Dying – 15.4

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Syringes emerged from the floor like a cresting wave, growing larger and more numerous as they got further from the source.  I watched as Withdrawal tried to escape the tide, and an extension of the needles cut him off.  Tinker stilts and the repelling shield he’d stolen off of a guard caused the needles to break, spilling dirty yellow-black fluid onto the floor.

Pumps, thick pipes, and white tile defined this corner of the complex’s second floor.  We’d fanned out, our groups moving through the various rooms with the intent of clearing each room in turn and ensuring we wouldn’t be flanked, using powers to ensure we wouldn’t be followed.  Anything else ensured a constant fight from all corners.

Except we’d hit a snare.  The idea had been that if we had any fights, any victories would mean we could fold in on and flank the enemies to either side of us.  And as far as I could tell, none of our teams were winning their fights or moving on to the step two.

Needles grew out in clumps, clusters, and bouquets, and then more needles and clumps grew out of the clumps.

“Don’t get pricked!” some kid shouted.  One of our Mortari capes.  “My analysis says they’re drugged and diseased!”

Withdrawal yelped as he avoided a sudden emergence of syringes.  I crashed into the needles with the Wretch, shielding my face with my arms.  Withdrawal already had his mask, so he didn’t need to worry about the spray.

“Help,” Caryatid said, voice quiet.  The needles had cut her off while she wasn’t moving, and now grew in thicker, until they came at her from every direction, all stopping millimeters away from her face, neck, arms, chest, belly, and thighs.  She had gone human to talk, her back straight, arms at her sides, wearing the long, slim black dress with the yellow-orange poofs at the wrists and feet.  She resumed her breaker form, the poofs and her head becoming something more fractal.

For the time being, I couldn’t do a lot.  The broken glass and shattered plastic of syringes pressed in even though I’d broken them, edges reaching for me.  I backed off, hemmed in.

The geography of this particular stretch of hallways was a H turned ninety degrees, and I was in the lower intersection, Caryatid to my right.  Withdrawal was up ahead and around the corner to the left, periodically visible through the thicker pipes.

“Terminal, incurable, long term diseases,” our unhelpful helper volunteered.  “Addictive substances!”

“Got it!  Go help someone else, or get somewhere safe!”

It’s scaring our Major Malfunctions, I thought.  They’re kids who did nothing for years, then jumped into the deep end of the pool.  And that’s partially my fault for bringing them onboard like I did.

Withdrawal, skinny, wearing a skintight suit, a mask, and the limb-extending agility frame, had only the shields he’d kept for defense, the syringe he carried for offense.  But the shields required energy and the syringe made a shitty club, especially when needles erupted from the wall to hem in how much he could swing the syringe at the stuff in his way.

I could bust up the syringes, but I couldn’t bust up the syringes and then tackle the areas with more syringes.  Our attacker was staying out of sight now, but I’d glimpsed her a minute ago.  Tall, possibly breaker class, a slim, ghostly silhouette similar to Caryatid’s, with red eyes, a surgical mask over the lower face, a white covering from the neck down, so tight at the legs that it looked like she couldn’t walk, and feet impaled by the bristling syringes, points sticking out and through bare flesh.  When she’d moved, it had been on that moving ‘cushion’, syringes appearing and disappearing to stab her feet and back repeatedly while buoying her away at a runner’s speed, her body twisting and arching with each set of impacts.

Breaker class, but shaker in practice.  With a sweep of her arm, she caused syringes to spring out from the ground, walls, and ceiling like a crashing wave.  All loaded to bear, apparently, with stuff that would guarantee we died a few months or years from now.

She moved away like she considered us dealt with, and in reality, I wasn’t positive we weren’t.  Crashing through the syringes with the Wretch would disable the Wretch and impale the Victoria.  Caryatid couldn’t move without losing her invulnerability.  Withdrawal had a great deal of movement and a lot of gaps in his defenses, which were a bad combination in this environment, where moving in the wrong way would get us pricked.

I’d thrown myself into this side of the fight to help the C-team and now I was in over my head.  I hit a cluster of syringes, clearing some of the way, putting myself in the midst of them while waiting for the Wretch to return.  Then I let it do its thing.  Reaching out, clawing, destroying.  A swathe of destruction around me.

Putting the Wretch aside for a moment, I grabbed a fire extinguisher that was mounted on a wall, and I swung it full-bodied in Caryatid’s direction.  It arced through the air, and it crashed through the syringes, giving her some ability to move.  When she did move, it was in sharp, careful movements that cleared more of her way.

Even with the cacophony of noise nearby, I didn’t miss the small, frantic sound from her while she was human and not in her breaker form, reaching down for the fire extinguisher, then using it as a bludgeon.

“Cary!” Withdrawal called out.  “Stay calm!  It can’t hurt you unless you let it!”

The Wretch swiped, tore, and crushed the syringes in my way.  The ground was a carpet of broken glass, broken plastic, needles, and fluids in noxious colors.

“I can’t do this,” she said.  “I can’t stand this.  I have bad dreams that aren’t as bad as this.”

“Stay calm!” Withdrawal grunted out the words, between swings of his tinker weapon.  It wasn’t meant for the task, and it was taking a beating.  Big as it was, not every swing broke everything it hit.

Breakers triggered from disassociation.  From mental illness, from deprivation of sleep or food, from a mind-body disconnect, or from the divide between normal trigger circumstance and reality, the paradoxical events.  Brutes tended to trigger from being hurt, as I had.  A breaker with brute sub-powers tended to trigger from wanting self-harm, or from harm that was all in one’s head.  Attacks from imagined enemies could make a breaker with the subclass of striker or blaster.  For a stranger, who tended to trigger from unwanted attention, the case in the textbooks had been an exhibitionist who had been caught, experiencing the mingled sexual thrill coinciding with the fear of imminent arrest, imminent loss of family, and imminent loss of career.

Breakers also came about from medicine or drugs that altered the mind-body state.  Caryatid.

“It’s a tailor-made fight for us!” I called out.  “Caryatid, this is a counterattack from a guy with thinkers at his disposal!  People who know us!  People who’ve used powers to study us and figure out what works best against us!”

“It’s working!” she said.

“Get through this second by second!  If you can get through the stuff that’s this personal, you can get through anything!”

“What if I can’t?  What if I can’t do this?”

“You’re doing it as we speak!”

She was about to say something, but another tide of syringes came our way from around the corner, in Withdrawal’s general direction.  A second later, a shape hurtled in that same direction.  Hurtled and stopped.

Precipice, now suspended in the air above a carpet of needles, using his power.

“Uh,” he said.

“Caryatid!  The extinguisher!”  I reached out my arms.

She went breaker and used the short lunge of her movement to toss the extinguisher at me.  It took me both arms to catch.

“Incoming!” Precipice called out.  He created a blade.

I used my strength to hurl the extinguisher, changing what I was aiming for in the last moment before release.  It crashed through the thicket of needles between me and Precipice, hit the ground, and crashed through stuff there, not directly beneath him.

But it gave Withdrawal a spot to jump forward to, landing in a bare patch with just a bit of skid on the fluids and broken material that now carpeted the ground there.  He caught Precipice, then sprung back the way he’d come.

A hulking form lunged into view, coming within a handspan of getting a grip on Precipice.  Copper mask, partial armor, and a loincloth, and a body covered in oozing sores, blisters, and scabs.  Copper chains wound around his arms, and swollen, infected hands gripped the hooks at the end of those chains.

He was big and fast enough that he didn’t stop by his own power.  Instead, he hit enough of the outcroppings of needles that he was impaled sufficient times that they made him stop.

I saw them react like they were spring-loaded, plungers depressing, filling his exposed flesh on legs, lower pelvis, and arm with enough noxious fluids that the skin visibly darkened and swelled, excess fluid foaming and bubbling out around the injection sites.

He threw one hook out in the direction the pair had gone.  Glass broke as he hauled it back in.  An apparent miss.  Fume Hood pelted him with orbs, and he didn’t seem to care, except for the way it limited his vision.

He hurled the hook blindly my way, and it embedded into the wall ten feet behind me.  He hauled on it, hard, and the wall panel came away, syringes included.  My forcefield served to knock the worst of it away, but the remainder it still came at me, now festooned with broken glass and a spray of fluid.  I had to perform some frantic acrobatics to avoid it.  Needle tips scraped against the fabric of my costume to the extent they vibrated against the individual fibers.

He was backed up by a bunch of thralls.  Men and women in what looked like padded hazmat suits, heads covered by domes, all carrying what might have been laser cannons.  Needles receded as the entered the area across from me.

Emerging from the smoke, he reached out the hand that no longer held his hook.  Whatever he did, there was no dodging it, no avoiding it. My head, nose, and throat exploded in pain, fluids simultaneously choking and suffocating me, flowing out of my nose and down the back of my throat.  Ear pressure went wonky, momentarily deafening me, and the stirrings of a bad headache momentarily stole my ability to think.  My stomach did a flip-flop, and my injured hand roared in fresh, hot pain.

I was dimly aware of him rearing back to hurl his hook.

A silver blade struck the Brute.  He turned his attention to Withdrawal and Precipice.  The way he threw his hook was power-augmented, making it fly straight, and it used enough of his physiology that the silver line at his shoulder and chest split.

Pus and suppurated, swollen, infected flesh overflowed from the wound.

Two of the thralls fired their cannons in the direction Precipice and Withdrawal had gone.  The big guy threw himself in that same direction.

Another two fixated on me, raising their guns.

I flew hard at the corner, where needles bristled from pipes and ductwork.  The Wretch hit the needles and damaged one of the pipes, causing it to start bubbling something that smelled like a sharper rubbing alcohol from the seam near the ceiling.

They were beam weapons, but the beams were thin, filled with faint blue specks of light, and didn’t burn anything.  I saw as needles were pulled out of the wall, the damage segments around the part the hook had caught joining them.  As they were pulled, they collected more specks on them, until they were covered.  The more they collected, the less effect the pull had on them.

I began working my way to Caryatid, mindful of the Wretch’s reach.

“Frontload it!” one thrall called out.

“I am.”

“Flip the Z.”

“I did.”

“There’s another notch on the lever for hard Z.”

Behind me, the beam grew more intense, the faint blue became a dark blue, and the needles and debris were pushed closer to the wall.

They moved the beam, moved the stuff trapped in the beam with it, and then flicked it my way, shutting it off to release the material.  Needles and debris were sent flying our way.

The Wretch was broken by the speed at which some of it was hurled.  The back of my hood blocked a lot, but I still felt pricks at my shoulder.  I reached back and pinched at the wounds, to squeeze whatever it was free.

It was wall material that had penetrated fabric, not needles.

I worked to get closer to Caryatid.

They were making their way down the hall to the intersection I’d been stuck at.  One was slower than the other, using the beam to pick up more fluids, needles, and debris from the ground and wall.  The other peeked around the corner.

That was important, I knew, but I didn’t have time to consider it.

Caryatid made her way to me- I reached out with a hand that had blood on it from touching my wounded shoulder, supporting her as she hopped over a pile of needles.  As the next flick-throw of the beam’s contents came our way, she put herself between me and the hail, going breaker.

Which was a temporary solution at best.  The one at the corner took aim and fired.  Dragging Caryatid.  As she was pulled, she was no longer still enough to be invincible.

“Pull back on the Z!”

The pull increased in speed.  Dragging her toward needles a few inches a second.

Flying after her, I had to fly around the beam, because being stuck in it slowed me down.  I caught her and pulled her out of the beam, she stumbled, and he tried to catch us again.  I was more evasive, so he went right back to getting Caryatid.

The partner did another collect, flick, grab, in the span of a second or two.  It was only a dozen or so needles, flying like bullets, but the movement of the beam told me the angle.  Aimed at me, not Caryatid.

I drew myself together, and flew hard into a safe spot of ground, forcefield strong.  Fist and one knee hit hard enough to crack the floor and send fragments up in a radius around me.  More than I might have in the old days.

Reaching out for two of the larger fragments, I managed to catch one.  A fistful of concrete with some tile attached.

The moment I felt like the forcefield was back, while the tractor beam guy was collecting more debris, I threw the chunk, hitting the guy who was dragging Caryatid.

A harder throw than I might have done normally, but the situation was bad.

Caryatid put herself between me and the second guy, blocking the hail of syringes.

He began dragging her, and I flew around and over.

I could have shoved him into the needles right beside him.  I didn’t.  I did cave in his knee, grab the weapon, and throw him hard to the ground.

They’d had different tactics.  They’d been talking about how to use the gear, like they didn’t know.  There had been inventive tactics.  They weren’t thralls like the ones downstairs had been.

These ones had been knowingly cooperating.

I saw needles recede close to where he’d fallen, as he lay on the ground, cradling his leg.  Grabbing him by the collar, I hauled him up and forward, holding him out as best I could without using the Wretch.  More needles pulled away as I brought him closer to the needle breaker’s powerstuff.

No room to be gentle.  He was my means to clear a path.  I hurried forward, flying, and got to where I could see the brute with the sores and blisters.  Rain had cut him several times, but it seemed to remain tissue damage, and it might have been regenerating.

Down the other hallway, the needle breaker was fighting Love Lost, Chastity, Roman, and Colt.  Fume Hood had apparently gone off to do something else.

Love Lost pounced, driving clawed fingertips and toe-tips into her chest, the breaker tried to retaliate by bringing syringe-fingers toward Love Lost’s middle.  Love Lost sprung back, landing on hands and feet.  Colt was hacking at the syringes around them, cutting at them with her black blade, while deftly dodging whatever came near.

But they were maneuverability, not durability.  Same issue as Withdrawal.  As the syringe breaker got more into it, there was less room to maneuver.

She was hurt at least.

She backed away, pulling to one side-

And Imp stuck her with the scepter she held.

The woman dropped, falling backward.

Ten feet from me, in the thickest outcropping of syringes, I saw her emerge, pushing through.  Skin and skintight dress were impaled in a hundred places by the glass and syringes, pulling hard enough against it that needle points were bent to nearly right angles, bands of flesh pulled away from arm, face, neck, and sides because the flesh had been penetrated enough times to be looser and the needles were trying to pull straight again.  Some points raked her.

The damage healed, except where she remained impaled.  She hung off the wall, suspended.  Body weight pulled her free as much as anything else.  A cushion of needles waited beneath her feet, as she prepared to drop down to it.

The others couldn’t get to her, but she was close enough for me to deal with.  I took flight, still dragging the guy with the broken leg behind me-

Something caught my arm.  The hook from the big guy.  It slid down my arm until it found my wrist, the curve of the hook large enough to accommodate my arm but not my hand.  He hauled me back toward him, away from his partner.

I twisted in the air, trying to find an orientation that would pull my hand free, and there was too much pull for me to do it.

Bringing knees to my chest, I planted feet on the tractor beam thrall’s chest, and I kicked out, activating the Wretch and the strength that went with it.

He went flying, skidding along the floor, straight into the breaker’s waiting cushion.  Within a foot of him, syringes went back to whatever extradimensional space they had emerged from, and the breaker dropped down onto flat, ordinary flooring.  She crumpled to the ground there.  When she looked up, her eyes weren’t red, her hands weren’t tipped with weird syringe fingers, and her dress had blood dotting it, no longer sterile.

The Wretch broke the chain, freeing me.  I thought I might go after the breaker, but I saw as Chastity flicked out her bullwhip, catching the thrall I’d thrown around the neck.  She called out to the others, and they hauled back, pulling the guy into the thicket of needles, which receded as he was pulled into it.  He did something as he slid, activating a device or deactivating it, and their last tug pulled him into needles for real.

Choosing to get stabbed by a hundred needles to help his side win.

I flew after the big guy, who braced himself for me.  Rain threw his projectiles at the guy’s legs while his back was turned, and Withdrawal followed it up with a tackle, jumping up to kick the guy from behind.

The blades flared, the legs buckled, and the guy wasn’t braced or anything for the hit I delivered him.  The impact felt like smashing a soggy bag of trash with a car.  Ninety percent of him went everywhere.

Colt slashed through the thicket keeping the other group from accessing the breaker.  Love Lost jumped through the first gap that was visible, and tackled the breaker, who was only now getting shakily to her feet.

Claws impaled the woman by the shoulders.  Love Lost brought her masked face close, then swiped her arms out to the sides.  The claws didn’t break contact with the woman’s arms, as Love Lost raked her bone-deep from each shoulder to the respective hand.

A kick with clawed toes to the chest separated the two, knocking the breaker to the ground.

“What the fuck, Love Lost?” I asked.

She tilted her head, then pointed a bloody claw past me.

I turned to see the brute I’d hit was getting to his feet.  His mass was lopsided, and what remained was decay and pus in a vaguely human silhouette, with a single arm, part of a chest, and the legs that had belonged to a six hundred pound pile of muscle and ugliness.  The two thralls had been disarmed, one slumped against the wall, another cradling her arm.

“I know he’s alive,” I said.

The woman who had been a breaker lay on the ground, arms at her side, bloody smears beside her like she’d been trying to make a snow angel, her back arching as she struggled to move in a way that didn’t elicit agony.

The strength went out of her pretty fast, all considered.  I looked away.

“Finish him off.  He’s too dangerous,” I heard Gong.  I saw him step into view, bedraggled.

Closer to me, Love Lost was pulling off her mask, head hanging down.  She wiped gobbets of snot and what might have been vomit away from her nose and mouth.

“The thralls called him the Leper.  He killed four of ours,” Gong said.  “We can’t let him heal, we can’t bring him with, and we need to move.  It would be best if you ended this now.  Getting to you and getting back would take too long.  We need to help other groups.  All of us are struggling.”

Sure enough, the Leper was recovering.  A hole yawned in the center of the vaguely head shaped mass of congealed human sickness, the beginnings of a mouth.  I could see nuggets that might have been congealed pus or nascent teeth.

“Please,” Gong said.  “In the interest of getting this done.”

“I’d like to hear a voice I know and trust say to do it,” I said.  “Sorry Gong, I don’t know you.”

“Do I count?” Rain asked.

“Yeah.  But do you really want to make that call?  Because I really don’t.”

“I don’t either.  But I think it’s necessary.  This guy won’t stop unless he stops for good.”

I stared down the brute, who was trying to find his balance, mashing his meaty full-size hand against the needles that hadn’t gone away when the breaker bled out.  No eyes, no ears, just a mouth and flailing limbs.

I might not be able to do it if he had a face or the capacity to look me in the eye.

I flew at him, and I put my foot out, because a hand might have felt too personal, too close.

I kicked him, and I didn’t hold back.  Foot drove head into wall, and I felt the shock of soft bone and pulpy flesh crumpling beneath my boot.

Headless, he dropped like a puppet with the strings cut.

“I hope there isn’t too much more like this,” I said, as I watched to make sure he didn’t get back up.

“These aren’t even his handpicked ones,” Gong said.  He turned, raising his voice.  “Breakthrough and other second wave attackers, get analyzed, make sure you aren’t sick, hold this spot, watch for more trouble!  My group, this way, we’re flanking help other teams!”

When it came to the body, there was no ‘thank you’, perhaps because there was nothing to be happy or glad about.  There was was no ‘good’ either, or anything of the sort, maybe because it wasn’t good.

Just… back to business.  Putting cold blooded murder in the heat of battle immediately behind him and us.  My foot stuck to the floor when I set it down, and for an instant I could imagine that it and the entirety of me were impossibly heavy.

His group left, and with their absence, I could see the bodies left behind.  Some thralls.  One of Teacher’s capes.  I’d seen glimpses before I’d heard Caryatid shout.

Chasmal sat against the corner.  His veins had been blown open, to the extent his body looked like a husk and the blood was on the floor around him.  Someone had shoved a thrall’s body up beside him, which served to wall in the spreading pool of blood, leaving only streaks behind.

Another cape was missing her face.  Rotted away.

For the third, it looked like both things had happened to them, but it wasn’t the face that was missing.  Everything from crotch to bellybutton had been turned into bloody necrosis.  I couldn’t tell with the mask they wore, but it looked like they’d stumbled a few steps before dying.

Fume Hood, Samuel, Juliette, and other members of Breakthrough caught up, being careful of jutting syringes and the fact the floor was more broken glass, needles, and gore than it was white tile.

He’d told our group to wait and get analyzed.  That meant getting scanned by the new cape from Mortari.  His name was printed on the sleeve of his fairly ordinary bodysuit, but in a really annoying script, that cut chunks out of a line that was running from shoulder to elbow to make the vague, blocky letter shapes.  Venarum.

“How invasive is this?” Fume Hood asked.

“I’m thorough.  It just takes a few seconds.”

“But how invasive a look are you getting of me?”

“It’s nothing I haven’t seen before.”

She seemed to shrug.  She saw me looking curiously at her, and said, “I bet there are piercings he probably hasn’t seen before.”

“I haven’t.  But I don’t care about piercings,” Venarum said.  “Or anything else.  You’re fine, by the way.”

Sveta approached, putting a hand near nose and mouth at the smell.  Ashley and Capricorn were with her.  I saw a sad look cross her face as she looked at the dead.

I think every hero and heroine hoped that when they went into the big fight, that it would be casualty-free, that their involvement would mark a turnaround and there wouldn’t be any more unjust death after that.

But we were fighting against a tide.

Withdrawal was sticking with Caryatid, and they were so wrapped up in themselves and their stresses that they seemed to forget Precipice was in an awkward spot with no way to slip by without pushing past.  Too many needles, and Withdrawal took up some room with limbs extended, as he now curled over and around Caryatid, talking to her in a low voice.

“You got purged?” Venarum asked.

“What?” I asked him.

“The big guy.  My analysis suggests he used his power on you.”

“Oh.  Yeah.”

“He used it on them too,” he said, pointing at the three dead.  “It triggers every latent disease in your system for a few seconds of effect.  They got pricked, scraped, or injected by needles before he used his power.”

“Hey, kid,” Tristan said.  The cape he was talking to wasn’t a kid any more than Tristan was, but he was a rookie.  “Don’t talk about the dead like that.  Like it was their failure.”

“There’s no need to be defensive, I’m explaining for those who don’t know.”

“You’re doing the thinker thing,” Tristan said.  “Where you get too stuck in what your power is telling you and trying to tell everyone else, and you stop being a decent human.”

I saw Venarum stiffen.

“Wind it back a little, Tristan,” Sveta said.

“Okay.  But I’m not wrong.”

“No.  No you’re not.  But you’re upset at how this is going and that’s changing how you approach it.  Let it be.”

Tristan looked like he might be spoiling for an argument there, but he turned aside.

“My analysis says you’re okay,” Venarum told me.  “Mostly.  You’ll want a full spectrum of antibiotics when all of this is done.  The purging clears all disease from your system after it happens, but you got that scratch on your back after, I’m guessing.”

I nodded, uncomfortable.

I halfway expected him to criticize me, to talk about my injuries and scars, the accumulation of damage.

Amy would have.  This felt a lot like talking to Amy, in some ways.

Rain had slipped past the pair of Malfunctions.  Venarum cape turned his focus on him.

“I need to fix my arm,” Rain said.  “I missed having it that fight.  It got shredded earlier, when we got clipped by the hallway warper.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“I don’t suppose, uh, Love Lost?” he asked.

Love Lost twisted around, glaring at him.  She was cleaning her claws with what looked like a silk cloth, but I wasn’t positive it was silk.

“You got the tinker power last night.  And Cradle’s share.”

She continued to glare at him.  He took it, facing her square-on.

“I could help,” Colt said.

“If you could, that would be great.”

Love Lost beckoned, her expression and the tension in face, neck, and shoulders no less hard.

When he took a step forward, she held a hand up, flat, and pointed.

He disconnected his broken arm, then tossed it at her.

Imp’s group was talking among themselves.  Again, there was that omnipresent, light tone, tonally off.  I’d just killed someone, three good capes had died, and it seemed to be like water off a ducks’ back.  Roman was poking fun at Samuel.  Together, they walked down the hall toward the intersection I’d been fighting.

I heard noises, and flew to the intersection to look back at what was happening.  My feet skidded on the ground.

It was the Heartbroken and the one remaining Thrall.  The one I’d taken down with a thrown bit of concrete.

Roman was holding the man up.  Samuel was slapping the thrall, kicking.

“Hey!”

They spun around, alarmed.

“What the hell?”

“You scared me,” Samuel said.  “I’m using my power, since my family is so busy trying to score points that they keep taking the chance away from me.”

“It’s fine,” Imp said.

“You’re beating up a man who can’t defend himself.”

“You killed a man who couldn’t defend himself,” Roman said.

Samuel stopped the assault.  The thrall hung his head, and started sobbing.

“That was necessary,” I said, wishing I believed it.  “And this is worse.”

“This is for the best,” Imp said.  “Samuel can break people.  Hitting them in the right places, right times.  Goes through their mental defenses like butter.  We can extract information.”

“Torture doesn’t work,” I said.

“It doesn’t,” Swansong said, off to the side, quiet and ominous.

“Mine does,” Samuel said.  “It’s better if it’s a fair fight, though.”

“If this doesn’t get us something undeniably worth it, you can throw me or Sammy here into jail when we’re done this mission,” Imp said.

Chin stiff, I stared her down.  She didn’t flinch.

Samuel turned, then struck the thrall across the side of the face.  The man kicked out ineffectually, and Samuel stepped back out of the way.

“Is this really what we want to be?” I asked.

“It’s what I am,” Samuel said.  “And it’s why I’m here.”

“I don’t care what we are, so long as we make it through this,” Imp said.

I didn’t have a response for that.  I watched as Samuel continued to beat the thrall.  A man I’d rationalized I could hurt in the midst of battle because he wasn’t fully thrall.  He wasn’t an innocent being put through his paces.  He’d had volition, and by our understanding of Teacher, that suggested he’d had a choice.  For privileges or good behavior, he’d earned more slack.

Samuel punched the guy in the side of the stomach twice.  He motioned for Roman to let go of him.  The man dropped to hands and knees, head bowed.

“There,” Samuel said.  “What’s coming?  What capes does he have?”

“Team Green-Black has an agent that can make the visible invisible.  She’s to place explosives in a series of set locations, we detonate part of the facility if the next two waves fail, we clean up, then we rebuild.  We did it already with one of the attackers.  Took their powers so they couldn’t hold off.”

The voice from the thrall was almost robotic, hollow.  Haunting.

“How does it work?” Samuel asked.  “What are the steps in this plan?”

“You’re to be distracted, you have certain capes who can see or handle the explosives, one team is already working on them.  Team copper-white is to slow down or take out your fastest and most elusive.”

“Keep talking,” Samuel said.  He kicked the man in the side.

I started forward, purely on instinct, at seeing a villain kick a man on the ground.  I stopped myself, and a half-second later, Sveta reached me, hand at my shoulder.  She looked down the hall at the Heartbroken.

This was getting to me.  More than I wanted to admit.

When I was dropping Lookout off at one point, Darlene had remarked that Samuel was one of the nice ones.  Educated, older, smart, and the one to keep the more dangerous kids like Flor in line.

There was nothing nice about this scene.

Withdrawal and Caryatid were close by.  I wanted to distract myself, so I turned their way, running fingers through my hair.

“You did well,” I told them.

Withdrawal nodded.  Caraytid didn’t.

“You included, Caryatid.  I hate that I brought you into this, but I really think, going forward, you should be able to look back on this with pride.  You saved me when I needed it, back there.”

“It was instinct.”

“It was good,” I said, dropping my eyes to the floor.  “It was teamwork.”

“I was barely even thinking.  I was scared.  I just thought if you got hurt then there was no way I’d be okay.”

“Sometimes that’s all it is.  Even for capes like Legend, probably.  You were brave enough to move when you needed to move.”

“That’s what I was saying,” Withdrawal said.

The conversation was interrupted by another meaty sound.  Samuel delivering a kick to the face.

The man on the ground bawled, speaking between sobs.  A constant flow of words.

“Vic,” Precipice said.

I realized I was clenching my fist.  I couldn’t quite bring myself to unclench it.

“Precipice.”

“While I’m working on my hand, I think we could temporarily load something of Lookout’s into a computer line over there.  She’d appreciate the update.”

“Trying to get rid of me?” I asked.

“I thought a distraction might help.”

I nodded, holding out my hand.

“You’re clear, Precipice,” Venarum said.

The terminal was akin to a breaker box, painted-over in white, a pipe running straight up and straight down from it.  Within was a touchscreen.

Kenzie’s thing was like an old phone.  I set it into place, ran the cable along the side until I saw a green light, then hit the first button.

The dead body was so close.

What life had he lived?  What led him here, to be some kind of plague-driven giant who murdered, capitalized, and worked with a syringe woman, in some alien hallways in an alien world?

The syringe woman lay dead, arms stretched out to her sides, multiple gouges running down each arm.  Her expression bothered me.

Red light at the first button.  I hit the second.

An image of Kenzie’s helmet appeared.

“Checking in,” I said.  “Can you hear?”

“I can hear.  How is everyone?”

“Tough fight, but we’re intact.  We met with members of the first wave attack.  We’re up to the second floor now.”

“Good,” she said.

Quiet, not nearly as wordy as she usually was.  Ninety-nine percent of the time, the moment contact was established after any time apart, she could be counted on to try to make up for lost time with a flood of words.

Was she upset?

“Sorry we’re leaving you out of this,” I said.  “If you were here I think you’d want to have been left out.”

“Maybe.  Probably,” she said.

“Are you okay?” I asked.  “Are you safe?”

“I’m safe.”

“What’s the first password?”

“HSP-See-Out-Gawking-Hawk.  Is there a time soon I can take a break?”

“A break?  Have you been postponing your bathroom break so you won’t miss us if you’re needed?”

“Yes, but that’s not super important.  I meant go for a walk, get outside?  I’ll bring a bodyguard if you’re worried, maybe.”

“What’s going on, Lookout?”

“Nothing.  Can you let me know when there’s time?  If you take the current device with you can use it again.  I’m patching it now so it won’t get backtraced.”

“Go take your bathroom break now.  For the other break… we’ll let you know when we stop to rest and refresh.  Can you put Tattletale on while you’re gone?  Just in case?”

“Okay.  I’ll be back in three hundred and forty two seconds.”

“Okay.”

“Thralls sighted!” Fume Hood called out.  “They passed by and left!”

“Hold the position, don’t get baited out,” Capricorn said, barely audible because he was distant and around the corner.

“Keep me updated!” I called.  I got a noise of assent.

Tattletale’s logo, a capital T intersecting a lowercase T, with an eye embedded in the capital T, replaced Kenzie’s mask on the screen.

“What’s up?” Tattletale asked.  “Headphones on, hands at the controls.  How are my Undersiders and Heartbroken?”

“Beating up someone defenseless.”

“Then they’re fine.  Samuel’s a good bet here.  Give him a few tries before giving up on him.  But that’s not why you’re wanting to talk to me.”

“No.  Lookout’s acting strange.”

“She always acts strange.  What do you want me to do about it?”

“Her system.  If you’re on her computer, find out what she was doing?”

“How invasive.  Well, I’m good with passwords.  Give me a minute.”

“You have about three.  She’s running off to pee, wash her hands, and coming back.”

“Literally running.  Right.  Well, that makes it easier.  Looking now.  No password.  Weird.”

“She has weird views on privacy.  I think her default headspace is that all information should be available.”

“No kidding.”

A few long seconds passed.  I was aware of the time limit.

Tattletale broke the silence.  “The last time you connected to Teacher’s systems, you were close to the gallery.  She got a look at files and what they were keeping track of.”

“Files like the ones you and I were investigating?  Falsified, meant to mess with us?”

“No.  The stuff they were using to build those.  All good, untainted data.  Poor fucking kid.”

“What?”

“She spent the last twenty minutes reading through pages and pages of data about herself, her new team, her old team.  Records of how annoyed people were about her, how concerned, how thin tolerances were getting…”

“Okay,” I said.  I had a sinking feeling.

I’d been on the sidelines, with only hints, and the hints had been a lot.

“Two weeks ago, Chicken Little asked Candy and Darlene if they ever thought about kicking Lookout from the team and what would happen if they did.  Nine days ago, he brought up some things with me, asked me if it was why I was always saying stuff about Lookout.  I remember that conversation.”

This wasn’t what Kenzie needed right now.

“Three days ago, four different times five days ago, I could go back further… mean jokes and comments from her team.  Mean might be understating it.  Gutting.”

I nodded, though I was unsure if Tattletale could see.  Probably.  Kenzie stuck cameras on a lot of her stuff even when there wasn’t an explicit need for it.

“They’re kids, you know,” Tattletale said.  “They love her and she… she’s so head over heels for them she doesn’t know where her head or heels are.  I’m not going to pretend my kids are saints or their coping mechanisms are all great.  Darlene’s a mess romantically.  Candy’s a ticking time bomb.  But that’s beside the point.  They’re kids.  When they get uncomfortable and they don’t know how to process it, they push back, they band together, they can act a little shitty, poke fun, say things that would devastate someone if they heard it out loud.  It’s part of the process of figuring things out.  Even for good kids like Chicken and messed up kids like Darlene and Candy.”

“I don’t think Kenzie’s the type to be especially mean to anyone behind their backs.”

“Maybe not.  Maybe it’s because Imp and I have our shittier sides and we rub off on them.”

“Or Heartbreaker.  Or trauma.  I don’t know.  I meant that she wouldn’t understand it like you describe it.”

“Yeah.”

There was a pause.

“She’s going to be back any second-”

“I see her at the stairs.”

“Can you look after her?  We can’t handle this just this minute.  She was wanting to go for a walk to get away-”

“Her team’s here, she’s trying to put on a brave face, and she’s doing a damn good job of it.  She wants to get away to freak out where nobody can see, I think.”

“Can you give her a chance, or relieve her of her duties for a bit, or… I don’t know?”

“Sure.”

“Give her a hug and say it’s from us?”

“She’s here.  I’ll see if there’s someone better equipped for that job than I am.  Headphones unplugged, Lookout plugging in.”

“Hi,” Lookout said.  She sounded out of breath.

“Hi, Lookout.  I’m hearing a commotion.  I should probably go.”

“I hear the commotion too.  Okay.  Thank you for checking in.  It means a lot.”

“I’m sorry you’re not feeling great.  It’s been a shitty few days.  We stick it out, get through this, Swansong and I will have you over for hot chocolate and animated films.  How’s that?”

No use pretending I wasn’t concerned.  Odds were she had logs, or she could figure things out one way or the other.

“Lookout?” I tried, when there wasn’t an immediate response.

“Yes please,” she said.  “Be safe.  All of you.”

“Will damn well try.  Disconnecting now.”

“Bye!” the attempt at getting the last word was successful, but the last syllable was cut short by me unplugging.

I looked away from the terminal, and found myself confronted again by the headless corpse.  By the body of the syringe woman.

The others were talking to a new cape.  Someone from Balk’s support team.  Imp and her gang caught up with me as I passed the intersection of hallways.

“We’re being summoned,” Capricorn said.

“Can we trust that cape?  Master-stranger?” I asked.

“My analysis says there isn’t any weird head stuff,” Venarum said.  “Not biologically.”

“You gotta stop saying that,” Capricorn said.  “My analysis says, my analysis…  It wastes words and time when we need fast answers.”

“Capricorn.  Chill,” Sveta said.

“The other teams need you,” the Advance Guard cape said.  Distill, according to the name printed under his badge.  “Now.”

We opted to trust him.

A zig-zag through hallways.  There were bodies in one of the halls from one of the first wave attackers.

I saw Whorl.  The good looking preppy cape who had interviewed me when I’d applied for the Attendant.

Spell, from Auzure.  He’d been helping the farms in his off hours.

“We got something,” Imp said.  “Samuel did.”

“What something?” Capricorn asked.

“A new objective.  We handle this, then we press on to a different objective.”

“We’re supposed to rendezvous with the teams, back them up.  Save them,” Sveta said.

“This is more important.”

“More important how?”

“Dude’s cousin is also a thrall.  She does cleaning, but she has trouble, so he helps her.  He knows this area.  There are cells.  Cells with people Teacher doesn’t want us to get at.”

“He doesn’t want us to get to the other teams and get them out of trouble, either.”

“He wants this less.  Trust me.  I’ll make you that promise again now.  If I’m bullshitting you, you can throw me in jail.”

“Keep saying that and we’ll think you want to go to jail.  For the female company?” Juliette asked.

“Gross and no.  My odds are better out here.  I’m trying to convey I’m serious and I’m bad at it, so I’m putting shit on the line.”

“I believe her,” Swansong said.

“We get to those cells, we win,” Imp said.  “One hundred percent.”

“I believe her less now.”

We passed more bodies.  More first-wave teams that had fallen.  These guys were people from the city core, in the ‘New York’ area of Gimel.  Smaller teams, ones that had been benched, working in coordination with the other squads.

Butchered.  Burned.

I was having trouble getting past that.

Especially when we ran another thirty feet, turned a corner, and there were more bodies.  Cold.  The area was unlit because a power had shut things off.

And then, mercifully, an arching doorway.  Another large room, which might have been chemical or water processing.  Huge tanks loomed in the center, surrounded by catwalks.  The ceiling was high, and tiny windows high above were open to the sky, showing sunset hues.   Multiple teams were gathered on the ground level.

Atop the tanks, looking down on us, were three modified Dragon-craft, weapons armed.  Each was supported by teams of thralls and a handful of capes.

Modified to be something other than Dragons.

“Those are her old suits that she wasn’t able to find after G.M.!” Balk called out.  “She said to watch out for them!”

Mechanical angels now.  One with a glowing halo, one with extensive wings that made me think of the Simurgh, another with metal plates connecting into one another in what could have been flowing robes, carrying a glowing sword.

And us with our tinker not in her best state.

“Saint,” Imp said.  “You asssshole.

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Dying – 15.3

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“Did you encounter three capes when you came down this way?  Two teens, boy and girl, and a woman?”

“Only if they were wearing Teacher outfits and brainwashed,” Sveta said.

“No.  We sent our own that way to scout,” Gong said.  Prong was just a short distance away.  Both were the kind of dirty that came with the really extended combats, where sweat ran over your entire body, then smoke and then dust got caked into it.

“Annihilated,” Prong muttered.

“Don’t you dare say that,” Gong warned.

“Side doors,” Capricorn said.  “We checked all the rooms we could open as we passed, but we didn’t scout thoroughly for hiding places.”

“Tandem.  Take Blatherskite and Tailgate, scout the way back, check the rooms more thoroughly, bring the wounded with you, find a spot to hunker down.”

“I can fight,” Blather said.  Young kid, mask that covered cheeks and forehead, with some decoration around the eyes and a brightly colored lipstick.  Wide-eyed and flinching with every nearby impact and loud sound.  “You need us.”

“We need to not worry about the wounded,” Gong said.  The dull impacts of tinker guns striking concrete grew coordinated and numerous enough to drown him out.  I could see the wall that was taking the brunt of the attack.  Each shot seemed to morph it, carving out a shallow indent that spread the material around it out.  The combined hail of the power was enough to stretch the wall tall and thin.  Gong was annoyed enough at the distraction- at the distraction and maybe just how it seemed to affect the kids in his squad who weren’t doing so hot.  Blatherskite was feeling everything and Tailgate was stiff-chinned and asborbing nothing, staring off into space.

Gong slapped his hands together, and a shockwave rippled harmlessly past us, tracing a flat, long oval around us and our cover.  The sound of incoming projectiles softened, then stopped.  I peeked and saw the shockwave slowing as it moved, and slowing bullets and bolts of energy, a few chunky containers that might have been explosives, and some of our allies’ stuff as well.  Someone in one of the concrete cubicles near the one we were hunkered down in was firing shotgun sprays of their power into Gong’s shockwave, filling it with what looked like two-armed tadpoles the size of my fist.  They clawed blindly at the air, tails whipping around violently, and their screeches were high-pitched, feral, and muffled, as the shockwave absorbed even the sound.

Blather cringed at even those sounds, despite the fact they were friendly.  No respite, even as the sound of the incoming attack more or less stopped.

Gong did about as tight and vicious a little spin-move as I’d ever seen anyone do, spinning on the spot and slapping at something mid-air.  Wind rushed past all of us, and the assembled projectiles launched as a volley, flying out toward one of the entrances.

The crash was loud.  I flinched, and I was used to the chaos of battlefields.  Gong, meanwhile, landed on hands and knees, like something had been taken out of him.  Big guy, heavyset but not tall, wrapped in armor in the Advance Guard style.  The ‘gong’ motif was in diamond-shaped plates at key positions around his body.

Two seconds passed, punctuated by the sounds of other ongoing struggles nearby, but devoid of any of the sounds of the offense from that one direction.

Then the hail resumed.  Dull ‘splat’ impacts that made the impact areas taller, wider, and thinner.  Something more ordinary struck one of the stretched out barriers and shattered it with a sound and effect very similar to glass breaking.

Fume Hood launched a series of spheres.  The gas was both a deterrent that forced the group back into the corridor and a way to disrupt their accuracy.  Most of her focus was elsewhere, though.  There hadn’t been enough space, so her team had fallen back to another decagon.

“Kite!” Gong raised his voice to be heard.  Blatherskite flinched.  Gong went on, resuming the orders he’d been trying to give before “We need to not have to worry about the wounded.  This is your job.  You follow orders!  You, Tandem, Tailgate.  Find where the three we sent down that hallway are hiding.”

Blatherskite nodded, the motion tight.  He’d protested earlier and he didn’t protest now.  A token effort when he really wanted out.

Capricorn was in the cubicle next to ours, talking to Tandem.  I could overhear parts of their conversation as he described parts of the scene we’d left behind with the big room of people, the bars, and the number of capes there.

“…can get past bars,” Tandem was saying.

“I figured, but you have to get your team past them too.”

“What a shame that we haven’t talked.”

“I- yeah.”

“You ready, Tan?” Gong raised his voice.

“When you are!”

“Prong?”

“Yeah.  Nervous, but yeah.”

“Tailgate?  We’re going to want your power.  Two shots if you can manage it.”

Tailgate didn’t respond, like she had been rendered deaf by the cacophony.

I put my hand out, into her field of view.  She startled.

“You with us?” Gong asked.

I saw the confusion as she took stock.

“Teacher’s facility, we’re in the gallery,” I said.  “You’ve been here for a few hours, you’re being relieved by the second strike teams.  You’re taking the wounded through that door with Blatherskite and Tandem.  Tandem leads, I think?”

“We need portals,” Gong said, without giving Tailgate a chance to respond.  “Here and here.  We’re covering you with an attack.  Prong’s diving in, he’ll need all of our support.  We push, distract, cover, and then fall back to this point.”

And with that, any light of understanding in Tailgate’s expression fogged up again.  “I’m helping with that?”

“You’re going with Tandem,” Gong said, clearly annoyed.

“This way,” I said.  “I’ll cover you.  Go to the cubicle next door.  Do what Tandem says.”

Tailgate looked back to Gong.

“Make the portals.”

Fuck me, I could have hit him.

“Tandem!” I called out.

“What!?” was the answering cry.

“Tailgate’s making a portal to help your retreat and help our charge.  Give them the orders!  Sending her to you!”

“Got it!”

“Go,” I told Tailgate.  “Do what Tandem says.”

Again, she looked to Gong.

“Go,” he said, like he was all out of patience.

“Go next door,” I said.  “Take Blatherskite.”

She did.  Blather followed her, as the pair ducked out of the doorway.  I ducked out too, hurrying to get far enough away I could use the Wretch to block any incoming fire from the flanks.  There wasn’t any.

Clear, definitive orders for someone who wasn’t entirely here right now.  I knew the drill, and I knew that someone in that state needed grounding and direction.  Gong hadn’t been helping, piling on more when Tailgate needed less.

“They’re a good cape,” Gong said.  “Reliable up until today.”

“Movers tend to trigger from a need to escape, shakers usually trigger from environment.  Combine the two and it stands to reason that being trapped would remind her of that event and circumstance.”

