “Later. I can’t do it from here.”
“Vicarious romance, Kenz?” Sveta asked. “Is this a new interest?”
“No,” Kenzie said. “No, not really. I have some people I might like-like but I talked to Candy about it and Candy says I might be in love with the idea of being in love, which is different from infatuation, which is what Darlene has, which is different from love, which is what Parian and Foil have. I was already going to move super slow so I wouldn’t do anything dumb and ruin it all, but now I can’t and won’t do anything because they hate me.”
“Hate isn’t the right word,” I said. “You might be reading too much into this. It might be worth taking your own advice, and just… confronting them?”
“The difference is I don’t need to call to know. It’s like I picked up the phone and then I overheard something, and I got something more honest than if they said anything to my face.”
“A biased take.”
“Fine, it’s like I got to listen in through the phone and hear everything they ever said about me and it hurts as much as anything because I didn’t even get to see things start to fall apart before it happened. With my parents, my foster dads, the Wards team, the summer camp, the other Wards team, the school group, the girl I’d talk to before and after class in Math, my old teams online, my music teacher, my parents the second time, Houndstooth, and even Ashley, there was warning.”
Hearing Ashley’s name come up as part of that was a gut punch. I wanted to say something but the heaviness of that gut punch made it hard, and Kenzie was on a roll of sorts.
“I loved them with everything I had and at least I got to see where things were going and pull back maybe five or ten percent of that everything. With Chris and with Chicken and Syndicate and Decadent, I didn’t get the warning.”
“They said a lot of those things when you weren’t there and then when you were there, they thoroughly enjoyed your company. I don’t think it paints a good picture, Kenz. We hear and register the bad more than we hear and register the good.”
“Chris said I don’t, though. Chris said I could meet Hitler and get along with him because he loved dogs, and I’d chatter at him about dogs and wave at him through the window while he turned on the gas. Chris said I don’t see the bad enough, so maybe it’s the opposite and I didn’t even pay enough attention.”
“Or it could be that you’re growing up, Kenzie,” Tristan said. “You’re meeting people like the Heartbroken, your tastes are maturing, you’re getting a questionable education-”
“Standard education, I think,” Kenzie said. “Just… very all at once.”
“Maybe. You’re dealing with loyalty inducing Goddesses and mind controllers, bad guys and crazy clusters, you’re dealing with a lot, and maybe you’re getting a better understanding of good and bad.”
“I think the you we first met might have gotten along with Hitler, Kenzie,” Sveta said. “But the you of today is less innocent and wouldn’t. The you of today called out Chris. And that’s a little bit sad and a huge relief at the same time.”
“What would Ashley say in this moment?” I asked.
The smile that touched Kenzie’s face for a moment could have been the fleeting happiness of her thinking of her friend, the smile falling away when she remembered. Instead, it suggested the opposite, like I’d stuck her with something sharp, and the pain was fleeting.
Odd, because I could feel like it was the worst of both.
“She’d say… if they really said all of that, then they aren’t worth anything and they don’t deserve me,” Kenzie said. “Maybe.”
“True,” Tristan commented.
“Except,” Kenzie said, making her voice a hush like she was telling us a secret, “They are worth something. They’re cool and I miss them. But I couldn’t tell Ashley that sort of thing.”
The issue with loving everyone you meet and seeing their best sides is that when there’s fault in the relationship she thinks it’s all hers.
“They can be cool and still make a mistake,” I said. “And I think if you asked them, they’d say you’re cool but you made a mistake by reading what they said in private.”
Kenzie smiled, cringing a bit.
“The best way forward is to arrange a meeting. We could arrange for you to talk to them, you clear the air, you apologize, they do the same. Then everyone tries to do better.”
“I can’t fix all the problems they say they had with me.”
“That’s a cop-out,” Sveta said. “You can’t fix all of them, no. But you can fix some and work on others. You pledge to do that as part of your apology.”
“Yeah?” Sveta pressed her.
“Yeah,” Kenzie admitted.
“I’ll call Tattletale later, then. We’ll work something out.”