“She’s a Cauldron cape,” Gong said.  “She dropped out of the PRT when they started cracking down and trying to figure out who was compromised.  She tried to make a graceful exit, being open about why, but got detained when she wouldn’t answer all of their questions.  Eight months in special detention.  She got out, got a sponsorship.”

I wasn’t sure what to say to that.  Maybe that people who took Cauldron vials might have been motivated toward certain vials or they might have had the mental groundwork for certain end results, even with the power being from a bottle.  But I didn’t know.  The cape geek stuff on Cauldron had always been and remained a big question mark.

Sveta could usually be counted on to have some feelings one way or another when Cauldron came up in any capacity, but she was more focused on other things.

The corridor we’d come through was cleared for retreat, which shifted the dynamics of this scene in our overall favor.  The formless, sprawling space with concrete and metal decagons spaced out across it, the high ceiling, and stale hair heavy with the smell of smoke and ozone was relatively easily defended, but mounting attacks from the space was difficult to impossible.  Teams that fell back to the concrete decagons found that there was too much in the way of no man’s land to easily cross.  The speedsters, acrobats, fliers, and other movers could get around or get through that gap, but they couldn’t make a lasting dent in enemy forces while they were out there.

I heard Love Lost scream.  Not enough range to reach across the no man’s land.

If this whole operation was meant to be a surgical strike, the surgery had gone wrong.  The strike down the central thoroughfare of the facility had brought the team here, and the way behind had closed up, organized soldiers collapsing in.  No way out but through.  Our surgeon had worked deep enough to find the issue and get a grip on it -our ‘gallery’ here- but blood from the entry was filling the work area, blocking of view and the ability to get anything done.  So long as that flow persisted, it would be impossible to truly get anything done.

Capricorn was drawing constellations in the air.  Rocks thudded as they landed.  Barriers to replace the concrete walls that were being broken down.  At another decahedron, Stonewall was doing something similar, planting his shield in the ground, then manifesting another.

I could only see a little bit of the decahedron where Balk’s group had retreated.  Only a bit of where the woman with something of a resemblance to my aunt was having a drink of water.  I saw the empty container get tossed aside.

“I saw a cape,” I said, mostly to Sveta.  “Crystal’s mom?”

“Didn’t she die?”

“In Gold Morning.”

“Shit,” Prong said.

“You know something?”  I asked.  “Because the formations she was using with Balk, I thought my cousin passed on things we learned as kids to get incorporated into the PRTCJ, Wardens, whatever, but…”

“Try not to worry about it,” Prong said.

“It’s kind of hard not to.  You’re acting like there’s something weird here.”

“Valkyrie’s always tried to keep people from seeing what she does with anyone they might know.”

What?

“Focus,” Gong said.

“Wait,” I told him.  Then to Prong, “What?”

“Fuck,” he said.  “You know how Valkyrie works?”

“Vaguely.”

“Valkyrie copies powers and summons vague simulations of the people who had those powers.”

“Okay,” I said.  “That was not just powers.  That was not a vague simulation.  That was someone who flies, who has the mannerisms, who fights like my aunt did.  She gave me looks and the more I think about them the more I think she remembered me.  She didn’t fight or fly like anyone who learned the formations from the PRTCJ.  She fought and flew like the person who helped refine them.  And as far as I know, Valkyrie isn’t here.”

Prong looked at Gong, then back to me.  “Okay, fast explanation, no lies, but no follow-up questions either.  If we take too long they’ll reinforce with turrets, one-way forcefields and robots.”

I grit my teeth for a second.  I didn’t want a fast, shitty answer.

But I did recognize the need.  I nodded.

“She’s been using power interactions.  Forging bodies for them, so she can send them out.  She started with a dozen, increased to twenty-five.  Then a few died.”

“Some of us think she got rid of them,” Gong said.  “If they went bad.”

“Glossing over that,” Prong said.  “She recently made more.  Sent them on this mission.”

“How is she making them?” I asked.

“No follow-up questions,” Prong said.  “Listen, they’re fragile.  There’s stuff wrong with them.  In their heads, in their bodies.  She apparently fixes them or she lets other people fix them.  But until she gives the word, we’re supposed to leave them alone, we avoid putting them anywhere near their old loved ones, teammates, whatever.  If you see any, try to ignore them or keep interactions light.  You’ll hurt yourselves if you don’t.”

“There’s stuff wrong with them?” I asked.  “Plural?  Scattered, or multiple things in one person?”

Sveta reached out to touch my arm.

“Right,” I said.

“It worries me that they’re apparently fragile and they’re being sent into this,” Sveta said.

“She knows what she’s doing,” Gong said.  Then he raised his voice.  “Ready!?”

There were answering cries.

“Breakthrough goes with!” Capricorn called out.

He was taking charge more because I hadn’t dropped the master-stranger warning from back on Shin.  I didn’t wholly trust myself to lead.

Tailgate’s power created what looked like forcefields, extending out in straight lines from our dodecahedron.

“Look for the teleporter!” Gong shouted.  “Go!”

He lurched forward, heavy armor and accumulated fatigue slowing him down compared to how a normal person might move when sprinting their way out of a crouch, out into the open, then a hard right into the forcefield.  Except it wasn’t a forcefield, it was a gate.

Prong was faster.  Skinny guy in slim-fitting armor, with a bident.

Then Sveta.  Ashley and Rain were emerging from a neighboring cubicle, on the far side of the gate.  Capricorn had a few more feet to cross.

Each person that hit the wall of energy dissipated, disintegrating.

It spooked me, somehow.  As a spur of the moment thing, I flew, instead.  I took to the air and I could see the trails of energy, vaguely color coded because each ‘bolt’ was a vaguely arrow-shaped, fractal mess of distorted reality, careening over the concrete form, some arcing in the air, others staying low to the ground.

Gong had already arrived on site, and used his power.  A shockwave bowled over twenty tinkers.  Prong was there a second later, turning from fractal energy bolt to human.  He put the points of his weapon into a tinker’s gun-hand, and as he did, a copy of him appeared, impaling the thrall from behind.

That new version of himself pulled his weapon free, simultaneously driving the butt-end of the weapon toward a tinker-thrall’s face, and that tinker raised their weapon as a shield, blocking the hit.  Prong’s copy still appeared behind them, putting the points of his weapon into their calf.

Strike, make any contact, and he got a second free hit.  The original lasted only as long as both were making contact.

With the group still recovering from Gong’s hit, Prong had the run of things.  Weapon swiped out, points raking someone’s chest, and a Prong-copy appeared, pulling weapon free and away, swinging it out for another slash.

My team arrived.  Ashley appeared above the group, blasted to adjust her trajectory, and tackled someone from behind.  Sveta grabbed one of the people at the flanks with tendrils, then moved them around, so they were a human shield in case any other groups at other entrances tried to open fire.

Rain appeared and headbutted someone in the same instant, grabbed their gun with both hands, and had his smaller, tinker hand reach down and out to pull something out of the bottom of the weapon.

And Capricorn- it was Byron now.  He knew how to fight.  So often, I didn’t see him actually throw punches because he preferred to act from range, drawing out his power, acting as artillery.  But he’d learned with Reach, he had training in the essentials, and he had some experience with it too.

I remained in the air, taking advantage of the break in the hail of gunfire and overall chaos.  The focused strike on the one entrance was drawing attention.

No time to count heads, but I could get a feel for things.  I looked at each group in turn, one after another.  Group A, group B, group C.

Group A, group B, group C…

The Heartbroken had made it to the gates and were crossing the floor.  I could tell by the color schemes.  The retreating wounded were at the exit we’d come through and cleared.  Tandem was now two people, running hand-in-hand.  Another Case Seventy, like Capricorn.

Group A, group B, group C.

Group C was larger.

Balk rose into the air.  The artillery cape, a new flier from the Wardens, and the ghost of my aunt were with them.  I saw her look at me.  They were doing a loop, suppressing every group with airborne fire now.

Focus.

Cue from the Shepherds, formerly of the Attendant, had been the one to point out the teleporter I was convinced I was looking for.  If not them, and I figured it was a one percent chance it wasn’t, then it was tech that copied them.

When I’d been auditioning for teams, I hadn’t been willing to walk away or let the Fallen be.  The pole-wielding Cue had pointed out that the Fallen had a cape that was replenishing their numbers.  It had been subtle, people appearing in a crowd, but there had been a general feeling to it that felt like this.  That the numbers didn’t add up, that a battle was being lost and it was hard to get a full handle on the why of it.

Two plus two equals four?  No, because that first two became a three when one wasn’t looking.  Dumb, but when it applied to counting enemies, it made for an oppressive atmosphere.

Right side of C.  Right side of B, the group my team was fighting.  I was ready to jump in if they were faltering or struggling, or if C got organized enough to make an attack.  Stonewall was pressing in, shield up, keeping C distracted.

If the reinforcement teleporter was dropping people into the parts of the groups he could see, then I could work out where he was.  Right side of the two groups… he was off to the right.

D, then.  The entrance to the right of the one we’d come through.  They were furthest from the Advance Guard assault, which meant I had less distraction going for me.  I flew to one of the pillars in the complex, putting my back to it, and peeked around the corner.

They had the numbers advantage, and with only general harassment from our side, they were putting together a robot the size of a car, quadrupedal.  Thirty or forty people working, while people with luminescent riot shields and truncheons formed a wall around them on the ground.  A cape stood on the robot’s back.

It was like figuring out one of the pictures that required the eyes to have a specific focus.  Each person wore a similar outfit, which made finding the distinctions hard.  If I tried to focus, I lost myself in the visual noise and the sense of a pattern that wasn’t there.

But every thrall had a job to do.  There were ones on guard, there were ones who were building, and there were others who put down suppressive fire, to limit and punish movement and keep anyone from being able to comfortably respond.  The suppressive fire sub-group was the one who would gun me down if I was dumb about this, and they were the people who were firing into the air, trying to catch Balk’s team.

All behind a short concrete fence, protecting the guys in the very front from the waist down.  A robot in the center as a platform only one cape was brave enough to stand on top of.

The hidden picture was in who fit the pattern, who didn’t.  Who was still?

Balk’s squad did their fly-by, harassing the group, trying to disrupt what they were doing.  The ball hit the glowing shields and bounced off, flew back to him, and then hit the robot instead, crashing through layers of metal and circuits.  It bounced out, hit another shield from a defender with good reaction times, and then returned to him.  The artillery cape lobbed something, and the cape on top of the robot shot the lob out of the air.

The ghost of the woman who had read bedtime stories to me when I was little and she was visiting, who had given me baths, who had taught me to fly smart, and who had given me the first for-adults book I had truly loved brought lasers down on their heads, sniping wherever defenses were missing.

“Balk!” I shouted.

He looked for me and didn’t see me.  I waved an arm.

“What!?”

“Hit them again!”  I pointed.

He motioned, said something.  His team looped around.  Another artillery shot.  Another rain of lasers.  The other cape in his group had reloaded and unloaded their semiautomatic rifle from the air.

Shields were raised to protect the group.

One shield raised a bit slower.  A single person protected by the people on either side of them.

I checked the area below me was clear enough, then hit the pillar I was hiding by with the Wretch.

Another two hits, and I had a chunk of rebar-reinforced concrete nearly as tall as I was.  And I could ball-up while flying, using it as a shield.

I charged in.  A hail of fire whittled at my concrete.  Balk hadn’t left, though, and his team unloaded on the group below.

Ramming, I hit four of them with the chunk.  Shields in the way, they repulsed me, the riot shields flaring with energy.  I could smell ozone so thick in the air I could barely breathe.

Second try.  I threw the concrete high, lobbing it toward them, so it would crash on them from above.

I was counting on them to not be stupid.  I didn’t want to murder them.

They weren’t stupid.  They were even smarter than I’d anticipated.  Half of them raised their shields up.  The other half kept shields down and forward.  Gunners shot, catching the Wretch.

Do you have to be such a big fucking target, Wretch?

I flew in, because any direction but away was too dangerous.  An implosion from Balk’s artillery cape pulled some of the group back, but they were packed in enough that there was no room to fall over, only to be pulled back and off balance.

The concrete and the distraction of that- trying to get it to fall in front rather than behind and on top of people, that was the bigger help.  They did repel it so it was skewed to fall in front.

I flew under it, over the short fence.  The glow of the shields in my way was my only good indicator of where I could move, when I had less than a second to decide.

A gap.  I put one hand on the fence, to better control my flying vault over it, down, and into the forest of legs and boots.  No Wretch to protect me.

Reorienting, avoiding the first few kicks from people who realized I was in their midst, I caught the cape I wanted and flew up and out, hauling him with.  The stitches at the back of my hand complained at me, the beds of fingers with the recently lost and reattached fingernails made my fingertips feel vaguely mushy, in the worst, touching-a-burn-blister kind of way.  My other arm was weak.

I only got about ten feet before he caught my shin with the bottom end of the shield, repelled me, and forced us apart.  He swung the glowing truncheon at me, but that was easy enough to avoid.

He fell.  Short distance, but still a rough fall.  His shield hit the ground and bounced out of his hand.

I went after it, catching the weapon and rolling, putting it between myself and the people in the group.

They weren’t shooting.  A short bit ago, it had been what, thirty people, one robot in construction, one obvious cape, and this guy, who was dressed up as a thrall security officer, hidden in the crowd.

Now it was practically overflowing, people pushing past others, storming over the fence.

Balk’s artillery person hit the bulk of them.

Keeping the shield between that group and myself, I trusted Balk to handle it.

I focused on the teleporter, taking flight-

And I saw something not so dissimilar from the forest of legs I’d just flown into.  A portal or a power at work, a blur of people in silhouette, with bright lights shining in the gaps.

Trying to get me to fly into and through it, teleporting me away.

I flew over, instead.  He had the truncheon ready for a swing.

He hit the Wretch.  The Wretch hit him.  A single blow to pelvis or upper thigh, his legs went out from under him, and his head cracked against the ground.

With neither of my hands or arms fully cooperating, I managed to draw him up into a loose carry, then I flew.

“Good to go!” I called out to Balk.

His group flew to make a formation with me.

“Why him?”

“Teleporter, hidden in their group.  Part of the reason for the reinforcements.”

“Only part,” he said.  “They’re dragging away wounded, healing them with medical thinkers.  Sending them back in.”

“This guy was expediting them.  I want to drop him off at Stonewall’s.”

“We’re overdue for another circuit,” Balk told me.  “Hurry.”

I hurried.  No time to waste, no questions.  Stonewall’s group was holding the position that was hardest to hold, defensive capes, and a number of the more lightly injured.

Now with one more.

I passed them the injured, gave them brief information.  Balk’s group was already resuming its circuit.

I flew to my team.

Already, the tone had shifted.  The reinforcement teleporter had been seeding each group with new members, sufficient to more than replace the ones who dropped out of the fight, injured, knocked out, or dead.  In a last ditch effort, he had dumped a ton of reinforcements into the one group furthest from this door.

A game of whack a mole, where you swung at one, but two more popped up.  Focus on the one entrance, and the other entrances pushed in.  All the more so because the group I’d labeled ‘group D’ had increased in number.

The entrance to the hallway became a new spot we had to defend.  Roles shifted, our rear became our new defensive front.  Fume Hood laid down some cover fire, choking whole groups of the enemy.

And the hallway- more of the same.

Hundreds.

Hundreds, I thought again, as I processed the idea.  This wasn’t the only defensive front.  Hundreds of human beings, hundreds who didn’t flinch, didn’t break down, and didn’t break pattern.

The loss of his subject’s full volition wasn’t even a huge drawback in this kind of circumstance.  It was an asset for Teacher.

Byron hit someone, transitioned that hit into a grab, and pulled them to one side, where one of his constellations blasted out water.  Sveta made it further down the hallway, where there were less of our people in reach.  Her tendrils cut where the saw teeth ran along flesh, and grabbed otherwise.  The two combined were… nasty.  To cut someone’s arm and pull on that skin?

Roman tore through people.  Pick a target, lunge in, win.  Rinse, repeat.  Juliette, like Ashley, hung back at the sides, looking for opportunities.

We’d won the entrance.  Now the hallway, while the rest of the gallery folded in behind us, pressuring stonewall, pressuring our guys on the outside.  Me included.

I had the shield I’d confiscated, and nobody had thought to turn it off or disable it for me.  For now, I focused on using it to help shield the group.

Rain had a blade out, and ‘parried’ a swing of a gun being used as a club.  It still hit him, parry or no, but it broke in the impact, diffusing the hit.

They were doing that a lot.  I suspected the tinker guns made by Teacher’s shitty tinkers ran out of power fast.

Chastity and Samuel were hanging back.  So were some of our volunteered capes.  Withdrawal leaped up, latched onto the wall, then sprung down, over and over, targeting stragglers.  Caryatid used her breaker form’s ability to draw her costume into the form by utilizing loose and torn fabric to shield some of our team.  She’d grabbed one of the fences and used it as a shield.

One guy on the ground ran, and Withdrawal pounced onto them.  A feint, or a sacrifice play, because two more ‘hurt’ thralls went after him while his back was turned.

Caryatid slammed into them, a burst of movement, a push.  She went still again to absorb incoming fire.

Imp… I had no idea what she was doing.

The usual thing about cape fights was that they involved a fight against another cape.  Even the way the PRT broke down fights, with classifications and calls, number ratings and priorities, there was a standard order in which capes were to be dealt with.  One at a time, knock them down.  Thinkers first, tinkers second, brutes last.

This wasn’t that.  It was a fight against a swarm, and I had only limited experience with that, ‘fighting’ Crusader, getting tag-teamed by Tattletale and Skitter.  Dealing with the Merchants.

None of them had the individuality to stand up and step out from the crowd, pull out any special heroics.  But they did shelter capes, and they did target ours.

Imp could do a lot, I was sure, but there weren’t many major players here, and I imagined she was best when there was a specific, vulnerable, high-priority target to go after.

My focus, as such, remained diffuse, looking for telling breaks in the pattern.  Large scale movements, individuals that stood out, and convergences on our guys.

Stonewall had gone still.  He was drawing more and more fire by the second.  I saw him move, trying to bring his shield around, and it was slow.

Being affected by a power?

“Support Stonewall!” I called out.

My squad wasn’t the only one to leap to his defense.  Balk came down, and Stonewall’s group from the decahedron broke out of cover to hurry over.  The injured made a simultaneous break for the hallway our other injured had gone to, taking advantage of distractions and the fact that our group at the one entrance was drawing all of the attention.

I landed right beside Stonewall, borrowed shield out to block incoming fire.  His stone armor had been scarred and whittled away.  The guys at the nearest checkpoint had what looked like rifles that fired railroad spikes.  One or two had embedded in Stonewall’s armor, and blood was leaking out of the wounds.

“Power died,” Stonewall reported.  “Not strong enough to move my armor.”

He laughed.

Withdrawal caught up.  He’d gone out of his way to pick up the riot shields, and he now had two attached to each of his arms, one near each arm-tip, and one near where his actual hands were.  Orange motes circled around us.  What would be a protective wall.

And past those motes, even in the wide open space that was the gallery, there were enough thralls that they were walking shoulder to shoulder.  Many armed, though only a third of the weapons seemed to have battery.

“I thought I fucked up their guy who was teleporting in reinforcements,” I said.  “What the hell?”

“You did,” Stonewall said.  Immobile, a man within a costume that wouldn’t move.  “It’s been like this every step of the way.  They have precogs, clairvoyants, they have morale detectors.  They know where and how to push.  The big push is because you forced them to play their hand.”

“Great.”

“It’s good.  Listen, someone needs to tell my team to retreat and hold the other hallway.  We can’t have our injured getting mobbed.”

“On it,” someone reported.

One less person in our defensive huddle.  Against an army.

Hundreds.  The word had passed through my head and stuck with me.  Half of the gallery was now filled, to the point I had to wonder if we were approaching a thousand thralls in attendance.

“They’ve got masks on!” Balk called out.  “Be wary of gas!”

Shit.  He was right.  The front two rows had full-face masks on, eyes glowing, lower faces covered by blank surfaces.

The rows of thralls behind them didn’t, though.  That suggested it wasn’t gas.

“Might be flashes, not gas,” I added.

“Might be,” Balk answered.

His squad landed around us.

My aunt, for lack of a better way of putting it, landed next to me.  Again, there was fleeting eye contact.  The expression she wore was perpetually what I’d seen on her face the day Leviathan had attacked.  Before we’d lost Eric and Uncle Neil.  Serious, even a little haunted.  With purple and black eyes.

She cast a forcefield, then reached back with her other hand, creating a laser.  She began to cut through Stonewall’s suit.

The lights went out.  One by one.  I might have thought it was the shaker from before, the ripple that made the lights flicker as it passed.

It wasn’t.

All at once, we were in darkness.  Costume elements and powers glowed, there were a few scattered fires, a few flashes of sparks where wiring had been torn up, and rows of glowing eyes.

“Night vision,” the artillery cape said.

“They did this before.  We didn’t see the masks,” Balk reported.  “Wait it out, try to take down the ones with masks.”

“They had them then.  They refresh the injured or pass on the gear,” Stonewall said.

The artillery cape’s power flickered and flared with light as she created and hurled it.  Definitely an aerial sort of attack- as ground to ground it had trouble getting height and dipped downward fast, like throwing paper airplanes built to nosedive.

The riot shields were as useful as anything, when it came to the lighting.  The laser and the forcefield were another big help.

Someone audibly tore a chunk of Stonewall’s costume off.  He began to climb out, reached out, groping, and found my shoulder.

“What do you call yourself?” I asked into the darkness.  I could barely hear myself over the noises around us.  I could barely breathe to utter the words.  The battery indicator on the shield had an unfair share of my attention.  Without it I’d have to use the Wretch in an environment where I wasn’t sure where all of my allies were.

“Sarah,” was the answer.

“No cape name?”

“Photon for now.”

“Not Lady Photon?”

The response was drowned out, but I was pretty sure it was ‘someday’.

For a short while, there was only the effort, trying to stay sane and focused on what needed focus while fighting in the dark against an army that could see.

She didn’t ask about Crystal.  She didn’t ask about me.

Didn’t ask about mom, dad, or how we’d gotten on.

“Crystal’s okay.”

“Good.”

“I think she might be here.  She would have joined and I didn’t hear from-”

“She’s at the far end.”

Curt, crisp.

A lot of the guns being used by the thralls in the dark were dark.  No glowing chambers, no glowing projectiles, no muzzle flashes.  The only signs they were being used were when our defensive squadron was pummeled, wounded, or knocked flat.  Blood splattered against one side of my face.

“Hit,” was the guy’s grunt.  “F-ffuck.  Muh face.”

“Stonewall’s all the way out!  Fighting retreat!” Balk called out.  “Someone get our wounded!”

‘Sarah’ pushed past me, touching my arm in a way that suggested she could see me enough.

I couldn’t think of what to say, or what to do.  The flash of the indicator and the hum of the shield I was carrying dying distracted me.  The shield was next to useless now, and I had to do my part.

“Keep your distance from me if you can,” I said.

I stepped away from the group, away from Sarah, and knelt down, head down, activating the Wretch, hoping I wouldn’t take too much fire.

I went to your funeral, I thought.  After Gold Morning.  You meant so much to us and we couldn’t even properly grieve, because there were so many people who needed the chance to hold services.  I put flowers on your doorstep every time I went to old Brockton Bay.

I looked away, tried to get a sense of directionality.  There were powers being lobbed at the rank and file, bright enough to be seen in the darkness.  I could see where tech was being used to diffuse the impacts, break it up, or limit the damage.

It wasn’t as easy as using a single big, wide-area power.

We retreated, using guiding lights of powers as an indicator.  Ashley’s eyes glowed white in the dark.  I could see the single eye of Sveta’s, Precipice’s, and Capricorn’s, and the crack across Precipice’s mask.

Into the hallway, which had been more or less cleared.  Capes were fighting further up, and capes were fighting behind us.

But in the meantime, we had some light, and we had a chance to breathe, spacing out enough that we could find our individual groups.

I almost dropped to a sitting position as I got to the others, and I hadn’t been running around much.

Byron made water, filling a container, than drank it.  He capped it, tossed it into the air, and changed to Tristan.  Tristan caught it and drank more.  At a nudge from Sveta, he handed it over.

“My brother can make water if anyone needs a resupply,” he called out.

“Let us finish what we have,” Gong said.  “We’ll take you up on that.”

“Sveta did us all proud,” Ashley said.  “She cleared half of this hallway herself.”

“Did I?  Sorry, I don’t want to sound like I’m fishing for compliments-”

“I’ve always felt you should claim every compliment you can get.”

“-but my control slipped some.”

“You handled it.  You did well.”

“I’d like to think so.  I hope so.  I feel like I’m closer to being the hero I want to be.  I wish it was a little less bloody.”

“Don’t we all?” one of the capes from Gong’s group asked.

“It means a lot that you’d say it, though.  Thank you, Swansong.”

“Of course.”

“What’s the standard way to compliment you, Swan?” Precipice asked.  “Florid, exaggerated?  I’d probably come across like a sniveling cartoon toady to the big bad guy if I tried.”

“You’re nowhere near that,” Sveta said.

“As fun as it would be to hear you try,” Swansong added, “I wouldn’t worry.  Complimenting me risks belaboring the obvious.”

“Wow,” Tristan said.

“You did okay, Swan,” I said.  “Not a lot you can do with a lethal power and this situation.”

She made a noise of assent.

“And you?” Sveta asked.  She found a position next to me.  “Your hand is bleeding.”

It was.  Whatever.  Not enough to matter.

“Talked to Aunt Sarah.”

“And?”

“And it was eerie.  I’m not sure how to put it.”

Like something was missing.

She laid her head against my shoulder, being careful of the spikes.

Catching our breath.  Touching base, going back to the old therapy circle of group reaffirmation, maybe.

Imp and the Heartbroken were a little further down.  They… were picking fun at each other.  Roman and Juliette were having harsh words.  The tone, insults excepted, was fairly light.  Like they didn’t take this seriously.

“Can we get that water?” Gong asked.

Tristan became Byron, who provided the water, a small constellation, a short, focused spurt of stinging cold spray.

There were others who wanted drinks, so Byron switched back to Tristan, who began drawing out what might have been a bottle.  He created it, Byron filled it, and then they swapped back.

The goal had been to make it to a place where staff had access to water.  The siege in the gallery hadn’t quite allowed it.

Withdrawal had to move carefully, with the bulky frame and the hallway that was only ten feet across.  Caryatid followed.

“Hey, Withdrawal,” I said.  “Nice showing.”

He released a heavy, shuddering sigh.

“Finale would have been nice to have around,” he said.

“Wouldn’t have been good for her,” Caryatid said.

They found a spot to sit down, Withdrawal’s long limbs folding up to a degree to maintain a more compact silhouette.

Thinking about Finale got me thinking about Lookout, and thinking about Lookout got me thinking about maps.

Communications were still limited, we only had access to Lookout if we could use her tech to hack a computer, and only then for a brief time, apparently.  But we had the maps, and that was her contribution.  With Sveta, Rain and Ashley, I went over the maps, talking about options.

“Hey, Azúcar,” Tristan said.  He was still making bottles.  The group around him had shifted.

I looked up.

Tristan was paying attention to a girl in a cat mask, ears sweeping back along the sides of the head, gauntlets on.

“Hey, ass,” was the response.

“Uh, Capricorn,” I said.  “Careful.  Remember what they said.”

You’ll only hurt yourself.

“It’s okay,” Azúcar said.  “I’m a little bit further along.  Normal rules for the Flock don’t apply.  I can cheat it.”

“Sure,” I said.  I was aware that there were others standing nearby.  ‘Sarah’ being one, younger than she’d been when she died, now that I could see her standing still in decent lighting.

“You look good,” Tristan said.

“I feel good,” she said.  “Nine-six-ten-five.”

“You changed it.”

“Dying necessitates change,” she said, looking down the hall in the direction of the fighting.  What we were supposed to fight past and through.  They’d be setting up.  “But you’d know that, wouldn’t you?  False deaths?  Impermanent deaths?”

“Yeah.  Guess so,” Tristan said.  “Good to see you.  Glad the numbers are so good.”

“Only going to get better,” she said.  “I’d say it’s good to see you too, but…”

She made a movement of her head.  Hands wrapped in oversized ‘cat claw’ gauntlets moved up, claws moving close together.

“…only a little good.”

“I’ll take it,” Tristan said, eyes down on the bottle he was making.  Then he blurred.

Byron filled the bottle with water.  He stood straight to hand it over, and she wrapped him in a hug.  He hugged her back.

I didn’t try to listen in on their conversation, but they were speaking at a volume above murmurs, below whispers, and it was impossible to turn my ears off.

“Moonsong?”

“Alive and well, last I heard.  With this whole thing, though-”

“Don’t be such a downer.”

“We broke up.”

“Still being a downer,” she said.  “But that’s good.  Good she’s alive.  She was- she was trying.  Good you broke up.”

“Tristan kept one of your old lemon drop candies as a, I think it was a reminder,” Byron said, voice low.  “Always got its spot in his belt pouch.  He only cleared it out recently, a week ago, but it’s with his stuff.”

Lemon candy?  I thought.

“Oh.”

“Do you, um, still like those?”

“Still being a downer,” she said.  “You should be careful what questions you ask if the answers would trouble you.”

Ah.”

“Heads up!” Stonewall called out.  He’d regained his power and rebuilt his armor.  He had a shield in both hands.  “We’re mobilizing.”

People got to their feet, got ready.  Withdrawal unfolded his gear.

“Be well,” Azúcar said.

“You too.”

“And don’t worry.  I’d love a lemon drop right now.”

“Do you remember why they were important?”

“Don’t pick apart your happiness, Capricorn,” she said.  She punched his arm lightly, claws retracted.

I was so envious of their interaction I could barely stand it.

“Stonewall,” Swansong called out.  “We had a plan.”

“What’s the plan?”

“We don’t go forward.  We go through the wall,” she said, her hand sparking.

“Will that get us where we need to be?  I’d be worried about deviating from the set routes.”

“It’s territory without good rest spots.  But maybe that hurts them as much as it hurts us,” Sveta said.  “We can draw a map.”

“Or I can trust you,” Stonewall said.  He clapped gauntlets of high-density stone together.  “Everyone, we’re pushing for the nearest stairwell-”

He paused to check that Swansong and Sveta could get us there.  They nodded.

“-And we’re heading upstairs.  It only gets uglier from here.  We’ve fought mostly thralls up to this point.  As we get closer to the vitals of his infrastructure and organization, we’re going to have to fight the thralls and some of his better capes.”

“All precautions in effect,” Balk said.  “He recruited some of the worst of them.”

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Dying – 15.2

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Man and woman, old and young, dressed in clothes meant more for simplicity and comfort than any personal expression.  The entire scene was garish in the flourescent lights, the orderlies that handled food, water, and what looked to be bathroom breaks moving stiffly.  A lot of the people were pale in a way that suggested they hadn’t seen sunlight recently.  But not all.

“He collects people,” Imp said.  “People aren’t an easy thing to collect, and you don’t collect this many and then stick ’em somewhere.  So why?”

“Imp’s talking from experience,” Samuel said.

“Yeah, totes.  I keep an eye out for any guy who’s at least a thirteen by my metrics.”

“Thirteen what?” Caryatid asked, from the rear.  She was staying close to the door.  She’d dropped her breaker form to talk.

“Inches,” Chastity said.  About twenty feet away, Roman cracked up.

“Gotta rate ’em one to ten on the sexy scale.  Slim and wearing clothes that fit are better than muscle.  Then you rate ’em one to ten on the dark, sarcastic humor scale.  Add ’em together.  Guys’ gotta be a thirteen to count.  I’ll take a girl, but I’m pickier, she’s got to be a sixteen by my system.  I stow ’em in my personal headquarters, but I feed ’em, I water ’em.  So I know what I’m talking about.”

“I’m… eighty percent sure she’s joking,” Caryatid said.  “But that twenty percent-”

“She’s joking,” Samuel told her.  “And missing my point.  I wasn’t poking at her and trying to make her look bad.  She does collect people.  Us.  Heartbroken.”

“I didn’t go looking for you.  I went after Heartbreaker and then when I’m making sure he’s well and truly dead, there’s these kids around like, ‘Dad’s dead?  Okay, I’m going to go watch cartoons.'”

Roman replied, “Because fuck him, we looked forward to Saturday mornings all week, negotiated for what we’d watch.  He didn’t deserve to matter more than that.”

“The women screamed over the cartoons,” Samuel added.

Imp sighed heavily.  “Yeah.  I could dodge those poor women and use my power until they ran out of energy or ran off.  Thing is, they weren’t looking after you, and it wasn’t like I could leave you all.  Not an option.”

“Could’ve.  Maybe should’ve,” Chastity said.  “Life would’ve been simpler.”

“Maybe,” Imp said.

“Could have devoted more time to tracking down men who rate on your scale,” Chastity added.

The chatter continued.  I walked down the side of the room, looking, and found myself staring at a young woman, roughly my age.  Her expression had caught my eye, angry, but it was her natural resting face.  She reminded me of a girl from my patrol group, Camisola.  I moved closer, studying her.

“I see we found someone Glory Girl rates at least a thirteen,” Imp commented.

“Her hair,” I said.

“What about it?” Imp asked.

“It was cut recently.  A lot of these others, they have shaggier hair, or you can tell where they had haircuts before but the hair grew in.”

“I noticed something similar with clothes,” Chastity said.  “Some of them have had their clothes for a while, or the clothes are one of their regular outfits.  Why does it matter?”

“Because. ” It was Capricorn who had answered.  Tristan.  “It suggests they haven’t been sitting her for a while.”

“Clothes are even more telling,” I said.  “Show me?”

I flew over to Chastity.  She pointed the blunt end of her whip handle at one of the thralls.

Sure enough, the clothes were worn in a way that suggested they’d become comfortable.  There were no bulges around the shoulder or middle to suggest that someone else had worn the shirt, but there was wear.   That required movement, activity.

“This is good,” I said.

Imp chimed in, “I mean, it’s terrible.  Looks like a nurse’s scrubs from the hospital, and white stains so easily.”

“They came here recently, and it’s a change in pattern, they haven’t been… shelved… for long.  What if these are Teacher’s evacuated grunts?  Facility workers, noncombatant thralls?  Facility gets attacked, he sends everyone here, locks ’em up, keeps ’em brain dead to make them easier to wrangle.”

“Doesn’t make sense.  Look at the map.  Annotated version,” Capricorn said.

I did, bringing it up.

Annotated version.  It had suggested area labels, and with the area we’d just left and this storage space all being mis-labeled, I was skeptical of other guesses.  There were attack plans, expected distribution of forces from high-security areas, and there were notes on where certain teams might have set up camps to fall back to or areas to stage fights in as they worked their way into the facility.

“What am I looking for?”

“The flow of it.  Evacuating like this would mean sending the evacuees against the flow of incoming attackers to get here.”

“He sent them here recently.  That can mean three things,” I told Tristan.  “Either he knew we were coming and evacuated early…”

“And by doing so, tipped off his hand by having the early evacuees in a place where attackers might see them,” Tristan said.  “No.”

“Or he finished whatever project he was working on, and these workers became redundant within a day or two of the first wave attack…”

“A little coincidental, that he’d do it right before we attacked,” Tristan said.

Tristan could take on this tone, very much his ‘butting heads’ mode, where he got argumentative and stubborn.  I knew Tristan had issues with it, and Ashley had seen it as more of a point against Tristan when pushing to be team leader.  I’d have been lying if I said I hadn’t run into it as a frustration more than a few times.

Here?  Now?  I didn’t mind.  It forced me to make sense of things.

Or, last option, they were evacuated between the first wave attack and the second wave attack, but there was still a reason for the evacuation.”

“It’s option one,” Imp said.

Okay, not a Tristan rebuttal.

“The evacuation?” Precipice asked.

“Those two got so close to right, but you’re all missing the obvious.  Teacher’s an asshole.”

“And?”

“And evacuation into an incoming enemy force is the point.  Yes, he risks losing assets, but think of how much it slows our side down to have a constant filing of innocent personnel coming through every hallway, every room, potentially mixed in with armed security forces and people with powers.”

I could imagine it.

Getting a sense of how that initial attack had gone.

“What’s the chance, you think?” I asked Imp.  “Tattletale said you’ve fought him before.  You know him.”

“I’m touched.  One hundred percent, this is what he did.”

I winced inwardly at the ‘one hundred percent’.  Tattletale had never been one to give any guarantees, and hearing one from Imp made me suspicious.

But I went with it.  “They’re still evacuated.  He didn’t pull them back to resume normal operations.  Either he was anticipating the second attack, or the first wave is still mounting their attack elsewhere.  We should move on, see if we can’t catch up to the other group.”

“I can seal off this section,” Capricorn said.  “Does mean we’re cutting off our retreat.”

“We have ways of getting through barriers.  Precipice, Swansong, Caryatid,” I said, motioning for others to come.

He began drawing motes around the door.  The squads began gathering.  People who had hung back moved forward, like Caryatid and our newbie Mortari capes.  Withdrawal was perched on his stilt-like limbs, syringe-gun at his back filled with a neon yellow liquid.  Heartbroken who had scattered drew closer to Imp, and I could overhear her asking Roman and Juliette about the count.  Roman was ahead by two, apparently.  Breakthrough gathered closer to me.

“It could be a trap,” Swansong said, once she was close enough.  “On a lot of levels.”

“Yeah.  There aren’t any great ways to handle that, though.  We have a lot of powers, we watch our backs and stay aware of any greater machinations,” I told her.  “We cross our fingers that we have the powers to problem solve our way through whatever he slings at us.”

“Samuel!” Imp raised her voice.  “Regroup!”

Samuel, the blond, older Heartbroken kid, was wandering off.  No rush, no real apparent purpose.

Any weirdness was cause for alarm.  I floated up, until my toes were just above the head of the tallest member of my group.  Sveta followed my cue, heading off to the left, gripping a ‘shelf’ that housed a row of people to haul herself across the floor, dropping to one knee to skid along the surface using the low friction of her multicolored armor.

Love Lost and Withdrawal followed, metal claws and metal, curved stilt-limbs clicking on the floor as they moved into position.  The harpoon dude followed them, hands going to the back of his head as the harpoons fired out of six points across chest and stomach.  He hauled himself forward in much the same way that Sveta tended to move, but staggered the pulls.

Samuel slowed down as he walked, and we surrounded him.

Then he lunged, reaching out for someone sitting on a bench.  A guy in white scrubs with a five o’clock shadow, glasses, and hair made tall with grease and mess.  The guy fell backward off the bench to avoid the reaching hand, scrambled to his feet, and ran, while Samuel failed to catch up.

But Sveta was already in position to cut him off.  He turned to the side, and saw Withdrawal, a skinny, tall silhouette with a face covered by a tinker mask, burdened by a syringe that made the limbs threaten to buckle under him.

Love Lost behind him, wearing her modified mask, a dress with a slit up one leg, and her claws.

And me above, surveying the situation and ready to fill any gaps that appeared.

“Felt something from him,” Samuel said.  “Emotions, muted.”

“You can’t seal off the exits,” the man said.  “We need access to facilities.  People would die.”

“Who are you?”

“On-site doctor for ground level southwest.  I can monitor vitals, I help anyone here who has health issues.  Heart attacks, sores, choking.”

“What is this?” Sveta asked.  Her voice held that touch of suppressed outrage and indignation that tended to appear whenever Cauldron or Cauldron-related stuff came up.  This qualified.

That outrage and indignation were entirely fair, really.  But it was a thing and it was a thing I’d keep track of, just in case.

The guy didn’t respond, lips pressed together.  When Love Lost drew closer, he didn’t flinch or look scared.  Reduced emotional capacity.

“How many more areas like this are there?” I asked.

He looked up until he saw me.  He didn’t answer, though.

“This guy’s useless.  Seal the area.”

“No,” he said.  “Food and water are carted in from other sections when they run out.  Airflow wouldn’t be sufficient with only duct.  We need-” he seemed to concentrate for a second.  “-circulation from other sections, driven by pressure differences.”

“It won’t be for long,” Sveta said.

“If someone gets sick and I can’t help them here, I need to be able to get them to medical facilities.”

“That’s a small risk,” Sveta said.

“There were two incidents in the last ninety minutes. One pulmonary embolism and one joint dislocation from a food operations tech.”

Imp spoke up, “I don’t know about you guys, but I don’t want to go charging into whatever stopped the Wardens dead in their tracks and have to worry about retreating past these guys.”

“Convince us,” I said.  “Give us information.  Enough that we feel safe enough to leave you behind.  How does this work?”

Close-mouthed.

I drew closer to him, using my aura.  “Who are all these people?”

Close-mouthed.  A staunch refusal to speak.

“What happened to the first wave of attackers?”

“I’m not in a position to know.  That’s not my purpose.”

“Where is Teacher?”

“I’m not in a position to know.”

“Have any injured come through from elsewhere?”

I stopped floating down, now at a height where I could stare into his eyes, while he did everything he could to avoid looking into mine.  I kept my aura tight enough that it only affected him.  And the people on the nearby bench, I supposed.

Oddly enough, it was the signs of their agitation that got to our doctor here.

“Some.  Don’t disturb them or hurt them.”

“Where from?”

He pointed at the end of the hangar-sized space that was furthest from the door we’d come through.

I softened my tone, while keeping my aura on ‘high’.  “Convince me we can leave you behind us without worrying.”

I could see the pull, gentler words after harsh, scary ones.  Like he wanted to oblige.

“I can’t.”

“If we shut off that end of this room, what happens?” I asked, indicating the door we’d come through.

“No medical facilities, limited water.”

“And that door?” I asked, indicating the one we’d be using.

“No food, no showers.”

“People can go two weeks without food.  You don’t need showers,” I told him.  “I can’t imagine a situation where people on the other side can’t get through a stone wall if my side loses.”

“We’re healthier with access to food and showers.”

I addressed Capricorn.  “We’ll seal that door after we’re through.  Minimizes hazards, keeps them from coming behind us.”

He nodded, switching, and the barrier he’d been working on became water, which immediately spread out into a thin layer across the floor.

“I can’t allow it,” the doctor said.  “These people are my responsibility.”

“You can’t stop us,” Swansong said.  “It’s the best compromise.  Accept it.”

I saw the doctor’s expression change, concern, almost mortal alarm.

“Don’t,” Samuel said.

The doctor twisted around, drawing in a breath.

“Defense-”

He didn’t get any further.  Whatever command he was about to shout, whatever cry for help he was about to make, it was drowned out by Love Lost screaming.

The scream had collateral damage.  Other people on the bench.  People across the hangar.  They stirred awake, emotions taking over, and rose to their feet, their emotions and their energy level swiftly accelerating from zero to one hundred.  Raw anger.

“Don’t hurt them!” Sveta called out.  “Not too badly!”

One of the guys on the bench reached out to the person next to him.  Hand touched skin and the seam between the two disappeared, as he ‘drank’ the other person into his own mass, doubling in size with only a faint ripple marking the transition’s aftermath.

Shit.  Some of the shelved people had powers.

I focused on others, flying down to a strategic point where three of the enraged bench-sitters were facing down our squad.  Sveta and Withdrawal.  I landed where their backs were turned my way, then gave each a push, sending them sprawling off balance, toward allies.  Sveta caught one woman around the ankle with tendrils and began to swing her around in a quarter-circle.  She might have intended a full circle, but more tendrils snapped out to seize more of the leg, one cutting through fabric, and she released early, backing away.  The woman was sent sliding about ten feet.

Withdrawal leveled a syringe at one of the others who had fallen, to which Fume Hood shouted, “Conserve it!”

And meanwhile, the big guy touched another person, swallowing them into sheer bodymass, a hundred and fifty pounds that turned into a blob of flesh around the hand, then hand and arm, then spread out evenly across the rest of the body.  The big guy’s features were dulled now, nose and brow less pronounced, eyes spaced further apart.

I wouldn’t hit him with the wretch or touch him, nor would Sveta or any of our other close combat specialists, but our ranged combatants needed to set up, were too severe, or both.  Precipice was out, Swansong was out on all counts, Capricorn did what he could to get ready, drawing blue dots in the air.  Fume Hood launched a trio of orbs, all fired in a straight line.  They hit the guy in the face, causing his head to disappear into smoke.

Chastity whipped the hand that blindly reached for yet another person to ‘drink up’.

The big guy charged out of the cloud, and went straight for Love Lost, making contact with one of three former bench-sitters that stood between himself and her.  Another person gone, another one hundred and sixty pounds of body mass added to his own, a foot of height, a lot of muscle and a little bit of fat, features made even more crude and brutish, eyes spaced so far apart that they looked more out at either side of his head than they looked forward.

And two more people in arm’s reach.  He reached for one and missed, still blinking gas out of his eyes.  Imp was there, beside him, and jabbed him with her stick.  It cracked audibly, with no apparent effect, and he twisted, ready to backhand-

Backhand someone.

The half-twist became a skid and stop, twisted around, and charged Roman instead.  A clearer path, with nobody on it.  Roman evaded, ducking out of the way, matador with a bull.

“Juliette!” I called out.

“I can’t stop him,” she said.  “My power doesn’t work on him.  I’m related to him.”

“What?” Imp asked.

“Sorry,” Juliette said.  “If I could, I’d make him stand still and let that big guy eat him, and the world would be a less brutish place.”

“Fuck you, Juliette!”

“Take this seriously!” Imp said.

“Rest assured, I’m deadly serious.”

Sveta and I changed our focus to keeping people out of the way of the big guy, dragging them away while Fume Hood bombarded him, orbs curving in the air to strike home over and over again, the clouds of gas lingering, until our big guy was stumbling out of one cloud of gas into another, partially dissipated one.  Withdrawal hung a bit further back from the danger, swooping up any people who looked as though they might stumble into the scene.  Drones, moving this way and that, oblivious to the immediate danger.

Harpoon dude set out some harpoons, firing them in lazy arcs that looped around wrists.  He stumbled with the initial tugs from the big guy, then found his footing, throwing himself beneath a bench to use the fact the benches were bolted down as anchor points.  More harpoons speared out from his chest, disconnecting the former lines and nailing the existing ones into the ground.

The big guy broke free with an almost elastic reaction, stumbling into one of the people with a food cart.  Sveta dragged the person out of the way just in time, but the food cart was loaded with food, and I saw that food get swallowed up as the people had.

“Roman!” Byron called out.  “Draw him closer to Love Lost!”

Roman snarled in response.

“My brother is too far gone,” Juliette said, deadpan.  “We’ll have to put him down.”

“Fuck you, Juliette!” Roman growled.  He did move toward Love Lost, veins standing out at the sides of his head.

And the big guy, still being pelted with spheres that exploded into gas clouds, did turn to charge Roman.

A gout of water from Capricorn caught him in the face, in open mouth and nose.  Pulling his head back while his five hundred plus pound body continued forward, he fell, coughing and sputtering.

Another gas bomb exploded in his face, while he was gasping for air.

Unable to breathe, not in a position to get to his feet, he flopped, arms and legs kicking and scrabbling for traction on wet ground.  And then he popped, becoming a pile of naked people and shredded chicken dinners.

Love Lost had the doctor in a headlock, and the man seemed to be winding down.

“Maybe, uh, watch your aim?” Precipice asked.  “That was messy.”

Love Lost gave him a death glare.  Extricating herself from the two-armed headlock to maintain a one-armed headlock instead, she pointed a claw at the rows of people on the ‘shelves’ at the one wall.  She seemed to be counting, pointing once a second as she moved her arm.

The doctor struggled, and she resumed the two-arm headlock.

“She did actually,” Samuel said.

“What?”

“When this guy shouted out the first word, about… twenty-five or thirty people suddenly started paying attention,” Samuel said, indicating the assembled people.  “This one guy on the bench included.”

“Waking up the warrior drones,” Precipice said.

“Yeah,” Samuel said.  “How many of those guys do you think are capes?”

“All of ’em,” Imp said.  She stuck her stick into the doctor, made a hand-motion for Love Lost to let him go, and then turned it on.

He collapsed.

“Was good, then,” Rain said, looking at Love Lost.  “Thank you.”

She gave him another dark glare.

“Okay.  Shutting up.”

She nodded.

We sorted ourselves out.  I didn’t miss Love Lost putting a clawed hand on Samuel’s shoulder as she walked by him.  I heard him say something, the word ‘butcher’ in the midst of it.

I wanted to see more going on in her eyes.  More reaction, hurt or regret.  She made me exceedingly uncomfortable as things currently stood.

“My point,” Roman said, to Juliette.

“You didn’t finish him.”

“I vote it’s his point,” Precipice said.  “He helped.  You didn’t.”

“Doesn’t matter, that’s not the game.”

“Precipice thinks it counts and Precipice is cool.”

“Doesn’t matter, stop trying to cheat,” Juliette said.

“It matters,” Imp said.  “You’re outnumbered, Catena.  Contribute next time, or hold back on the snark.”

The doctor was unconscious and would wake up soon.  There were thralls who were standing by, dragging the people who had been assimilated into the big guy to where they could be dressed in clean white linen.

Chastity climbed up to the shelves with Sveta’s help.  One by one, she backhanded the people that Samuel and Love Lost indicated, knocking them out cold.

With some consideration, as I flew by, Withdrawal hanging off of the outside of the shelving, we slapped a few more for good measure.  I took note of one guy because his knuckles were raw and misshapen like he’d thrown too many punches recently.  Withdrawal pointed out a kid that looked too athletic and muscular for his age.  A woman had a tan on her face like she’d worn huge aviator sunglasses or a cape mask.

Knocked out.  Even when the doctor woke up, they wouldn’t.  If he activated thralls with a command and sent them after us, it would be more like two to five than twenty to thirty.

That task done, we marched through and past the enmeshment of orange lines and circles that were covering the wall.

The lines solidified behind us.  Wall and a series of bars that allowed the air through while restricting people.

“This place is intimidating,” Caryatid said.  She’d dropped her breaker form and walked now.  “How do you build something like this?”

“With powers.  They had a woman who lost her body to power working for them,” Sveta said.  “I’m not sure what she’s doing now, but she can be multiple places at once, build fast.  When they kept thousands of prisoners, before Gold Morning, she kept them here.”

“There was a note about her in the briefing packet,” Caryatid said.

“It didn’t say enough,” Sveta said.  “Those thousands of prisoners- over the years, not all at once, they were mostly people with powers.  She kept them in line.”

“They love things like that,” Imp said.  “Loved?  Should I use past tense?  It’s different now.”

“Is it?” Ashley asked.

“Instead of a middle aged doctor woman who you could sort of respect for trying to do things right, we have a terminally ingrown taint-hair in an ugly sweater.”

“You’re being too kind to Doctor Mother,” Sveta said.  “She was a monster.”

“I’m not going to say you’re wrong,” Imp replied, “But-”

But?

Lights went out further down the hall, and the way they went out got our attention immediately.  Lights went out one by one, and if the ceiling-tile-inset light right in front of us was numbered one and the number furthest from us was numbered one hundred, it was counting down by twenty a second.  As each new light went out, another light behind it came back on.

“Heads up!” Capricorn shouted.

I saw it too, the distortion.  Wall, wall, ceiling, floor, all rippled, as if a wave was traveling down it.

The Custodian?  Something else.

I flew over the ripple, grabbing the nearest people.  Capricorn, Rain.

My grab of Rain’s arm hadn’t been perfect. He’d swung in my grip as I pulled, and one arm grazed the ripple.  Metal and tech was torn up like it had been thrust into a wood chipper.

The ripple was only a foot high, one or two feet long.  Ashley used her power to blast it.  Others had jumped.  If it was hard to clear the jump, it was only because many were starting from a standing position, having stopped when the lights started going out.

“Sorry,” I told Precipice

I closed my eye to bring up the map, while keeping the other open to check that everyone was okay.

“It’s coming again!”

The corridor we were in was twelve hundred meters long.  There was a security office at the eight hundred meter mark.  Past the corridor was one part of what Cinereal had called ‘the gallery’.  The massive area where they’d staged the character assassination work from.

“Cameras.  Can we get any view on the attacker or tech that’s doing this?” I asked.

-No-.  The word appeared in the midst of the map that obscured my vision.

We split up.  I flew forward.  Withdrawal and Sveta followed, with the harpoon guy and Love Lost chasing after.  Ashley remained.

I twisted in the air to watch the ripple.  I could see more of Kenzie’s message appearing in my vision.  My focus was on the others, though.  Ashley blasted the ripple as it raced to her, like a car speeding down the highway.  Caryatid took it head-on, breaker form active.  A spike of it slipped through, but it didn’t look like anyone got clipped.

Kenzie’s message was a restatement of what I already knew.  She couldn’t get into Teacher’s security system unless she had help.  Any of our phones or any of the devices she’d given Precipice would let her into a system, and maybe with enough she would gain reach.  Beyond that, they were too isolated, and too fast when it came to counteracting her and cutting her off.  Hack one system, and the remainder adapted.

Another ripple, but this one was a pillar that ran down the center of the corridor.  Where it touched floor and ceiling tiles, it pushed them into disarray, and then placed them neatly back where they belonged.

Sveta, Love Lost, and I moved to the left of the hallway, as Withdrawal and the harpoon guy fired out a harpoon and reeled himself into the air to the right.

Mixing it up.  Attacking from afar with a shaker effect.  Another ring now.  The danger wasn’t that it was so hard to avoid, but that it took effort and energy to avoid.  A leap, an expenditure of power and attention.  Mistakes would happen.  Legs would get tired.

I flew, and trusted the others to keep up.  Sveta didn’t have a lot of great handholds, except for me, and I didn’t begrudge her.  A little added wind resistance aside, it didn’t impact how hard I could fly.

The others kept up okay.  Harpoon managed with some struggle.   Withdrawal and Love Lost had tech augmenting how fast they could run.

I really needed a better name for Harpoon.  The fact he had six harpoons that came out of chest, lower ribcage and belly made me think of a dog’s nipples, which made it harder for me to ignore the fact that two of those harpoons pretty much emerged from his actual man-nipples, or somewhere very close to them.

Good thing he was in hock to Citrine, because any career with a real hero team would have a hard time selling that image.

Couldn’t get distracted.

I could see them.  A group of people running away from us.  The connecting corridor we were in was long and straight, and even though they were distant, I could count out six or seven.

Love Lost jumped up, pushing me to one side, and then screamed.

The scream travelled far enough to catch two of the guys with guns.  They stopped, shifted position, agitated.  One held their chunky gun over their head with both hands, like they intended to use it as a club.  The other took aim, then seemed to remember he needed to reload.

I flew over them.  Sveta pulled the gun away from one, while Withdrawal pounced on another, smashing him into the floor.

I tried to make up for time lost when I’d been pushed.

The one at the rear put his hand back.

More ripples.  Easy to fly past.  Easy for Sveta, Withdrawal, Love Lost and the Harpoon guy to manage.

I closed the distance, my little mover squad close behind.

His buddies had guns, though.  I saw the red-orange-white glow of tinker gun barrels, and adjusted, flying to evade two shots of what looked like hot magma, putting myself in the way of a third, to block any danger to Sveta or Withdrawal.  It clung to the Wretch, which I hadn’t expected, forcing me to drop my forcefield and move away so I didn’t fly face first into the glob that was now falling to ground.

Which cost me time, cost me progress.  Which put a big blob of molten liquid on the floor for the others to have to avoid.

I imagined that was the strategy.  To slow us down, set us up to either get shot or get steamrolled by this shaker power that was too effective in corridors like this one.

I could see the shaker preparing the power in his hands, getting ready to throw again.  The closer I was, the less time I had to react.

He threw out the power, and it webbed out to every nearby surface before lunging forward.  Before, it had been rings, a pillar.  Always with a way through.

This time, a wall, impassable.

I veered hard right, put my foot out, kicking the actual wall, just to stop my forward momentum, then reversed course to get away and get back.  My forcefield was up as part of the kick into the wall, and I felt the wall make contact with an extremity.

I felt the forcefield tear.  It didn’t die, but it remained in tatters, a body torn two, with limbs scattered.

I didn’t want to drop the field, not when I needed it, not when it had eben damaged before and taken a minute to come back up, after being hit with Rain’s silver blade.  When Cradle had hit it and knocked it out for a bit of time.  I threw myself into the ceiling tiles, into lighting and wiring, carving a furrow.

The others must have seen an opportunity, because they went for it.  Into the ceiling, then down, to appear on the far side.

Emboldened, I changed course, driving myself further up into the ceiling until the field finally died.  The shaker’s wall passed beneath me.

He’d baited us in close with an effect that was apparently easy to dodge, only to drop the full effect when I was so close I shouldn’t have been able to escape.  Maybe there was a buildup, or he’d been conservative and tricky because he didn’t know what powers we had.  Fast-moving capes weren’t likely to be capes with the ability to handle a death wall coming at them like a train down a tunnel.

I caught up to the others, and found them amid the downed group.  Love Lost had blood dripping from the claws of one hand, while Withdrawal crouched like a frog ready to leap on another injured molten gunner.

The shaker had one arm out in front of him, a harpoon impaling his forearm, a meaty cord trailing to Harpoon’s abdomen.  In his other hand, he managed his power.

Sveta didn’t have to bend down to grab one of the chunky magma guns, tendrils in her leg dissolving to grab it, lift it up, and pass it to her hand.

The shaker, like most of our group, panted for breath.

Love Lost moved first.  Ready to scream.  The shaker responded, using his power.  Not at us, but sending the power rippling down the hallway as another pillar, behind him.  Opposite direction.

A signal?

Didn’t matter.  Love Lost screamed at the same time Sveta whipped the gun at the guy.  Stricken with the scream’s effect, he didn’t have the ability to dodge.  The gun clocked him.

That was this squad.  Still small, still tinkers with low-grade equipment, but now they were supporting the occasional cape.

I was too nervous about why this guy would throw his power the other way, when he could’ve at least maimed one of us with a good toss here.  Too hard for all of us to dodge that was fast moving and shakery at point blank range.

He’d had other priorities.

“You’ve got this?”

“Yeah,” Sveta said.  “I hope the others are okay.”

“Me too.  I’m going to fly ahead.”

“Be safe.”

‘Ahead’ was another four hundred meters, which was like flying across four and a half city blocks, except the tunnel had nothing to differentiate it except an intersection here, a sealed door there.  The tunnel, though it was ten feet by teen feet across, was claustrophobic, and gave me a feeling like being suspended in air.

Then barricades, chunks of concrete piled up, scarred where they’d been hit by the shaker’s power.  Past the barricades, I was in the gallery.  A massive open space with a pillar skewering it through the middle.

The gallery had been named as one of the key grounds to hold, a defensible position and a place to turn into a base camp.  I’d remembered because this was where the character assassinations had come from.  I could see the groupings of desks, consoles, and concrete platforms with eight, ten, or twelve sides; I wasn’t about to count while there were other things going on.

The attack he’d flung back had been in hopes of catching someone else off guard.  They’d been defending a position or mounting an attack.  Trying to retake this space.

And they were in the midst of it.  An ongoing battle that our side was losing.  Tinkers in white came in as phalanxes, tinker guns fired, and I could see Stonewall enduring a pummeling as he fought to get close enough to a squad to start breaking some people, stone armor and shield chipping away, glowing, or facing an ever-increasing burden of what could have been acidic or radioactive slime, silver in color.  There were four tinkers in front of him, backing away step by step while they coordinated their fire.  Ten tinkers were behind him, battered and knocked down, their guns sent sprawling.

There were other capes, though precious few I recognized.  Teacher’s predominantly wore white, had similar gear.  I could see at least a half dozen thralls with powers, a few monsters that might have been master minions or thralls with drugs in their system, and a constant influx of more, rushing in to take up cover, fire over that cover, and apply a constant and unending pressure.

I’d have to trust the others to handle catching up and getting here.  For now, people needed help.

The high ceiling made flying possible, but the sheer amount of tinker guns made flying a risk, too.  I focused my efforts around the pillar, flying close to it so it would shield me, and corkscrewing around clockwise, then counterclockwise, before shifting direction.

Someone shot me.  No lightning, no plasma, just a specialized slug and a gun that roared like a chainsaw.  Wretch down.  I adjusted course.

The follow-up shot caught my armor, right where my heart was.  The impact sent me spiraling through the air.

I realized what was happening, and dive-bombed, straight for the nearest cover.

Teacher granted powers, and this included accuracy.

I landed in the midst of one of the concrete ‘hedrons, in a cubicle with a fucking filing cabinet and post its.  I hunkered down by the door to the space, grabbed a black file folder, and stuck it past the gap.

The bullet hit, striking the rounded-off metal frame my hand was close to.  Another shot hit, then a third a second later.  I could see the vague indent where it deformed the metal.  Each shot landed at the same spot, aimed not at the file folder, but at the palm of the hand that was holding the file folder up.

Hitting the exact same spot in the metal until they could punch through.  I dropped my hand, and I heard more gunshots landing.  Aimed at a different part.

Filing cabinet, then.  With Wretch-strength, I dragged it back.

With Wretch-strength, I heaved it, lobbing it into the air.  A guess.

From the air, a flier hit it with something, changing its course radically.  I looked up, expecting a threat, and I saw Balk.  One of Stonewall’s squad in the Wardens.  He had other fliers with him.

“Up!” he called out to me.

I flew up to him.  I looked down, and saw the filing cabinet had struck home.  There was more blood visible around the filing cabinet than I could see gunman.

“That’s my fault, not yours.”

I didn’t have any response to that.  Instead, I asked, “How long have you been here?”

“Hours.  We were the defensive base camp, our offensive team went ahead.  All communication died, our thinkers are struggling, and a remote trump-class keeps turning our powers off.”

“Powers?”

“Strategic blackouts.  Anyone does too well, they lose their powers.”

Balk held up his hand.  A sphere of metal returned to his hand with a violent impact, faster than the eye could see.  He wore the bodysuit with armor, a little heavier than I tended to appreciate, but the armor was stylized to use negative space well.  Circles and spike studs, red costume, silver armor.  Nice hair.

“Antares.  Do you know PRTCJ formations?” he asked.  “The ones for flying?”

“Some, and only the flying ones, but I’m not practiced,” I told him.  Crystal had actually helped with those.

“Help us?  Two of ours are injured.”

“I can help for now,” I told him.  “My team’s coming, I’ll have to direct them some.”

“Section.”

There was another gunshot.  A slower-moving projectile.  One of the fliers with us swatted it aside with a flash of forcefield.  She was a woman with a purple and black costume, her eyes altered so the whites were black and the irises and pupils bright purple and white respectively.

“Ace angel,” the forcefield cape said.

Balk played the part of the ace.  Our job was to support him.  I flew a distance away, slightly out of formation, close enough to shield him in the hairier patches, not so close the Wretch might hit him.  On the other side, the woman with forcefields shielded his other side.  Above all three of us, a woman lobbed glowing projectiles.  The projectiles seemed inaccurate.  If they weren’t, she might have been the ace herself.

“Dipping out!” I called.

I saw Balk’s hand move in assent.  A stretched-out forcefield replaced my position in the flight, as the group slowed.

A dive, striking where I was needed, hitting the side of a pillar with computer towers to send monitors and heavy computers cascading down on the people hunkered below, with a few sparks marking live wires, even.  Then a rise again, to return to formation.

Balk hurled his ball with enhanced strength, and it demolished cover.  The ensuing fire from allied parahumans forced the Teacher thralls into retreat.  A mutant hulk filled that gap, and Balk flew down to meet it.  We flew down in unison, to support him and protect him from flanks.

He was a more methodical fighter than I was.  Each punch and kick was intended to count.  He didn’t utilize in-flight rotations to boost his power, instead dropping to the ground when he wanted to sling hits, but he did tumble and fall more often, using flight to rise to his feet.  The hits were punctuated by throws and the surprise returns of the metal ball.

I kicked a piece of concrete on the ground, sending chunks flying at violent speeds.  They hit some people who were facing another direction, and with damage and distraction, stopped those people from laying down suppressive fire.

Our artillery-lobber hurled something their way.  The lob, though inaccurate, imploded, drawing every one of those people into a jumble.  One of the projectiles they’d been in the midst of firing was also drawn in.  The result was messy, a small explosive round going off in the midst of five bodies.

Yeah.  Balk was one of the guys who’d been at the warfront.  His squad and his team were more about getting shit done than playing nice.  Which might have been what we needed right now, but it wasn’t my rhythm.

“Three is clear, breaching,” I told the forcefield cape.  This side is safe, I’m going in.

“Heard!”

I joined Balk in fighting the hulking mutant, going after the hindquarters with Wretch all-out, smashing lower spine.  It counted for more than half of what Balk had done so far, and crippling the thing’s entire back half and taking away its ability to use its praying mantis forelimbs for anything except crawling.

It roared, mouth yawning open for a bite, and Balk hurled the metal ball into the mouth.  It came out the beast’s rear, stopped, then returned to Balk, splatting on impact with his hand.

My team was arriving, but in the heat of the moment, in the fray and maintaining a formation, I couldn’t quite break away.  The artillery cape with us was distraction and devastation in equal measure, forcing people to scramble, to abandon cover, or punishing them if they didn’t- sometimes.  Balk just wanted support to do what he needed to do, and to his credit, he used it.  With us, he didn’t have to worry about his flanks and communication was reduced down to key formations and phrases like ‘breach’ and ‘draw’, speeding up how fast we could operate.

Balk did his thing, the artillery cape had her own focus.  As defensive flanks, it was the forcefield cape and I working together in a weird synchronicity.  Working together with a minimum of distracting communication, relying on practiced PRTCJ formation that I hadn’t practiced because I’d never been a part of the PRTCJ.  At best I’d gone over it once with Crystal.  I was a good student but I wasn’t that good.

But it worked, and that it worked situated me in a kind of weird mental state.  It felt like the horrible fatigue of Shin and that room with Amy was catching up to me and I was almost dreaming, and yet I felt hyperfocused, not tired at all.  The only dream was the surreal cast to this whole thing.

I would have almost called out master-stranger, except it wasn’t.  My hand hurt where it had been flayed, my chest hurt in a way that made it hard to breathe because the breastplate had taken a heavy impact.  Not a broken rib, only a bruised everything from the diffuse impact.

The situation was real.

My team and the subordinate teams needed help.

I fought almost back to back with the forcefield cape, or we would have been back to back if we didn’t have Balk between us.  I called out, “Moving three!”

“Heard!” the forcefield cape replied.

“And Balk, I need to go.  My teams are here!”

“Heard,” he replied.  He didn’t sound happy.  “What’s the sitrep?”

“Getting a weird vibe, can’t share too much-”

“Then go to your fucking team, help, explain after!”

I opened my mouth to respond, stopped.  Hours of this?  Of holding positions, attacked from all sides?

Maybe I’d be cranky too.

“Flying over.”

“Section,” the forcefield cape called out.  “Balk.”

“Section,” he agreed.  He hurled his ball.  “Now or never!”

We opted for now.  Section was ‘Group up.  All together.’

They flew me back, escorting me home, for lack of a better way of putting it.  Still in the formation flanking Balk.  He threw his ball at capes who were working on Stonewall, while Stonewall beat a fighting retreat toward our squads, shield raised.

There was an explosion, off to forcefield cape’s side.  Her forcefield came up too slow, a glittering wall cutting through a mid-air detonation.  It threw us out of formation.

We assembled, found a new formation, ready to retaliate if this attack would be repeated.  It wasn’t.  Stray fire from one of Teacher’s.

But again, that eerie sensation, like something didn’t add up, or that it added up too neatly.

I looked over the scene, saw more of our capes retreating to a part of the open room we could collectively defend.  And I saw Teacher’s thralls.  We’d demolished Teacher’s goons, knocked out cover emplacements, forced retreats.

And they reinforced, they came in through other doors, and they whittled us down.

“There was a cape back when I was recruiting for teams,” I said.

“Less chat, go to your team.”

“They were Fallen.  They teleported people in.  In a way that made it hard to realize they were bolstering numbers.”

“We’ll keep it in mind,” Balk said.  Zero patience, zero tolerance.

It made sense to me, crystallized some of that eerie feeling that we could win every battle and lose the war.  It’d be something Teacher had in reserve, that he might pull out here.

And it did absolutely nothing to quell that uneasy, uncanny feeling that gripped me.

I flew down to my team.  Balk and his little team found its own formation, staying close to the right side of the room, so the forcefield cape could throw up her glittering walls, return fire, and there was no need to defend the right side because there was only wall there.  Balk continued his angry, aggressive me-first fighting and did just well enough I couldn’t condemn him for it.

I released a breath I hadn’t been holding.

“Everyone okay?” I asked, not taking my eyes off of things.

“More or less,” Capricorn said.

“What’s wrong?” Sveta asked.

I shook my head, still watching.  Seeing how they flew.  The formation.

Nostalgic.  In a fight as messy as this, the air choked with dust and the smell of ozone, I felt a weird, happy nostalgia.

My eyes settled on the culprit.  The forcefield cape.  The feeling crystallized as I caught her looking back at me with those eerie eyes.

Aunt Sarah.

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Dying – 15.1

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I fast-walked down the alleyway, hands in my coat pockets, head down, making my footsteps heard.  My breath fogged in the air, slow and measured, and freezing rain pattered down around me, soaking the top of my hood and the shoulders of my coat.

“Hey!” a man shouted.  “You have no business back here!”

Four men, all gathered around a hatchback car, one of the shittier ones that had been made after Gold-Morning.  All men wore the typical garage-worker, loading-dock style coveralls, along with heavy coats and hats.  They glittered with light where the big lights that illuminated the loading bay caught the droplets of frozen rain on their gear.

The set of alleyways was shaped like a question mark, with the entry into the alleys being somewhere around the dot or tail end, a few parking spots at the top end, and these guys located at the part that was furthest in.  Loading bay doors were partially closed beside them.

The rain stopped hitting my shoulders and hood as I saw them.

Their part of the alley was narrower, and as I entered the space, the walls were close enough that the Wretch could reach out and touch both, carving furrows both narrow and broad into brickwork.

“Shit!” one of them shouted.  He bolted for the car.  There was a flash of silver as he pulled on the door, and the back of the car came free, landing in his lap, smacking him in the face.

The other three men ran to the car.  I could see what they were after.  Tools or-

No.  Tinker guns.

A flash of white instead of silver, above.  I pushed out with my aura, being careful with the range, only catching two of the men with it as a consequence.

Didn’t matter.  Swansong dropped down from above, white costume a swirl around her, and landed on the back end of the car that had come away.  She made a threatening motion toward the guy closest to her, and he almost fell in his haste to get away.

“Guns in the car,” I called out.

A blast of her power made the other two men back off, but that meant they moved closer to me, and deeper into my aura, which was more intense as they drew closer to me.  Caught in the middle, they stopped, paralyzed.  Swansong turned to look at the contents of the car, one hand still out.

The sliding loading bay door rose, and there were two men and two women on the other side, all with what looked like riot shields in front of them, truncheons in their hands.  The shields and truncheons all visibly crackled with electricity.

Precipice leaped from the rooftop, tilting as he fell so his head was closer to the ground than his feet were, silver blades already made but held firm in each hand.  He stopped in mid-air, twelve or fifteen feet above the alley floor, and hurled silver blades, produced more, and threw them as well.

Ashley picked up the tinker gun, and aimed it at the group, nozzle glowing bright green.

One of them, maybe the squad leader, pointed the truncheon at her.  The gun went black.  She threw the gun aside, and produced a blast of her power instead- a gout about ten or fifteen feet long, not long enough to reach those at the loading bay door, but enough to give them pause.

Speaking of.  I addressed the three workers.  “Stand down.  Kneel.  I’ll tie your wrists, we’ll put you somewhere safe and warm.”

They looked at one another, then charged me instead.

Wretch down.

The first one took a swing for my face.  I brought my forcefield up again, just for a second, while moving my head in the direction of the incoming swing.

Blood spray painted the Wretch, and I had a glimpse from the inside of a face, mouth open, teeth bared.  It had let him punch teeth, and brought teeth together.  Far more damage than I’d wanted.

It was enough that the other two backed off.

“Swan!” Precipice called out.

She threw the gun aside, strode forward, and put a hand out.  Precipice resumed falling, and Swansong had a hand out to catch his upper body, averting the faceplant.

I saw the blur and the shifting of lights above.  Our alleyway had its own little constellation above us, and that constellation became rock, then became water.  Mostly became water.

A single stone spike was propelled by the geyser behind it.  It didn’t fly true, but it didn’t need to.  It hit the mess of silver lines Rain had produced along the raised metal shutter and the top edge of the loading bay door, and the silver lines all flared.  Things came down in pieces.  Triangles of metal and chunks of concrete.

Shields were raised, and electricity crackled and arced out, the rocks and metal bouncing off, repelled by powerful electromagnetic forces.

Another constellation, another geyser of water, this time aimed downward and at an angle.  The water went low while shields were raised high.  Three of the four were bowled over, electric weapons and shields making contact with water.

They didn’t seem bothered.  Protective gear, potentially.  That was… disappointing.

The one who had remained standing and weathered the falling debris looked down, and she saw more silver lines on the ground a few feet down from the lip of the loading bay entrance.  A few had already ‘popped’ as debris hit them, and cracks ran deep and straight.  As some faded, Precipice threw more blades down.  Hopping down would be potentially disastrous.

“Going!” the woman called out, as she turned around and ran for it, shield slung around to her back to protect her as she retreated.

“Guard her retreat!” one of the guys on the ground shouted, using his shield to help himself stand.

Swansong fired her power, a continuous blast that provided the recoil that let her sail over their heads.  Her feet tapped the wall twice before she finally dropped down, rolling in the shallow water and rising to her feet with another short blast for the propulsion.

Sveta followed a similar route, grabbing the wrecked shutter and lip of the loading bay door and hurling herself in.  Her landing was rougher, but that was mitigated by the fact that her body became a mass of tendrils coiled like springs as the parts made contact, then reformed after.  Then she grabbed something on the wall to slingshot herself forward again.

I didn’t watch further.  I had three guys to deal with, and there were three more at the doorway.  Two more- one was running after Sveta and Swansong.

“Stand down,” I told the three.

The look on the doughy, bearded man’s face was blank, hollow, almost uncomprehending.  He looked like the epitome of unhealthy, and between that and the blank stare… he was one hundred percent a thrall.

“Fuckin’ hurts,” the other guy whimpered.  He was on his knees, cradling his hand.  Another thrall… but I didn’t miss that his buddy looked at him with fear and sympathy.

Thralled, but not without humanity and care for his friends.

“Stand down,” I told them.

The big guy came after me.  His buddy joined him, a guy muscular enough that it showed despite the coveralls and jacket.  All neck and bicep.

Precipice grabbed a tinker gun, aiming it- and it too went dim.  He jumped forward, swinging it like a club instead.

Hardly mattered.  The big guy charged at me like he wanted to tackle me to the ground.  Mid-run, he stopped and collapsed hard onto his stomach.

A second later, his buddy did the same.  As he toppled, I brought my knee into his chin.  The impact jarred me, brought me a little bit further into reality, while taking him all of the way out of it.  Out cold.

The third had learned his lesson.  Cradling his hand, he moved carefully, not running or charging.  Shuffling, hand up, he drew closer.  Precipice hung back, while I squared my shoulders to his.

“Sorry,” I told him.

Then he froze as the others had.

Precipice cracked the big guy on the back of the head with the butt-end of the rifle, because falling over wasn’t being knocked out.

I pulled restraints out of my pocket and caught the frozen guy, forcing him to kneel, at which point he resumed moving normally, struggling against me.

While I took care of his restraints, I looked through the windows that lined the alley until I found her.  Juliette.  ‘Catena’.  Her mask was metal, and had spikes radiating out and back from the edges, following her hairline.  It reminded me of my old tiara, but hers was intended to look more wicked than ‘rays of the sun meets Statue of Liberty’.  Sharper, longer, sleeker.  Her costume was black clothing, but for a few pieces of metal – one sleeve of armor studded with spikes all the way down, ending in a gauntlet with clawed fingertips.  She turned away, the gray of metal replaced by the black of the back of her head and her costume, effectively disappearing into the darkness within the building.

Above, at the rooftop’s edge, Capricorn was making his way down the fire escape, metal boots on metal.  He drew out constellations.  The remaining two guards were panting for breath, their breath fogging, and one of them dropped her truncheon because her hand was so numb.  She was groping for it when another blast of water caught them, sending the weapon spinning out of reach, so she dropped to hands and knees instead, bringing her shield between herself and the water.

Restraints handled, bandages set in place to stop the bleeding…

The water became stone, trapping the two guards.  There was water beading them and soaking their clothing, and that became something of a crust.  The Manton effect kept the clothes in their entirety from being captured by the transition.  The shallow water they stood and knelt in gripped shoelaces and bits of clothing that were far enough away from the body.

Capricorn Blue was noisy as he climbed down the fire escape.  He called out, “Surrender!”

I saw the same blank, stubborn looks as I’d seen earlier.  They couldn’t even comprehend the idea.

“They can’t,” I told him.

A constellation of motes appeared on one side of the two guards.  They shifed their shields around, and another constellation appeared on the opposite side.

Their efforts to block the water weren’t sufficient.  They were drenched in freezing water, while winter cold blew in from the open door.

I flew past them as they collapsed, heading down the hall to collect the others.

One guard already dispatched, lying limp at one side of the hallway with shield and weapon lying beside her, no longer crackling.   The other had a weapon pointed at Swansong while his shield barred Sveta.  Sveta reached out, hand becoming ribbons, and ribbons becoming tooth-edged tendrils, reaching below the shield to snag his feet.

The man fell, and Swansong leaped like she was going to land on his back.  Hands over head, she blasted skyward, driving herself down for a power-augmented kick.  The blast raked ceiling without penetrating the full breadth of it, and white dust rained down around her, while lights flickered.

I threw some restraints to Sveta.  “Keep an eye out?  We’ll be with you soon.”

She nodded.

By the time I got to the lip of the entrance, things were settled.  Roman was climbing out of a window, while Imp stood by with Juliette, Samuel, and Chastity.

The delivery men and the guards were bound.

“Building’s clear,” Capricorn reported.

“Thralls?” I asked.

“Couldn’t tell, so we killed them.  Even the suspicious looking kids and old people,” Juliette was monotone as she said it.

“You can’t see while my mask is on, but I’m rolling my eyes so effectively it would break our Catena’s heart.  She’s joking,” Imp said.  “Yes on the thrall question, no on the killing part.”

“You can’t break what doesn’t exist,” Juliette said.  She laid a clawed gauntlet over her heart.  “Heartless and proud to be.”

“Brainless too,” Roman said.  He wore a venetian mask in gunmetal gray, with crimson-highlighted blades and decoration at the edges.  Cracks ran through it and each crack was traced in red.  His costume setup was similar to mine, with a breastplate and mostly decorative pieces of armor elsewhere.

“We established a long, long time ago that I’m smarter than you,” Juliette told him.  “Don’t try to bring me down.  You’re making yourself look worse.”

Imp stepped forward, putting herself between the two, hands clasped behind her back, looking skyward.  “Remember the deal.  Play or go home.”

The stragglers of Imp’s group were gathered around the window, having climbed through.  Citrine’s capes.  High quality, boring costumes from the neck down, and very strange masks that extended from forehead to chin, but as a relatively narrow band that expanded out to the sides to showcase decorative elements like lenses or frames around the eye, horns at each corner of the forehead, altered noses or altered mouths.  Ear protection like earmuffs covered each ear, similarly decorated.

Number one indicator of a new cape was how they reacted to the costume.  They made little adjustments, constantly touched the details of the costume, touched masks, adjusted fits.  None of it really mattered if the costume was designed well.

I stepped away, walking over to Capricorn and Rain.

“I’m getting flashbacks,” Byron said, indicating the brother-sister pair.

“Where’s our third squad?” I asked.

Rain, who was picking at a tinker rifle, pointed with one of the smaller mechanical hands  that glowed with the cracks that ran along it.  “Around the corner, getting ready.”

“Good,” I said.  My heart was racing, and the fighting had stopped a couple of minutes ago.

Samuel and Chastity were at the loading bay door.  Now that I had time to look, the hallway was white tile and white fixtures, with a stripe painted along the floor.  The tunnel that Sveta and Ashley had gone down was longer than the building with the loading bay was.  Sure enough, it was a portal, a hidden entryway into Teacher’s facility.

“Let’s get ’em moving and let’s go,” I said.

Earlier

“The facility we’ll be raiding is large,” Cinereal addressed the group that had gathered in the Bunker. “It will be best if you think of it as us attacking a city, not a building.  There are what you could call neighborhoods or sections, each with specific focuses.  In talks with the other top Wardens,  we divided these into residential sections, sections designed for Teacher’s work, and sections that support the facility itself.”

“And unknown sections,” Jeanne observed.

A few stragglers were still making their way in, and were directed to the back, where I presumed there were notes or something.

Cinereal folded her arms.  “More than a few unknown sections.  But through Engel and Egg, some descriptions from Tress, and feedback we got from Mapwright’s power after she entered the facility and reported back, we have a good sense of the building.  When we made our initial move, it was because our danger sensers and precogs gave us the impression that five of the seven entrances we discovered were safe to breach.  We split up and approached from multiple angles.  Every time we’ve encountered Teacher, that’s been the ideal approach.”

“Why?” a woman asked.  I was pretty sure it was Foxtrot.

“Teacher organizes and controls large numbers of low level thinkers and tinkers, but he remains the vulnerable linchpin.  When he’s involved, we can bombard him with information, force him to coordinate multiple units at once.”

“How’s that done for you so far?  As far as I can tell, he’s winning.”

I craned my head around, like most people were doing.  Tattletale was up at the front, lurking and watching the crowd, as she tended to be, but Imp and the thirteen-and-older Heartbroken were at the back of the room.  Imp was the one challenging Cinereal.

“The precogs say this gives us our best odds,” Cinereal said.  “And they’ve consistently said that.  There’s no sign that he’s manipulated them or their results.”

“He’s tough,” Effervescent said.  One of the remaining core members of Foresight.

“Yes, he’s tough,” Cinereal said.  “Right now the best reads our thinkers are giving us are for three of these entry points that weren’t in our original attack.  Two were heavily guarded, we think those guards were moved or reduced in number to cover other points.  A third was discovered and reported by one of our original teams, before the comms blackout.  We’ll be entering from three separate directions with three teams at each entrance, for nine teams in total.”

She hit a button, bringing up a map of the complex.  “Combat is a problem solving exercise, and our problem is that we don’t know what happened to the other teams.  In transit and low-risk areas, such as this area with cubicles, you’ll need to breach and clear with three teams simultaneously, because the area is too wide.  Fail to do so and you may be flanked or attacked.  By the early reports from our team, this is an ongoing risk.”

She tapped an area highlighted in red.  “In high-risk areas, you’ll want to lead with the strongest team, switching out as injuries or weariness take hold…”

Weariness.

A part of me still felt shaky, like I hadn’t left the room in Earth Shin behind.  I’d listened to that part when I’d trusted Sveta to save Armstrong.  I would have held back regardless, because of what was on the line, but the distinction was that there had been a reason I’d been okay with hanging back, and that reason was that I was scared.

Have to get right back on the horse.  Aunt Sarah had loved horses, had escaped into them as a healing post-trigger, taking care of them at a family friend’s until she was well enough to ride.  Mom hadn’t liked it, but Aunt Sarah had been the one to do tutoring for the owner of a stable just for a chance to ride a couple of times a month.  It even flavored the language she’d used.  She’d had a term she’d used in our training that she’d called ‘horsing’.  The idea was that horses tended to go where you looked, and flying capes had to focus on seeing distant things on the ground, and we’d unconsciously drift  out of formation to get closer to those things.  If we drifted in the directions we were looking then she’d call out the term and get us back into formation.

Every time the word was uttered, it had driven young Crystal insane with irritation.  But it had broken us of the habit.

When I thought of the term ‘getting back on the horse’, it was in Aunt Sarah’s voice.

“…Faster-moving or durable capes are ideal for this rear guard.”  Cinereal stated.

“Bring it back?” Scribe asked.  ‘Rune’.  Our kid Nazi from Brockton Bay, not so redeemed.

“If you can.”

The image on the screen behind Cinereal had text listing what she was saying, transcribed as fast as she said the words.  One team to lead, one team to flank, one team to hold the rear and decide in a crisis if they needed to support the other two teams or run for it and take what information they had back to the Bunker.

“Let’s say we can.  What then?” she asked.  Fuck, I’d always kind of hated her, just the tone of voice and the way she always looked like she’d smelled a fart, like she was disgusted with everything.  The costume was cute, but it really didn’t work with her overall… everything else.  “Are you staying here?”

“I’m going, leading a primary team.  I remained behind because my power is better at defense than offense.  If we fail here, I don’t know what we do.  The returning capes should do what they can to disseminate word that things have reached a critical state, while remaining safe in the bunker.  You could attempt to get into remote contact with other teams, fence-sitters, and villains to mount a third operation.”

“Third time’s a charm,” Scribe said, drawing an icon in the air that fizzled out of existence.  “Maybe something different.”

“Those who bring messages back can decide what’s best, based on what they found.”

I turned to my right, looking over at the Malfunctions.  Finale wasn’t with- she didn’t like the big stuff.  Withdrawal and Caryatid were sitting with Fume Hood.  I’d pointed them her way or vice versa, or grouped them at one point.

I didn’t want anything bad to befall them.  They’d been people I’d brought in or tried to convince to get back into things.

“Objectives,” Cinereal said.  “We’re recommending paths for each team.  You’re moving through a three-dimensional structure, and it’s best to plot your route with the type and nature of the room in mind.  We’re intentionally putting you on paths that should lead you into other teams from the first wave attack.”

And into what stopped them.

Everyone knew it, nobody said it.  There were things we could gripe about, like team distribution or Foxtrot asking why we weren’t going in together, Imp questioning the working strategies against Teacher, or Scribe asking what happened later.

And there were things we couldn’t do shit about.  There weren’t good options.  Ignoring this whole thing wasn’t something we could do in good conscience.

Teacher would take the world.

“We never established anything like that,” Roman said, audibly heated.

“I learned to read first, I learned math first, I got straight A’s.”

“Do you want to go that far back?  Little miss heartless sat on the swings crying because she couldn’t figure out how to make friends.  How smart were you, really?”

“Stop,” Imp said,  “Mission comes first.  Remember the deal.”

“I do remember.  I’ve been getting ahead while this scraping from the bottom of the genetic barrel is getting distracted with his crush on you.”

“What?” Roman asked, looking alarmed, even with a mask on.  “No, how am I-”

“Doesn’t matter,” Imp said, sounding exasperated.  “Focus.  What’s the score?”

“Five,” Juliette said.

“Three,” Roman said.

“What’s this deal you have with these two?” I asked, looking back.  Imp had intervened, literally putting herself between the pair.  “Do I need to know?”

“Whoever gets the most takedowns.  Only way to keep these two on track if they’re within five miles of each other is to make them compete.  Nonlethal takedowns only.”

Juliette nodded.  “Anything else would let me get too far ahead, and we can’t go breaking his spirit.  Yet.”

“You just try,” Roman said, trying to look around Imp.  “The only reason you’re all ‘tee hee, murder is funny’ and talking about breaking people is because you’re dead and broken inside and you want to bring others down to your level so you have some company.”

“That’s-” Juliette started, stopped.

“No retort?  I thought you were the smart one?”

“Enough.  Please,” Imp said.  “If you want to fight, do it by scoring points.  Or turn around and go home.”