At the other table, the Shepherds were packing up. Scribe was doing a lot of the talking, and the three others were listening. She drew something on the head of her staff, then let go of it, letting it float down and flip over, until it was horizontal. She stood on it, a witch with her broomstick, and used her telekinesis to manipulate it and help keep her balance. The entire time, she was speaking in a voice that was more quiet and for her group only than anything we’d said at our table. Not that we’d broadcast it, but…
Fuck, I was being unfair, wasn’t I?
“We should go check on Rain,” I said. “I have a hard time believing he’s been talking about Love Lost for this long. We done? Do you want to grab something to go, Sveta?”
“No, I ate,” she said.
We packed up our trays and gathered the cutlery into one glass. I gave Scribe a glance over my shoulder, and saw her staring.
She rolled her eyes, her expression just shy of being a sneer, pure disdain in every account. That done, she floated away, still surfing on her magic stick. Her trio walked behind her.
Maybe I wasn’t being unfair. Fuck, I really didn’t like her.
“You were with Weld,” I noted.
“I wasn’t really,” Sveta said. “He was there, but I was with Armstrong. Filling him in on Ashley, asking questions. Just, uh, Weld was there for part of it, and so was Slician. As a friend, Weld said.”
“That sounds fucking miserable,” Tristan said.
“He’s still one of my favorite people, even if he’s being a complete butthead right now. It was nice to talk about him. He was nice about Ashley. Do you mind, Kenz, that I’m talking about her? I could understand if it was…”
“No. It’s the opposite of minding it,” Kenzie said. She was walking in the midst of us, and from my angle I couldn’t really see her face.
“He had some anecdotes from when it was just him and her talking. Armstrong had some too. I’ll share them later.”
“Please do,” Kenzie said.
“Armstrong was so proud of how well she was doing, it really affected him that she was gone, you know? I can’t say I felt exactly the same, I never really felt… I don’t even know how to put it. She wasn’t someone I clicked with, not in a general sense. But I have a ton of memories of conversations like the one I mentioned to you a bit ago, Victoria, about Ashley wanting to be Case Fifty-Three. Times our differences made the bridging of the gaps feel really meaningful.”
“That makes a ton of sense,” I said. “I kind of feel the same way. Probably about very different things.”
Sveta smiled. “Very different things.”
Rain was talking to a cape with a helmet covering the upper half of his face, a scar across both lips at the lower half. The armor the guy wore was partial, covering one shoulder and pectorals but not the other shoulder or belly. It was all done in the chrome dome look, all smooth surfaces, with the rest of the costume being dense red mesh with metal threading through it. He had something like six modified revolvers with barrels the size of toasters holstered along his spines, so the handles fanned out, and four more at his belt.
I didn’t count myself a fan of the look. Maybe a small part of that was being being grumpy from being sick and grumpier with the general disheartened feeling over Swansong.
“Still talking about Love Lost?” Tristan asked.
“Nah. Told Naphtha, he’s going to run it by Warden leadership. I was recounting what happened with Nieves in our last run-in, and Hardboil.”
“This is Bullet Time, Bullet Time, meet Tristan, Victoria, Sveta, and Kenzie.”
“Public appearances scare the crap out of me,” said the cape who looked like he was tough enough to smash his face into a brick wall until the wall gave. “My knees knock, I’m not even joking. It came up because I mentioned Nieves arrived and asked what Precipice knew.”
“Nieves is here?” Sveta asked.
“He’s here,” Kenzie piped up, in a little announcement that made Bullet Time give her a curious look. “He brought, uh, what’s her name? She went by Kid Cassandra while doing contract work, the Heartbroken said Tattletale coined the name to annoy her. Then she wanted to change it because she’s barely a kid anymore.”
“I don’t think she confirmed a name change,” Bullet Time said.
“Names are hard,” Kenzie said. “I’ve been through, like, five.”
“Guys,” I said. “I kind of want to check in on that. Do you mind? Is this in a secret holding area or something, Kenz?”
“No. Just an office,” Kenzie said.
“We’ll come,” Sveta said, her voice firm.
“Good talking to you, Precipice,” Bullet Time said. “Show me your stuff later. No tinkering, though. I’ve learned my lesson after giving a tinker carte blanche to ramble at me.”