The two fell silent.

Precipice held up a hand.  Two hands.  We slowed, then stopped.

Twisting, he put one hand to where the ‘mouth’ would be on his face, behind his mask.

He walked over to the wall, pointing up at the corner where the wall met ceiling.  the wall was smooth and white, the ceiling a kind of drop tile with lights inset into each tile.  Running along the wall and ceiling was cable.

He held up three fingers, then pointed back.  Two fingers drew back into his hand, so it was one.

“Splits,” he said, quiet.

“What does it matter?” Swansong asked.

“I was noticing before, splits before intersections and areas with multiple rooms.”

I looked down at the floor, then closed my eyes for a few seconds.  In bold, crisp yellow, words and symbols appeared across the pink-black of my closed eye.

I selected ‘map’.

I saw the map of the complex, and it moved somewhat unintuitively, as my eye motions panned around the complex, shifting my focus as if looking at something distant to look at lower floors, shifting it to look at something closer to me to look at the upper floors, which were mostly grayed out rooms with question marks.

“The rest of this place is so neat and tidy,” Rain said.  “But external wiring?  Even though it’s white and camouflaged?”

“Rebuilt section,” Sveta said.  “This part must have collapsed when Scion came through.  Let me-”

Parts highlighted.

“Does it help us to know that?” I asked.

“They might not have the same purpose they used to.  A lot of this was Engel getting a tour of the lower level and making guesses, what I remembered from when we interrogated some people who had been in here, and what Weld, Egg and I all saw when we passed through during the attack.  No guarantees.”

“Even less guarantees if this was torn down and rebuilt,” Capricorn said.  “This area might not be low risk.”

When I opened my eyes, the map faded to a simple outline, there if I looked for it, a faint imprint on my vision otherwise.  I looked at Rain, and saw one of his eyes was glowing more brightly.  Sveta had an eye that was a brilliant cyan blue, like the sky or ocean water.  Capricorn had an intense blue light coming through one slot of his helmet’s visor.  Ashley had the usual eyes that were completely white, smoking at the edges.

And my own eye was a golden yellow.

I blinked twice to dismiss the effect, looking back.  The leader of our vanguard had drawn close enough to listen and take in the information.

Love Lost, wearing a mask she’d modified slightly.  Colt was in the background as well.  Fume Hood, the Major Malfunctions, and a couple of Citrine’s new capes made up our vanguard.

“You’re right.”

We turned around.  Imp was by the set of double doors that terminated this section of hallway.

“There’s a lot.  I could dispatch them one by one, but that would take forever,” Imp said.  She had a baton, a black stick topped with a horned silver crown.  She made it crackle with electricity.  Not one of the guards’, it was her own.  It slapped against her palm.  “Right room has a cape in it.  My team takes that one, I can take the guy out to start us off.”

“Good,” Capricorn said.  He was Tristan now, a red light within his visor.  “This is our first go at a three-way sweep…”

Before

“Come on, come on,” Kenzie said, excited.

“You go ahead,” I told her.

I could see how little she didn’t want us to split up.  She almost danced on the spot, before Candy pushed her toward the door.  Then she ran.  Tristan and Swansong went with.  Rain and Sveta lingered with me.

There were others who had questions for Cinereal.  Plans, organizing the two other squads that would be acting in concert with her attack.

“Have you figured out your teams?” she asked.

“More or less,” I said.  “Our vanguard is feeling thin.  Are you committed to Vista?”

“She and I work well together,” Cinereal said.

“Got it,” I said.  So do she and I.  But it made sense.

“Anything else?” she asked.

“I’ll have to get back to you.  Just wanted to ask to get a sense of power and options.”

“Alright.  Don’t forget to strip down your gear.  Winterized costumes will be a burden while running around a room temperature facility.”

I nodded.

Damn.  Sucked that my friend wasn’t going to be with.

I turned to Rain.  “Thoughts?  Temporary release?”

“It makes the most sense, doesn’t it?” he asked.

“They tried to kill you.  None of them are very stable.”

He folded all four arms.

“Not Cradle,” he said.  “I want to talk to Love Lost and Colt first.”

“‘Talk‘ to Love Lost,” Tristan emphasized the ‘talk’.

“I want to try.  See what my gut says.  Come with?”

“I’m going to check on Kenzie first.  I’ll fly over.”

He nodded.  Sveta nudged him, walking with him as they pushed through the door and turned in the direction of the prison, taking the path.

I followed them out, but went the opposite direction.  I flew up and around until I sighted the squad, then dropped in on them.

Kenzie and her team had entered one of Dragon’s craft.  She had a terminal open by a shelf that looked like a baby’s changing table.

“Uhhh, I need a long metal pole-” she told the terminal.  It showed a lead pipe.  “Narrow, narrower than a pencil, made of… aluminum works, about- shorter.  Narrower.  It needs to have holes at either end and- holes going sideways through the pipe, all in parallel…”

Candy approached Kenzie from behind, fussing with her hair while Kenzie gave what seemed like an endless list of ever-more-specific instructions.  I’d noted before that the Heartbroken kids had differing priorities when it came to chasing adulthood, and for Darlene it was makeup.  For Candy it seemed to be hair- hers was braided on one side and arranged a complex, beautifully taken care of mane that flipped over to the other side.

She gave that same care to Kenzie’s hair, which had suffered for her being in the prison for two days.  Kenzie seemed oblivious.

“Good!  Gimme!”

The bench spat out a single tube.  Kenzie picked it up and held it out, turning it over in her hand.  “I cannot tell you how cool this is.”

“The pipe?” Chicken Little asked.

“That I can get materials custom made that fast!”

“That was fast?”

“Uuggggh.  Yes!  Now give me… three more, computer.”

The computer paused, then spat out three more.

“And I need a number six thirteen micro-screw, and load Lookout save file- show me Lookout save file sixty-six?”

The computer showed a part.

“Sixty-seven?  Yes.  I need- ugh, I learned multiplication three years ago, why am I stumbling on this?”

“It’s kind of funny,” Candy said.  “Build a high tech camera whatever and you-”

“Thirty-seven, I need thirty-seven, computer.  And two six thirteen screws for every sixty-seven antenna.”

The computer spat out an angular, hook-shaped piece of metal, then another, then another…

“Lookout,” I said.  “We’re leaving soon.”

“I’ll be done soon,” she said.  “You liked the eye thing?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ll give one to each member of the team.”

“You’re making one for every member of the team?  Lookout-”

“Trust me!”  She turned around, ducking her head down because Candy was still mid-braid.  Candy held her hair up.  “Can you put my hair on pause?”

“I’ll clip it for now,” Candy said, undoing clips from the mane of her own hair.

Kenzie gave her a quick hug, then pulled back, hands on Candy’s shoulders.  “Want to tinker?”

“What?”

She used her hold on Candy’s shoulders to reposition her, moving Candy to the bench.  She scooted over, then did the same for Aiden, then Darlene, and then moved to the end of the bench, everyone spaced out.

“Link us.”

“Ah,” Candy said.  “This works?”

I was about to say something, but Kenzie was on a roll.

“It absolutely doesn’t work,” Kenzie said.  “You can do everything almost exactly perfectly the way I’m doing it and it won’t tinker-ize, the tech won’t work.  Some of that is really subtle junk that would take an hour to explain, like screw orientation relative to housing being a channel for certain wavelengths-”

“What?” Aiden asked.

“You don’t have the power on the far side doing the interdimensional work,” I explained.  “And very little things matter when it comes to precise tinkertech.”

“That.  Six thirteen screwdrivers, computer.”  Kenzie said, excited.  She reached for one of the poles.  The others did the same as the computer spat out screwdrivers.

“Why are we doing this if it won’t work?” Candy asked.

“Because it’ll almost work.  It’s easier for me to build one and tweak three more to get them working than it is for me to build four.  What do you think?”

“Whatever helps.” Aiden said.

Kenzie moved, and the others moved in a rough sync, with variations only when they had to find a specific piece like a screw.  They held things at the same angles, started and finished screwing at roughly the same times.

“I’m not saying this is a good thing, or a thing to chase,” I said, as I watched them.  “But if you stay networked long enough your power might start working through them.  I think of cases where a tinker wore a bio-suit for long enough, or had a minion they were linked to that they could use a blaster secondary power through.”

Awesome,” Kenzie said.

“It might be too much,” I told her.  “That’d be a lot of time spent linked, and it would probably come with side effects.”

“Bleed,” Ashley said.

“Yeah.  Bleed-through.  Let’s not overdo it,” I addressed the kids, as they put together the eye-things.

“Whether we’re linked a lot or not, I really hope we’re together for a really long time,” Kenzie said.

“Yeah,” Darlene told her.  “Me too.”

Rain used blades to mark out the wall, and Ashley used her power, launching herself into the wall and through.  I heard another power use, and peeked through.  Ashley stood on a table in what looked like a security office.  Terminals lined the wall, showing hallways and corridors.

Empty.

The team still filed into the space, scouting it out, checking corners and hiding places.

I remained in the hallway.  Again, just a bit of that not-yet-on-the-horse trepidation.  I trusted them to handle this.

Opposite us, Fume Hood’s squad was equipped with masks, for the most part.  She released an orb from her hand, and it flew out.  A swipe of her hand to the left, and it changed direction mid-air, flying through a doorway.  It exploded into gas sufficient to fill the room.

She ran forward, and the fan built into her jacket stirred the gas around her, creating a volatile image while blurring her general silhouette.  It might have made her harder to spot if close enough to see through the cloud of gas and whatever it did to your eyes, but it may also have had the issue of creating a general cloud of ‘she’s somewhere in this area’ disruption for those looking from further away or outside the cloud.

Something to mention.

Withdrawal slid into the room.  Caryatid was full breaker, her face constantly unfolding in a neverending series of layers, her movements a mover slide across the floor in very straight lines.

Colt, fully breaker, flew through, and she didn’t seem bothered by the smoke.  Where it had been a yellow-green before, it now glowed from within with a deep silver-traced purple.

Love Lost was last in, along with the two Mortari capes.  Love Lost wore tinted goggles that were shaped like cat’s eyes, her modified mask over her lower face.

The Mortari capes had the masks with the mouthpieces.  A girl with a single Oni horn at the corner of her forehead, wires tracing from the band at the nose to the corner of the eye, and covering the eye so that it appeared to be entirely red.

A guy with opaque lenses over the eyes, multiple holes in each lens, and a mouthpiece nearly lost in his thick beard, with two tusks built in that stuck out of the corners of his mouth.

I couldn’t see how they were doing, but they didn’t seem to be doing badly.

“Heads up!” Imp shouted.

I flew.

Her group had gone straight ahead to the next room.  There was already a cape on the floor, and two more people unconscious next to Imp.  The Heartbroken were tearing through the other guards.  The gear they had was all decorated with what looked like broken black-tinted glass that glowed from within.

More of Mortari’s new capes were fighting, but they seemed content to hold back, maintaining control over the situation.  Two guys turned on Chastity, who was already preoccupied, and one of the Mortari capes shot one with what looked like a series of six harpoons.  The other Mortari cape hit another.

Larger numbers than we’d had at the loading dock, and men with masks were charging into the corridor to the right, then right-turning again to duck the fog of gas where Fume Hood’s group was fighting.

The one in the lead wheeled around, and backhanded one of his fellow guards in his effort to reverse course and push forward.

Roman laughed, made a sound like a wordless taunt, almost a ‘Nyeh’, and then charged forward.

Bigger, fully armored, and wielding a mace of broken glowing glass, the guard lasted about two seconds.

I crashed into the guards that had almost been bowled over by the other guy, including the one who had been backhanded.  I wasn’t gentle, but I wasn’t cruel either, and I managed to avoid any more surprise bites.

“Fume!  Love Lost.”

“We’re fine.  Almost done,” I heard.

So was Imp’s crew.  The only holdout was Samuel.  The blond heartbroken.  He wasn’t anywhere near as confident a fighter as Roman, nor as tricky as Juliette, and when he hit his opponent, they didn’t stay down like they did for Chastity.  She was cuffing people and slapping them to wake them up.

Samuel fought like someone without powers.  Shaky, nervous, hesitant, barely dodging, though his reflexes were good.  His costume was similar, not nearly as bold or ornate, a black decorative fitting around the eyes and nose.  A slim-fitting jacket that made me think a bit of March, if somewhat more classy and outright ‘villain’.  Stylized epaulets like the decorations on the mask, a sash across the chest, black jacket with silver decoration, and white gloves.

He kept going after the same places.  A kick or punch to the lower stomach, a kick to the leg.

Roman ran, lunged, and leaped, tackling the guy to the ground.  A sharp strike knocked the guy out.

“You gotta let me do my thing,” Samuel said.

“You gotta not take forever,” Roman told him.

“You were taking a while,” Chastity said.  “I knocked out and tied up three people and you didn’t even get to first base with that guy.”

“Don’t use that metaphor,” Samuel protested.  He looked to Imp.

“Crying to mommy?” Juliette asked.

“I’m not your mom.  Thank God for that,” Imp said.  “Leave him alone.”

“It’d be nice if I could use my power,” Samuel said.

“Yeah.  It’d be nice.  Try to be quicker about it,” she told him.

Geez.  Show a hint of weakness, and these guys just didn’t let up.  It looked so stressful.

But it was their dynamic.  I wasn’t going to correct it.  For one thing, I couldn’t be sure they wouldn’t all turn on me.

Love Lost and Fume Hood emerged from the other room, wisps of gas still clinging to them and taking a while to dissipate.

We were done.  All three rooms cleared, two of them had been guarded.  This area wasn’t residential, and it was a rec room, training hall, and briefing room for guards.  There would be more of the same nearby, if it held to the assumed pattern.

“Victoria,” Capricorn said.  “Big room off to the side.”

“Storage?”

He shook his head, at the same time as Sveta nodded behind him.

“Show me.”

After clearing the room, and checking the terminals they’d gone to the door.  The terminals now showed images of Lookout’s mask.  As for the door, Rain was there, crouching.  He’d taken out an eye thing and pushed it through the door before plugging his phone in.  He showed me what was on the other side, using the phone as a screen.

It was supposed to be our route.  Our plotted path had numerous points which were suggested as low-threat and high-supply.  Places we were supposed to establish as base camps if we got far enough in, as we besieged this city-sized complex.

Except low-threat hadn’t been low-threat.  The area had been renovated and repurposed in the renovations, because of different needs or because Teacher was a different person.

And this wasn’t storage of the kind we could fall back on and use.  Not food, not water, nothing medical.

Imp pushed closer, and I turned to check.  The other squads were behind us, all ready.

“They’re not there,” Samuel said.

“What?” I asked.

He pointed into the room.  “Nothing there, emotion-wise.”

“You have friends,” Roman told Juliette.

She shrugged.

“I mean… I don’t think there’s anything there, even outside of emotions.”

“Yeah.  I’m not getting a buzz telling me my power is working,” Imp said, which startled me a bit.  She was standing in the open doorway.

Then, not using her power, she walked out into the space where hundreds of people sat on benches and on, for lack of a better word, shelves.  Ambulatory people walked between them, stiff and joyless, and gave each water, then food.  One was collecting people, taking them away in groups.

None were aware enough to see us.

Hundreds of people, in an area as long as a soccer field.

Hostages for Teacher, or people he could potentially wake up to send after us.  We couldn’t move forward with this behind us.

Love Lost’s claws clicked as she walked on the floor.  Fume Hood followed a few steps behind, as we fanned out a bit, staying within arm’s reach of one another.

There were kids, dressed in white, staring off into space, opening their mouths as someone spooned food in or offered water.

“What the fuck are we supposed to do with all of this?” Fume Hood asked, voicing my thoughts exactly.

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Dying – 15.a

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Crystal

Where are you, Victoria?

Crystal resisted the urge to fidget.  PRTCJ Oversight was stretched so thin that they weren’t taking calls or clarifying orders, and with only a brief text telling her to go here and handle things, she had no idea if she was here in an official or personal capacity.  Whichever it was, she knew fidgeting wasn’t something she was supposed to do.

Officially, she placed herself on the sidewalk, as close to the armed personnel as she was comfortable getting, back straight, hands behind her back, wearing her PRTCJ jacket with her icon and her bodysuit.  She projected calm and confidence, and remained ready to intervene with forcefield or lasers if anything happened between the armed guards at the building entrance and the gathered civilians on the street.

It was cold, but her costume was good quality and warm, made of a thicker material that softened the lines of her body somewhat.  It was her nose and ears that got cold, even with earmuffs on and mostly hidden by her hair, her face turned away from the strident wind.

On any other day or circumstance she might have used her forcefield to block that wind, but the people at the building entrance were from Shin and they didn’t like powers.

In a personal capacity, she had tried to be friendly, to open discussion, and answer questions for people.  People had been notified and given the impression that the prisoners would be out soon.  Two hours ago.  As a form of compromise, considering the shitty weather, she’d offered to text everyone on a list as soon as people emerged, so the worried friends, family and teammates could wait in a nearby coffee shop or store.  Only half had taken her up on the offer.

She was trying to piece together who was here for who.

She knew Erin, though she didn’t know Erin.  The girl had ducked off to a coffee shop.  Rain would be pleased, she imagined.  Less pleased that Lachlan was with her.

Then there was the gang of creepiness made manifest.  Eerie to see them hanging out, all just slightly off.  She imagined that one kid in a classroom, who was weird or offbeat, traumatized or with a weird home life, who an objective observer would choose as the odd one out.  Except they were all like that.  The one who was too quiet and unwilling to make eye contact.  The touchy-feely one with a poor sense of boundaries.  One who laughed a little too loud.  The sullen one who looked ready to pick a fight if someone so much as dropped a pen.  The one who wore makeup that didn’t suit her age or the circumstance, who brimmed with nervous energy.  The robot who looked too placid at all times, even when others erupted or got agitated near him.

All lanky, with fine boned faces, straight noses, and pouty lower lips, most with heads of black hair that straddled the line between curly and wavy, with some exceptions for the one blond guy or the girl and her brother with straighter hair.  All dressed in expensive clothes, in a city where expensive clothes were really expensive: three to five times more expensive at a baseline as what it might have been before Gold Morning.

Eerie, too, because she had run into them in the years before Gold Morning.  They were growing up.  Some had left, by the looks of it, but most had stayed.

There were parents.  She recognized Vista’s.  She had talked to Tristan and Byron’s, answering questions and sending them to the coffee shop.  Mr. Vera looked old, and he wasn’t really that old in reality.  Good looking in a dad way, graying hair, lined face combined with a younger, athletic frame.  It broke her heart in a few ways, just talking to the man.  Because some of that age and weariness was because of the events of the last few years weighing heavily on him, wearing him down and costing him sleep.  She saw it in his eyes, a perpetual sadness or pain.

Trigger events didn’t just affect the one person, after all.  He’d lost one half of two sons when the brothers had triggered, years ago.  From the way he’d talked, he was here for only one son, which made her think of Carol.  She didn’t know the full details, but she was pretty sure the circumstances were different here.  Carol hadn’t been so wounded or sad about it, when she’d taken the stance.

It broke her heart too, because this sad old man made her think of dad.  Mr. Vera was a reminder that her mental measure of a father was broken.  Hers would remain perpetually frozen, locked at a certain age, a certain posture, a certain tone and sound of voice.  Just like her measure of a little brother, or her measure of a mom.

She blinked a few times in rapid succession, to clear her eyes and focus on the situation.

Mrs. Vera was younger, petite, and had locks of white hair in an otherwise young complexion and hair.  From the way she’d fawned over Crystal and brought her a coffee a half hour ago, and her general nurturing demeanor, dropping in the occasional Spanish word, she made Crystal think of a woman destined to be a great grandmother one day.  She spent a while talking to Tribute, one of the Shepherds.

There were others, but they’d turned up after she had set up position on the sidewalk, and they didn’t look as approachable as the Veras had.

She waited, keeping hands clenched together, an empty coffee cup held between two fingers.

She tensed as soldiers emerged from the portal station, walking straight over to the guards on duty.

Come on, come on.

The first of the group emerged.  Chief Armstrong, Ashley, and Sveta.  Crystal pulled her phone out of her pocket and sent the alerts to everyone she’d promised to notify.

Vista met with her parents.  Crystal had talked to Vista enough to know the details.  Give even a hint of being on one parent’s side and a bystander could earn the lasting enmity and suspicion of the other.  Her dad had gotten cancer, her mom had slept with his brother instead of supporting him.  Her two dogs had both disappeared around the time he found out about the cheating, and that had been the start.

Ask him, even today, and he would be ready with an argument about how she couldn’t take care of him or her daughter so how could she take care of animals, he’d given them away to caring owners, she was a psychopath whore, and so on.  Ask her, and she would describe how he’d neglected their relationship and they’d been on the outs for a long time before she cheated, he refused to give any proof he’d given her dogs away and not killed them…  It was the same for every set of incidents thereafter.  Neither had wanted to move from the family home because that made getting an eventual share of the house in the divorce harder, and neither had wanted to initiate the divorce because they’d believed in their own righteousness enough that a ‘fair’ divide of assets wouldn’t be enough- they had to break down the other.  So they’d stayed together and lived in the same house for a year before even initiating the separation, while having fights loud enough that police had been called.  All with a ten year old girl caught in the midst of it.

Later, a frustrated judge had found what he thought was a compromise: that the house would remain unsold, with Vista remaining in one place while the parents alternated a paired custody of house and Vista, each parent maintaining a separate residence they would be in when not taking care of Vista and the house.  Bad fucking idea, when competing renovations, rearrangement of furniture and things, and other passive hostility came into play.  The divorce hadn’t happened until a few years into it.

Crystal knew the line Vista was giving to her parents, as she put a hand out, refusing the hug.  Not while I’m in costume.  Because it was easier to go without.

Just behind Vista, Victoria emerged, Aunt Carol leaning on her shoulder.  No Uncle Mark.

Crystal’s hands crushed the cup behind her as her heart sank in that horrible way that made her think of how things at deep enough ocean depths could collapse under the pressures.  The expressions on the pair’s faces did absolutely nothing that would buoy, that enabled her to breathe again.

Choked, worried, she let them approach her instead of approaching.  She forced a small smile to her face.  Nothing she’d regret, if there was bad news.

Victoria had a bandaged hand again.  She was doing such a terrible job of managing her forcefield these days, in a way that made Crystal worry.  Victoria was- Crystal stopped as she processed the thought, and that crushing pressure didn’t go away as she realized what it was.  Victoria had the same look as the prematurely aged Mr. Vera had.  Carol simply looked tired.

“Hey,” Victoria said.  She let go of Aunt Carol, made sure she was stable, then gave Crystal a hug.

“What happened?” Crystal asked, hugging back.  “Where’s Uncle Mark?”

“He’s staying behind, to keep an eye on Amy,” Aunt Carol said.

He’s alive, Crystal thought.  She could breathe again, even with the tight hug.  The sunken, crushed feeling could gradually make its way to the surface now.

“And you?” Crystal asked her aunt, talking over Victoria’s shoulder.

“I’m fine.  I’m not combat-ready, but I can get there on my own from here.”

“That’s good.  But you left early?”

“It’s dangerous over there.  Sentiment.  Mark can handle himself and I’m more liability than asset.  If I’m out here, I can get Mark out when it’s time, if things don’t get better, and I can keep in contact.”

“He’s prisoner?”

Carol answered, “He’s something close to being a prisoner.  He’ll be fine if it’s like this, I think.  Their politics are more focused on each other than on us, now.  They made an attempt to paint us in a bad light and that was shut down.  Victoria and her team did well.  The Founders and Coalition are reasserting control of things.  More of yesterday’s status quo, as far as we’re concerned.”

“That’s good,” Crystal said.  “I think.”

“It’s good,” Aunt Carol said.  “You look like you’re frozen inside and out.”

“I am, if I’m honest.  Do you want to eat somewhere we can warm up and catch up on details, or…”

She stopped.

“Vic?” she asked.  She rubbed Victoria’s back with her hand.

No change in the tightness of the hug, no change in breathing, barely a movement.

She looked at Aunt Carol, helpless, not sure what to say or do.  Aunt Carol didn’t have anything to offer, her head turned to look at others, and Crystal had no idea if that was on purpose or by happenstance.

“Vic.  You okay?”

Victoria broke the hug.  Crystal got a better look at her cousin, and saw a hundred-yard stare, gaze averted, fingernails digging into the coat sleeve over forearm.  The Victoria she’d seen after Gold Morning, who was still re-learning day to day life.

By herculean measure over a span of a second or two, a rapid-fire set of tiny step-by-steps, Victoria adjusted posture, body language, and reasserted focus, then eye contact.  To reassert the facade Victoria of last week, instead, if a more tired one.

“I’m okay.”

“What happened?”

“A lot,” Victoria said.  “Food sounds good.  Something quick?  There’s stuff that needs attention.”

“You need attention.  Can you catch me up on things over food?  I’ll treat.”

“Maybe another time, for the catching up,” Victoria said.  “The Wardens apparently need help.”

“Victoria,” Crystal said, her tone a warning.

“I have to.  I need to,” Victoria said, and the words were accompanied by another set of micro-adjustments.  Posture, body language, footing, a hand going to hair, a movement of the chin.  Like someone getting ready to have their photo taken, but this presentation was something taught with the idea it would be worn at all times, if possible.  A heroine could have video footage or a photo taken at any time.

Crystal looked at Aunt Carol.

Aunt Carol didn’t remark on a bit of it, but Crystal could imagine she found a bit of pride, energy, or personal power in how Victoria summoned up her own strength and then armored that strength in image.  Carol’s remark was innocuous, “Food sounds good.  I think the heroes are rendezvousing at the Warden’s, they’d appreciate us bringing stuff.”

“Okay,” Crystal said, giving Victoria a worried look.  But she no longer had the ability to accurately read her cousin.

Only that lingering sinking feeling.

Erin

“I didn’t think you’d come,” Rain said.  He had the hood of his costume up under the hood of his jacket, hands jammed in his pockets.

“Of course I’d come.  You called,” she told him, as she approached.  “Kind of.  It was a weird by-proxy sort of thing, huh?”

“It was- a Kenzie thing.”

Erin smiled.  “Is the critter okay?”

“She’s okay.  Got a bloody nose earlier, but we kept her safe.  She was asking who we wanted to see when we got out-”

They’d had to navigate around the mob of Heartbroken, and only just now found themselves facing one another.

“-and I didn’t realize she was actually arranging anything until she’d sent out the messages.  Didn’t mean to inconvenience.”

Impulsively, she stepped forward and gave Rain a hug.  With the layers he wore and the layers she wore, it was more a squish of outer clothing than bodily contact.

And the poor guy looked like he needed a hug.

His answer to the hug was delayed, as he had to pluck hands out of pockets first, figure out what he was doing, and then put his arms around her, just at the point she was breaking contact.

His hands dropped back to his sides nearly as soon as he’d raised them, then found his pockets again.

He had a cut beneath his eye and a bruise on the side of his face.  She reached up to brush a thumb lightly across the bruise, before dropping her hand.  “You got battered.”

“Always,” he said.  “Got ambushed by guards and prisoners.  Then there was a prison riot this time.”

“It’s a really good skill to know, being able to take a punch.”

He smiled.

She leaned a bit closer, like she was telling him a secret, “It’s an even better skill to know how to avoid the punch.”

He smiled more.  “Oh.  So that’s what I’ve been missing.”

“Apparently.”

“It means a lot that you came,” he said.

“Stop.  Stop mentioning it.  I’ll come whenever you call, okay?  I know you’ll come if I call.”

He nodded.

“It’s not something you’re used to, huh?” she asked.

“Not in the slightest.”

“You’re on the side of good, you’re an actual hero-” she stopped as she saw him immediately start shaking his head.  “You are!  You are.”

“Nah.”

“You helped stop the Fallen.  You’ve helped out.  You’re putting your neck on the line.  You deserve some backup and support.  I’m happy to be that.  Now don’t say no or argue with me.  Just say ‘thanks’.”

“Thanks,” he said.

She rubbed his arm, encouraging, which made her realize her fingers were getting numb.  “Oof, chilly.  Want to head inside for a coffee?  We can watch out the window and if you need to go with your team you can bail then.”

“Yeah.  Coffee sounds good,” he said.

Battered and bruised as he was, he seemed more whole.  The Rain of even a few months ago had been like a starved stray, kicked too many times, ranging from wounded to desperate for any hint of affection to the very rare burst of surprising anger.  Never directed at her.

Thinking about bursts of emotion and desperation, of where they’d been months ago, she thought of the bedroom, of the proposed marriage.

If there was anything she admired about Rain, it was his ability to deal.  She didn’t feel like she had that.  When things went to shit, she found herself at a complete loss, not even sure how to feel, because she couldn’t process the situation enough to even summon up initial feelings, or because the feelings overflowed and flowed into one another.

Thinking about that scene, her lowest point, it was one of those no-deals.  An incomplete feeling in her chest, that could be the seed of anger, resentment, love, hate, horror, shame, appreciation, or pain.  If he’d said yes then they’d be together now, she was pretty sure.  It would have been ten times more messed up then but things would be better now.  But he’d dealt with it his way, even if it hadn’t felt like dealing at the time, when the outcome had been so in question.

And he’d dealt after.  He’d thrown himself into a serious battle, even with threats against his life.  He’d killed a man.  He and his team and his assembled allies had won.

Before she could wrestle with feelings and realize that incomplete no-deal non-feeling was impossible to budge, he’d gone off to prison.  The first time.

Then Lachlan had needed help.

“You didn’t wait long?” Rain asked.

She shook her head.

“Nobody bothered you?”

“No.  Who would bother me?  The Heartbroken?”

“Kinda.  I wouldn’t rule it out,” he said, looking back.

“Chastity has my back,” she replied, while joining Rain in looking back at the assembled people.

“She’s a good one,” was his response.

The kids barely warranted a glance.  It was Capricorn’s parents who caught her eye.  Golem with his foster family.  Even Vista, a little more standoffish with her parents.

Erin’s parents were still Fallen, even though the Fallen were no more.  They weren’t alone.  A lot of others were out there.

The envy she felt was heavy in her chest.  It wasn’t a no-deal feeling, that felt like it could become something overwhelming but never did.  It was just overwhelming.

She looked away, looked at Rain.

“You’re limping.”

“From when the guards jumped me.  Someone kicked me in the side of the knee.”

“Lean on me,” she said.  She moved around to his other side.  He rested some of his weight on her, though she suspected not as much as he could have.

Those uneasy, incomplete feelings didn’t budge at the physical contact, and the fact she was touchy-feely by default didn’t seem to impact that.  It made her wonder if this set of feelings would be with her the rest of her life, never resolved, caught in a kind of limbo inside of her.

Lachlan had a seat reserved.  He raised a hand in greeting, and to indicate where he was.

Rain was so good at taking his lumps that she could glance at him now and have less than zero idea if he was bothered by Lachlan’s presence.

Which was shitty.  He deserved better than active poking and prodding until he showed a reaction.  But she couldn’t bring herself to broach the subject.

Lachlan, at least, was easy.

The shop was mostly empty, but the people who were present paid attention to Lachlan.  He’d been in the media enough that his face was recognizable.  He left his things at the table and joined them, where Rain was getting into line.

“Hey Lachlan,” Rain said.  “We good?”

Lachlan glanced at Erin, then nodded at Rain.  “Yeah.”

Lachlan still had programming he was working through.  The way he described it, his first thought was always pro-Fallen, his second thought was a contradiction.

Rain had attacked the Fallen, and so Lachlan’s first thought was one of enmity.

“What have you been up to?” Rain asked.  “Sorry you came out here for my sake.”

“Nah.  Good to get out and away.  Uh, been getting into leatherworking,” Lachlan said.  “Talked to you about it ages ago.”

“I remember,” Rain said.  “I’m itching to get into something like that, but there’s never time, and when there is time I have tinkering to do.”

“Made a wallet, let me show you.  I’m working on a rucksack now-”

Lachlan fished out the wallet, and showed Rain.

“The edges are rounded.”

“There’s a tool for that.  A few, actually…”

Good boys, Erin thought to herself, as they got more into it, even as she rolled her eyes a bit.  Rain had to break from the chatter to order his coffee, and stopped in the middle of that to check his phone.

“Team’s calling,” he said.  To the person at the counter, he said, “Can I get, I don’t know, six more coffees?  And a bunch of pastries.  Whichever, a variety.”

“Sorry you have to go,” Erin said.

“Me too.  Another time?” he asked her.  When she nodded, he looked at Lachlan.  “Another time?”

There was hesitation, a pause as Lachlan thought about it.  Then nods from Lachlan, that lasted a second or two too long, like once he got started he forgot the usual length of a nod or the normal niceties, because he’d had to push to get there.

But he was trying and Rain was trying, and she appreciated it.

“See you soon,” she asked, as he collected the coffees and things, added sets of hands reaching out of his sleeves to hold things steady.

“Guaranteed,” he told her.

Chastity

At the door to the station, Kenz peeled away from Ashley to make a run toward her other team.  Candy, Darlene, and Aiden all ran up to her, and with an exception to Aiden, who moved through the area near Chastity like a breeze might blow against her skin, her power didn’t register her siblings, who were like black mice running through darkness.

As headlong as the runs toward reuniting were, the kids seemed to hit an invisible wall, as Kenzie stopped so abruptly she hopped on the spot to get her balance.

“I want to hug you all so bad,” Kenzie said.  “But Victoria told me to wind it back.  It hurts-”

She reached out, staggering a bit like a zombie.  Abruptly, she stopped, looking around with a smile.  “What?  You cut me off?”

“Darlene cut all of us off,” Aiden said.

“Now that we know you’re safe,” Darlene told them.  “We were worried, what the heck?”

“But you did so good.  We did so good!  That was teamwork and you followed my cues, and you helped me tinker, and we saved the day!”

“I was worried, you toad!” Darlene said, giving Kenzie a light push.  Chastity stepped forward to put an arm out, forearm braced against Darlene’s collarbone.

Kenzie regained her balance.  “Sorry.”

“None of that was fun,” Aiden said.  He reconsidered, “Almost none of it.”

“No,” Kenzie agreed, smiling slightly.  “But it means a lot to me that you guys had my back.”

“Of course we did,” Candy said.  “We’re a team.”

The smile dropped from Kenzie’s face.  She fidgeted, nodded.

The girl wore her costume suit, with abbreviated jacket and dress over bodysuit, and a camouflaged face that wasn’t quite her own, her helmet tucked under her arm.  She looked so lost and lonely, but she always looked lost and lonely to Chastity.  Even when she was surrounded by people, like someone starved, given a mouthful of nourishment, and left all the more aware of how hungry they were.

Chastity had seen that, once upon a time.  The woman- she couldn’t remember the name, because she’s just been ‘mama’ to Jean-Paul, Cherie, and Darlene, and a face in a small crowd to the rest, but she’d offended papa.  It was because she was sick and she couldn’t go get medications as long as she stayed with papa, but as far as he was concerned, she didn’t deserve to eat.  When the woman finally had been allowed to, she’d been almost animal, food on her face, desperate, eating so much she threw up.  Papa had insisted everyone laugh at her and mock her.

That had been back when she’d been pregnant with Darlene, now that Chastity thought about it.  It might explain why Darlene had always been a little smaller than the rest.

Chastity hoped the woman was doing okay now.  Whatever her name was.  From that day until she’d left the house, she had been anxious about food.

Kenzie, at least, wasn’t that bad.  But Chastity saw that anxiousness in her.

Sacre,” Chastity said.  “The situation is appropriate.  I think you can hug.  Get it out of your systems.”

She didn’t miss that Kenzie waited for Aiden to make the first move before joining the four-way hug.

Chastity backed off, letting them talk and catch up, asking questions.  The hug stopped but the physical contact didn’t, as they huddled together.  Darlene held Kenzie’s hand and didn’t let go.

Rain was waltzing off with his gal pal, Erin.  He had mentioned her before, and in her search to alleviate boredom and get a break from way too much time spent with annoying younger siblings, Chastity had struck up a conversation with the girl.

She was a good sort.  Not necessarily a good sort for Rain, but Chastity was willing to admit she might be biased.

Others had family.  Victoria, Capricorn, Vista, Golem had a girlfriend and family present.

Well, Vista wasn’t exactly engaged, and Chastity had caught Vista’s father looking at her cleavage earlier, but all in all

She stepped away from it.

Crisse, she wanted a smoke.  She’d picked it up as a kid and quit when the world ended.  Part of her motivation had been that cigarettes stank, and boys didn’t like girls who stank.  Except now, every time she thought about wanting a cigarette, she felt the pang alongside the reminder she was alone.

That feeling of being alone was in and of itself a trap, something that got her heart racing if she dwelt on it.  It made her think of being one of the mamas, bound to some loser like papa because they had nowhere else to go, or being cast away with no prospects and minimal chances at a normal life.

Which wasn’t to say she wasn’t already fucked up, but it would be nice to try to force it.

The kids, Kenzie and Aiden included, were young enough they’d recover and find their way.  They had each other now.

She found a railing to lean against, and used her phone to send a message to Cassie.  The non-romantic yin to her yang, scruffy and bad with technology, she’d lose the cord to recharge her phone or forget to recharge despite having the cord, because she only ever used it to talk to Chastity or run errands.

But they were forever friends and that helped.  It changed Chastity’s worst case scenario to being old ladies together with Cass.

“Aww, but I thought Cahoot was great,” Aiden said, voice raised.

“Cahoot is terrible,” Chastity said.  “This is a cape name?  For who?”

“Dar.”

“Then it’s even more terrible.  Don’t be mean to Darlene, Chicken.”

“I’m not!  Names are hard, when so many are taken.  Darlene liked it, too!”

“Um.  I didn’t?”

“You didn’t?  But you seemed so pleased!”

“Volume down,” Chastity said.  I really want that cigarette.

“I was pleased you were so interested in picking a name for me, not in the name, exactly.”

“Then you need to say something.”

“We need to get help from Breakthrough,” Kenzie said.  “Capricorn was on a corporate team with a big brand focus, and Victoria really knows this stuff, and Ashley’s, uh, super cool.”

“I can hear you,” Ashley commented.  “Should I walk away?”

“No.  I don’t say anything I wouldn’t want anyone to overhear, and I’m saying you’re cool.  You’re the coolest person I know, and I know a lot of cool people.”

Ashley walked past Kenzie, putting a hand on top of her head, before walking away.

“I was thinking of Skinship as my name,” Darlene said.

“Yes,” Candy said, right away.

“If Candy says yes right away, you need to think twice,” Chastity pointed out.

“Aww.”

“We’ll run it by the experts at Breakthrough,” Kenzie said.

Chastity tuned out the conversation, turning her back to the group.  There wasn’t much management that was needed here.  It was a good set of least-bads in their best environments.

Ashley walked over and leaned against the railing next to her.  Chastity could feel her presence, the physiology, the general shape of her body, with arms that terminated at the wrists.

“Do me a favor?” Ashley asked.

“Sure.”

Ashley used her power, which momentarily interrupted the children’s conversation.  A flicker of darkness swept across the eyes, erasing pupils and irises both.

“How are my eyes now?”

“Pure white.  Coolest person indeed.”

“You’re too kind,” Ashley said, turning her face toward the kids, so she and Chastity faced completely different directions.  “Tell me they’re good for each other.”

“Who knows?  I can’t think of a single long term relationship among anyone I know that was ‘good’ for everyone involved,” Chastity said.

“Doesn’t have to be for the long term.  Right now, they’re good for each other?”

Oui,” Chastity said.  “Good enough.  When she’s with her team she misses Breakthrough.  When she’s with Breakthrough she can miss her team, unless she is connected and talking to them.”

“Yes,” Ashley murmured.

“But even now, surrounded by people she loves, she misses everyone.”

“You’ve been paying attention.”

“I’m a student of unhealthy relationships,” Chastity said.  “Especially those with my family members involved.”

“Your family member just kissed Chicken Little-”

Chastity whipped around so fast her snow-damp hair struck her own mouth.  She pushed it away.  “No kissing!”

“It was on the cheek!” Kenzie protested.  “It’s fine!”

“It was a friendly kiss!” Candy said.

“It’s a rule.  Time out,” Chastity said.  “It was you, Candy?”

“It was, but-”

Chastity reached for her waist.  The bullwhip unfurled.  Candy ceased protesting.

Chastity pointed, then watched while Candy trudged over to the side of the road, seating herself in the snow on the sidewalk, elbows on knees, hands on cheeks.

Some of the parents who were talking to their cape children looked at her, aghast.  They didn’t even know.

Darlene, meanwhile, mouthed the words ‘thank you’ to Chastity.

“It’s inevitable,” Ashley said.

“I worry this is unhealthy, but I think of the literal blood that can be shed if teasing or flirtation go a step too far…” Chastity trailed off.

“I’m glad she has it, even if some small amounts of blood get spilled in the meantime,” Ashley said.

“It won’t be a small amount.”

“I’m glad she has friends, whatever happens.  I do miss her terribly when she isn’t around.”

“And she misses you.  I’m similar with Candy, even if she doesn’t reciprocate.  I spent too long protecting her from our mamas and papa, I can’t let my guard down now.”

“It makes you lonely, doesn’t it?  Seeing them be… not as lonely?”  Ashley asked.

Chastity took a moment or five to answer, not because she needed to consider it, but because it hit her right in the center of the gut.

Oui.

“Kenzie isn’t coming for what comes next.  I won’t let her.  The others won’t need to worry.”

“She’s a target,” Chastity said.  “Tattletale keeps saying, Imp says, even her teammates seem to accept it as a law as fundamental as gravity.  She could be anywhere at all and she would be in as much danger as any of us on any day.”

Ashley nodded.  “Yes.”

Victoria made a hand motion, beckoning people to come closer.  Ashley pointed for Chastity’s sake, though Chastity had seen, and the two of them approached the huddle.  Chastity put her foot out, kicking Darlene lightly in the butt to get her attention.  A person could have been drawn and quartered ten feet from the huddle and it might not have distracted them from their conversation.

A motion of the hand gave Candy permission to exit time out.

Kenzie broke from her group to hug Ashley, walking with her and Chastity.

“Kenz,” Chastity said.  “You’re going to need to listen to Ashley here, even if it feels like you’re going to be left out.”

“I’m being left out?”

“We need to keep you safe,” Ashley said.

“If anything happened to you, it would hurt too many people.”

“I’m safest with my team,” Kenzie protested.

“You got a bloody nose,” Swansong said.

“A bit of one!  And I helped!”

“You being safe is part of the deal for you being on this team, and we don’t break that, agreed?”

Kenzie hemmed and hawed, until Ashley nudged her.

“Agreed.”

“We keep you in one piece.”

“Agreed,” Kenzie said, with a small smile.

Ray Vera

Byron returned from the washroom.  At Anita’s assistance, he’d removed his armor so she could hug him properly.  Byron had the sense to obey his mother’s whims.

Once Anita was done, Ray could finally speak to his son.

Mi hijo,” Ray said.  He brushed Byron’s hair back.  “Prison?  What is this madness?”

“It’s over and done with.  Posturing and politics.”

“Why you?”

“Because I’m out there.  We’re doing things.  We’re scary to some people.”

“It is scary,” Anita said.  “Parahumans.”

“Our son, Anita,” Ray said.  “Our sons.”

“I worry about the way things are going,” Anita said.  “It’s scary.  that’s all I’ll say.”

Ray wanted to say something more, but he didn’t.  When everything had gone wrong, he had tried to help the boys find answers, even as every action they took seemed to carry the boys further and further away.  In the end, Tristan had lost himself and Ray had been too far away to play a role in it, or even to recognize what was happening when they saw Tristan after.

Anita’s way of handling things was different.  Even here, Anita had been questions, questions, questions, fervor.  Questions for Crystal Dallon, questions for the other parents, asking how they handled this, what did they think about that?

But in her endless search for answers and sense, she accepted anything and everything, and the reality was that she could watch hours of video from online, every single day, about the parahumans and how laws and protections were needed.  She could only get minutes at a time of talking to people like the Birons or Crystal.

The former won out, and when those people were done convincing Anita that there were problems and that actions were needed, they started convincing her that the dangers were greater, the actions required more severe.  Here and there she would parrot off something and he would have to challenge her, ask her why this, or why that.  She would think about it and reconsider, but she would go back to those same videos.

But they gave her peace that she hadn’t had since Tristan had… done the unthinkable, really.  They made sense of a nonsensical world.  So he steered her when he could, and he grit his teeth in moments like this, where Byron was too quiet to challenge the statement.

Or because Byron agreed, but for different reasons.

It made Ray momentarily wish Tristan could join this conversation, because Tristan was brazen enough to challenge those things, to be bold and forward enough that holding the shakier views would be impossible.

“Are you well?  You weren’t hurt?”

Byron shook his head.  “Tristan was, just a little.”

Ray made a face.

“We were pleased you called for us.  We worried when we couldn’t reach you.”

“We thought we would enter and leave the same day.”

“You’ll have to call more frequently,” Anita told Byron.

“Ah.  Ahgh,” Byron said, the latter sound somewhere between the sound of a realization and the gurgle of a dying man.  “I call once a day.”

“We miss you.  We worry that this takes up all your time,” Ray pushed.  “It would mean a lot to your mother if we could hear more from you, hear that you’re… exploring life.”

“Meeting people who aren’t parahuman, to expand your horizons,” Anita added.  “Girls?”

“Aghh,” Byron made a faint sound.  He looked like he was going to say something, then didn’t.

Anita wasn’t one to miss that.  “Who?”

“Nobody.  Nothing.”

“Is it Brianna?  She was a good, beautiful girl, with the best heart.  I know she’s still around.”

Mom.

Anita put her hands on either side of Byron’s face.  “I want the best for you.  Te quiero.”

“I love you too, mom.”

“Tell me about this girl.”

“I never said there was a girl.  Even if there was, right now it’s too complicated.  With Tristan.”

She made a face.  “You’re putting your life on hold.  There has to be a way.  If he needs a… whatever kind of boy he likes, you can have this girl you like, you figure out a way.”

“I am absolutely not talking about this with you.  And Tristan likes brainy guys.”

“You will talk about it with me,” Anita said, pushing past the mention of Tristan.  “I’m your mother.”

The blonde girl, Victoria Dallon, made a small whistle, signaling.  She was close enough to hear, as she raised her voice, “Got a call, we’re being asked to come in!”

“So soon,” Anita said.

“If you hadn’t made me change-” Byron said.

“No blaming,” Ray told him.  “There’s too much of it these days.”

“No blame,” Byron said.  “Yeah.”

“Anita,” Ray said.  “Before they go, I want a moment alone with him.”

“Do you want a divorce?” she asked.  “Because I get little enough of him without you wanting exclusive time.  We share our own children.”

“Anita.  It’s important.”

Anita huffed.

“Byron will make it up to you by calling twice a day for the next short while.”

“I’ll what?”

“As a consequence of taking so long to tell us what was happening here.”

“I was trapped in prison in another dimension, no phones, and I still managed to let you know in a pretty reasonable span of time.”

“You missed your daily call.”

“I was in prison.  I still got in touch, I- I’ve got to go.”

“You’re smart, you have a capable team, Byron,” Ray said.  “And stay, let me have a word, por favor?”

“Only because I love you guys.”

“You’ll call twice, every day for the next two weeks,” Anita said.

“Next few days.”

Anita wanted to protest, but Ray ushered her away.

“I’ll be at the car, nursing a grudge,” she told Ray.

“I understand.”

She walked away.  Some of the more distant people like the group at the coffee shop were just leaving.

Ray waited until Anita was gone.  He looked at Byron.  Byron, who had worried him so much when he was young, because he had never flourished.  Part of that was living in his brother’s shadow.  Part was because Byron wasn’t a flower or anything of the sort.  A flower bloomed in visible ways, while Byron was encapsulated in a shell, the metamorphosis happening within, in small steps that only Byron noticed.

And somehow, without anyone realizing, he became this wonderful young man, noble and strong in his own way.  Perhaps Ray’s first thought when he thought hero.

Sentiment in an emotional time, surrounded by other people reuniting with loved ones and catching up with colleagues, maybe.

But he’d had so many regrets when he thought this boy had died in battle.

“I could not be more proud of you,” Ray told his son.

Byron seemed to be at a loss for words.

“Except perhaps if you called your mother more.”

Byron smiled.  A rare treasure.

“May I speak to Tristan?”

“Thought that was why you wanted mama gone,” Byron said.  He blurred, features twisting, the lines of the blurs distorting the boundary between the boys before settling into Tristan’s outline.

Byron hadn’t been wearing a jacket, and Tristan wasn’t either, but Tristan seemed to immediately feel the cold.

More pronounced by the cold was his reaction to seeing Ray.  He looked away.

“If you want to talk, I know it’s hard, but we’re there.  If you want to write a letter, we will gladly read it.  I miss you.”

“Mama doesn’t,” Tristan said, still not making eye contact.

“Mama has complicated feelings.  I think complicated feelings are forigvable, aren’t they?”

Tristan’s hands kept going to his dyed hair, trying to fix something that didn’t need fixing.

The hair and its brilliant pink was just an extension of Ray’s feelings toward Tristan as a whole.  There had been a time he fully understood his boy, lasting well beyond the point that a parent normally had a firm grip on their children.  Then he had seen how excited young Tristan was to see certain characters on his favorite show, the internet searches-

Madre de dios, the internet searches.

He’d understood Tristan less fully then, but he’d made efforts.  He’d reconciled.  The divide had really started at the hair, it was strange and it was wholly Tristan.

What he’d done to his brother… it was the same.  Strange and wholly of Tristan, understandable without being relatable.  And it had seemingly put their boy forever out of reach.

“You’re being good to your brother?”

“For once, I might be,” Tristan said, avoiding eye contact.  “But I don’t trust my own opinion on the matter.  You’d have to ask him.”

“You’re being good to yourself?”

“Trying.”

“This girl that Byron likes, is she good?”

“I’m not sure he likes her.  But she’s good.”

“And these brainy boys you like-”

Dios mio,” Tristan said, smiling for the first time.  “Byron knew he was throwing me under the fucking bus with that line-“

“Language,” Ray said, stern.  He reached his hand up, and tapped fingers against Tristan’s cheek in the lightest possible version of a slap.  He kept his fingers there for a moment, then dropped them to the back of Tristan’s neck, holding firm.

Tristan made eye contact for the first time.

“I miss my sons.  Reach out.  Make the effort.  It would mean the world to her.”

“She might say she doesn’t want to see me.”

“She might.  Twenty years with her, and I don’t know for sure, myself.  But you got yourself into this.  Having to brave this is the price you pay.  Just know you don’t need to wonder with me.  Byron says he forgives you?  I can manage it.”

Tristan nodded, looking away again.

“Call.”

“After all of this.  I have to focus on things, and technically, I have to go-”

“After.  Don’t break our hearts,” Ray said, giving his son a shake, by way of the grip on the back of his neck.

“After,” Tristan said.

Ray dropped his hand.

He watched his sons walk away with the heaviest of hearts, Tristan disappearing as Byron appeared, an exchange of muttered words, one brother to another, and then Byron disappearing, as Tristan appeared…

Number Lad #4

As the people filed into the room, Number Four scribbled the 4,444th iteration of the kanji for ‘Shi’ on a piece of paper, each last one precise.

Citrine and the rest of the background capes were all present and organized as Breakthrough joined.  The group sat at the front of the room, closest to the door, and Heartbroken children filed in after to sit behind Lookout.

Four’s attention was on Sveta Karelia.  The ex-Case Fifty-Three.  Perhaps.  It was hard to say if she qualified.  But he watched over the top of his glasses as the other Number Boys talked or scribbled their own notations on their pads of paper.

Others in his set looked too, timing the looks in a way that had been calculated to avoid drawing her attention.  In their synchronicity, however, they drew a few weird looks.  Kurt looked at them, disapproving.

She had asked, once upon a time, who she was.  She, according to other Case Fifty-Threes, had killed Doctor Mother, and for everyone in his set, Doctor Mother was someone they remembered without remembering.  She slipped into their heads in dreams and was easiest to see if they didn’t dwell on her.

She had once asked Number Zero who she was.

Now she had gone and reinvented herself.

Others were joining as well.  Stragglers, B-listers, capes with issues.

Five thousand, two hundred and twelve parahumans had attended the final confrontation against Scion.  Two-thirds of them had survived, with the majority of the losses occurring in the period after Doormaker had shut down, but before Khepri had achieved strategic control.

Of those two-thirds, roughly half had remained in Earth Gimel, stretched out over an area ranging from Maine to Boston to the old New York.  Forty percent of those capes were heroes or something close enough to count, and eighty percent of the remainder had scaled down, retired, shifted priorities or sought lower-profile hero work, at least in the short term.

Advance Guard, Foresight, The Shepherds, and the Attendant had captured a lion’s share of the remainder who wanted higher-profile hero work.  Taking control over jurisdictions, they managed the smaller teams while training their elite forces, often with a specialized squad or a series of squads.  The Wardens had handpicked some for specialized needs or because those members were just good.

Except they’d gone silent.  All zeroes on every frequency.  Not that good, perhaps.

Those who gathered now weren’t necessarily the elite or the most capable.  They included capes coming out of permanent or partial retirement, friends and colleagues, and those who hadn’t been able to attend due to other requirements.

Breakthrough had been in prison.

Advance Guard had a sub-team that had been handling a mission they couldn’t jeopardize.

The Shepherds had benched some members.

The teams under the umbrellas of the four primary teams like the Navigators or the Major Malfunctions were now sending people to shore up numbers and support.  People they saw as friends had gone in to wage a war and those friends hadn’t returned.  They’d go the extra mile now.

It was more convenient to not have any friends at all.

“I’m glad you’re here,” Jeanne said.  “I heard things were resolved.”

“More or less,” Capricorn answered.  “We’ll see how things are tomorrow or next week.”

“I’m sorry it came to that.  I hope my efforts were some assistance.”

“They were, thank you.”

“I’d like to start,” Cinereal said.

With that, she had the attention of the room.

“A few hours ago, our precogs and danger sensers gave us our best numbers yet for an attack on Teacher’s facility.  Many members of Warden leadership, Advance Guard, Foresight, and the Shepherds entered.  We received regular status updates-”

She indicated a digital map of the facility.  Second by second, it showed dots moving through the building.  Rooms changed color from red to green as they were cleared.   Some turned to bright green as they became base camps and retreat points for the attacking capes.

“-until around this point.  Radio signals became intermittent, then stopped, all in the span of seconds.  We made enough progress to attack what we’ve termed the gallery, with the character assassination groupings.  Buildings were scattered and to the best of our knowledge the people and groups that were being used to access our media and track us from remote locations were captured or disrupted.  We need to make a push, at the very least to establish what happened.”

“Mortari is willing to offer its assistance,” Jeanne said.  “I’m going to put this as bluntly as I can.  We have assets, resources that took weeks, months, or years to gather together.  We are giving you these assets.  In another world, we would have liked to keep these in our back pocket until another Scion-level event, should something like that happen.  Or if the Kronos titan were to attack.  But we’re not, because we believe this is essential.”

“What resources?  More murderous kids?”

The voice came from the lone Case Fifty-Three in the room.  Sveta Karelia.

“If you’d stand?” Jeanne asked, looking to another end of the room.

Behind Number Four, four rows of capes stood from their seats.  All wore crisp uniform costumes, derived from a singular theme.

“You had more vials,” Sveta said.

“We tracked them down some time ago.”

Sveta shook her head.

She might kill Jeanne, like she did Doctor Mother.

Four met Three’s eyes, as Three looked over.  Three was thinking the same thing.  Dreams were vivid, and there was enough empty space between the falsely created memories for things to be filled in and elaborated on.  The death of their old boss was one such thing.

Care would need to be taken.

“We need to know who’s willing to work with us.”

“Will you be participating?” another cape asked.  One from the Shepherds.

“I will.  My husband will.  Frankly, Dragon went in ready to fight Saint and we haven’t heard from her.  Knowing what we now know about her, and knowing past history, that’s a catastrophe unto itself.”

“Breakthrough is in,” Antares said.  “Most of us.  And Shin is too.  They offered a bit of help.”

She held up vials of her own.

“I was wondering if that was an option,” Jeanne said.

“What are they?” one of the remaining members of Advance Guard asked.

“Drugs have weird effects on powers.  They studied that.  They think they have something that dampens powers, they have something that changes variables, and they have something that augments powers for a while, though there’s a withdrawal period after and it needs to be given to a non-tinker who has very good control over their power, which frankly rules out most of my team.”

“I didn’t think we were on such good terms with Shin,” Jeanne said.

“The Coalition and Founders are acting pretty happy that the messy stuff has been handled and the blame is being pointed in the appropriate directions.”

“Meaning anywhere but at them,” Slician said, from one of the front rows.

Sveta’s expression changed again.  Brow, lines of the face, and mouth could be measured to work out a specific emotion.  Annoyance?

“Everything helps,” Jeanne said.  “Every set of hands helps.  If I could have people stand or raise their hands?”

One by one, people and groups obliged.

“We’d be leaving territories and neighborhoods unprotected or undermanned,” a girl in Advance Guard said.

“This is more important,” Jeanne told her.  “If we can’t salvage this, we lose.  No question.”

With some reluctance, more hands went up.

Four again looked to Sveta Karelia.

One member of his set had been changing his mind, thinking back on past events with guilt and remorse.  A break in the programming, a disruption in the pattern.  Whichever one of them it was, they had been able to perform in the field without issues, but it was getting worse, if dreams were to be believed.

It threatened things.

And the conversation with Sveta Karelia had been had with Number Zero and then broadcasted to the others in dreams.  Their member with a newborn conscience had seized on that, replaying it and processing it in depth, alongside a dozen other similar memories and incidents.  Glimmers suggested they had done research, looked into things.  Information picked up there had bled into the rest of the set as ambient knowledge and memories.

In the background, Jeanne was asking if people had colleagues they could call or resources they could tap.

She got her response, but for once, Four wasn’t paying attention to her, despite the fact she was very close to being perfect.  He didn’t pay attention to Breakthrough’s suggestion at releasing specific prisoners.

Not until he came to his resolution.  He pulled off his glasses and cleaned them with a microfiber cloth, working through the thought.

This raid would be a chance to tidy things up, and make the irregular regular.  Everything in order.

“Good.  Let’s hope that’s enough,” Jeanne said.  “Let’s prepare.”

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Breaking – 14.z

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Obsequious was the word.  A flurry of young men and women in very precise haircuts and outfits made absolutely sure that he and Ms. Matteson were cared for, that they had cold tea, that they had nuts, vegetable platters, and bread.  One even offered a bath, which bewildered.

It made it hard to find ten straight seconds to think.  That might have been the very point of it.

Kamil’s hand absently brushed against a pillow that was built into the arm of the chair he sat in, while Ms. Matteson worked her way through a conversation with a young ‘pen carrier’, a boy with hair and clothes that could only be described as a uniform.

Ms. Matteson was of a type that Kamil had seen often enough, when talking to prospective employees who were fresh out of college, traumatized by the academia to the point of perpetual anxiety, wide eyed and fidgety, twenty or thirty pounds overweight, not used to sleeping normal hours, giving evidence to faint circles under the eyes.  Someone who’d had enough on their plate that they’d started and ended the journey from adolescent to adult with the shakiest of ideas what an adult was to wear.  Where some clung to the ‘teenager’ look, Ms. Matteson had lunged for a more formal, adult look that she wore with what looked like perpetual discomfort.  A black skirt, a formal shirt, a styled suit jacket, and large, round glasses.  A boring hair cut.

It endeared him, really.  He’d been almost exactly that, many years ago.  It endeared him too, to see her relaxing and forgetting her anxieties as she engaged with the ‘pen carrier’.  He’d worried what kind of people Sveta had near her.

The ten year old boy in the severe haircut and uniform spoke, “I write, I organize, I learn, I-” he made a hand motion, more like he was trying to remind himself than anything.  “-am rised-up.”

“Raised up,” Natalie said.  “Is that related to social class?”

The boy’s eyes went wide, as he took a second or two to try to wrap his head around the words.

“I’ll rephrase.  Is it about power, family status, rank?”

“Rank.  My family… no wealth.  No rank.  Never fortune.  My patron… fortune.  Is taken-right of those above to rise-up those below.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Responsibility, I think,” Kamil volunteered.

The boy nodded.  He stole looks at Kamil, eyes traveling up and down arms and across Kamil’s face until he realized the person he was looking at was looking back.    “I have father, mother, urm, father I carry pen for.”

“How did they pick you?” she asked, leaning forward.

“Urm… random?  Is luck.  I have chance and cannot waste.  Heavy… to carry?”

“It’s a burden.”

“Yes.”

“Expectations.  From your parents and family?”

“Yes.”

“I know what that’s like,” she said.  “I’m grown up, I earn good money, I studied hard and graduated Magna Cum Laude.  Now I help write laws.  But my parents?  Not happy yet.  I’ve carried that burden for a long time.  I might always.”

“That’s their failure, not yours,” the boy said, with all of the innocence and brazenness of youth.  It seemed to shock Ms. Matteson into a rare smile.  “Oh.  I should go.  Should I give word you have need- for anything?”

He’d stumbled through that last sentence.

“No need, we’re well taken care of,” Kamil told the boy.

He watched the boy duck and jog off.  That there was a gap in the torrent of attention might have been a failure in the team that was managing them.  He could imagine another room or a hallway where distractions, people with food, and young people with questions were all ready for someone to send through to them, to distract and keep them from wondering where Breakthrough was.

He checked his watch, heavy on his wrist, and estimated it had been about an hour and a half that they’d been here, waiting for their escort to the prison.

It had started with the inital foray, talking to diplomats, meeting Luis and Yosef, and promising exchanges of ideas.  Parahuman knowledge for parahuman knowledge.  He was an advisor to the police and an ex-PRT Director, so he knew enough that he could make offers.

From there, the more political maneuvering.  Not his specialty.  Jeanne Wynn had armed him with a few things.  There was talk of opening trade, something about a ‘textile pathway’, and from the time those specific words had left his mouth, a lot of unfriendly people had started acting more friendly.

Yosef hadn’t been among them.

But due to the mis-alignment in attention, or the fact that they’d run out of people to send, there was a pause, a gap.  A chance to think and to talk.  The door at the other end of the room banged shut as the pen carrier left.

“Ms. Matteson?” he asked.

He intimidated her, he could tell.  That brief widening of the eyes, apprehension at just the idea of having to respond to something open ended.

“Call me Natalie, please.”

“I will.  How are my girls doing?”

“Your-”

“I shouldn’t call them that,” he said.  “Sveta and Ashley.”

“Oh,” Natalie said, dropping her eyes to her hands in her lap.  “I have no earthly idea how to answer that.”

“Is it that bad?” he asked.

“No.  I don’t know,” she said.  She opened her mouth like she was trying to formulate a sentence, then partially closed it, her eyes widening instead.  Like she’d glimpsed something too big to wrap her head around.

He’d seen that too, in his years with the PRT departments.  A part of him was impatient, worried for a variety of reasons, and he didn’t want to waste their window of time, so he filled in, led her along.  “You look after them.”

“I think of it less as looking after them and more like I’m clinging to the outside of a fast moving vehicle.  Sometimes I reach through the window to grab the steering wheel, if I really think I have to.  Mostly I shout and worry that the rush of wind is drowning me out.”

“Poetic.”

“I think that part of that whole culture has rubbed off on me.”

The door opened, and he felt frustration as a young girl, twelve or so, approached, ducking her head down before collecting some of the serving platters.

He controlled his emotions, working on the suspicion that they wanted him on edge.  They wanted him in a state where he’d be too disorganized to counter them or challenge them.

Instead, he picked food from the platters that sat on the little table between them, and spent a moment eating and observing the situation.  The room had large windows with wire running through them in an illustrative fashion, like stained glass windows without the staining.  The light that shone through came in at an angle that made the windows seem to glow of their own accord, illuminating the otherwise lightless space.  The room had a painted floor that looked like it could have been a pool of not-yet-congealed blood, smooth and uninterrupted by seam or tile from one corner of the room to the other.  The walls were brighter, a foggy pink broken up by white.

The space was long and wide, in a way he suspected was designed to make them feel small.

Joke on them.  This was nothing compared to some of the things he’d handled.

Natalie filled the momentary silence with her voice, sounding like she regretted saying what she was saying before she was even a few words in, “I got into this because powers are neat.  Now I’m seeing the people behind the powers and I’m thinking about getting out.”

“Anyone would have doubts after being caught up in a situation like this,” he said.

“No.  I mean, kind of, but that’s not what I mean.  I don’t want to suggest they’re doing badly, either.  Except, um, obviously, they’re in a strange prison.”

“Yeah.  But that’s something we can fix.  Besides that?”

“Ashley’s… really grown since I first met her.  Sveta’s- obviously Sveta is doing terrific.”

She’s going through a breakup with grit teeth and she’s keeping up her day-to-day.  A body doesn’t change that.

“But?” he prodded.  “It didn’t sound like that was the end of it.”

“But I see them grow and do better or do worse, or they get hurt and… I realize I don’t really matter.  The laws don’t really matter at this point.  When it’s stuff like this I’m glad, as awful as it sounds.”

“Because it’s a chance to matter?”

“No.  Gosh, no.  I’m explaining myself badly.”

The chair’s seat was too low, and Kamil’s arms and legs were long.  He stretched legs out in front of him and crossed ankle over ankle.  “They’re their own people.  We can shepherd and we can find opportunities to nudge them to a better path, but we can’t stop them when they get started or reverse their courses.”

“Yeah,” Natalie answered.  “Sorry, I didn’t end up answering your question.”

“You did, a little.  You’re thinking of leaving?”

“I thought about it.  I feel like right now I’m serving more as a… witness.”

“To a crime?” he asked.

“No.  To… whatever it is that happens.  Gold Morning happened and it was a long, long time before we got anything even close to the full story.  I don’t know if people even believe the story we got.  Whatever happens next, these guys are going to be on the periphery of it and if I’m on the periphery of them then…”

“Then you might be able to explain, when people want an explanation,” he filled in.

“I go back and forth on whether it’s worth it,” she told him.  “I like them, I feel sorry for them.  A lot of it is interesting, I really feel like I helped and am helping with Lookout.  I’m even happy to help here, as stressful as it is.  But I can’t shake the feeling that things are going in a bad direction and I can’t stop that.  I like a lot of the people individually but… the collective and the momentum of them all worries me so much.”

“What I can tell you,” he said, “Is that seventeen years ago, I got interested in all of this because I thought powers were neat.  Then I saw the people behind the powers and that’s when I truly committed.”

“Different times?” she asked.

“I don’t know that they were.  Around the time I joined the PRT proper, the Siberian killed one of the greatest heroes.  Alexandria publically executed a person with powers that wouldn’t stand down; controversial then, but nowadays we don’t think about it.”

“I think about it a lot,” Natalie told him.  “Not that, specifically, but similar events.”

He nodded, giving her a sympathetic smile.  “Collectively, we don’t think about it enough.  My era and my first days outside of power testing labs and in the PRT were marked by the Simurgh appearing, and people starting to talk about the possibility they’d keep coming, and that we wouldn’t win in the end.  Europe saw political upheaval, Russia enlisted parahumans into its military and started hunting down those who wouldn’t enlist, activists across the United States were emboldened by leaders with powers.  That momentum and feeling of being small and behind is… not new.”

“But everything’s so fragile right now.”

“It is.”

“One bad winter we’re not prepared for could cut our population in half.”

“Yes.”

Natalie wrung her hands.  “Billions of people are lined up against Gimel.  Shin is scared of us, Cheit wants to take over, they’re the big ones.”

“And we have good, capable, intelligent people on our side.  Great minds that saw us through the end of the world are watching, waiting, and preparing.  This team you’re looking after, I think it has some genuinely good people in it.”

“Good people doesn’t necessarily mean they do good things.”

“Did they do something that concerns you?”

She shook her head.  “Nothing that I could point to and say ‘that’s wrong’.  A lot of things I spend time agonizing and wondering about.”

“Try talking to them?  When there’s a chance.”

“The way they’re going, that’ll be in a few months.”

He smiled.

He’d been her, once.  Lost, anxious, fresh out of school with no idea of how to disengage from adolescence and commit to being an adult, still figuring out how to balance work in the labs with ensuring he was keeping the door open for professional growth, with family, keeping up with pop culture enough he didn’t end up alienated from friends, trying and failing to manage a love life, and the little things like keeping his apartment clean.

Like her, he’d dressed himself up like an adult, faked it, put on a mask.  He’d picked a few things to do well and let others flounder.  Maybe that had been a mistake.

The door opened.  They had guests, and these weren’t pen carriers or serving girls.  They were the closest thing Shin had to royalty.  Luis, the head of the Founders, who had been closest to Goddess, and Yosef from the Lone Sands or the Cold Sands, depending on the season.  With them were some of Shin’s parahumans.

Cryptid, a woman he thought he might have recognized from old files, and a man he didn’t recognize.

He stood from his seat, and Natalie Matteson followed suit.

He couldn’t help but pay attention to Cryptid.  The boy was halfway to being a man, but he had skipped puberty, applying the components of the adult man with broad and inconsistent strokes of the brush.  It made his frame seem uncanny and wrong, and the collar with cloth draping down from it obscured some details enough that Kamil had no idea if it hid the worse details or exaggerated the bad by hiding the good.

Ungainly, not lopsided but imbalanced.  Put together wrong.

Kamil knew he had a longstanding habit of finding parts of himself in others.  Empathy run amok, maybe.  When he was young he had alienated people, responding to every complaint and problem by relating to it.

He couldn’t help but relate to this uncanny boy with the mind and memories of an adult.  Memories of kidnapping people young and old, of various nationalities, disabled and able, subjecting them to brutal experiments, some of which had changed the permanently, in mind and body.  Had the man known as Lab Rat been a power in his era, in his area, then Kamil might have been haunted for the rest of his life by the fact that he hadn’t stopped him sooner.

He related because he felt uncomfortable in his own skin.  He was gangly without being tall, at five feet six inches, with a tendency to put on weight toward the stomach and hips.  He was cursed with a perpetually angry look that almost never matched his mood, a jaw that seemed set like he was spoiling for a fight, and a crooked nose.  His hairline was receding, and gray hair had coming in early, in locks and patches with no rhyme or reason to it.  If none of that was enough to prejudice people against him and force him into an uphill battle when it came to proving himself as an academic and leader, the fact that he was black might.

Me too, he thought, while looking at the boy who was put together so strangely, who seemed so lost in this strange world, as much as he tried to hide it.

He walked down the length of the long, empty room, Ms. Matteson following.  Cryptid and the other two parahumans remained where they were, even while the ambassadors made a show of meeting him halfway.  Luis shook his hand, grip warm, and smiled, while nothing warm was visible behind the eyes.

Yosef’s grip was harder, no smile crossed his lined face.

Luis leaned closer to ask, “You were looked after?”

“Very well, thank you,” Kamil answered.

“Our apologies for the wait.  We had other business to attend to,” The steel didn’t leave Luis’s eyes.

“I understand very well.”

He was led to the door.  Seeing Ms. Matteson’s reticence, he put a hand on her shoulder to support her, leading her past the parahumans.

“We’ll be guarding you,” Cryptid said, his voice strangely low, even considering his pseudo-adult frame.  “As you’ll be entering a prison with dangerous parahumans within.”

“They aren’t dangerous, Chris,” Natalie said.

“The law of this land would disagree with you,” Cryptid said.  “My own experience and observations, even.  You get our protection, and we keep the peace while we’re there.”

“Very well,” Kamil said, giving Ms. Matteson a look.  “I welcome whatever measures you think are sensible.”

The woman with the tattoos of ‘Crock’ and ‘Shit’ on her face smiled, showing him teeth that had been narrowed to points.

“Don’t fib,” she told him.  “You don’t welcome it at all.  You’re concerned.”

He knew who she was, now, he was fairly certain.

Someone he couldn’t empathize with, even if he’d wanted to.  She was too far gone.

Years of experience leading a PRT department had conditioned him to want to jump to action in a crisis.  Had Shin wanted to twist his arm and get a certain result out of him, they could have done just this – set off alarms, deploy men with guns to a crisis with parahumans allegedly involved, and make him sit, make him wait.

He paced, while the woman who Cryptid had called Crock o’Shit remained still, watching him and Natalie.

Cryptid had raced off, leaving them confined here.  ‘Somewhere safe’.

Crock of shit indeed.

The men with guns in the room were more likely to use those guns on him or Natalie than they were to use the guns on any parahumans or rioting prisoners.

Coalbelcher and Cryptid were gone, leaving only the one.

All because of a riot, apparently the second incident in a matter of hours that they were blaming Breakthrough for.

He worried, and he couldn’t let on that he worried.

Yosef was the authority here.  He leaned across the table and spoke, unsmiling.

“Mr. Armstrong,” the translator offered.  “A question.”

“Yes?”

Yosef asked.  The translator translated, “M and S protocols.  What are they?”

There were very few things that an ex-PRT director wanted to hear less.  Youth Guard, that was a bad one, it promised headaches every week for potential years.  But Master Stranger protocols?  It demanded paranoia.

“I’d need to know the context,” he answered.

After explaining the back and forth, the translator elaborated, “The parahuman Antares was going to go see her friend, Tress.  She made an offhand remark and said you could explain it for Yosef.”

“I’m not sure what to say.”

“He knows,” Crock o’Shit said.

The Translator’s single word followed her statement.  Yosef’s expression didn’t change a hair.

There were lie detectors who worked through the letter of the law, and there were lie detectors who worked by the spirit of it.  She was the latter.  That made this harder.

Natalie Matteson clutched her hands together in her lap.

A stone room, twelve guards, one parahuman, a world leader and his translator, and a riot going on outside.

“It’s confidential,” Kamil told Yosef.

“Partially true,” Crock o’Shit said.

Yosef’s words were a rumble.

“This doesn’t endear us to you, Armstrong,” the translator said.  “It comes across as subversive, a message passed from her to you.”

“If it was a message it wouldn’t be one that makes me look bad when I tell you I can’t answer.”

Yosef’s gaze went to Crock o’Shit.

“True,” the tattooed woman said.

Yosef didn’t wait for the translation of that, going straight to his response.

“I don’t want to hear any more coded phrases, Armstrong,” the Translator told Kamil.  “Confidential or otherwise.  You will be escorted from the prison and sent back, and any parahumans engaging in it will be punished.”

“Understood.”  No choice but to play along.  It had been a trap, no right answer.

But why had it come up in the first place?

Yosef said something, almost under his breath.

“You worked with the parahumans for a long time,” the translator offered.

“I did.  I work with the police now, counseling them, and I do some research into powers.”

Yosef’s response was dark and suppressed enough anger that there wasn’t much need to get the translation.  “What a shame that we can’t trust you now, Mr. Armstrong.”

Kamil kept his composure.  This, at least, was another thing he’d had to learn.  Weathering the pressures of government authorities, of media, of the public.

Holding true to what he believed and knew.  That the capes were good.  They wanted a better world, whether for themselves or for everyone, but they often struggled to find the way there.

Hearing an allusion to Master Stranger protocols made him paranoid, but that paranoia was largely reserved for specific people, for anyone he felt intensely about, as enemy or ally.

His phone buzzed in his coat pocket.

A call?  A text?

He drew his phone from his coat, looking down at the glowing screen.  His heart started racing.  His phone had been on airplane mode.

Yosef barked a question.

“A phone call?” the translator asked, looking just about as alarmed as Kamil felt.

“Not a call,” Kamil said, looking down at the screen.

You’re in danger.  Escape.  Crock o’Shit will attack.

“Partial truth,” Crock o’Shit said, making a hand motion.

Yosef had a question.

“A signal?” the translator asked.  Yosef barked a single word in another language, and this one wasn’t translated for Kamil and Natalie’s benefit.  Guards by the door lowered guns, pointing them at Kamil.  Natalie shrieked, scooting back, and one gun followed her.

Kamil, slowly put the phone down on the table, before lifting his hands.

Yosef picked up the device, then handed it to the translator.

Yosef was tense, back rigid, as he looked over the translators shoulder.

They’re so scared.  Gold Morning caught us by surprise, but it came and went quickly.  They effectively lost their world to a parahuman takeover and endured it for years.

“Medication.”

Medication.

Ashley and Sveta both knew he took medication at mealtimes.  Had they-?

To be safe, Kamil clapped his hand to his chest twice, looking at Yosef.

One word, barked.

“What medication?” the translator asked.

Forcing his hand.

“Nitroglycerin.  For my heart.”

Crock o’Shit nodded when Yosef looked at her.

Yosef put the phone down.  Kamil could read it upside-down.  The screen had changed to an alarm telling him to take his nitroglycerin for his heart.

“You looked scared,” the translator stated, following Yosef’s response.  The man was growling more than he was speaking now, his words a mumble, like being audible and clear for Kamil and Natalie wasn’t even a consideration anymore, that he was that angry.

“I was almost positive I turned my phone off.  I clearly agitated all of you.”

“Partially true,” Crock o’Shit said.

The translator echoed both statements, then listened while Yosef responded.

“I’m losing my patience,” the translator said, while Yosef stared down Kamil.  “I don’t trust you.”

“I’m sorry that’s the case,” Kamil answered.

Yosef asked a guard a question.

The guard, in turn, opened the door, asking someone outside.

“Yes,” was the one word, accented response, in English.

Another question.

“All of them are accounted for.  They’re in the plaza.”

Yosef spoke, not as much of a growl now, but the look in his eyes was all steel and darkness, his face even more humorless than before.

“Let’s get this over with,” the Translator said.  “You’ll go to Sveta Karelia’s cell to talk with her and wait while we organize the others.  This will free our guards to manage the other parahumans.”

How to get out of this?  He picked up his phone, and the screen changed as soon as it wasn’t facing anyone else.

A button to press if he needed help.  If there was anything else, he didn’t see it.  He couldn’t study his phone for too long without drawing attention.

“Crock o’Shit will escort you.”

Did he hit the button now?  There was a reason they hadn’t just come to help and had left it an option.  It was dangerous if they helped.  Costly.

But the alternative was that he was ‘escorted’ by Crock o’Shit and they killed him?

He approached Yosef, and shook the man’s hand.  “It was good to meet you.”

“I wish I could say the same,” the translator conveyed Yosef’s response.

“I really do believe that with our help, you could implement something like our PRT.  Adapt, assimilate, condition, and use the institution as a bridge between parahuman and human.”

The translator motioned for him to slow down.

He didn’t wait for the translator to completely finish before starting again, “You have a prime opportunity here, infrastructure already in place, and so much research.  We could each share the best parts of our cultures with one another.”

Yosef shook his head.

Kamil pressed, trying to channel all of the enthusiasm and fervor that he’d had as a young scientist into a certain kind of energy.  Irrepressible, the geek that believed everyone was as interested in his favorite subject as he was.  Relentless.

Yosef tried to interrupt, and he pressed on.  “The textile bridge, the sharing of knowledge, security, it’s the start of something, and I’m really excited about that.”

“Lie,” Crock o’Shit cut in.

Kamil stopped.  The smile dropped from his face.

“Words backed only by desperate fear, not truth,” Crock o’Shit said.

“What do I do?” Natalie asked.

“You stay,” Kamil said.  To the rest of the room, he said, “You keep her safe.  Whatever happens in… in this riot, you keep her here and safe.”

Yosef responded.  Translated, “We have no grudge with her.  We have no grudge with you.”

What were the options?

Crock o’Shit stepped forward, arm out.  She was of a height with Kamil, but stronger, her arms muscled and past what looked like three layers of fishnet sleeves, they looked covered in scale tattoos.

No phone, no weapon, and a dangerous parahuman walking him to his execution.

Yosef said something in his tongue, brief.  There were nods from guards and the translator.  Kamil could imagine what it was, knowing the deeper context.

This was an unsanctioned execution.  Yosef would be saying something like how he was never here.

Crock o’Shit escorted him from the cell.  Into a prison hallway, past prisoners who kept their heads down and gave Crock o’Shit a wary look.

“You were Fidelis, weren’t you?” he asked.

“Was.”

“I would have liked to study your problem.”

“You’re telling the truth, but I’m not your guinea pig.”

“I know.”

He had related to Ashley Stillons, back in the day, by thinking of his own upbringing, the hard road to get out and away, the desperation.  He had related to Weld by tapping into a part of himself that wanted to do good, by tapping into the boy inside of himself.

Every negative thought and feeling was a building block, a tool or a lens through which he could interpret and study the people around him who struggled.

And he was now in the custody of Crock o’Shit.  Fidelis.  A heroine who had abandoned or lost everything good about herself.  She had gone after a crime boss as a hero, lost her heroism along the way.  By the end of that particular journey, she found him, ate a third of him, starting at the genitals and ending at the throat, and then left the mangled body on the floor for the first twenty-four hours she conducted business thereafter, taking over his position.

She had been arrested a few years after, then went to the Birdcage, which was probably the worst place for her.  Placed under Black Kaze, if he remembered right.

The worst place for her.  Any prisoner picked up bad traits and habits, defensiveness and a loss of faith in the system from their time inside.  She was particularly vulnerable, with the way she absorbed dishonesty and ugliness, making it manifest in the form she wore.

He felt for his phone in his pocket, and he wanted to find an excuse to reach out.  Instead, he could only hope it worked when he needed it to, if he had a free moment.

And there were no guarantees.

“What are you getting out of this?”

“Out of what?  Walking you to a prison cell?”

He looked back over his shoulder at her, and saw her smile, toothy.

“Working under a boy pretending to be an adult and a healer.  Living in a strange world.  Doing menial errands.”

“They let me eat the leftovers when they fuck up a healing or experiment.”

“Leftovers?  They-”

“A joke,” she said, with no humor.  “They experiment on dolls.  Brainless human bodies made to supply organs and tissue.  I’m their dog, drooling and wagging its shitty tail, eating off the floor when they make a mess.”

“Why refer to yourself like that?”

“Because I don’t care,” she told him.  “I have servants and drugs, booze…”

“That’s not a life.”

“It’s my life,” she retorted.

“Aren’t you better than that?  You had status as a Protectorate hero.  People fought to have you on their teams.  Watchdog wanted you.”

“Status isn’t important to me.”

“Crock o’Shit.  Fidelis-”

“You sound desperate,” she told him, laying a hand on his shoulder.  When he looked, he could see the fingers were wider apart and longer than they should be, the knuckles pronounced.  She leaned in close, whispering, “I know why.  They tipped you off.  It doesn’t matter.”

They reached an intersection as she finished talking, and she gave him a shove on one shoulder.

There were PRT directors who came from the army.  There were ones who came from the FBI.  Some were ex-CIA, others politicians, and still others graduated from squaddie to captain and kept gaining ranks until they ran a department.

Some of those, many of those, they could have fended for themselves here, found a way to get a gun and use it.

His eye fell on her hand.

Changer.  They tended to trigger from crises of identity.  Once triggered, those crises tended to stick with them.  They were, in PRT parlance, very hard to hold onto, beause they were most likely to leave and try to go another route.  Movers tended to change departments often, Blasters, Strikers and Brutes tended to bear heavier weights of post-traumatic stress.  But Changer-

If there was something about her he could get at, figure out, or use to avert this march to execution, it was her identity.

And he couldn’t even begin to fathom the puzzle of a woman who was force-marching him forward.

The claw at his left shoulder tightened as they reached a door.

“Here’s good,” she said.

She was supposed to take him to Sveta.  She took him to an empty chamber instead.

“You were military,” he said, talking despite the fear that gripped him.  He stepped forward, but she stood in the doorway.

She was taller, her face slumping down at one side, so the lower row of sharp teeth were perpetually visible.  One of her arms was longer than the other, twisted up like a braid.  The same arm that had been resting a hand on his shoulder.  The tattoo with the corps motto on it was stretched out and distorted.

“Marine,” she said, with slurred speech.

“What happened out there?” he asked.  “Where did Fidelis come from?”

“Fidelis came and went a long time ago,” she said.  “You can’t talk your way out of this.”

“I’m only partially trying to talk my way out of this.  Part of it is that I hate unanswered questions and unfinished stories.  I want to know the full story behind what kills me.”

“You’re telling the truth,” she said.  She smirked, leering.  her face was stretching out, long.  “Not knowing is going to be the least agonizing part of this.  I can’t eat you, that’s too obviously me, but I can break you.  If I break every last one of your ribs and pelvis, how long does it take you to die?”

“This isn’t you.”

She snickered.  “Can’t breathe so easy without your ribs.  Can’t move your arms, can’t move your legs.  Do you stop breathing?  Do you drown in your fluids?  Do you go into shock?  You’re a doctor type.  Don’t you know?”

“No,” he said.

She was a changer.  Her change was tied to prerequisites, and prerequisites were commonly tied to specific kinds of trigger event.  There was the theory that it was drugs and altered mental states that did it, that there was something small but ‘Breaker’ in the trigger that added a bigger on-off switch or component, tied to something external.  Lung in Brockton Bay had been in his files as an example.

Another theory was that it was failure that did it.  The rise, the fall, the deed… all in a trigger that tied into a power that had a higher barrier of entry.

For Crock o’Shit, that barrier of entry was lies, it empowered her other form, in a reaching way.

Except… she didn’t need lies to change.  She could change either way.  The lies were… background.

“What happened out there?  You joined the Marines, you had a natural sense of justice, you tried to do something or right a wrong?”

She’d changed more over time, darkness seeping in.

“Was there corruption?” he asked.

“Boys and girls, using their access and station in various ports to ship drugs back home to Lousiana,” she said, her voice taking on a monstrous note. “They don’t check naval vessels like they check other shipments from overseas.”

Her braided-together tangle of a body was only barely human in silhouette now.  Branching, forking limbs formed a webwork between one arm and one leg, bristling with claws.  The overall form was more like something between a naked mole rat and a bat without wings, with skin like callus, only resembling scale when it was pebbly and not a sheet of the stuff.  The tattoos stood out and multiplied as the skin did, casting whole areas of her in blue-green.

There was more to it, he saw.  Folds and flaps parted as she breathed or moved one way or the other, and he saw hidden teeth or limbs, buried within.

Nothing at all like a crocodile, tattoos aside.

“You tried to stop them?” he asked, holding his composure.

“I was them.  I was one of the ones in charge.  I shipped drugs and people back home cut it wrong and killed friends of friends of mine,” she said.  “There was an investigation.  I worried every second of every day that my life was ruined, until I got powers from how it tore me up inside.  I was the one they would finger as the boss, the top dog.  And it was all for nothing.”

“Nothing?” he asked.  Top dog… is that a component to why she grows?

“They swept it under the rug.  I turned over a new leaf,” she said, and she sneered in a way that made him unsure if she was joking or if her face was just transforming that much.  Her words were less intelligible now.  “But others didn’t forget or sweep it away.  They blamed me for us getting caught, want money.  So I dealt with ‘m.”

“What you’re doing now, you’re just repeating those mistakes.”

“What I do now is what I’m good at,” she said.  “I break you.  I drag it out as long as I can.  Director Armstrong.”

She made his name and old title an epithet.

“No you don’t,” he said.  He pulled the phone from his pocket.  He held it out.  “You’ve been recorded.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Crock drawled the words.  She started forward.  “I destroy the phone.”

“It’s being broadcast,” he said.  He turned it around, checked- and surprised himself, because there was footage and there were clips that… weren’t from his phone.

Breakthrough.  They’d recorded things, but they couldn’t say they’d recorded it, or it would damn them.  It would be use of parahuman powers while they were in prison, a violation of rules that had been established.