“Sure,” Rain said, smiling.
“You made a friend,” Tristan said, as soon as we were out of the dining hall. “And you weren’t just talking business, were you?”
“We were talking about Nieves before,” Rain said. “That led into talking about hobbies. He machines his own guns, no tinkering, I do some metalwork, knifemaking, trapmaking, except I barely have time these days…”
“A chronic problem,” Tristan said. He had less time than any of us, because he was giving his brother his time to speed up the healing process.
“Yeah,” Rain said. “That led into talking about my workshop, and the view from my workshop, swimming in ice cold lakes-”
“Macho stuff,” Tristan teased.
“I- maybe. We were sharing stories but it didn’t feel like one-upping one another. It was nice. He’s very different from me. I was rural, he grew up in one of the areas that got designated H.O.S.V., like Brockton Bay almost was, after Leviathan. Is that right?”
“Yeah, it’s right,” I said. “Mayor went to testify about it, said not to, that things were recoverable. If he’d said the opposite, maybe the city would have had all power and water shut off, to encourage evacuation.”
“He grew up in a place where they did that,” Rain said. “Except his family was among the people who stayed. He said he shot someone before he was Kenzie’s age.”
“I shot someone before I was my age,” Kenzie said.
“Flash gun doesn’t count.”
The conversation continued, and I wondered at how we were glossing over the reality. As of right now, we were making small talk and letting Rain geek out over making a friend, when it wasn’t something he did a lot, and we were ignoring that the topic of H.O.S.V. was very close to what we were collectively doing in this moment.
Naphtha was striding down the hallway, coming in our direction. He stopped us. “Changers?”
“No changers in our team,” Tristan said. “Why?”
Naphtha getting close enough meant I felt the oil touch my skin, as it touched everything in a certain radius of Naphtha. He pulled it away from me as it touched me, but my skin crawled with the memory of the feel of it.
“Another crisis. Similar to the others. Going to announce it to the dining hall,” Naphtha explained. “I don’t suppose any of you feel brave enough to go up against Sleeper? Absolute invulnerability better than Alexandria’s, special brains, absolute annihilation powers?”
“Ha, no,” Tristan said, genuinely amused. Then his face fell, “Wait, is he moving?”
“Yeah. But not fast enough to matter right now. It’s another thing demanding attention, focus, and manpower.” He was already leaving. “If you can, put in some hours helping to evacuate. It helps if we show our faces, even if we do nothing else.”
“After,” Tristan called out, “Recovering from injuries and a death in the team.”
Naphtha was essentially out of earshot already, still moving quickly toward the dining area. He gave us a thumbs up at Tristan’s comment, which felt jarring, but it was also one of very few ways to effectively communicate we were still on good terms. Maybe I would have done a salute or something, I wasn’t sure.
Evacuating. We’re conceding, I thought. We’re facing this looming threat and we’re having to cut and run. To take this city we devoted so much to and let it go.
And every step of the way, we were running into obstacles. Gary had been a big one, we had petty criminals, monsters, broken triggers, and our hands were continually tied by other obligations, by this new fragility at the center of the city, where any intense power use could break things or catalyze disaster.
Villains had been told, and villains were apparently holding back enough that alarms weren’t going off and we weren’t being told it was all hands on deck.
But collectively? We weren’t that good at that. We made mistakes. We had people with issues, or buttons to press, or agendas. We had fucking Teacher, waiting in the wings, and he’d made his agenda perfectly clear.
I wanted three things. I wanted this team to be okay, because even if Jessica had shifted focus and career away from this, I’d made my promise to look after them to myself in addition to my promise to her. I was trying to do that now, because it was at least something I could do without draining myself, sustaining more wounds, or getting sicker.
Thing number two was answers. I wanted to know more. Which led me to open the manila folder Sveta had handed me earlier. I had my hopes about what it was, and those hopes were exceeded.
Files on findings and research about portals and interdimensional fuckery were part of it. We were heading to get to the rest of it. Gary had some answers, at least when it came to anti-parahumans and what the people on the ground were doing.