But him?  He was safe.  He could be a spy, and while that wasn’t great from a diplomacy perspective…

Well, neither was cornering him in a holding cell with a monster and setting him up to die.  Whatever their purpose was.

“It’s being transmitted,” he said, still looking at the screen.

“Not possible.”

“You know I’m not lying.”

Crock o’Shit twisted around, hauling the door open.  She started to go, or to lean out, and then reconsidered.

Twisting around, she grabbed him, picking him up like a child might pick up a doll.  He grabbed her ‘forearm’ for stability, and found it alternately too hard and too soft, depending on where he gripped.  He wasn’t sure which was worse for the situation.

He was carried bodily, held up so high that his feet dangled above the heads of prisoners who ran for cover.

“Crock,” he grunted.

“Shut up.”

“You admitted to a lot.  Dangerous admissions.”

“Shut up.”

Her claw tightened around him.

Breakthrough was waiting, close to the door that led from the secured hallways around the prison into the prison proper.  The group had assembled.  Cryptid and Coalbelcher stood by.

“They have something.  A tinkered transmitter.”

“No they don’t,” Cryptid said.

Crock o’Shit huffed for breath.  She slurred the words, “What the hell?”

“They have only the faintest scent of electronics on them,” Cryptid said.  “If they had anything, it’s gone now.”

Kamil had learned to read Ashley since getting to know her, too late to save her, but early enough to support her.  He could see the posture, the shift in footing, the way she rolled her fingertips into place as she folded her arms, pinky landing first, index finger last.

The evidence would be annihilated, as would, he presumed, anything tying them to the riot.

Crock o’Shit turned, storming away.

“Where is she going?” Antares asked.  “Stop her.”

“Why?” Cryptid asked.  But he raised his voice.  “Don’t do anything stupid, Crock.”

Crock only growled.

Kamil had figured her out, if only to a small degree.  That she had committed a wrong, once, and somewhere along the line, because she hadn’t dealt with it, it had festered.

“I’m going,” Swansong said.

“No.”

“If you want to get in my way, do it at your own risk, Cryptid.  She’s going to do something.”

“You’re pretending I care.  We rule a continent, you’re prisoners.  Guess who gets a say?”

“There’s too much at stake,” Antares said.

“Chris!” Lookout’s voice was higher.  “Don’t be a shit, you’re-”

And then they were out of earshot, the latter part of the sentence unfinished.

The path they traveled was a reverse one.  Back to the single cell, where she was supposed to kill him.

The charade was over, and she didn’t even seem to care.  She’d been seen.  There would be witnesses.  A cover-up was so much harder to manage.  Impossible, even, because there were other cameras or devices tracking all of this, and now she knew.

And she was still going to kill him.

And Breakthrough wasn’t following, wasn’t taking action.

She had to work to shoulder her way through the door, and doors in the prison were larger than doors back home.  Once free to stand tall, she tossed him.  He was airborne for two heart stopping seconds before he crashed into floor and bars at roughly the same moment.  The bars separated the last two thirds of the room from the front third, and there was no way through, no way to hide on the other side while the enraged changer dealt with him.

“If you do this,” he said, grunting as pain from the fall set in.  “Everyone loses.  If you don’t… you go back to the life you were living.”

She flexed one braid of an arm, and a lunging, eyeless maw, the closest thing to ‘crocodile’ about her, reached out in his direction.

It stopped, pulling short.

Ribbons and bands of flesh encircled part of the limb.  More encircled part of her head.

Sveta.  She had appeared through a closed door, or she’d been in the room all this time.

No, she was still slipping in under the door, more of her, more flat, razor-edged tendrils, that bound up Crock o’Shit.

The changer lunged, charging forward blindly, to bludgeon him to death.  He scrambled out of the way.

She crashed into bars with enough force to bend them.

More of her body unfolded, arcing overhead, set to crash down on top of him and on either side of him.  He hurried to cover.  A tendril gripped him, helping him slip past.

More of her opened up, until everything humanoid was gone.  Her body was a pod, an installation that the changer mutations reached from.  All ugly, all monstrous, eyeless, earless, fangs and teeth.

All ugliness she’d absorbed.

“Stop!” he shouted.  “Fidelis!  You’re better than this!”

But she wasn’t.

What followed was so frantic he couldn’t process it all.  Lunging bites that he only avoided because he dodged them or because he was pulled out of the way.

Croc uttered a single word, drawn out as a roar, guttural.  He could guess it was ‘Director’.

An anger, seated so long it had eaten her up inside.  A betrayal or great wrong done to her, that she’d never recovered from, or that she’d manufactured to keep her identity intact.

Sveta hurled him, violently enough it hurt when he landed.

He realized it late: every move she’d made, every push she’d given him, it had been to drive him toward one corner, as far from the door as possible.  With the throw, she’d placed him next to the door.

A tendril opened it before his hand reached it, and he escaped to the hallway, bleeding in two places, bruised in a way that would hurt for a week, but alive.

Guards came running, now.  The commotion earlier was too hard to justify ignoring.

They checked on him, and they looked in on the scene.

Crock o’Shit roared at them.

They dragged him by the arm, and they opened the door two cells over.

Sveta, stooped over the drain with water running out of the hose, drenching herself.

“Oh,” she said, covering herself up with a towel.  “Mr. Armstrong!”

She didn’t quite cover up the three wounds she’d sustained, all a funny shape, but the guards weren’t looking hard enough to notice, it seemed.  They were preoccupied, more than a little scared.

It was over.  The charade broken.  If they’d been looking to make parahumans look unruly by using tamed Shin parahumans to force the hand of foreign Gimel ones, that was over with.

If Yosef had indeed wanted this to be discreet, it wouldn’t be.  The answers would come out.  Answers had a way of doing just that.  Crock had triggered from just that very reason.  Even now, guards were looking to make sense of the situation, investigating.

“I was getting ready to leave, thought I’d rinse off,” Sveta said, getting dressed behind the divider by the shower stall.

The shower.  The drains.  She had slipped through, crossing over to the cell with the most commotion.

Control like she’d never had.  A light of heroism and pride in herself that shone in her eyes, that she’d been chasing for so long.

Maybe the difference between himself and Ms. Natalie Matteson was that she hadn’t had the chance to see this light yet – only the darkness.

Dressed, Sveta crossed the room, wrapping him in the tightest of hugs.

“Let’s get you all out of here,” he told her.  “Everyone’s waiting.”

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Breaking – 14.12

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The tech Kenzie had provided me wasn’t perfect.  Cryptid flickered in and out of view as he passed within the view of the facility’s security cameras and then entered the blinfd spots.

The guards in the hallways ahead of us were the same.  Major points were watched, but there were a few who retreated to places the cameras didn’t see and stayed there.  If this were Gimel I might have guessed they were smoking, but I hadn’t seen or smelled a single cigarette yet.

The gaps meant I had to focus, devoting attention to tracking every single person who stepped out of sight, remembering that they were there, and accounting for the places they could be.  I was reasonably confident in my ability to do that, I was good at memorization, I could wrap my head around who was where in a conflict and not be too surprised at any point.

Except the Cryptid factor required a whole other degree of my attention.  His focus was us, by the looks of it, as he pushed forward and even pushed past guards to make his way to the shower area, then from there to the plaza.  I could see glimpses of the scene through the mess, the blur of regular prisoners blocking him off.  They even pressed him back, to the point he retreated a few steps.

That would be our distraction, a rowdy fight that drew in most of the prisoners.  The distribution of prisoners was almost as dense as it was around meals, but these guys were riled up in a whole other way.  Shin’s response to powers, parahumanity, and the strange was an instinctive, aggressive push back, whether government or prisoner.  It added to the riling and aggressiveness.  They’d been controlled once already and they wouldn’t do it again.  A good share of the ones who would have accepted parahumans had been enlisted by us for our distraction.

Guards supported Cryptid, falling in step beside him, while he tried to nose his way forward toward the members of Breakthrough who were hidden in the crowd.

Rebuffed again, or hurt, or because he caught a whiff of something, he turned around, pushing back through the showers, looping back to Armstrong, Natalie, Crock o’Shit and Coalbelcher, presumably to communicate.

Then he was running down hallways, sprinting as fast as a large dog.  A rat disappearing into the maze, flickering in and out of sight as he passed beneath the cameras.  Coalbelcher jogged after, but he was only a third of the way down the hallway by the time Cryptid was at the end.

Though they were distant, I could see Cryptid stop, pausing at an intersection.  He jerked his head to one side.  A signal to Coalbelcher.

They were after us.

“They’re coming,” I said.  “Cryptid and Coalbelcher.  Cryptid has some running form.”

“Remind me who Coalbelcher is,” Vista said.

“Uh, was one of the fire-themed villains that tried to band together against Cinereal.  Most of that group got trounced, he didn’t, he became a mid-level boss there.  Careful, camera up ahead.”

We were running and we had to stop before we ran right into the camera’s field of view.  I leaned closer to Vista and indicated with my hand.

The camera was set so people couldn’t walk beneath.  But Vista expanded the gap that was there at my instruction, giving us room to move through.

“After Gold Morning he went to prison after breaking a guy’s jaw and back.  Ended up being leader of the men’s side.  Went with Cryptid and the Red Queen.  Reasonable-ish.  Combustible spit, and he spits a lot.  Added strength but not a lot of added durability.”

Three guards up ahead.  One disappeared from view as they left the camera’s radius.  The other two responded to something -a call, a message by radio or intercom, I wasn’t sure what Shin had- and started running our way.

“Hiding spot,” I told Vista.

“I can make a pocket but it won’t be perfect.”

“Fast,” I said.  I pointed down the hallway.  Closer to the guys we were running from.  The lights overhead had two bulbs per installation, but one of the two bulbs was dark in that section of hall, casting it into relative shadow.

Vista pushed the wall out so it bulged, and bid us to step inside.  She pinched it shut, drawing the sides together and the top down, all close to the ground.

“Can’t see how good my work is,” Vista whispered.

“Shh,” I said.

Ten seconds passed.  Guards appeared in my one eye, then disappeared.

I could hear the tromp of boots.

They carried on running toward the plaza, where things were riotous.

I nudged Vista, and she undid the effect, unpinching the gap so we could stoop through, then letting the wall revert back to normal.

“You’ve gotten better,” I said.

“I’ve been working my ass off.  Doing everything the books say might help.  Even fucking meditation.  I hate meditation.”

“Why meditation?” Ashley asked.

“Because you need to change the way you think about your powers,” Vista said.

“Did it work?”

Vista made an ‘enh’ sound, unimpressed and unsure.  “Some stuff did, somewhere along the line.”

“It’s like the hair,” Ashley said.

“Hair?” Vista asked.

“Putting it in your costume, to extend the Manton effect.  Victoria’s idea.  Lots of useful ideas.”

“Benefit of being a good guy.  The crooks don’t have good power labs.”

“Mm.”

Vista gave us a way beneath the next camera, adjusting the gap beneath without modifying anything in the camera’s field of view.

“Cryptid’s closing in,” I said.  “Crock o’Shit’s keeping close to Armstrong and Nat.  Coalbelcher’s… not really a runner.  He’s covering ground Cryptid isn’t.  I think he’s been here before, because he’s moving with purpose.”

“He’s not sticking with his team,” Ashley said.

“Cryptid?” I asked.  I got a short nod in response.  “He isn’t.”

“He doesn’t think in terms of teamwork.  He thinks in terms of problem solving.”

“Sounds right,” I said.  “We have to out-problem solve him.”

I could use the tech Kenzie had given me to track what was going on, and it told me we were getting into an area with more prison staff.  I’d noted before we entered the prison that it was built like a castle set between two halves of a bisected high-rise.  The hallway before us, divided halfway down with a gate or small portcullis, marked the distinction between the ‘castle’ and the high rise part.  With the change came a stark contrast in, well, everything.  The tile transitioned smoothly from slate gray and black to a glossy black and tiles with sunset hues like oil on a roadside puddle.  Statues embedded into the wall broke up the stone on either side of us, allowing for the transition to the maroon and tinted glass of the high-rise.

I looked back.  Cryptid was closing in, sniffing his way to us.  Halfway there.  Armstrong and Natalie were being taken to a side area, denser with prison staff, still in the custody of Crock o’Shit.  The lie detector with the tattoos of scales and her namesake words on her cheeks.

“Options,” I said.  “Our goal is alerting or rescuing Armstrong.  We do it without outing ourselves if we can.”

“Where is he?” Ashley asked.

I pointed.  “That corner of the facility.  Lots of guards, and Crock o’Shit.  Good few guards between us and him, too.”

“And Cryptid,” Ashley said.

“Yes.  And Coalbelcher.”  I pointed with my best guesses.  Both were outside of any camera’s field of view.  “We could go through.  I don’t think it’s impossible, but it’s easy to be cornered with Cryptid coming after us.”

“I do worse with cornered,” Vista said.

“Other option is we go over.  Through here, upstairs… and I remember the glass above the plaza had cracks in it.  In the right situation, Vista could open that crack and I could fly us down.”

“We go outside or above and we signal him from there?” Vista asked.  “How?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “They might be keeping him in a windowless room.”

“Steal a walkie-talkie,” Ashley said.  “Say it to every guard, if he’s in a room with them he’ll hear it.”

“Raising suspicion.”

“If there’s reasonable doubt then we’re fine,” Ashley said.

“Is it though?” Vista asked.  “Is it really fine?”

“I’d rather save him and then go from there.  If there’s trouble it’ll be trouble with an exit.”

“And after that?  Do we escape that trouble for more trouble with an exit?  Ad infinitum?”

“Sometimes that’s all you get,” Ashley answered.

“Option three,” I said, interrupting the back and forth.  “We push for the room where they stowed our stuff.  We get a few of our things, including our phones, and we take it back to Kenzie.  She calls Armstrong or Natalie.”

“Can we find the room?” Ashley asked.

“Pretty sure,” I said.  I looked down the hallway.

Cryptid was still navigating his way to us.  Coalbelcher took another hallway, walking with a steady pace.  Coalbelcher was a good two hundred and fifty pounds minimum, which probably impacted his ability to run around.

“We do your plan,” Ashley said.  “Mine as a backup.”

I looked at Vista.

“Your team, your tech, you seem to know, it’s your call,” Vista said.  “But you’re asking us which option, and it seems like one’s better.  Why?”

“Because this requires us to get to the room, get access, get back, let Lookout do her thing-”

Voices echoed down the hallway, chatter.  Ashley, Vista and I stepped around the corner to be out of sight.

Vista started to create another pinched-off space.  It turned out to be unnecessary.  The people were staff in the high-rise section of the prison, and they weren’t entering the prison section.  I saw their shadows mixing in with the shadows from light filtering through the portcullis gate, before they moved on to wherever it was they were going.

“You didn’t see those coming?” Ashley asked.

“Lookout’s camera only tells me what the cameras see.”

“Great.”

“Cryptid is getting close.  Let’s figure out where we’re going.  Can you pantomime for Darlene and Candy?  They have no audio.”

Ashley gave me an unimpressed look, but she nodded.  I stepped back so she was in my full field of view.

She mimed taking a photo, then mimed Kenzie’s height, before motioning like she was holding a phone to her ear.

The text appeared in the corner of my eye.

-Her phone?-

I nodded.

-Have to ask her.-

“They’re figuring it out,” I said.  I didn’t love that we were at an intersection of three hallways, or that Cryptid was getting closer.

“Say we alert him,” Vista said.  “What does that change?  Can he escape on his own?”

“Or we alert Natalie,” I said.  “It means he can find an escape route.  If they want to frame us for his death then that probably means they want to be able to account for my whereabouts and have a plausible explanation for his whereabouts at the same time.  Sending him to go talk to Sveta, maybe, and then intercepting him.  Probably with Crock o’Shit.”

“That’s a hell of a name,” Vista said.  “She’s strong enough to pretend to be you?”

Cryptid had reached the point where we’d gone through the wall.

The message appeared from Kenzie’s team.

-down hall with gate. basement of that part of complx-

“Yeah,” I said.  “Open the way, get us through there?”

I indicated the portcullis.

“The building without enough cameras for us to know where everyone is?” Ashley asked.

This part of the prison doesn’t have enough cameras for me to know a hundred percent.  That building’s worse.”

“Great,” she said.  There was a terseness and tension to her that I knew was because she was worried about Armstrong and insecure about our ability to help him.

It was easy to be cool and collected when you didn’t care about anyone or anything, but the guy had earned a place with her.

Vista parted the bars.  While she did, I looked ahead, finding the cameras and focusing on them, watching the little circle lock onto each, before giving me a view of what the camera saw.  There was a stairway to the basement but cameras had too tight a view from within the stairwell, of that stairwell.

“We go for what I’m pretty sure is a storage area.  Stop at the end of the hall, check, then run for it on signal.”

Cryptid closed in.

“Crock,” Vista said.  “She’s strong?”

“After,” I said.  “I’ll fill you in when I’m sure we won’t be caught talking.”

She nodded.

Too many things to keep track of.  We hurried through the gate and down the hall, stopping at the corner.  I indicated our path with my finger, a zig-zag around the areas cameras could see.  The ground floor had an eating area taking up a good fifth of it, another area that was sealed off and curtained, maybe a closed storefront, and then lobby and smaller rooms.  There was a stairwell tucked into a nook, just to the left of the hallway we were in, my view through the camera telling me it led up and down.

But our focus was the smaller room.

I checked, then gave the signal.  To the room by a trolley loaded with bottles and folded cloths.

Into the room, where more bottles and cloths were stored and shelved.

Using Wretch strength, a burst, I moved a shelf.  Metal scraped against floor.  We stood in silent tension, waiting and listening to see if there would be an issue or cry for alarm.

“I’m making a hole?” Ashley asked.

“Controlled destruction,” I said.

“I don’t do controlled.  Not well.”

“Vista, expand the target area?  I want it so that when things revert, the hole is small.”

Vista nodded.

“That works,” Ashley said.

“Crock.  She was Fidelis, once.  Ex-marine who left the service to be a Protectorate heroine.  Louisiana PRT.”

“I don’t remember her,” Vista said, as she expanded the floor that had been beneath the shelf.

“Before your time,” I said.  “Took on a position where she’d spend six months of the year with the Lousiana team, six months going from town to town in one of the dead zones without any nearby departments.  Helping police with weird and tough cases.  She’d work as a lie detector, then if there was trouble she’d mutate into an eerie, beautiful, ten foot tall woman.”

“I’ve seen hints of what she becomes and she isn’t beautiful and she’s barely-”

A crash marked Cryptid arriving at the portcullis gate.  He slammed into it, loud, striking bars and straining metal.

“-Barely a woman,” Ashley said.

“That’s Cryptid,” I murmured.  “We should go.”

Through the stairwell camera, I could see people hurrying to the scene to see.  They saw and backed off.

Being big and ugly isn’t working for you here, I thought.

I kept my voice a hush.  “Her lie detection’s a thinker power, technically, but in actual application it’s changer.  She feels it in her gut because her gut morphs and mutates in response.  About a year or two into the routine I was talking about, she gets dropped from official PRT stuff.  Gets the same treatment as capes who are too vicious, ugly, or problematic to market.  Essentially becomes nameless, the only reports of her are her turning into a ten foot tall woman that’s more unsettling than eerily beautiful.”

“Go,” Vista told Ashley.  “You don’t need to go deep.”

Ashley cupped her hands together and channeled her power.  A spark, with the cupping meant to restrain the sound.  She pushed the spark of darkness into the floor, annihilating, twisting, and condensing the matter there.  Once she verified how deep she needed to go, she used her power again.  Each use was marked with a sound like a chainsaw being revved, blades scraping against a chalkboard.

It made a hole.  The others slipped down through it, and it was narrow enough their shoulders grazed the edges.

I could hear Cryptid, guttural voice, a bang on the bars.

I slipped through, flying to hold my position as I dragged the shelves above me to block the hole.  One smooth motion, a bang as it came to rest flush against the wall, and things fell to the floor.

I didn’t even touch the ground of the floor below when Cryptid came barreling in through the door.

We’d have to shake him.

I held my finger to my mouth.  Instructions from Kenzie’s team had been replaced with a number, marking the distance to our destination.  As we headed into the dim basement hallway, the number dropped.

Taking us to a storage room where boxes had been lined up.  Each with a word in an unreadable script.

“When she detects lies she absorbs them, or some… some of the ugliness and intent, makes them part of the changer form she carries with her.  She went from being a heroine who turned into a beautiful giantess to being nameless and disfigured.  She got pretty into her investigation of something big that she’d uncovered, a conspiracy, taking down a crime ring.  I don’t know because I don’t think she was communicating much with her bosses then, so the paperwork is a big question mark.”

“Sure,” Vista said.  “I kind of know the type.  A few of that type.”

I talked while frantically searching.  Dipping into explanations and cape stuff helped keep my hands steady.  There were a lot of boxes with things that I could immediately rule out as non-Breakthrough.  The others searched as well.  “She took a leave of absence and dove into her investigation, and she… never surfaced, I guess.  What came out the other side was a dark version of her, mean, tattooed, filed teeth, and blood on her face because she’d torn into some crime lord’s neck and the blood was still there after the mutations receded.”

“That’s what I saw,” Ashley said.  “It wasn’t very crocodile.”

“No,” I agreed, tilting a box so I could see what was within.  Familiar stuff.  “Found a box.”

“Good,” Ashley said.  She reached my side while Vista appeared at the other side, and the two of them searched neighboring boxes.

I dug through mine, adding, “But she’s strong enough to do to Armstrong or Natalie what I did to my mom.  All they need then is the plausible scenario.”

“Let’s not give them it,” Ashley said.

I had Kenzie’s phone.  A little pencil-case like box that I popped open had photos of Breakthrough inset into the top.  The bottom side had a series of tools, including screwdrivers and things I couldn’t really figure out.  One might have been a pencil-thin blowtorch.  Beneath the tools were more pictures.  Chicken Little, Darlene, Candy and Kenzie, arms around each other’s shoulders.  Another with a younger Kenzie and two adult men, the faces blurred out.

“Hoy!” the voice rang down the hallway.  “Assholes!”

Cryptid, speaking in that distorted voice of his.

We didn’t have a good escape route, and our way up was hazardous, blasting a hole.

At a silent agreement, we emerged from the room.

He was wearing a shape that looked halfway between bird and hairless dog, with a back that arched unnaturally high near the front shoulders, and a frame that seemed too narrow for how tall it was.  Talon-claws rested on the ground.  It was earless, and its beak-muzzle was wide open, revealing Cryptid’s mostly normal face on the inside, filling the void that would have his head within.

He was clothed, but not in the sash he’d worn when he was on Breakthrough.  A metal collar had a ring of metal-encased syringes primed to plunge into his own throat, and that collar had four broad lengths of  cloth draping back from it.  Shin’s textiles were top notch, which was probably why they wrapped everything from themselves to their guns in it, and he’d decked himself out in plenty of it, all crimson with gold tracery.

“Sneaky,” he said.

“You’re one to talk,” Ashley retorted.

“Am I?  More than you?  Any and all of you?” he asked.

One of the syringes in his neck plunged in like it had been fired from a gun, eliciting a gout of blood that dribbled to the floor.

“Think twice,” I told him.  “If you change-”

“I’m reverting,” he said.  The syringe plunged in again, for a repeated stabbing.  “This is good for giving chase but not so good for anything else.  I’m supposed to keep the peace and handle parahuman shit.  Which means I handle you.”

“You can’t handle me, Cryptid,” Ashley said.

“I found you.  Whatever you were doing, you’re not going to do it now.  Remember Victoria saying she wanted to deny the bad guys what they wanted?  Hey hypocrites, you’re the bad guys here, going against the local authority.  If you want to sneak away I’m not letting you.  I know how you think.”

“You went and made yourself big and ugly,” Ashley said.  “You bullied a kid, trying to taunt Kenzie.  You like to think you’re a smart guy, Cryptid.  You know me.  How does this go?”

He was reverting to human form, bones cracking, muscles shifting.  The syringe plunged into his neck again, for a third strike, and the process of reverting accelerated almost immediately.  Blood trailed down his arm from the wound beneath the collar to his fingertips.  He stood there, distorted in shape, his hair a mop that was just slick enough with his prior form’s bodily fluids to stay where it was when he pushed his misshapen, still-partially clawed fingers through it and moved hair away from his eyes.  The collar was now a hoop that rested atop his shoulders and against the back of his head, showing collarbone and part of his distorted chest, that was still absorbing the lower portion of the form’s jaw.  The cloth that draped down from it covered everything from that point down, pooling on the floor.

His head more or less normal now, he cracked his neck and yawned his jaw open, before smiling.  “I’m smart enough to know you can’t.  Not me.  It would destroy you.”

“I think I could get over it,” she said.  “You’d… rot, I suppose.  I think I come out ahead.”

He smiled.  “See, this?  This?  I almost missed this.  The you that used to be cool.  The you that was mean and callous enough that I could almost believe you when you said stuff.  But you’ve got no bite to your bark anymore, people laugh at you because you’re so toothless.”

“Are you seriously trying to convince her to hurt you?” Vista asked.

“She can’t.  If she could have she would have already.”

“I’ve never had more respect for her,” I said.  “And it’s not because she’s so-called ‘toothless’.  It’s because-”

“Oh fuck off,” he cut me off.  “Sanctimonious hypocrisy.”

“Big words from a two year old,” I told him.

That’s better,” he said, and there was something resembling fervor in his eyes.  “The bullshit you were spewing a few seconds ago was completely empty.  This at least shows you’re thinking about things.”

“If you think I’m not, then you’re not nearly as clever as people were saying you were.”

“Her,” he said, pointing at Ashley.  “Figure her out yet, or am I right, are you not thinking about it?  Being willfully blind?”

“I’ve been thinking about her a lot.  Working on figuring her out.”

“One word, sum her up, come on.  I’ll even give you a hint.  If it doesn’t piss her off to hear it sound out loud, you’re wrong.”

“Ascension,” I told him.

He made an abrasive buzzer noise, made more abrasive by his distorted, too-deep voice.  Then, pleased with himself, he chuckled.  “Try ‘facade’.”

A spark of something crackled at Ashley’s hand.  I mimed for her to stand down, hand out.

“Nah,” I said.

“Yeah,” he answered.

“How would you even know what the right answer was, Cryptid?” I asked him.  “The only times you were around, you had your head stuck so far up your own ass I’m surprised you could see anything.”

“Because I’m an expert in molding yourself into something.  Putting on faces.  The only difference is that instead of ‘fake it until you make it’, I take it until I make it.  Glug glug.  She was a scared little girl once and she found the closest thing she could to strong and untouchable and she wrapped herself up in the lie.  The only difference now is that she’s wrapping herself up in another lie.  Sad thing is, in the years since she was that scared little girl with her parent’s blood spattered all over her, she’s let the human shit atrophy.  There’s nothing left except the fakery.”

“Big man, taking what was shared in private therapy and trying to use it to hurt me.  Kenzie was right,” Ashley said.  “You’re pretty pathetic.”

“They say eyes are windows to the soul, and your eyes are blank from corner to corner.  Says it all.”

“Not right now,” I said.

“Kind of true,” Cryptid said.  “Shit, I thought of that one a bit ago, was holding on to it.”

“And you call us pathetic,” Ashley said.

“I call Breakthrough fundamentally dishonest and hypocritical, my ‘pathetic’ is reserved for you and Kenzie.  Unlike you guys, I don’t preach one idea and live another.”

“What are you doing?” I asked him.  “Secret’s out, Lab Rat.  No more reason to hide.”

“Is this supposed to be my monologue?  I talk about everything?  Pass.”

“The alternative is we’re doing something and you’re just floundering, pretending to have direction,” I said.

“I’ve been putting little things you said into context,” Ashley said, joining her voice to mine in pressuring him.  “Wanting to get away, hating your own skin.”

“I’m away.  Got a whole continent mostly to myself, now.  I changed my skin.  What I’ve got on right now by default isn’t really human or mine.  I’ll change it up more later.  I have direction, Victoria.  It’s being my own person with control over my own existence, not being some hypocritical ping pong ball that’s bouncing around from crisis to crisis.”

“You enjoyed the crises.”

“I did.  But getting there is a pain, having to drag you all kicking and screaming, seeing you all fight yourselves every step of the way.  This is better.  I’ve got projects in the works, and if the world ends up ending like Amy says it will, I think I can get enough people into space, away from it all.  Build something, give ’em all bodies adapted to that environment.”

“Powers don’t work in space,” I told him.  “We’re tethered to the agents and if you move far enough away the power doesn’t feed in.  You wouldn’t get any tinker inspiration.  When Sphere was trying to build the moon base, he had to build on Earth and send stuff up.”

“You think I don’t know that?  Shin has better power labs and research than you do.  I’m aware, and I’m confident.  Don’t worry, but don’t expect a reserved seat either.  Because you’re either going to be stuck right here, or you’re going to be the ones who ran, caused trouble, or otherwise left millions to go without supplies because your recklessness jeopardized a trade deal.”

I tensed.  It was the kind of line that preceded aggressiveness.  He remained where he was.

“How much of this did you plan?” Vista asked.

This?  It’s stupid politics and a bit of Teacher, a bit of one of the bigger precogs.  I just showed up, enjoyed the show, and figured I’d fulfill my promise to Panacea while I did it.”

“You set me up to go to her.”

“Gave the doctor the miracle drug that would knock you out, pulled the strings, gave her the room number, let the meeting happen.  One way or another, I figured I wouldn’t have to listen to her whine any more.”

I nodded, letting the hollow, empty feeling take up residence in my head, throat, and upper body.  It was likely it was the very same emptiness he’d alleged Ashley had inside of her.

That I could’ve felt as scared and awful as I had back in that room with Amy, and that someone could have inflicted that on me so casually?

“Fucking why?” I asked.

“He wants us to hate him,” Ashley said.  “It’s safer.  It lets him stay isolated from the rest of the world, unaffected by others.”

“It’s worked, then.  If he wants me to be his enemy then he’s got it,” I said, my voice low.  I didn’t clench my fists because I was pretty sure that if I did, I wouldn’t unclench them until they were halfway through this sneering asshole’s skull.

“You know Teacher’s doing a whole thing, right?  Manipulating information, setting friends against friends, enemies against enemies, to create enough distraction that nobody’s organized enough to work against him?  He left stuff around for her to find,” Cryptid told us.  “He doesn’t trust me after the years we spent jockeying for power in the Birdcage, I cured some of his thralls, fucked with him a few too many times.  He wants to pretend he’s objective and rational but he can hold a grudge.  He was fucking with your sis, Victoria, I knew he’d keep doing it until I took that card away from him.”

“By putting me in that room with a monster?”

“You’re more monstrous than she is,” he said.  “And Coalbelcher?  You’re really fucking slow.”

Coalbelcher was coming down the hallway.  Heavy, with a roll of a chin covered in stubble, black smudges all over his face to create the illusion of a three-dimensional skull, drooling thick rivulets of black that disappeared into his top.  He wore an outfit of nice Shin fashion that had been stained with black handprints and globs.

“Coalbelcher.  We made a deal before,” I tried.

“You got me out of prison in exchange for my help.  Or I got out of prison and it happened coincidentally.  I’ve made more deals with him, more recently, and that counts for more.  I like the current gig.”

“You have nothing,” Cryptid said.

“Guards should be thirty seconds behind me,” Coalbelcher said.  “I think I hear ’em.”

I looked to the camera in the stairwell, let the tech in my eye lock on, and looked through it.  Sure enough, they were coming down.

“Good.  Let’s not give them an excuse to say they did half the work.  Blast ’em.”

I saw Coalbelcher draw a breath, rearing back, while Cryptid hopped back, hauling a door open to use the room inside as cover.  I flew forward, to act as cover.

Coalbelcher vomited a stream of black at us, a geyser spray.

I saw him clench his fist, punching it forward into the stream he’d just terminated.

It detonated, a rolling explosion that chased the geyser toward us.  And with Vista’s space warping, it changed direction and all splashed along one wall, licking it with fire.

Already flying forward to intercept, I kept going.  The only way to do this was to execute it quickly and efficiently.

And if need be, kill them and have Ashley annihilate the evidence.

But Coalbelcher’s power produced a spray, and that spray included flecks that had scattered to the floor, ceiling and walls just in front of him.  He hadn’t detonated that.  I saw it at the last second, threw hands and arms around my head, and felt the explosion throw me off course.  A ring of fire, that left me spinning in the air for a second.

A meaty hand grabbed me, as he leaped up to me and seized hold, and as he came down, he threw me hard into the concrete floor.  I put out my hands to stop myself from crashing down face first, and I felt staples in my hand pull free, tearing at skin.

He exhaled, and it wasn’t a liquid geyser this time, but a cloud, aimed over and past me.

Swansong, following up.

Vista’s power altered the cloud, shrinking it.  But with the close confines being what they were, and the particles being just as effective if they were on a wall or on the ceiling, she was left to keep them suspended indefinitely in air.

Ashley threw a hand to one side, threw herself the opposite way.  Without taking the time to get up, I came at him from another angle, staying low and sliding along the ground with my flight.

Vista moved the blob of gas.  It detonated to Swansong’s right, and the detonation was localized, kept to one side of the hall while Swansong slipped past.

Chris, partially mutated, his head encased in what looked like a rat skull, his body and limbs long, reached out to grab her out of the air.  He got his grip on her and then biological mechanisms in his limb turned his already long, red-furred arm into a piston, punching her through a door.

I still managed to hit Coalbelcher.  A strike dead center to the stomach, hard enough it might have caused internal damage.

Guards yelled noise in a foreign language.  I looked, and I didn’t see them.

I looked at Cryptid, and saw him smiling, his face barely visible as it dissolved into connective tissue that cobwebbed out to the interior of the skull that was his new head.  No skin grew over that skull.

The lights went out.

-That was us– the message on my display read.  –cuz guards-

I saw the silhouettes of Cryptid and Coalbelcher, and hit the latter, three times, with two of the hits in the same spot and the third hit aimed at his leg with Wretch strength added in, because a power with that much output had recoil and he couldn’t handle recoil without legs.

“Crypt,” Coalbelcher gurgled, around an audible outpouring of more combustible gunk.

“Go!”

I put myself between Coalbelcher and Ashley just in time for another explosion.

The explosion illuminated the hallway, illuminated Coalbelcher, who was now visibly on fire, nice clothes burning, especially where the blackness had leaked into it – handprints and all.  The ‘skull’ where his face hadn’t been painted black was now the only part of his head that wasn’t on fire.

Guards in the background were cowering, shielding their eyes, and retreating.

Then Cryptid was there, lunging out of the doorway at the side of the hall, into the corridor and positioning himself over Coalbelcher, not caring about the flame.  A skull was illuminated in orange, and limbs with forearms, biceps, calves and thighs as long as I was tall were bent and cocked, ready.  The hoop he’d had around his shoulders before was now around his waist, cinched tighter to act as a belt.  The fabric was like a loincloth.

The tail was the catch, prehensile, sneaky, stabbing along the edge where floor met wall.  I planted my boot on it, crushing it to the point it broke.  The part I’d separated from its owner flailed madly.

“You can see in the dark,” he remarked.  “So can I.”

The hand snatched out, forearm consisting of multiple pieces that acted like crossbow and arrow, the arrow remaining attached to the rest of it.  All to double the length of his arm.  It made him faster at reaching than I was at flying.  It seized me and then pulled me with it as it reeled in, slower than it’d reached out.

I wrapped my legs around it, gripped it with my good hand, and flew backward.

It pulled him off balance, pulled him closer to us.

That was what he was afraid of, after all.  Getting close.

He braced himself, and I used Wretch strength.  The Wretch hit and broke his arm in two places that I could see in his silhouette.  It provided the strength to pull him forward onto his stomach, limbs out around him.

“Burn us!” Cryptid hissed.

“Do and he dies,” Ashley said, quiet.

Coalbelcher didn’t.  I was betting he liked his gig more than he liked Cryptid.

“She’s bluffing,” Cryptid said, his voice like a hiss from the bottom of a well.  “She can’t kill.  She’d be giving them evidence and they’d cut off supplies to millions.”

“Reasonable doubt,” Ashley said, her voice barely above a whisper as she fumbled her way to stand beside me, her hand pointing in the direction his voice was coming from.  “That’s all I need.  I’ll blow a perfectly square hole in you.”

“New trick?” Cryptid asked.

“Nah.  I can’t do perfectly square,” Ashley said.  “But I can do messy, and Vista can make messy neat and square.”

“Yeah,” Vista said.

“She can’t work in the dark,” Cryptid growled.

“Tinker tech.  Warden provided.  You’re a tinker, you can recognize it when you see it.”

“Bluffs on top of bluffs,” Cryptid said.  “You-”

He fired off an arm, reaching.

I kicked it, Wretch-strong, and booted it into the wall, shattering the mechanisms.  Cryptid arched his back, suppressing a scream, then letting that suppressed scream become a chuckle instead.

“Bluff,” he hissed, through the chuckles.

“You say you don’t care,” I told him, my voice barely above a whisper.  “You don’t give a shit.  Fine.  But if you fuck with us right now, if you push this hard on this and give them the chance to kill Natalie or Armstrong, then you’re proving you do care.  You-”

“Oh fuck off,” he hissed.

“Fine,” I told him.  “Your choice.  Fuck with us and we find a way to destroy you that doesn’t look like anything Breakthrough could do to you.  We destroy everything you’ve built, we expose everything you want to hide, and we make you suffer.  Or you can fuck off.”

“Just fuck off.  You’re so good at it,” Ashley said.  “And it’s so much better than you deserve.”

“I’ll go limp that way with both of my arms shattered, one almost torn off, and I’ll say we didn’t find you.  I’m sure they’ll believe me.”

“You can heal,” I told him.

I heard a syringe sink home.  The silhouette imaging caught the blood spatter for the one or two seconds it was warm.

“Don’t be stupid,” I warned.

He let go of me.

“You’re lucky I don’t really care,” he said.

He pulled away and straightened.  I went to Swansong and, in the pitch black, I helped her to her feet.  I got Vista too, and led them down the hall, back to the spot below the storage room, perilously close to guards who stood in the dark, brandishing guns and waiting for the lights to come back on.

Once we were far enough away, safely in the room with the door closed, the lights returned.

Vista widened the hole again.  It was barely big enough to drop a quarter through, but as she widened it, we had something us-sized.  She went a step beyond and expanded the gap to let us get past the shelf without moving it.

I kept close to the door, my hand pressed over the part of my hand with the pulled staples, listening.

“Nothing,” Cryptid told the soldiers.

“Those weren’t nothing sounds.”

“Our friend here thought he saw something and he’d flush them out.  It was an animal.  Someone’s office pet.  He burned me, we had words.  There was nothing.  You’re wasting my time.”

“The lights-”

“Was us.  Me.  I make things, I make light switches.  I see better in the dark than you do in the bright, and it slows down anyone running from us.  Except it was a false alarm.”

The hole was big enough to crawl through.  I went up first, and gave Swansong a hand.  She’d been battered in being pushed through the door.  Vista was last.  While she climbed up, I peeked through a crack in the door.

We crossed the lobby just ten or so seconds before the guards got to the top of the stairs, a matter of feet away.  We ran down the hallway, as quickly and quietly as we could, before they could walk over and look our way.

Back to the others, Kenzie’s phone and toolkit in our possession.  Once she had it, she could alert Armstrong and Natalie.  It was the best we could do, short of fighting our way through dozens of guards and trying to pass it off, or tearing through the building to get to them.  If they needed that kind of help, we’d provide it, but it was the best we could do while staying covert.

Then it would be up to them.

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Breaking – 14.11

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The guards escorted me to Sveta’s holding cell.  The setup wasn’t so different than the room we’d met Citrine in- walls that looked like concrete, with high windows and textured glass that, I was assuming, let them look in from one side, while distorting our view looking at them from our side.  Diagonal bars separated Sveta’s side of the cell from me, but the room was long, and two-thirds of it were devoted to Sveta’s side.  Once I seated myself on the stool and a female guard stood between Sveta and I, the setup of the room made me feel like I was the prisoner in the cell.

Sveta’s hair had been combed with her fingers.  She’d pulled on a prison-supplied tunic, keeping her shirt, but tying it around her waist, in a loose approximation of what the veteran prisoners had done.  One of the sleeves had a bloodstain.  Her arm had been bandaged where it had been cut, but even there, the way blood had soaked into the bandaging suggested a wound more like a piece had been taken out of her, shaped something like a cross between a jigsaw piece and a lightning bolt.  She had no stool, only two worn mattresses and a pile of old clothing she’d left in one corner.  A single hose that dangled to waist height stuck out of the wall, near a drain that I was guessing served double duty as shower and toilet.

She walked over to the wall and slumped down into a seating position by the bars there.  I remained at the stool.

She studied me.

“Hi,” she said.  “Are you okay?”

“As far as I can tell,” I said.  “They’re watching and recording us?”

I made it a question, but it was a statement.

“Maybe.  You look more done with this than I am.”

“Pretty much,” I said.  “We’re guessing it won’t be much longer.  Jeanne Wynn said she’d pull strings.  I talked to Amy after I woke up-”

“Siblings are tough,” Sveta said, quiet, her eyes intense and searching as she studied me.

“All family is, in a sense,” I said.  I suppressed a sigh and changed the subject, “We’re guessing it won’t be long.  An hour at most, probably half that.”

“Educated guess or…?”

“Kenzie guess, really.  We know Jeanne is quick.”

Sveta nodded.

“We think it’s either going to be Natalie or someone else like Armstrong.”

Sveta looked a bit surprised.  “Another Kenzie guess?”

I nodded.  “We were thinking who we’d want to have there when we get out, worried family members, friends.  Ashley thought Armstrong made sense, and the more we thought about it, we thought it was likely.  He’d want to help if he could and he does have some clout, he knows Jeanne a bit.”

Sveta nodded, and her face relaxed a bit from the line of thinking alone.

Armstrong was the kind of guy who had that effect on people.  He’d leaped from a position at the University to a position of being consultant to the early Boston PRT, then full-time staff, and ultimately director.  He was responsible for rescuing Weld after Weld had been dropped off, an amnesiac with a head and part of a chest, left in a scrapyard.  He’d treated Weld as the closest thing to family.  He’d looked after the original Ashley, reaching out and trying to coax the supervillain into a position with the PRT.  When Sveta had started dating Weld, he’d accepted her as readily as he’d accepted Weld, even going so far as to fund her prosthetic body.

He was someone who cared.  Who looked for answers.

It hardly needed to be said, but Kenzie’s ‘guesses’ about timeline and Armstrong coming weren’t guesses.  We’d been thinking about plans, about who we wanted to come and pick us up, and Ashley had suggested we ask Darlene and Candy to ask Armstrong to come for Sveta.

I had little doubt Ashley had wanted to see him too, but we had collectively glossed over that detail.

Once he’d caught up on the situation, Armstrong had reached out to the mayor Jeanne Wynn.

“Knowing it could be soon makes the waiting harder,” Sveta said.  “Especially with everything else going on.”

“Yeah.”

“But I have you for company for the next five minutes,” she said.

“Makes me think of the hospital.  A lot of moments where I wanted to make the most of our limited time together, but not knowing what to say.”

“We hung out so much we ran out of things to say.  But having you around is nice, even if we aren’t talking every second.”

“Do you remember the drama when they rolled out that whole patient chat thing?” I asked.

“They regretted that about five minutes after turning it on,” Sveta said, smiling.  “I think about half of the technical downtimes were to give hospital staff a chance to recover.”

“They eventually outsourced the management,” I said.  “You were gone by then.”

The patient chat had been voice chat and instant messages for patients who couldn’t leave their rooms but who had access to computers or phones.  There was more limited access for people like Sveta and I, who had needed more specialized interfaces for using keyboards.  Pullable ball-tipped knobs for Sveta with a spaced out key arrangement, while I’d had the knobs unscrewed and removed, just using the spaced out keys.

Thinking about the events, schedule, and timeline reminded me that I hadn’t actually been in the hospital with Sveta for all that long.  She’d left not all that long after I’d arrived.

“Did we ever look up what happened to Earl?  Buzzer?” Sveta asked.  “I know he was one of the real personalities in the patient chat.  He graduated out, didn’t he?””

Earl had had an always-on power that produced an abrasive noise at volumes loud enough to cause permanent ear damage, audible from halfway across the city.

“Yeah.  He met someone who could ‘eat’ powers.  Drain the power gradually down over time, get stronger from it.  They had a thing going, until it turned sketchy,” I said.  “The eater got controlling.”

“Shit.”

“Just something that happens when you put two people together, sometimes.  He went back to the hospital, and then a few weeks later left to go work in a remote location, I think.”

“Hey, good for him,” Sveta said.

“Nicest person in a face to face conversation, but when it came to the online stuff he was a drama magnet.”

“Yeah.  What about, uh, Keelee?  She graduated out.”

“Yep.  She remotely signed into patient chat a few times.  Worked online at a call center.”

“Good for her.”

Keelee had regressed in age every time she’d used her time manipulation power.  Weeks, months, and years regressed as she’d become a teenager, then a kid.  The regression was fast to set in, and the only way to go the other way was real, actual, unwarped time.

I wouldn’t say it while Shin might be listening, but Keelee had joined a criminal group with the plan of defrauding a wealthy family in France.  In a fit of unbelievable, unfathomable, possibly addiction-induced recklessness and stupidity, she’d intentionally de-aged herself to the apparent age of three years old, while maintaining all of her mental faculties.  The idea had been to get adopted into the art-loving family after showcasing ‘natural’ artistic and musical talent she had learned from classes.  A text-focused thinker in the crew to get her into the registries, a tinker on contract to make a few forged toys that doubled as communication devices so they could be her handler…

But the tinker had bailed because the job was an enterprise that would take years, and they were too impatient.  The text thinker had bailed when the family had adopted a handsome three year old boy instead, who had showed zero ability with finger paint or music.

Leaving Keelee in her de-aged state, an absolute monster onlineOffline, she’d complained constantly about wanting cigarettes, which the nurses refused to let her have, except on her birthday.

Gossip, talking about powers and patients, it made a good way to pass time while occupying the mind, because there had always been something going on, even while we’d been in limbo.

Sveta asked about Roos, AKA ‘Jacked’, who had surgically removed his own body parts to implant hypermuscular cyborg replacements, and did just fine for himself until he got hurt in a fight.  He’d left the hospital after weeks, which had been enough time for the natural degradation of tinker stuff over time to ruin his implanted parts.  With broken parts he hadn’t been able to collect materials or earn cash to buy the materials, couldn’t keep up with tinkering.  His health had suffered, and he’d ended up at the Asylum, trying to get stable so he could get back on his feet, literally.  I told her he’d passed.  Even with the hospital’s help, he hadn’t bounced back.

There were ones who’d ‘graduated’, ones who’d left or outright escaped, and ones who would have stayed for a lifetime, had Gold Morning not cut those lifetimes short.

“I wish Armstrong had met some of them,” Sveta said.  “He was always super interested in the weird cases, parahuman research, all that geek stuff.  He’d love to collab with these guys, since they’re apparently fantastic at deciphering this stuff.”

I might be interested, forgetting everything else,” I told her.  Thinking about the ‘everything else’ put a bit of a damper on my mood, after the lighter conversation.

Lighter but not ‘light’.  Even now, I was kind of strategizing, and I was pretty sure Sveta was picking up on what I was trying to do.  Keeping things positive, highlighting that parahumans had issues too.  Now we talked about positives.

I wasn’t lying, though.  A big part of me wanted to work with anyone who could help decipher parahumans and powers, especially with what Amy had said.  Everything on the line, cracks spreading, broken triggers on the scale of Dauntless happening in greater frequency and numbers.

Yes, they’d tried to hurt us or kill us.  They were after our reputations, all for the sake of political points.  They had a twisted view that we were in a separate box from everyone else, and we thus didn’t ‘count’ when it came to the terms of war or diplomacy.

In their eyes, killing one of us was worth thirty of their own dying.  To wound all of us with something as fuzzy as temporarily detaining a group that had just been on television for causing issues?  They viewed it as worth a possible diplomatic crisis.  Miss Militia or Jeanne Wynn?  Too high profile, too problematic.  Us?  We were more acceptable as targets.

And I wasn’t ruling out that Amy or Chris had said or done something.

There were a hundred things I wanted to talk to Sveta about, but we chattered instead, keeping up the lighter tone, talking around the elephants in the room, and tried to convey a positive image.

“I’m anxious to get back to the hero stuff,” Sveta said.  “Help people, um, I know Weld isn’t waiting for me at home anymore or anything, but I do look up to him still.”

“Even if he is a bit dumb about stuff.”

“About relationship stuff.  And he’s inexperienced, not dumb.  So am I.  But I want to live up to the standards he set.  For him and for Armstrong.”

“Yeah.  Do…” I started, hesitating.  Sveta tilted her head to one side.  “…Do you see yourself dating again?  Finding a guy?”

“I want to find myself first.  Then yes.”

“Cool.  I’ll look forward to that.”

“Aren’t you afraid I’m going to talk your ear off or obsess with stars in my eyes, like I did way back then?”

“Nah,” I said, my voice soft.  “Nah, I like seeing you happy, and you were happy in those moments.”

“And happier when I met him, thanks to you.  Happier when I met him again, after screwing up the first time, thanks to you.  Happier when I went with him and got to go out into the world, thanks to you.”

I dropped my eyes to the floor.  I supposed Weld had told her, that I’d had to convince him to go back and talk to her.  That she needed the support.

“Sorry it didn’t work out.”

“No.  I grew a ton as a person.  I was such a kid back then.  I’m glad, even if, even now, it hurts.”

I nodded.

She shifted position.  Her head rested back against the wall, staring across the room at the wall while she asked, “Is it weird if I see myself with another Case Fifty-Three?”

“I don’t know.  I don’t think so, but it depends on rationale.”

“Just… a part of me still wants to belong to that.  Fat chance, though, right?  They’re not fans of me.”

“Some are, I’m sure.”

Sveta shrugged.

“You and Egg, huh?

Sveta made a face.

“In all seriousness, it’s cool.  Knowing what you like.”

“I think I like it.  It’s hard to say for sure.  It might be me wanting to belong, like I said, and I’m misinterpreting that.  I don’t think I do know what I like, only what I kind of expect or assume by default.”

Fuck, there was a lot to unpack there, but I didn’t have the energy to get into it.

“Don’t mind me,” Sveta sad.  “Getting lost in my own head.”

“Nah, you’re fine,” I said.

“I hate this,” she said.  “I hate all of this so much, and I know I have no right to complain, but it really sucks that I finally have a real body, a really good compromise between having a power and being normal, and we run into these guys, who are dead set on making me out to be a monster.”

“You know you aren’t though, you know?”

“I know but I don’t feel it,” she said.  “My feelings are taking a while to catch up with things, and then this is dragging those feelings the opposite way.  It’s fucking with me.”

“It ends soon,” I told her.

“Maybe.  Sorry.  I shouldn’t be complaining.  Not when-”

I shifted position, scratching at and tugging on my ear.

“-there are so many bigger, realer things to worry about.”

“It’s big enough and real enough to you,” I told her.  “It’s who you are.  That’s massive.”

“Yeah.  I don’t know why I put it that way.”

A good thirty seconds passed where we didn’t talk.  The guard that stood by the bars looked a touch restless, which put me on edge, but that didn’t seem to be the prelude to anything.  Nobody was audible in the hallway, and nothing came of the restlessness.

“Thank you for coming,” she said.  “I was so anxious, when you got hurt.  Then we didn’t get attention, and then when we did, it all went wrong.  You’re really okay?”

“M and S protocol, but okay.”

I saw her eyebrows knit together for a second before she forced them apart.  She clenched one hand, then rubbed it with her other hand, before tracing that hand up her arm to her wound.  Her voice, though, remained casual, as she said, “That’s a pain.”

I shrugged.  “Mark and Aunt Sarah.”

“Ugh, family,” she said.

“Yeah.  Family,” I said, sighing.

Our tone remained casual.  A few more names that anyone overhearing wouldn’t necessarily pick up on.  Only the use of the word ‘protocol’ would stand out.

I could hear footsteps in the hallway.

Time was up already?

“I’ll help when I can, once we’re out of this,” Sveta said.  “Mark and Sarah or no.”

“Yeah.  We should be out soon, so just stay safe.”

“Yeah,” she said.

The door opened.  More guards.  My escort.

The prisoners in these cells got up to five minutes of company up to three times a day, never the same person more than once.  Shin viewed the family unit as something to keep together, so the policy was meant to let kids visit parents and parents provide guidance to kids.  There were cultural aspects in the midst of it all.

“Thanks for keeping me sane,” Sveta said.

“Likewise,” I told her.

The guards liked to manhandle us, to put hands on us and guide us, forcing us to move.  I didn’t fight them on it, though I did flinch slightly as one suddenly brought a hand near my eye.  It made him smirk, as he pushed on the back of my head, driving it forward and down, while two more shoved my back and shoulder, respectively.

Back toward the central complex of the prison.  Toward hallways and faintly uneven floors, moisture and people milling about.  Toward prisoners who would attack us and guards who would stand by or help.

Once I was through the doors and the doors were shut, I had no escort.  I was left to rely on memory to navigate, and my thoughts felt as tender as the most damaged parts of my body did after a physio session.  Every road was a dangerous one, that could provoke pain or surges of emotion, and I had to remain calm.  One foot in front of the other, every second got us closer to that release.

Closer to the raid, leaping into a bad situation.

Ashley found me, falling into step next to me.

“She’s mostly fine,” I told her.

“No she isn’t,” she replied.  Her face was drawn, tense.  “Emergency.”

“What?”

“This way,” she said.

She didn’t move her head, but she flicked her eyes up and over.  With the special projection cameras removed from her eyes and her power not having seen recent use, her pupils were visible, and even her irises had some gray to them.

Camera.

In another hallway, a child screamed.  Another child screamed back.  Then there was laughter between the two.  When I turned my head to look, I saw one of the attackers from earlier in the day.  A guy with the ragged cloth decoration marking him as a veteran prisoner.

A kid ran up to him, smashing face into stomach, wrapping arms around pelvis.  She peered through a mop of messy black hair to look up at him, then over at me.  No older than eight, and she wore the same veteran clothing as the guy I was assuming was her dad.

This fucking world.

The team was assembled in one of the back hallways.  Ashley leaned over my way.  “This is contested turf, but we need it.  They aren’t pressing us hard yet, but if the day got longer, I think they might fight us for it.”

“Why do we need it?” I asked.  It was furthest from the plaza, and moisture had settled in the lowest point, where there was probably supposed to be a drain, except it had clogged.  I wasn’t sure why it was so in demand.

“We’re mostly out of camera sight here, and the one camera has water on the lens, courtesy of my brother.  They don’t want us leaving unscathed and we need privacy if we’re going to do something about it,” Tristan said.  He kicked a scrap of cloth too small to wrap around anything into the water.  “They want Armstrong.”

“What?”

“If we’d sent Natalie they might have gone after her, but Armstrong is worse for them, I think.  Believes the opposite of what they do.”

“Start from the beginning,” I told him.

“Yosef’s faction, the hardline guys from the meeting, Kenzie says they’re pulling something, they want to stage an attack.”

Kenzie looked around, then slapped the wall.  She blinked a few times.  “Listened in on the phones, my team gave it to Miss Militia to translate, she got back to us while you were gone.”

“And they want to hurt Armstrong.”

Tristan answered while Kenzie fiddled.  “They were trying to figure out what Sveta is capable of.  They were talking about her before, but they figured out that she changed her body after one of their people called people she knew.  They want to lead Armstrong to some place and kill him in a way that makes it look like Sveta did it.  Then they can hold us indefinitely or execute us, they take out one of our side’s allies and big players, and they make the Founders and Coalition look bad.”

“Founders are Luis’s group, closest to Goddess’s old power structure.”

“And the Coalition are the guys who weren’t at the meeting,” Vista supplied.  “Coalition and Founders manage this prison.”

Kenzie pulled her hand away from the wall.  I saw the weapon she held, like a knife a foot long.  She’d combined two of the projection lenses into a single long one.  She looked around, then stuck it into the wall.  I saw her squint one eye, then the other.

“They’re more or less on the same side when it comes to parahumans but they still compete and have big differences when it comes to other politics,” Ashley said.  “And they’re new.  When you look at gangs and governments, the newly established ones are the most insecure and reckless.”

“It isn’t how it should be, but it happens,” Rain said.  “Even with the Fallen, a family would get too large, people would leave and try to set up shop elsewhere, filled with motivation and new ideas, and they’d make messes.  I remember hearing about it.”

“Everywhere,” Ashley said.  “Everyone, every time.”

“Almost every time,” Kenzie said.

“Do tell,” Ashley replied.

“I think the future Kingdom of Damsel will be flawless.”

“You’re sweet,” Ashley said.  “But let’s focus.”

“Right.  Poking my eye into the wall, and… this’ll work.”

“What are they rigged to do?” I asked.

“Give me a look on the other side, tap into phone lines, and boost signals for my tech.  It’s still not great.  Lots of dense stone wall.”

“Do we break through and intercept?” I asked.  “It fucks a lot of things up.”

Kenzie talked while running a hand along the wall, “They’re stuck, trying to figure out what works as a way that is unequivocally Breakthrough murdering Armstrong, but in a way that doesn’t alert the Coalition or Founders that they’re up to something.  If it was old Sveta they could strangle him.  But it’s not and they don’t know how she works now, except that she’s made of ribbons, so they debated it for about three minutes.  Now they’re talking about framing Rain- large clean cuts, framing Byron, except they’re confused about if he’s here, and framing Ashley-”

“Structural damage and big holes,” I said.

Kenzie nodded vigorously.  “They’re unsure about convincingly doing all of those, which means it’s down to me, I don’t really do weapons, or you, Victoria.”

“Smashing him,” I said, my voice hollow.

“They’re getting the pieces in motion.  The problem is, they aren’t going to bring him to us where we can stop them.  They’re on the other side of big walls.”

I started to follow Kenzie, but Tristan put a hand on my shoulder.  I looked at him.

“Do me a favor, stay put?” he asked.

I glanced at him, looked around, and then looked at the water.  The murky pool near the blocked drain had a faint glimmer of light to it.  Orange light.

“You’re sure?” I asked him.

He nodded.

Rain dropped to a crouch, dipping a gloved finger into the water.  He began to sketch.  A square, trapped inside a diamond, trapped inside a square.  Four rooms set out along the exterior of the big square, for the various rooms at the outer edge of the prisoner area.

A map of the place.  The square in the center was the plaza.  The four exterior rooms included the shower area and the private dining room for the religious.

“That’s the best I can do,” Kenzie said.  “My projection hairclip is modified to work as a camera and give us eyes on one of the hidden doors the guards can use to flood this area.  Then I have one in-eye camera for me and one for one of you.”

Tristan stuck his toe in the water, boot scraping as he dragged a stone knife out into view, then stepped onto it.  He was making more.

“We sneak out, get to where we can warn him,” Tristan said.  “If they spot us we go offensive.  Hit them before they can use their guns, break out.”

“Seems too dangerous,” I said.  “All of us, some of us walking with a limp?  We’d get seen, or we wouldn’t be able to find hiding places.”

Rain frowned.

“We can’t let him walk into a trap,” Ashley said.

“We won’t.  But we divide our efforts,” I said.  I closed my eyes for a second, thinking, shifting mental gears.  This was more familiar territory.  It made me think of working with my mom and dad.

Which reminded me that my mom had signaled a need for help.  I interpreted it to mean that she needed a way out of Shin.

“Divide by?” Rain asked.

“Distract the guards.  Start a small fire, or… something.”

Rain reached over and picked a knife out of the murky water, holding it so it was partially hidden.  He held it in his lap so those of us who were close could see.  “This?”

“That’s extreme,” I said.

“We need extreme,” Tristan said.

“Missy, Theo, please help me wrap my head around this.”

Vista shook her head.  Her eyeliner had smudged overnight, outlining her eyes inconsistently with a blur of black that extended to one cheekbone, her hair was messy.  “He’s like a dad to Weld, he’s important to Sveta.  I feel like Gimel needs him.”

“And he came for us,” Ashley said.

“I’m not saying no,” I said.  “But stabbing?”

“No,” Ashley said.  She reached down.  “Give?”

Rain passed the blade to her.

I glanced down.  Kenzie was setting out little rocks and bits of debris on Rain’s map.

I stuck my toe out at the nearest rock.

“Three guards,” Kenzie said.  “I don’t have enough bits.  Two.  Three.  The big prayer room is the best way to go.”

“Rain, you come,” Ashley said.  Her expression was a dark glower.  She looked over our group.  “Victoria.”

“Why us, specifically?” I asked.

“Because you two look the meanest next to me.”

“Wow,” I said.  “I know I haven’t washed my hair with actual conditioner or shampoo, but-”

“But nothing.  You had a shit day, you look drained, it works for our purposes.  We don’t have time,” she said.  “My instincts say this works.”

I looked at Rain, who nodded.  I gave him a hand in standing and a hand in walking.

“Let him limp,” Ashley said.  She sighed.  “We’re trying to look like assholes, so don’t be nice to him.  Connect the dots.”

“Mm,” I grunted, glancing at Rain again as Ashley started walking toward the plaza.

There was a family at the corner, nothing to do with the one guy who’d attacked us, who had a kid with him.  It made me think of New Wave, because they included parents and children, uncles and aunts, and scattered relations, all with family resemblance.  They favored green and black for their extra clothing, like they’d all been wearing those colors when arrested, and had doe brown hair that was as coarse-thick as any hair I’d seen on anyone white.

“These are the guys who run this hall,” Rain said.  “Theo and I heard about them when we were asking questions last night.  People had a hard time translating it.  They live in the systems.”

“Prison family.  Successive generations spent arrested.”

“Kind of.  But it’s more complicated.  It’s not just prison.  It’s other services.  Goddess elevated them to a certain status by making an office for those who were loyal and willing to do what she needed.  Like private military.  These guys and people like them signed right up.  They’ll accept anything if it gets them a cot and hot food without them having to work.  Military, Goddess’s task force, prison, some types of school…”

“Useful,” Ashley said.

“Kind of scary,” Rain observed.

“But useful.  Scary and useful often go hand in hand,” Ashley said.

People squared shoulders and raised chins as they stared us down.

“Any of you speak English?” Ashley asked.

“Goddess’s tongue,” I added.

A boy with long hair said something in a foreign tongue.  An adult offered a one-syllable response.

“I learned for school,” the boy said.

“We need a favor.  We’ll buy,” Ashley said.  “But we need it soon, no fuss.”

The boy translated.

Another one syllable response.

“Guards say you killed the Goddess in Blue.”

“She threw a building at us.”

The boy considered, translated, got a grunt of an answer, and then said, “Cost us.”

“If you want to drag out this conversation, we’ll go elsewhere.”

“If you want a favor, we’re the best.”

“Not Rafa?” Rain asked.

The boy wrinkled his nose.  His parent nudged him, and he translated, catching the parent up on the last few exchanges.

The man made a face, momentarily disgusted.

“They put their dicks in dogs,” the boy said.

“They what?” Rain asked.

“Idiom,” I guessed.  “I hope.”

“They make messes, fall over each other, drink.  The only thing you can trust them to do is put their dicks in dogs.  You don’t want them.”

“Then deal with us.  We need a distraction,” Ashley said.  “We’ll pay.”

She held out her hand, palm down, thumb tucked in.  The boy reached out, and Ashley laid her hand atop his.  The knife was there, hidden from view, and the boy felt it.

“That’s-”

“Sharp,” she said.  “There are more like it.  That’s your pay.  But you distract the guards, so we can do what we need to do.”

The boy translated, dropping his voice at the tail end.

The adult answered with the longest sentence yet.

“Dangerous.  Burns the hand we want to keep warm,” the boy translated back for us.

“What do you want?” she asked, more tense, almost hostile.  Time was running out if Armstrong was due to arrive and collect us.

The boy shrugged.  “This.”

“You want security,” I said.  “You want reliable.  Comfort.  Stability.”

“Yes.”

I nodded, trying to figure him out.  “What if you could come to Gimel?  There are plenty of homes, we’re doing our best to provide food, and most of that is free.  If you want stable… we could arrange that.  Say… five people from your family.”

“Ten.”

“Five… Ten if you abide by our rules,” I said, ninety percent sure they would.  “You don’t kill anyone when you distract.  You don’t kill anyone after.”

“Killing like this destroys you,” the boy said.

“Gets you executed,” Rain interpreted.

“If you hurt anyone it’s someone who deserves it,” I said.

“A man.  He gave Goddess names of people who were educating their children alone so they would not learn Goddess Tongue in schools.  Later he gave Coalition names of those who were loyal to Goddess.  Some of ours.  He’s a man of sick loyalty, always turning around.  The prisons love him so they go easy.”

“Maybe,” I said.

The boy translated the conversation so far for his parent and other family members.

The adult responded.

“We’ll take that knife for your distraction.  Put a blade through his tush so he won’t be able to hold his shit in.”

“Tush?” Rain asked.

“Rain,” Ashley said.  “It’s not important.”

“Wrong word?” the boy asked.

Rain nodded, while I pressed, “No harm they can’t heal.”

The father said something.

“We could harm three,” the boy said.  “Three to distract.  All deserving.  Sick loyalty, sick eyes, and a sick that lasts for generations.  Two men and a woman.”

Rain touched my shoulder.  I looked at him and he indicated the group.

They were agitated.

Armstrong was here.

“Don’t hurt them too much,” I said.

Rain added, “We can’t guarantee we’ll give the visas to any specific people.  This is for your family as a whole.”

“Yes, of course.  We’re happy here, but some of ours don’t have prison, hoping we don’t get punished so we can stay longer.  Some don’t have anything.  They’ll go.”

“They’ll be good?”

He nodded.

For a lot of lines, for a kid who wasn’t older than Kenzie, he wasn’t even asking his dad or translating.  He just seemed to accept it as the rule or fact of their whole dynamic.

“When we signal,” I said.  “You distract.  Do it near the showers.  Keep guards away from the, ah, prayer room?”

“Yeah,” Rain said.   “The eating room?”

The boy said a word.

“That, yeah,” Rain said.

“And don’t tell,” I stressed.  I figured it was a given, but not kidnapping and  assaulting diplomatic envoys seemed like a given too, and Shin was way the fuck behind the learning curve on that one.

“Keep your deal and we keep our throats closed.”

Ashley reached out again.  The boy reached to take the knife, discreetly putting it away.  He began explaining to his family.

We walked back to our group.

“We have a distraction?” Tristan asked.

“Yes,” Ashley said.  “It’s all about projecting the right image and asking the right people.  They respect the powerful and naturally noble, and they respect fear.”

“Good enough,” Tristan said.  “Who’s handling this?  Staying hidden, doing something to signal our guy, get back without drawing alarm.”

“I’ll go,” Vista said.

“I’ll go too,” I said.

“You’re sure?” Tristan asked.

“Sure enough.”

Kenzie was a kid, as useful as it would be, and we needed her to stay behind to tell the group what the guards could see and where they were.  Tristan needed to stay to keep an eye on the knives he’d made.  He prepped two more while we negotiated.  When push came to shove, they’d stay in a place nobody and no cameras were watching and swap out, turning the weapons we’d given over into water.  No evidence.

Theo would stay because he was too big and didn’t trust his stealth ability.    Sveta was captured.  Rain had a limp.

We wanted at least three, and Ashley did have some capabilities, she made a lot of noise, but if we were careful and kept her power use small, that would minimize the effect.

Three of us.

Kenzie bid me to bend down.  I did, keeling with some use of my flight for stability.

The wicked multi-pronged thing appeared in her hand.  She looked around to make sure the coast was clear, then extended it into my head.  I could feel it, a glimmer of sensation, a blorb sort of feeling in the fluids of my eye, a sting of a tickle in cavities at the back.

Then my vision distorted, like I was looking through an inch of water, and clarified.  I could see images and text.  Outlines visible through walls, highlighting guards, cameras, and power lines.  The field of view of each camera was plainly visible, and as I looked at a camera, I could see a crosshair focus on it.  Staring at it for what I guessed to be two seconds snapped my view so I was looking through it.

Text at my peripheral vision remained as clear as day despite the fact I wasn’t focusing on it.

Candy, telling me she was working with me on this.

Telling me she’d relay Kenzie’s messages that couldn’t be conveyed through the camera.

Rain and Theo joining us, Vista, Ashley and I retreated to the area where the private eating partitions were set up during mealtime.  For the time being, everything had been taken down and folded up.  Despite space being a premium, people didn’t move mattresses or things into the large empty room.

We didn’t enter either, but that was because our destination was another wall, putting us close to the hallway with the least guards.

A flash of blue marked my peripheral vision, and I looked.  I saw the distant silhouette.  Armstrong.  Another- Natalie.

Another figure, not the red of guards or the blue of our hostages, but a yellow-green, could be seen in their company.  After second, more silhouettes appeared.

Cryptid.  Silhouette one, the fastest one the system had recognized.

Crock o’Shit.  Silhouette two.  The lie detector from the prison raid.

Coalbelcher.  Silhouette three.  The heavyset man who’d been something of a crime boss on the men’s side of the prison.

It couldn’t be easy.  I couldn’t trust Chris to play nice.

No.

I nodded to the others.

Getting us our distraction.

The commotion drew hollers and alarms.  Guards broke into runs, diverging from their paths at the tops of the wall to hop down or use ladders to descend into the prison.  Some hurled canisters, producing gas.

We retreated back to our side, as the guards in our company thinned out.  There were still some stationed at exits, but we didn’t need an exit.

Rain looked to me, and I nodded, touching the wall.

He produced a silver blade, and he stabbed into the surface.  Not a line, but a hole from a thrust.  He backed off, then struck the wall with his elbow.  The silver flared, and the material of the hole broke, a thin crack.

Vista expanded it until it was large enough for us to enter.

We slipped through, into empty hallways.

-He’s changing-, the text in the corner of my vision told me.

I looked, and I saw Chris’s distant silhouette morphing.  He was here to be their enforcer.

He broke into a run, and so did we.

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Breaking – 14.10

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I jumped as the door opened.  I hated myself for doing it.

“You don’t need to flinch just from seeing me,” Amy’s voice was loud in ways that had nothing to do with volume, filling the otherwise silent room.

“I thought you said you read my feelings and you understood.”

My own voice sounded so loud, to the point where I wasn’t sure if I sounded angry, argumentative.

She didn’t respond, her eyes moving this way, that, before settling on her chair, which she dragged a noisy foot and turned a bit before seating herself.  Fixating on the chair seemed to let her not fixate on my statement.

My heartbeat was even louder than the chair, than her voice, mine- or it felt that way.  Every sound was a vibration in the air, and my heartbeat was a vibration in me.  By the metrics of what constituted loud, the thuds were loud enough to make thinking hard, to make breathing difficult.

There were no sounds in the hallway, no voices elsewhere, no hum of ventilation or creak of architecture.  Just stone walls.

My bandaged hand did its best to grip my good hand, because any alternative was to have my hands shake, and I didn’t want to show weakness.  Weakness was my second-to-last resort, and it was ranked as such because it was volatile.  Every time I’d been weak in front of her, she’d used her power on me.  If I counted when we’d been Goddess-compelled as a time of weakness, she’d tried.  And every time she’d had reasons but she’d still done it, and she’d done it without my okay.

Even the day she’d triggered, now that I thought about it.  Almost a year into me having my powers, a gang called the Chorus had attacked a mall in Brockton Bay.  I’d gotten hurt, Amy had triggered, and she’d healed me.  The gang didn’t endure our retaliation or Coil’s expansion of activities as he’d claimed more of downtown.  It had seemed like such a rare, clear-cut case of a trigger event providing an answer to the problem at hand, no fuss, no muss.

Fucking haFuck.

No, weakness was a resort only because I knew the only way to truly get through to her was to bludgeon her, to go all out.  I couldn’t smack her without consequences, shouting her down risked bringing people to us and threatening the trade deal, which seemed so far away now.  My tools for breaking through were like my harsh comments earlier, driven by loathing, cutting remarks, blunt observations, challenges.  Insults.

But they had to be timed.  Each time, there was a risk she’d find her footing, throw up walls, map out a route around the thought… and that tool wouldn’t cut as sharply or penetrate as deep the next time around.

And when I’d exhausted nearly every other option available to me, maybe, just maybe, I’d let her see more of how scared of her I was.  How hopeless I felt this situation was.

Leaving me my last resort.

“You’re right.”

I looked at her.  Train of thought interrupted.  I couldn’t help but resent her for it.  The latest in years of her butting into my head, whether she knew she was doing it or not.

“My thoughts were somewhere else.  What are you talking about?”

“About the emotions.  I read them, I should know why you’d flinch.  You’re right,” she said.

I didn’t fill the silence.  Dot crawled out of Amy’s hair, down her arm, and onto her hand.  Amy moved that hand into her lap, partially covering Dot with her other hand, two untattooed fingers behind Dot’s ear.

Scratch, scratch.

“Fair,” Amy added, almost like it was an afterthought.

“Do you think I’ve been unfair?” I asked.  I had to measure out each word because keeping my voice stable felt like walking a tightrope, with a scary sort of chaos lying below.

Amy didn’t immediately respond.

I wished there was a window.  I wished there were sounds elsewhere to focus on.

“I think there’s no right way to answer that question,” Amy said.

“Okay,” I said.  My hand clenched the other.  “Do you think you’ve been fair, here?”

“I’ve tried.”

“Keeping me prisoner, cornering me?”

“We’re not- let’s not be combative.  Please.  We were being civil.”

“Okay,” I said.  One more measured out tightrope walk of a word.

Amy sat up straighter, looked more at ease.

I felt the pressure of the room and her presence press in.

I spoke, more measured words, easier because they were more aggressive.  A tightrope was easier to walk if you moved more quickly, forward.  “I get the impression you think we’re making headway whenever I make a concession.  Just to be clear, I’m being calculating or hiding barbs in my words.”

“And you think that’s being civil?”

I had to think for a second before responding, because this was so fucking hard.  “Yes.  You get the choice of me being honest and upset or me being polite and… biting, I guess.  Biting and deceptive.  It really is your choice.”

“Vicky-” she said, like she was almost exasperated.

“You said you understood my feelings.  That means you understand these are the only options.”

She looked annoyed.  I knew why, too.

In a very subtle way, she’d cornered herself.  I meant that in every sense- not that she’d put herself in a corner against me.  She’d cornered herself against herself.  In saying she’d grasped my feelings and she understood them, in the fervor she’d had when she told me that, she’d found another thing to cling to.

She dodged, she evaded, she circled around.  Not in real fights -she was crap in a real fight-, but in a broader sense.  When confronted with something bad, she grasped, she reached.

She’d faced my real emotions, supposedly, and she’d reached and she’d settled on the idea she’d figured me out.  That she had a way forward.

She needed this little revelation.  Her way of dealing with those tangible emotions had been to turn it around, to say ‘that’s the answer’.

“If those are the choices, then be civil, polite.  Keep talking to me,” she said.  “With enough communication, we can get past anything.  We as in humanity, I mean.”

I could hear our mother in that ‘communication’ line.

Fuck me, I wished there was actual ventilation in this room.  The thought crossed my mind that my ex-sister could create airborne pathogens, complex ones, and that thought didn’t leave once it found its mental real estate.

No window, closed door, nothing to look at-

My eye fell on Amy’s little minion.

“What about you, Dot?” I asked.

Amy’s little pet twisted around, flipping over to get her feet under her.  Crouching on Amy’s leg with both hands and feet, like a frog poised to leap, she stared across the room at me.

“Huh?” her voice was quiet but high pitched.

“What do you think about all of this?  How do you feel about it?”

“About my Queen?”

“Or this world, or me.  Or how we’re all standing on cracked ice.”

“Cracked ice makes sense.  I’ve seen too many family die.”

“Your family?” I asked.

“Yes.  Starvation, hunted by people like you.  Killed by machines.  Killed by pollution.  Age.  It all feels fragile.  Every death feels sudden and unfair, like ice.”

“I don’t disagree with you there,” I said.

“Dot lived on Bet until a little over a month ago,” Amy said.

“You?” Dot asked.  She pointed at me, extending a tiny, doll-size hand.  “I’m angry.”

“Angry?  Okay.  Why?”

“Because I want us to be done.  I want my Queen to build kingdom, gather power and earn trust of this world.  Then she can make journeys.  Go through your world.  Into mine.  She can save more of my people.”

“I’m a distraction?”

The little tail swished.  “Yes.”

“Is it okay if you come closer?  It’s hard for me to see you.”

Dot craned around to look at Amy.

I saw the hesitation on Amy’s face.  Worry.  Thinking I’d take Dot as a hostage?  I had the impression Dot wasn’t something Shin knew about as a whole, and taking her hostage would leave Amy without much recourse.

“I trust her,” Amy said.

Dot bounced down the length of Amy’s leg, across the floor, and up the frame of the bed, before perching on the foot of the bed, on the little raised bar of metal that kept the mattress in bounds.

Red hair had been combed all to one side of her head, her bat-like ears long enough they poked out of her hair and away from her head, each tipped with tufts of wispy red hair, both ears aimed my way.  She had fur like a golden lab, but puppy-fuzz short, freckled with red spots that were so round they seemed artificial.  She had a mouth with a shape and pronounced teeth that made me think of a tiny bear trap when the lips were pulled away, while being as expressive and wide as a cartoon character’s when closed.

She wore a pinafore-style dress, like overalls at the body but a dress at the bottom, and the dress portion was constituted of five or six layers and colors of wavy, ruffled cloth, to the extent it looked like a flower in bloom with two skinny legs and a thin tail sticking out from the folds.  The dress itself was black, but the ruffles and the decoration on the straps ranged from white to yellow, pink, and red.  Spiral-striped socks and elbow-length gloves had a similar color scheme.  A long, prehensile tail had a tuft of the red hair at the end, like a paintbrush, and a long ribbon where the tuft started.  She seemed to like to swish it around and let the ribbon trail in the air.

“I like the outfit,” I said.  I wasn’t lying either.  There were very few people who could pull it off, but she wasn’t people, and she could pull it off.

“Thank you,” Dot said.  Clawed hands and feet gripped the bar she perched on, her tail swishing more energetically.  “My Queen made it.”

Made it made it?

Uncomfortable.

“You said she wanted to earn Shin’s trust, so she’d have more freedom.”

“Yes.”

“I think, uh, if she wants to do that, she needs to win my trust, and the trust of people I work with.”

“Then trust her.  She knows everything, she’s strong, she’s almost as beautiful as my fallen King.”

“Thanks,” Amy said.  “That’s, uh, a ringing endorsement, comparing me to Nilbog.”

Nilbog.  Ah.

That was a heavy topic and the reality was that I didn’t know enough about him.  I’d known about the Old Man, Case Twelve, but in a way I knew only about as much about Nilbog.  They hadn’t broadcasted information about him.

“If everything broken,” Dot said, dark eyes gleaming as she widened them, leaning forward on her perch until I thought she’d fall to the mattress, “Let people fix it.”

“Amy?  Your Red Queen?”

Fuck, it made my skin crawl to give her a title.  Like it gave her more power, when the broken Amy that had twisted me up and spat me out had been so broken and low.

Yes.  She has so much power.  Could do anything she want if she use it, but she won’t.  She still trying to be something she isn’t, gentle and human.  She needs to be Queen instead.”

“It’s not that easy,” Amy said.

“You can claim a Kingdom.  You have power,” Dot told her.  “You’re halfway there.”

“We’ve had this discussion a lot,” Amy told me.

That doesn’t reassure me, I thought.  A little voice in Amy’s ear, saying queen, kingdom, queen, kingdom.  For weeks now?

I didn’t want to be here.  I was pressed so hard against the corner of the room that my back would hurt tomorrow.  My arms wrapped around my legs, and that was tight enough I’d feel it tomorrow.

And it was so fucking quiet, a room like a sensory deprivation chamber, which magnified the things in the space.  Me and my emotions, her.

Dot was safer.

“Dot,” I said, getting the little one’s attention.  “Were you there when she worked on Hunter?”

“Yes.  I remember Hunter.  I like the name.  It sounds like blood and biting, but the Hunter I met bites the air.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “But it went wrong, didn’t it?”

“My Queen says so.  But Hunter was gloomy and bleh before.  She’s exciting now.  She laughed more after.”

Maybe Dot was a key, or a way I could distill a message clear enough for Amy to get, without running into walls.

“But she’s your queen.  She’s not happy with it, is she?”

“No,” Dot said, almost absently.  She crawled along the bar at the foot of the bed, slinking along, crawling under and squeezing through the narrow gap between bar and mattress, looping over, then squeezing through again, in a spiraling path from one corner of the bed to the other.  Each time she got far enough through the gap, the dress she wore went from being compressed to poofing out dramatically.  “She’s unhappy, so it no good, probably.”

“I’m not happy with it either.  You’re the Red Queen’s subject, aren’t you?”

“What are you doing, Vicky?” Amy asked.

“Aren’t you?” I asked Dot, ignoring Amy.

“Yes.”

“You’re hers to look after?”

“Yes,” Dot said.  She reached the corner of the bed, gripped the bar with clawed hands, and walked up the wall until she was doing a handstand.  Moving hand over hand, she began to move down the bar, legs extended above her.  The poofy layered nature of her dress meant it didn’t flop down.

“Hunter was someone I tried to look after.  Someone asked me to help her, and I made sure she got that help.”

“Your subject,” Dot said.

“Not quite but close.  And the Red Queen used my name without my permission to get close to Hunter.  And then she broke her.”

Dot went from handstand to sitting with one leg on either side of the bar in a single, sudden motion that made the bar sing, and would have had me seeing stars in her position.

The goblin looked at me, then at Amy, and then at me again.

“I can handle it,” Amy said.

“She can handle it,” Dot echoed.

“But she betrayed trust,” I said.  “Is that how a Queen is supposed to act?”

“Are you trying to turn her against me?” Amy asked.

“I’m asking,” I said.  This was easier when I could focus on Dot, without Amy chiming in.

“It’s not so bad,” Dot said.

“But… can I try an analogy?” I asked.  I could do this if I could treat it like picking apart a puzzle.  Treat it like I was figuring Ashley out and finding a common ground, with her natural imperiousness and skewed perspective.  Treat it like I was trying to figure Kenzie out, before I’d figured out the smile or the family situation.  “Hunter was my charge, someone I helped, and Amy took her and broke her.  What if I took you and broke you?  How would Amy feel?”

“Broke me how?  Made me interesting?”  Dot was very still.

“I’m not going to hurt you.  But in this story we’re telling… how would she feel if I killed you?”

“Pissed,” Amy answered for Dot.  “Not many people have my back or keep me company.  I’d mourn her.  Seriously, do not hurt her.”

“How would she feel, Dot, if I fucking told you I knew the Red Queen and you could trust me, and then I killed you?  Or I… broke you in other ways, made you uninteresting?”

“Took my colors?”

“Took your colors, took your…”

I didn’t want to budge from where I was, but I lifted a foot.  My boot had been removed and I just had the athletic sock on.  I extended my leg across the bed and tapped Dot in the chest.

“My heart,” Dot said.

“Your you.”

Dot’s ears weren’t as high as they had been at the start of the exchange, and stuck out to the sides more than they stuck up, now.  A clawed hand gripped my big toe.

“I’ll fix her,” Amy said.

“I trust her,” Dot spoke up.  “She’ll protect me from anything like that.  She’ll fix what’s broken.”

“You trust her but nobody else does, and if nobody else does, she can’t help your… family, was it?”

“Family, yes.”

“Most importantly, Dot,” I said, withdrawing the foot I’d extended Dot’s way, hugging my legs tighter.  “She can’t do what she does if she doesn’t trust herself.  That’s when she makes mistakes, she loses trust in herself, and she makes more mistakes, and so on.  It’s what happened when she broke me.  When she doesn’t trust herself she stops fixing things and starts breaking things more.

“Vicky,” Amy said.

“Do you deny it?”  Again, in the quiet room, I sounded angrier than I’d intended.

It made me afraid to move, because my movements might be the same.  I could see myself using my power without wanting to, and I considered my control over my power to be one of the few things I was confident in.

“It’s things other than trust or trust in myself,” Amy said.  “Pushing in, twisting things around.”

“She said what she did to you,” Dot said, interrupting.  She wasn’t moving as much as she had been.  “You sounded beautiful and noble.”

That being said to me, somehow, seemed to slap Amy across the face more than my calling her a cunt, earlier.

It kind of slapped me across the face too, for that matter.

“You’re not helping, Dot,” Amy said.

“Not trying to help.  Am saying,” Dot said.  “I think you thought it beautiful and noble too or you wouldn’t have done it.”

“It was a mistake,” Amy said.

“I’m sorry you look boring and ugly now,” Dot told me, her ears turning my way a fraction of a second before her head did.  “Nothing interesting about you.  You not so beautiful as she is.”

“But she did it without asking.  I wasn’t her subject.  Hunter wasn’t her subject.  She made mistakes with… how many others?”

“Three or four,” Amy said.

“Ten, twelve,” Dot said.  “I wasn’t there for all.  I saw some and decided to stay and watch.  I hope every time for more beautiful-interesting things.”

Not ten or twelve,” Amy said.  Her voice was tight.  “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Coloring outside the lines,” I said.

“Yes!” Dot said, her eyes widening.  “I love those words.  I love color.”

“Do you remember what she did?” I asked.  Dot was… she was like a miniature force of nature in this confined space we occupied.  The more exuberant she got, the worse it was for both Amy and I.

But it was putting pressure on Amy, uncovering more truths.  Her buttons were obvious, apparent, and easy to push.

“Girl with a bad back, twisted up.  The day after Hunter,” Dot said.  “Back straightened until it broke.  Snap, crack, couldn’t walk.  She screamed.”

“That was one,” Amy said.  “I fixed it.”

“The old man.  Aged backward,” Dot said.

“Just stop, okay?” Amy cut in.  “This isn’t helping anything.”

“Was it interesting?” I asked.

Dot’s head turned my way, eyes wide.  She looked interested at the sheer mention of the word interesting, ears up.  Then the ears dropped to the sides and she shook her head.  “Not really.”

Dot,” Amy said.

“Why not really?” I pressed.

“Because it was ordinary.  He old and kind of interesting looking, then he young and not so interesting looking.  But he shouts and swears and says not his face, not his face.”

“He wanted to be young again,” Amy said.  “He was offering a lot, politically and for what we could give to Gimel.  We struck a private deal.  I de-aged him, made him thirty again, but he didn’t recognize his face in the mirror as the one he used to have.  He was upset and didn’t follow through on his end of the deal.  Said I made him ugly.”

“Very plain,” Dot added.

“Was that your mistake or his?” I asked.  I waited about one second, as Amy paused, trying to find the words, and butted into her thoughts with, “Don’t lie.”

“My mistake.  I don’t see it as a ‘coloring outside the lines’ thing.  It was a question of how much I pursue the art and how much I pursue the science, and I fell too far on the side of art.”

“You were working with Bonesaw for a bit.  Dad said she was big on the ‘art’.  When she showed up at the house, she talked a lot.”

“Don’t.  Don’t compare me to her.”

“I guess you got some practice in art before making Dot’s dress.  It really is pretty.”

“Yes!” Dot said.

Stop!” Amy raised her voice.