Thing number three for me was taking those first two things, my team and those answers, and doing something about it. The door that Kenzie could apparently open in Rain’s dreams was the definitive thing. An idea communicated with a glance, that would make us zero friends if we attempted it.
But it would let us do something, when we were faced with a series of situations that felt hopeless. Fucking Sleeper. The Machine Army.
The city was so vast it took half a day to get from the west end to the east end. Three quarters of a day to get from the southwest to the northeast, though the Dauntless Titan had kind of trashed the Northeast by appearing there, so it wasn’t a real consideration.
And yet, with so many things pressing in on us, the city felt small. Claustrophobic. This city-sized complex where we were bringing in some of the refugees and evacuees felt the same way, not helped by whole sections that were devastated or off limits.
Kenzie led us to the area where Gary was talking to the Warden leadership, a parahuman in his company. Security stopped us.
We handed it over. We let them check the records and systems.
“It’s like they’re old people pecking at the keyboard with their fingers, except more, because I’m way faster than them and they’re way slower,” Kenzie muttered. “It’s adorable and really frustrating.”
“Be good,” Sveta admonished. “If you say something they’ll hold us up for longer.”
“But if I get locked up I won’t have to watch them take forever to do what I can do in a literal eyeblink,” Kenzie whispered.
“Be good,” Sveta said.
We were saved when Golem stepped out into the hallway. He saw us and approached.
“Precipice, hey. Hi Breakthrough. I’m sorry about Swansong.”
“Thanks,” Rain said. “Appreciated.”
“You guys saw Contessa, right? You met her? Did you get an impression about her character, or anything weird.”
“My impression is that she’s awful and fuck her,” Sveta said. “But I’m biased.”
“Understandable,” Golem said.
“My impression is that she’s awful and fuck her,” I added. “I’m not as biased. Why?”
“Something came up. Can they come through? I’ll vouch.”
“They can go through if you know them,” the security guy said.
“Thank you,” Kenzie said. “You’re my hero.”
Giving us a quizzical look, Golem led us down the hall. We passed a meeting room with the blinds partially closed, and I could see the silhouettes of Dinah Alcott, AKA: Kid Cassandra, and of Gary Nieves, sitting across from Miss Militia.
We didn’t stop there, though. We weren’t asked to watch. At the end of the hall, there was a wider area that resembled a police bullpen or the cubicle zone of a computer startup – a lot of desks and computers. Heroes were gathered, watching the interrogation on a monitor. Some were huddled around computers.
Theo led us to one system, and brought up a recording of the interview.
Dinah Alcott was speaking, sounding annoyed or upset. She wore a nice suit-dress with a wild pattern to it, and a similarly patterned cloth as a blindfold. “You can’t trust her. I’ve run the numbers, I can’t see past her but I can see everything around her, and I can at least see things that have yet to happen that are right behind her point of influence, understand?”
“Barely,” Miss Militia said.
“Not at all,” Gary said. He was a big guy, one hand wrapped around one fist. He looked entirely out of place, like a grown man with a fear of kids sitting in a kindergarten.
“Contessa is doing things that have nothing to do with saving lives or what you explained with what she did after being released. She sent a Harbinger to kill the Number Man, and when she did, she set off events that messed up everything I was working on with Gary.”
“What were you working on?”
“Me. We were in contact,” Gary said. “I didn’t realize the extent of it. I had a few eye-opening moments in a row and then she reached out, we talked.”
“I put him in charge of the movement and I showed him some fundamental truths,” Dinah said. “I put in years of work to help with things, to keep things from boiling over, and it’s been destroyed because she did something and she’s still doing it.”
“It’s manipulation to a degree that’s… very uncomfortable to think about, and makes me second guess…” Gary said. “But I like the attack on the Mayor even less. I despise Jeanne Wynn, but that’s not the kind of change I wanted.”
“And he’s not in charge anymore,” Dinah said. “It’s all about the violence now, fighting back, it’s going to blow up, and I can’t stop it if I spend five days asking myself questions – I checked, it’s really not an option. This is the catalyst for the disaster you’re anticipating, and it’s her. Infighting to distract your capes? Her. Just like you said she had you do to distract and scare off Teacher.”
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