My heart pounded at the volume of the word, at the situation.  Every instinct was kicking in, to the extent I could have lashed out if I wasn’t already huddled up into a tight space.

I didn’t take my eyes off of Amy as I asked, “Dot, what were the interesting results from her power?”

“This is being confrontational again, Vicky.”

“The ear one,” Dot said.

Amy visibly winced.

“Fixing an ear, a wiggly hole going through head.  Canal.  She colored outside the lines, little ripply-rigid flesh around the ear and more holes twisting through.  There was blood bubbling out.”

“Getting into that art, huh?” I asked.

“You were being civil before,” Amy said.

Dot went on, “It was beautiful.  Wasn’t until I said something that she stopped, half the head was holes reaching through, ripples and ridges around.”

“I zoned out.  I hadn’t slept, I was tired,” Amy said.

“She called the Snark for help.  Asked him to fix the ears.  He wouldn’t.  But he sat with and talked her through.  He sat with for the next few too.”

“Marquis?” I asked.

“Chris,” Amy answered.

“Oh, Snark, of course.”

“That was fun.  That was a good day,” Dot said.

“Were there others?” I asked Dot.

Stop,” Amy raised her voice getting to her feet.  I flinched involuntarily at the movement, my head turning partially away.  She spoke again, quieter, “Just stop.  Please.”

Where I’d shrunk back a bit, Dot scampered to the corner of the bed and leaped for Amy’s hand, grabbing onto the sleeve before scampering up to Amy’s shoulder.

“Our fifteen minutes are probably nearly up,” I said.

“What?” Amy asked, momentarily flabbergasted, on top of her general upset.  “You were counting?”

“I did say I’d be underhanded,” I told her.  “There’s no way I’m going to spend more time in your company than I’m obligated to.”

“What the fuck, Vicky?” she asked, stepping closer.

She stopped when I pulled back.

She turned away, and I could relax a fraction, no longer drawn so far into the corner that I was forced to hold my breath.

“I had a long list of things I wanted to bring up,” Amy said.  “I haven’t been idle.  I’ve been trying to help Gimel.  I’ve been trying to heal people who nobody else could help, or use my healing to do more good.  I’ve figured some things out and gathered resources.  Capes, even.”

“Assuming I can trust you, which we really haven’t established.”

“You can trust me, Vicky.”

“Can I?  Based on what?”

“Based on the fact that I’ve had good intentions every step of the way.  I’ve always been on your side.”

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

“Fuck off, Vicky,” she said.  “Fuck.  I have enough good info and resources that you and I could sit down for an hour and you wouldn’t want to imprison me or anything.  You’d want to keep talking.  If you’d give me a chance.”

“I think my stomach would be all ulcers and I’d be incapable of sleeping after.  Or did you forget that you got a taste of what I feel right now?  Or is that something you only conveniently bring up?”

“I fucking remember, Vicky,” she said, angry now.  She paced, not facing me at any point, but still testing my tolerances, setting that panicky feeling into motion.  Like being in a cage with a tiger.  “It gets easier each time.”

“It gets harder.”

“No.  I can show you that this is doable, you can set the terms of the conversation-”

“Drugged, locked in a room I didn’t ask to come to, cornered?”

“No,” she said, still angry.  Angrier.

“Then I’m free to go?  If I open that door-”

“It’s a prison, Vicky.”

“But you have the power to let us go, you said that earlier.”

“Stop!” she shouted, wheeling on me.

She wasn’t at the far end of the room now.  She was in the center.  I was on the bed in the corner, all tension.

But that was the crack.

Cracks, though, were unpredictable.  They traced across weak points and forked and terminated early.  It was hard to predict the route they’d take.

So I waited, tense, not breathing.

“Teacher’s exploiting the system,” she said, her voice almost emotionless.  “He’s going to pick a fight sooner or later, and it’s going to be devastating.  He manufactured a crack, he’s going to intentionally create more.  Each one gives him more access to the system and more control over the levers and knobs that decide everything else.  He can force-create a Dauntless and the ones he makes will listen to him.”

I was silent.

“Teacher was one of the only other people in the Birdcage who kind of ‘got it’, who engaged with me when I talked about that stuff.”

She paused.

“I shouldn’t have said as much as I did to Teacher,” Amy said.

“You gave him ideas?” I asked.

“I don’t know.  He has no interest in ruling the world, and I think he’d view it as a distraction or detriment.”

“Detriment?”

“Because powers don’t like stable.  As you well know, look at me.”

The attempt at self depreciating humor fell flat, came across as mournful, self-pitying.

“I make mistakes, and my power makes it easy to make mistakes.  All it takes is an impulse, or a drifting thought.”

“When you’re tired, when you’re upset.  When-”

I couldn’t bring myself to say it.  When you’re lonely.

“I’m always tired, I’m always upset.  I’m always everything.  The first time I felt like I was able to actually take a deep breath was when I went to the Birdcage.  Away.”

I remained silent.  Letting her talk.

“Stability is tricky and hard to maintain.  It takes effort.  Teacher could control everything but he’d be fighting against everyone else and even against himself and his power,” Amy said.  “What he wants is bigger than that.  And he’s getting there.  Even with the tools he has, he’s too dangerous to fight.  Because I can touch someone with powers and look at those powers… I was doing that with Hunter, trying to figure out how to rebuild her personality…”

She stopped there, almost like her train of thought was gone, or she’d lost herself in memories.

I waited.

“I look at that broken, fragile landscape and I see Teacher’s hand in too many places.  With too many connections, too many networks, and a massive hole in another world that he’s elaborating on.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Does that count for anything?  I could provide more details, but… does it matter?”

“What do you mean ‘count’?” I asked.  “Is someone keeping score?”

“I’ve healed so many people, I’ve done so much, devoted months of my life to fixing things.  I threw myself into things around Gold Morning.  I played a big role, for better or for worse.  I’ve always been on your side.  And none of it matters.”

“It matters,” I said.  “But it’s not like there’s a big scorecard where you reach fifty thousand points and you win the forgiveness of one unconscionable act.  You don’t reach a certain point total and win the girl of your dreams automatically.  It matters, but it’s fifty thousand things that matter on an individual basis.”

“I’m not saying I want to win you, Vicky.  I’m just saying…”

“You want it to count.  To count enough.

She shook her head.  “You’re not getting it.”

“If you heal thousands of people and you mutilate twelve or so, you’re a healer who mutilates people.  You don’t give me an hour’s worth of abstract interpretations of the big picture and buy fifteen minutes of me being happy to spend more time with you.”

“That’s not what I’m asking for.”

“Bonesaw and Swansong will always be ex-Slaughterhouse Nine.  Precipice will always be ex-Fallen.  Chris will… I don’t even know what he’s trying to be or not be.”

“He wants to escape his humanity.  Leave weaknesses behind.  He likes you and that makes him dangerous because he wants to kill what he likes.”

I nodded.

Good to know.

“I sent him away,” Amy told me.  “Made him leave so he wouldn’t retaliate.”

“I don’t think he can escape his humanity like he wants, and even if he does find some magic potion that transforms him permanently into something entirely inhuman, if he enlists your help-”

“I won’t help him do that.”

“He will always have been human.  And me?  I will always be the girl who was turned into a monster by my sister.  To others in the know and to myself.”

“No,” Amy said.  She shook her head.  “I- Only if you hold onto it.  I offered to let you forget it all.”

“Doesn’t work that way.  If you don’t remember it then you’re more beholden to it.”

“What?” Amy asked.  “Vicky, you’re a smart person.  You got good grades, but that might be the dumbest thing I’ve heard you say, and I remember being kids and you telling me that birds can’t go into space because they need gravity to swallow and therefore they can’t swallow while they’re up there.”

“On space shuttles, you dumbass.  And you need to remember and dwell in the ugly shit because if you don’t, you just end up right back in it.  How do you change if you don’t tackle it head-on?”

“By getting through it and then putting it firmly behind you.”

“Except you tried that, apparently, and then you went and you destroyed Hunter.”

“I didn’t destroy her, I made a mistake.  I think I can fix it.  Fuck.  I should have known better than to expect you to be fair, Vicky.”

The more agitated she got, the more my body ratcheted up the physical signs of tension.  I tried to remain still, told myself flight was an option.  I had a headache from where my neck and jaw were tense, and with that painful buzz in the back of my head, I tried to visualize it as a tactile reminder of the people behind me.  Of refugees who needed that food.

Stupid, like a dumb mnemonic, but it helped me to process.

Every time I’d spoken, I was left feeling like I was risking pushing too far, or not pushing far enough.  If I didn’t push enough, she lost momentum.  If I pushed too far, she threw up walls.

And I didn’t really know her enough to know where those boundaries were now.

Here, I had zero idea.  For the first time, I couldn’t even recognize enough of her to say.

“You know what the shitty thing is, Vicky?  I told myself I wouldn’t say this.  I was doing okay.  At the Birdcage, after, figuring myself out, finding a balance, coming to terms with how much I hated myself… I’m rambling.”

The fingernails of my good hand dug into my leg.  The fingernails of my injured hand touched my leg, two of them wobbly, barely attached.  A reminder.

“I earned my stripes saving the world, I got offered work and money helping manage things behind the scenes, watching Bonesaw.  I healed heroes now and then.  I managed, I was doing okay.  I repaired bridges with Carol, and I had an actual mom for the first time ever.  Mark was cool, all considered.  I was fine.”

“I didn’t do anything to stop that.”

“You- you kind of did.  You appeared at the edges and fringes.  You re-entered my life and it all went to pieces.  Again and again.”

“All my fault.”

“No.  But you didn’t make it easier, for yourself or for me.”

“By existing?  By having a life?  Normally, Amy, when someone does what you do, it’d be you who abides by a restraining order, who stays a certain distance away, or who gets locked up in a cell.”

“That’s not what I’m saying,” she told me.  “It would have been best if one of us hadn’t made it through Gold Morning, that’s all.”

I maintained eye contact with her for long seconds, staring her down.  She was the one to look away first.

“I don’t resent you, I’m on your side,” she said, looking at the door.  “If you need anything, just ask.  I’ll be here.”

“I thought you said that if I had an honest conversation with you, that you’d do what I asked.”

She shook her head.

“Do what I ask,” I told her.  “I endured this room, this exercise of yours.  I played nice.  I measured out my fucking words, I told you, straight up, what I needed and wanted, instead of being really underhanded and throwing you through a portal to another world and throwing away the key, no warning, no appeals.  I told you that I think you need help.  That you need to talk to the Wardens and talk to a therapist.”

“I tried.”

“I doubt you really tried,” I said, anger putting bite into my words.  “Right now, you’re spiraling.  You don’t stop until someone makes you stop.  You hurt Hunter-”

“You never even met her!”

“She still fucking counts.  Those twelve people that Dot mentioned-”

“Who I fixed!”

“They count.  You’re going to keep hurting people until someone makes you stop.  That’s either with the help of a professional, more imprisonment-”

“Exile.”

“-or a bullet to your head.”

The look she gave me was as wounded as if I had actually shot her.

She walked to the door, opened it, and stood there, door partially open, hand on the handle, talking while her back was to me.

“While you were unconscious I was talking to people, catching up on the deals Citrine struck,” Amy said.  “You’re getting out soon.  Supplies should be okay, I don’t know about the escalated supply I was pushing for, because they don’t trust me.”

“Makes sense,” I said.

“They say the doctor drugging you was a miscommunication, but you and I know that isn’t true.  It was about power.  They said the prison guard attack wasn’t planned and Marquis, Chris and I believe them.  Parahumans don’t count and can’t count in their perspective.  Kind of like how I’m not supposed to exist or count in your reality.”

Citrine had been saying something like that when I left the room with the others.  Well, without the self-pitying bullshit.

“They wanted to make you squirm, but once they heard about you being hurt, they were pretty satisfied with the fact you bled for them and kept your cool.  I guess when you do things they count for something.”

She hauled the door the rest of the way open, and stepped out into the hallway, looking this way and that.

“Dot-” I started.

The critter leaped to the doorframe.  I supposed there were no guards outside.  I’d prepared to say something shorter, more perfunctory, but I found myself mentally stumbling.  My realization I could say something more profound tripped over the dizzying relief that Amy was finally fucking off, that the pressure of the room had been relieved, and the adrenaline of being so close to an angry, unhinged Amy.

“Look after her.  Keep her on track.  If she makes what she and I call mistakes, it hurts everyone’s trust in her, and she can’t help your family.  It needs to start with helping Hunter.  Nobody’s going to let that go.”

Dot’s ears moved up, down, up, and her tail swished, before she leaped away.

Yeah.

My feet were numb from now hard I’d clenched my legs to my chest, my arm hurt, my hand throbbed, while my head pounded.

My boots were on the floor, and I pulled them on.  I eased my way to the ground, looked over the cot and surrounding area, and then stepped out into the hallway.

Was this a win?  A loss?  Had I changed anything?

The guards were posted at the end of the hall.  They waited as I walked on a foot that was still partially asleep, sore and spooked.

They reached for my arm and I flinched.  They took it anyway, then guided me, strongarming me down one hallway, then the next.

Through the maze, deeper into the complex, I was sure, yet it felt like I was on my way out.  Away from the bullheaded monster.  Into light and a place I could breathe again.

My hand was shaking and I couldn’t make it stop.  I was glad for the bandage on the other.

We passed into the showers, which smelled like showers in any gym, physio center, or PRT Wards building I’d been in, except for maybe the scent of a different flavor of soap.

They locked the door behind them, leaving me to find my way myself, my arm feeling bruised where I’d been manhandled.

I found my team in the same hallway they’d been in before.

“She’s back,” Rain said, for the benefit of others without the angle or line of sight to see.

“Sveta?” Kenzie asked.

“Victoria,” Rain said, while everyone got to their feet.

“Hey,” Vista said.  She hurried to my side, hands steadying me.  “You’re as white as a sheet.  The surgery-”

I shook my head.  I counted heads.  Tristan, Rain, Kenzie, Ashley, Vista.  “Where are Sveta and Theo?”

“She got dragged off when you passed out,” Tristan said.  “Marquis said they gave you a drug that knocked you out-”

“Against my will and express permission,” I said, my voice tight.

“That would explain why Sveta flipped.  We were wondering if it was her new body having a weird stress response or if something else happened.  She fought guards to try to get to you,” Tristan said.  “She almost used her power.  We told her to calm down, that we couldn’t afford to risk everything.  She listened.”

“Where is she?” I asked.  “I need her.”

Tristan’s voice was calm, resassuring, “In a special cell.  We’ve been visiting but they only let one person visit and only for a short while.  Theo’s with her now.  The idea is they’re supposed to sit in those cells, then they get dragged off during the next round of punishments, but that punishment doesn’t count against their sentence.”

“What?” I asked, alarmed.

“It’s okay,” Vista said.  “Citrine’s getting us out.  We leave before any punishments happen.”

“We don’t leave without her.”

“I know.  We know,” Tristan said.

My emotions felt so messy.  As bound-up and constrained as they’d been in the room they felt like a tangled mess of wires inside of me now, impossible to untangle, choking.

“Why do you need her?” Tristan asked.  “What happened?”

In my mind, I’d thought of my friend because I could trust her, but I did trust the team, if only a slight fraction less.

“Master-stranger protocols,” I said.

Our time with Goddess had hammered in that particular lesson.  Everyone got it.

“What happened?” Ashley asked.

“Amy,” Vista guessed.  I flinched, looking away.

“Fuck,” Tristan said, with some emphasis and at least two syllables.  “Marquis said she left, he’s never been anything but straight with us, we were focused on Sveta because she was in more immediate danger and you were just getting surgery, we looked in once or twice-”

I shook my head.

“What did she do?” Vista asked.

“I don’t know.  But she did use her power on me.  Tell me how long I was gone?”

“Not that long.  When we last checked in, you were still getting stitched up forty minutes ago.  She wasn’t there then.”

My thoughts were a messy, tangled-wire storm of calculations, dropping one number as I tried to pick up another and arrange events into some kind of sequence.

So hard to gauge time.

I wouldn’t have been out for long.  Accounting for the time before our ‘fifteen minutes’ of conversation, the break when she’d left the room, the time to come back…

I couldn’t imagine she’d had time to do anything big.  There was only a gap, a big question mark on my brain and my body.

“I want to see Sveta, make sure she’s okay.”

“Can’t.  Not until ten minutes after Theo gets back,” Vista said.

“We won’t even be here that long,” Tristan said.  “Then we’ve got to figure out what we’re doing.”

“Doing?” I asked.

“About the raid on Teacher.”

The word was an alarm bell in my head.  I shot him an alarmed look.  He’d said it outright, in a place Teacher could overhear.

“Don’t,” Ashley said, but she didn’t say it like it was a condemnation or a warning.  “Victoria doesn’t need that right now.”

“I really need it.  Information, distractions,” I said.  When I swallowed I found my throat dry.  “Please.”

Tristan answered, “The attack was mounted, while our thinkers thought he was distracted.  Citrine said they’re gathering troops and allies for a second phase assault, because not enough of the first group are reporting back.  We’d be going as late arrivals, stragglers.”

Against an enemy Amy had called unbeatable.

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Breaking – 14.9

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There were no convenient little boxes with red crosses to mark first aid kits or similar signs to show us the way to the medical center, which left us in a weird kind of lurch.  We passed through the showers and into the building proper.  People talked to us in foreign tongue, and for the most part, there was a dissonant lack of concern in our welfare.  They looked at my mangled, partially flayed hand and didn’t show a shred of empathy, faint ‘human’ reaction to gore aside.

We’d collected towels and hand-towels from the shower area, and they hadn’t stopped us.  The towels weren’t so different from what we used on Gimel, but seemed to have divides where one end of the towel was used to effectively get the initial bit of moisture off, and the remainder absorbed or warmed.

Kenzie walked a little too confidently with a streak of blood on her face.  Ashley had her tilt her head back so her nose pointed skyward.

“Don’t,” I said.

“What?” Kenzie asked.

“Was talking to Ashley.  But you too.  Don’t tilt your head back.”

“It’s what they do in the movies.”

“It’s debatable whether it works, but if there is a benefit, it’s not as good as blood draining down the back of her throat is bad.  Too much blood in the stomach makes you puke.”

“Head down,” Kenzie said, holding her nose.  “Thank you.”

They watched us, guards and the staff in the hallways we were in let us enter, but they didn’t guide.  At most, with numbers, they herded and left us to guess. Making life as hard as they could.

I wasn’t going to bleed to death, but in the wrong circumstances, I did have to worry about infection or the long-term damage that happened if I didn’t immediately reattach skin.  If that was possible.

At least our navigation of this labyrinth had its own trail of breadcrumbs, a ball of thread.  It was Amy’s world, reflecting Amy in more ways than one, and so it was entirely natural that the path we walked through the facility was dotted with crimson droplets and dribblings.  Tristan had a clean towel wrapped around one arm, but there was blood leaking out near the elbow.  Rain nudged him to ensure he held it up, and helped secure the towels tightly around the arm, holding the wound closed.

“How are you holding up?” I asked Theo.  The hand-towel he had pressed to his stomach had a crimson-brown stain leeching into it, and more blood leeched into his top, a dark line amid a lighter blotting.  That shirt was going to be hell to pull away from the wound, once the blood clotted and connected skin to material.

The towel around my hand was too, for that matter.

“I should ask you,” he said.

“Tough,” I said.  “I asked first.”

“Surface level, I’m pretty sure.  It’s one more scar added to a hundred.”

“A hundred, huh?” I asked, trying to sound casual, because I felt anything but.  Every corridor was interlocking brick in different arrangements, combined with stone to contrast the brick’s red clay hues with dark gray.  I was starting to think making this place hard to navigate to trip up anyone trying to escape.

“Is there medical?” Sveta asked.  She wasn’t joining the conversation; she was asking a guard.  She got no answer.

“Courtesy of Jack and Hookwolf,” Theo said.  “I got good treatment, but when they asked, I decided I’d rather have something left behind than have brand spanking new skin.  It only really shows when I tan, but if I say it’s only a surface wound and someone asks me if I’m sure, I have plenty of evidence saying I know what it’s like to be cut up.”

“Ah,” I said, words failing me as pain surged, like my brain psychologically heard words like ‘cut up’ and ‘scar’ and fired more neurons and sparked up more nerves to tell me how fucked up my hand was.  “Cricket did something similar, I think.”

“Yeah,” Theo said.  “Right.  I actually kind of forgot about that.”

“Nice, Victoria,” Vista said.

Oh.  Right.  He’d probably known Cricket. It might have sounded like I was drawing connections or… didn’t matter.  Touchy ground.

“Sorry,” I told Theo.

“Nah.  You’re not wrong.”

“I don’t think of you as part of that crowd, so it’s hard to connect the thoughts, especially while we’re wandering around and not seeing any frigging medical center.”

“Yeah,” he said.

“Hi,” Sveta tried, addressing a guard.  “Medical?”

He pointed.

Okay.

“I did it too,” Vista said.  “Collected my scars.”

“Past tense?” Tristan asked.

“I got a new one from March, but I’m not working so hard to collect them.  If someone could magically erase them I might take them up on the offer, but it’s hard to find someone to trust.”

“Now who’s being rude?” Theo asked.  He elbowed Vista.

“Yeah,” Vista said.  “I meant it to sound more sympathetic.  Sorry.”

“Nah,” I said.  “You’re fine.”

Frick.  Fuck.  Motherfuck.

I worried about Theo.  I worried about Tristan.  Both had been slashed.

“I could make a cast,” Tristan said.  “Draw something out in red-orange dots and lines and encase your hand.  Keep it covered.”

“I’m not sure that’d help,” I said.  My voice was a bit raw from having puked, a bit of a burr, like that minute amount of acid had scarred my throat, when it hadn’t.  Only a bit of irritation.  “I’m more worried about you.”

“I’m a bit worried about me.  But I’m tough.  Let’s just get some medical attention.”

Medical attention made me instinctively think of Amy.

Would we turn a corner, and find ourselves face to face with another gang of hostile prisoners?

Would I turn a corner and find myself face to face with the bullheaded denizen of this labyrinth, that kept turning up?  Kept looming above me?

“Medical center?” Sveta asked some guards in red uniforms, all armed with cloth-wrapped guns.  She twisted around, asking people behind us.  “Medical?  Doctor?  Anything?”

The answer was foreign, cryptic.

The pain was blinding, a haze of red and darkness at the edge of my vision, narrowing my focus.  Even though the temperature was a degree or two below comfortable, I was sweating, which created a clammy layer between clothing and skin.  It made me very conscious of my body, and how uncomfortable skin was to wear.

It was many times more uncomfortable to have the skin missing, to have the back of your hand and most of two fingers ripped off, cleanly sliced off at first, then the last fingernail-studded inch torn.

Thinking about it made me sweat more.  I still had a dirty stretch of skin in my free hand.

“Medical?” Sveta asked.

“Back that way,” a guard said, indicating the way we’d come from.  “Your guest is in this room.  She won’t be allowed to stay for long.”

Fuck.  I’d wanted to talk more, to touch base.  What was this?

Fuck.

My head swam with the pain, memories of Amy with gore up to her elbows, my gore, me, and with implications and ideas.

I turned to go.

“Where are you going?” Sveta asked.  “Victoria.”

“This is probably a faster way,” I said, as I pushed the door open.

The room lacked furniture, though it had pillars in the corner with plants hanging from the tops.  Citrine stood next to her husband.  A burly guard stood in the center.  As we entered, one of the guards in our company slipped through and went to stand by the burly guard.

Blocking our direct view of Citrine.  They stood with their backs to one another.

Positioning mattered, even in a visitors area.

“I’m surprised you came,” Tristan said.  “Considering what happened to the last people who did.”

“We’re fine, but you clearly aren’t.  You were attacked?  Or punished?”

“Attacked,” Tristan said.

“Are they refusing medical care?” Citrine asked.

“No, but they aren’t exactly being clear or open about how to get it.”

Citrine looked at the guard that stood between our groups.  She said something in a foreign language, one word, it didn’t sound quite right based on what I’d already heard, but it wasn’t hesitant or shaky either.

“When they will ever wish,” the guard said.

“I take that to mean you can go get assistance when you wish.  Unless you’re afraid to do so?  We could try to pull you out.  It might be costly.”

“It might be good to get Lookout out of here,” I said.

“No,” Kenzie said.  “Nuh uh.  It would suck more being not here than being here.  Prison riots aside.”

“I’m sure you could debate for some time, but I don’t like that bleeding, so I’ll bring you up to speed,” Citrine said.  “Briefly put, we’re pulling strings.  We expect to have you out soon.”

“I’m covering the financial side,” her husband said.  He looked like an accountant, wearing a peacoat, scarf, a light blue dress shirt, black slacks, and thick-framed glasses, his hair short and pressed down from the hat he’d had on.  “Jeanne is covering everything else.  We do have ways to apply pressure.”

Citrine looked us over, as best as she could with the guards standing in the way.  “It’s good you bled, but you need medical care.”

Weird, to have her so concerned.

“I wondered if the bleeding was in our favor,” I said.  I glanced at Vista.  She’d hurt herself at my recommendation.  Her one hand was pressed down over the back of the other hand that she’d sliced.

“How badly was the opposition hurt?”

“One woman was hurt by her own weapon.  A prisoner hurt a guard by accident in the fracas.”

“Good.  As close to ideal as we could hope for,” Citrine said.

“Us not being attacked would be ideal,” Vista answered.

“True,” Citrine admitted.

“Are you safe to go?  The less injured could stay,” Kurt said.

“Safety in numbers might be best,” I said.  “But we’d have four people in each group, at least.”

Citrine looked at my hand, then looked at Tristan, her eye falling on the bloody towel he’d wrapped around his arm.  She said something in Spanish.

Tristan responded.

“No,” the guard said.  He put his hand out.  “Not that, change to the Goddess tongue.”

“I was asking if his family knew he was here,” Citrine said.  “He said they don’t.  I’ll tell them.”

“Thank you,” Tristan murmured.  The guards were focused on Citrine.  While they told her something, Tristan leaned his head over and murmured to me, “She was asking if it was guards that attacked us.  I said some did.”

I nodded, turned to Sveta, and passed on the message.

“We have to strike a balance,” Citrine said.  “They will keep their deal, but they won’t necessarily be kind in the meantime.  We’ll do what we can to pressure them to leave you alone.  I could elaborate, but I’m worried every second counts with that bleeding.”

“You should go,” Sveta said.  “Take some of us with you if you need.

“I’ll go.  We’ll go,” I said.  “You fill in my teammates, they’ll fill us in.  Golem, Capricorn, me?  Vista?”

“I’m fine.  Shallow.  Bring me a bandage or something after, or I’ll grab something.”

“Sveta?” I asked.

“I’ll come.  More to keep an eye out than because I need it,” she said.  She turned her arm around, and I could see that ‘straps’ of tissue were pressed against the underside of the wound, fluids oozing out and clotting to blur the boundaries.  There was still a ‘zipper’ edge around the boundary of the wound.

“Miss Militia said she wanted you out, she said the Wardens need your help.  It won’t be more than twelve hours.”

Roughly midnight, then.

“Thank you,” Tristan said.

“Guard?  If you’d have someone escort them to medical?  Promptly?” Citrine asked.  She added a two-word statement in their language, stiff.

One of the two guards at the center of the room turned and headed to the door, he motioned for us to follow.

“You trust them?” Ashley asked.

Citrine answered, “I trust them to deal with us, yes.  They are taking the stance that parahumans are something set aside, so as a group of parahuman envoys you…”

The door closed behind Tristan, Sveta, Theo and I as we stepped out into the hall.

Back into the labyrinth, this time with a guide.  My hand gripped the towel that wrapped around my other hand, the loose skin I’d collected pressed between palm and fabric.

They led us down the hall, and there was purpose to where they went.  Whenever we came across guards, those guards stepped off to the side of the hall and stared us down as we passed.

The individual medical rooms were well set up, shelves lined with bottles and with tools that sat in red and pink solutions, possibly to sterilize them.  We passed one room with a child and their mother seated.  The child had the skin that made me think of bleached hair, while the mom had a bit of it.

Unfamiliar medicine, administered by people who hated us.

Get me in one piece and I’ll have doctors I trust handle this after, I thought.

Sveta remained in the hallway as Tristan, Golem and I entered our individual rooms.  There were no doctors within, but there were people in the hallway, and one rang a dull bell three times, apparently to summon three doctors.

Right away, the doctor swabbed my blood, putting it in a dish with some liquid.  My leftover skin went in another dish.  Then it was the process of having the towel peeled away.

There were no words exchanged, no explanations, not that I would have known what he said if he’d addressed me.  Just quiet, clinical practice.

He reached for another tool -a syringe- and I stopped him.

“What is that?” I asked.

He answered in another language.  He motioned to bring it toward my hand.  I stopped him again.

“I need to know what it is.”

Again, he answered in the other language.

“Uh, guard?” I asked, raising my voice.

It was Sveta who brought the guard to the doorway.

“What’s he saying?” I asked.

“Quiets the hand,” the guard explained.  “Quiets you.”

“Quiet as in-” I put my hand at an angle, closed my eyes and moved my head over.

“Yes.”

“No,” I said.  “I’ll stay awake.  I have to stay awake.”

“The patients here do not decide.  Outside?  Yes.  Inside?  No.  You don’t choose.”

“This isn’t my choice.  It’s government.  Gimel, Shin made agreements,” I said.  “You were told to fix me.  You can do it without knocking me out.”

He exchanged words with the doctor.  The doctor looked annoyed.

The exchange continued for what felt like a minute.  Every movement of air on the back of my hand made me want to throw up, not because of pain, but because of how visceral it was, where it took me in a horror sense.

My skin was-

I had a very mixed relationship with my skin.

“Someone who was treating me didn’t listen when I told them to stop, once, and I got-”

The guard motioned for me to stop, or to back down, or shut up.  I wasn’t sure which, but the hand was swiped my way, firm.

“-fucked up.”

The doctor twisted around on his seat, facing me.  He looked pissed.  With an exaggerated show, he set the syringe down.  He picked up a small glass bowl and filled with colored granules that looked like tinted sugar.  He said a single word in his language.

“This,” the guard translated.  “Is this acceptable?”

“I have no idea what it is.”

There was another brief exchange.

“It cleans the hand.  Some quiet.”

“For just the hand?” I asked.

“Yes, the hand,” the guard said.

I didn’t trust it, and I didn’t trust them, but I was already worried, and I had no idea how clean that clean towel had been.

“Yes.”

The guard translated.  He didn’t wait to see or do anything before walking down the hall toward Tristan and Theo.  Sveta remained where she was, her attention divided between me and the guard.

He sprinkled the mixture over my hand.  It felt cold, but that was the anaesthetic element of it.  My hand tingled, cold, the pain stopped, and then the anaesthetic claimed my hand in entirety, followed by a swift loss of my arm, and it reaching my chest to grip my heart in some combination of horror and numbness that I couldn’t tell apart.  From there, it swept over my entire body.  It reached my throat, my head- and it decimated my consciousness.

With what remained of my awareness, I looked at Sveta, and saw her looking down the hall at the guard, rather than looking at me.

Then the next wave came, and I was out and gone, the doctor catching me as I slumped over.

Amy smiled, her arms folded.  She only wore a simple short sleeved top, crimson fabric, and with her arms exposed her fucking tattoos were plainly visible.  She looked as at ease as I’d seen her in recent memory.

A doctor said something in a foreign tongue.  Amy stumbled through her response.  Fucking Citrine had been better at speaking the language, and Citrine hadn’t lived here for any length of time.

Emotion choked me.  Everything I’d felt in the last two years at once.  Every swear word I’d uttered multiplied by every jawbone and sternum, every rib I’d shattered, the lives I’d taken and the damage I’d done.  I trembled with it and I couldn’t find an outlet.  I would have puked again, I would have screamed at her, and I couldn’t.

Only paralysis.

Then fear.  Every flicker in my peripheral vision, every doubt that had crossed my mind, all gathered together.  Except… she was here, a half smile on her face as she said something to the doctor, who looked annoyed.

I felt like there was a deal we made with ourselves growing up.  That we were kids and we were scared of the dark and the unknown, and we braved the world and each fear we faced down was a promise to ourselves.  Fourteen year old Vicky enacting an unspoken agreement with little waist-high Vicky, saying ‘We’re going to approach that boy, and it’s exciting and it’s scary but I’ll handle it if it gets messy’.

That I’d step into that first fight with an adult man almost twice my size, and I’d manage.  A pledge from myself to a more vulnerable myself, that we were strong enough.

A silent promise to myself when I fought a person with powers.  Scared every time, but earning that trust and the ability to make bigger and better promises along the way.

Here, that vulnerable, small, childish part of me that was ready to be scared of everything was in the driver’s seat.

The bigger, adult me was paralyzed, thrust away.  Because in that storm of bound-up feelings that were hitting me full force, there was another kind of non-feeling process.  I’d disconnected, pulled away, detached so many times.  Gone to another place, dove into academic thought, dove into memories, lost myself in violence, even.

As I felt anger like I’d kept all of the anger of the last few years in reserve, and a quiet terror that seemed to encapsulate every fear I’d ever had, I felt the safety of the disconnect, observing everything from arm’s length, even myself.

I tried to speak and only a small sound came out.

Immediately, that ease I saw in her disappeared.  Amy turned my way, then hurried to my bedside.

I reached for powers and found paralysis instead.  They were there, but-

I thought of the Gimel refugees.  Of the need for supplies.

Between paralysis and the stray thought, reaching for my powers and finding them was slower than Amy was in reaching out to touch me.

The touch lasted all of two seconds.  Then, belated, she pulled her hand away, and my consciousness went in the other direction, more of an immediate blackout than any time I’d fallen asleep or been knocked unconscious.

Forced.

I roused, and my body felt leaden.  I used my flight, instinctively, like I was getting out of bed in the morning, and I pushed myself to a sitting-up position.

The feeling of having betrayed myself was the first thing to set in.  I’d betrayed every aspect of myself, from that vulnerable side of myself to the scholar to the warrior monk and the wretch.

I’d let my guard down.

Now…

I dared to look.

A square room with a cot and a closed door.  I lay on the cot.  Amy sat in a chair in the corner opposite where I lay.  A guard stood near her.

I brought my knees to my chest, and I hugged them, as if I could put myself further away from her.  My hand was bandaged.  I felt tightness around the injured parts.  I couldn’t tell through bandage, but it felt like the skin was there and swollen.

I wondered if I’d have to hurt her.  I’d have to be careful of my injured hand.

“You don’t need to be afraid,” she told me.

I didn’t answer.

“Don’t give me the silent treatment.  Please.”

That just made me want to do it more.  Petty.  Refuge in hate, in fighting mindlessly because the alternative was surrender.

I thought of Sveta’s absence.  She’d been watching over things.

“My team.  Are they okay?”

“They’re fine.  They’re back in the prison population.”

“Do they know you’re in here?”

“No.”

I squeezed my legs harder.

“They were angry, when you passed out,” she said.  “There was almost an incident.  Marquis- he’s here because I am.  He talked them down.  Your group had a huddle.  They talked about it.  They agreed it made the most sense to let it be, given cost, benefit, and what Citrine said about Shin.”

“Leaving me here,” I said.

“They didn’t like it but given what’s at stake…”

“Supplies for Gimel,” I said, feeling hollow.  The hollowness scared me.

“Materials from Shin have been about thirty percent of what Gimel received to date.  Cheit’s fifty, if I remember right.  Ten percent from Nun and other associated corner worlds.  Something like six percent from Gimel itself, three percent from Bet, reclaim and scavenging.  You guys wanted to put as much as you could into rebuilding.  Shelters and businesses first, Gimel having its own supply and manufacturing chains came second.  The numbers for supplied food versus what Gimel produces on its own are different, but I think last winter they were sort of close to what I just said.”

“It’s ‘you’, huh?” I asked.  Still hollow, harrowed, emotionally wrung out from nothing except being in this room, in this position.  Under her power.  “Gimel is ‘you’ and Shin is ‘us’?”

“You know what I mean.”

I looked down at my cot.  There were a shallow set of railings running along the edges to keep the mattress within bounds.  I wondered if I could grab those, fly, leverage strength, and use the cot as a weapon to kill Amy and the guard in one shot.

If I had to.

That made me feel better.

“Let’s talk,” Amy said.

That made me feel worse.

“Is that an order?” I asked.  “A directive?  Not a request, obviously, not an option?”

“If I say it’s an option you’ll say no,” she said.

“You’ve lost every right to dictate terms, Amelia.”

“Call me Amy.”

“You don’t get to choose what I call you,” I told her, my voice low.  “If that guard wasn’t here and if I wasn’t worried it would cause an incident, I’d have other names for you.”

“I don’t get to choose, I don’t get to dictate,” she said.  “You know… there’s never once been a time in my life where I got a real say in anything?  I was a kid and Marquis decided I’d live with the Dallon family, and then Carol and Mark got to decide when my bedtime was, when and what I ate, and what I did for homework.  When I had friends they were your friends or it was just you and I never really got a vote.”

“That’s being a kid.”

“It happened even later.  I didn’t choose my costume, it was Carol showing me some sketches and saying A, B, or C.”

“Sketches done with your input.”

“And it was other stuff, it was the times I got forced to go out heroing, and it was school and it was career path and-”

“And that justifies it?”

“And I’m not going to dwell on it, but…” she floundered.

“But what?”

“But maybe it would be nice of you to realize I’ve kind of been under someone else’s thumb or in someone else’s shadow or following someone else’s directions every step of the way.  And when I did finally do things out of my own free will I was unpracticed and traumatized and-”

“And that excuses it?”

“No!  Ye- no.  But it would be nice if it could be taken into account,” she said, her voice dropping in volume.  “It would be nice if for this, right here, instead of you getting angry and saying we won’t talk, maybe you meet me halfway.  I don’t want to domineer the conversation, I don’t want to force you to have it, I want you to want to have it.  An actual, even, fair conversation.”

“While a guard who could shoot me stands at your side-”

“He’s not-”

“-and you have me cornered, and you’ve-

I choked on the words I was going to say.

“I don’t have you cornered.”

“You’ve used your power on me, and I have no idea what you did to me while I was defenseless.”

The tear that sprung from one of my eyes caught me off guard.  It seemed to do the same for her.

“Th-”

“Again,” I said, more to myself.

It still shut her up.

She said something in the other language, stiff.  The guard gave me and her a wary look, then hauled the door open.  It slammed on shutting.

“Guard’s gone,” she said.  “He doesn’t speak English, by the way.  That’s why it was him, specifically.”

“Doesn’t make me feel better.”

“I can’t help you feeling cornered-”

“You can leave.  Leave me alone.  That’s all I’ve asked for.”

“About the third thing,” she said, stubbornly plowing ahead.  “What I did.  I can explain.”

“And I’m supposed to trust you?” I asked.  My voice went out on ‘trust’, so I mouthed it more than said it.

“I’m hoping that after we talk you can.  At least a little,” she said.  “I only used my power the once.  They hadn’t warned me you’d be paralyzed, my first thought was that it was a stroke, um-”

“You used your power on me, you cunt.”

The word seemed to catch her off guard, but not as much as I’d hoped.

“I checked you.  I got a read of your system.  Um.  That includes the neural connections-”

I let go of my legs, burying face in my knees, that were pulled up to my chest, and covered my head.

“It includes emotions.  Um.  If it’s any reassurance-”

“Fuck you and your reassurance,” I said.

“I get it now,” she said.  “How you’re disgusted by me, how you feel betrayed, the hate, the pain.  Crystal clear now.  I felt it, realized what it was and that it was all real, and I pulled my hand away like it was a hot stove.  I did use my power, but it was like pulling my hand off a hot stove.  Pushing you away, into unconsciousness, while I pulled back.”

My skin crawled.

She sounded mournful, subdued.  Her hands clutched one another in her lap.  The imp Dot had climbed out of her hair and had a lock of Amy’s hair in her teeth.  Her tail swished as she glared at me.

“Amelia,” I said.  I properly lifted my head.

“I guess you’re going to call me that.  Okay.  What?”

“Those feelings are mine.  You’re not supposed to read me like a fucking book and ‘get it’.  You’re supposed to read my fucking lips and hear the fucking words I’m saying and believe me.”

“Okay.”

“Then fuck off and die somewhere.”

“I do get it,” she said, instead of following the instructions.  “The anger.  I definitely felt that.  The hate.”

“I’ve been working on that,” I said.

She nodded, shoulders relaxing a hair.  “I’m glad.  For your sake I mean.”

“Cultivating it, channeling it.  Stoking that fire a bit whenever there’s a good excuse.”

I saw her face fall, and it hadn’t been ‘up’ in any way.  Just… not guarded.

I went on, “The anger, it hurts others, you know.  It drove me to maim or thrash Nazis and people who’d try to coerce fifteen year olds into prostitution.  Scum of the earth.  But there’s too much risk.  Too much collateral damage.”

“You don’t have me to clean up the mess.”

I shrugged.  “Hurts too many people for me to have anger as an outlet nowadays.  I find myself saving it up and then shattering Valefor’s jaw or something.  Fear, though?  Fear… it just kills me inside.  Sucks up all my energy.  Eats me alive.  And I’ve been scared every day since what you did.  Really fucking scared.”

Emotions were leaking into the words, when I wanted to lay it all out.

She nodded.

“Self loathing, hating my own skin?  Not feeling like I’m me?  It eats at my identity.”

“This is why I want to talk.  So we can address these things, work on fixing them.”

“You can’tYou can’t,” I said.  I put a different emphasis on the second repetition.  “You don’t get to.  This is what I hate about you.  This is- this is the point I was getting to.  Hate.  Anger hurts others, fear eats away at you, self-loathing fucks with your sense of identity.  But hate?  Hate’s focused.  If I have to have shitty feelings in the aftermath of what you did to me, I prefer hate because it has one target, one casualty at most.  You.”

“It bleeds into other things.”

“Maybe.  Cross that bridge when we get to it.  For now?  Hating you keeps me sane.  And I fucking hate that you’re arrogant enough to think you can fix me or fix my feelings, or fix this situation.  Walk away.”

For a second, I thought she might summon the strength to push herself to a standing position and then leave the room.

Muscles that had momentarily tensed in her tattooed arms relaxed.

“I want to talk,” she said.

“I want you to die.  I guess neither of us are getting what we want.”

“I want one hour of your time.  Here.  Talking.  Fair, even conversation.”

“There’s that arrogance of yours,” I told her.  “I can’t believe I thought any of this would be good for you, Red Queen.”

“One hour,” she said, firm.  “You can leave Shin with your team.  If you hear me out and if you’re fair, I’ll do whatever you want.”

“Whatever I want?”

“Anything that helps.”

“What about you going to Gimel, talking to therapists, counselors?  Anyone and anything that helps you get your shit together.  You stay away from mom, you stay away from dad, you stay away from Chris, my team, and me most of all.  If I want to talk to you again, I make the first move.”

“I’d be willing.  I haven’t had much luck with therapists, but I’d try.”

“What about-” I started.

I shouldn’t show my hand.

I couldn’t hold my tongue.

“What if I said you had a few days to try to fix Hunter, while Breakthrough and I handle some other shit, and then I had people take you to the Wardens for them to make a bigger decision?”

“A decision about?”

“About whether they give you some more of that counseling and a few more shots at fixing Hunter, and if you can’t, or maybe even if you could and they decided you were a danger, we’d get rid of you.”

“Get rid.”

“Chuck you into an alternate Earth with no other human beings.  Where you can’t hurt another Hunter.”

“I can help Hunter.”

“You’re positive?”

“I’m- reasonably sure.”

“Then it’s a reasonable chance things are fine and we don’t end up chucking you into an alternate reality where you can’t hurt anyone.  Of course, it’s the Wardens deciding what to do, not me.  You say you read my emotions, so you know how much I hate your guts.  I know how much I hate your guts.  I’d just be telling them what I think and giving them a suggested starting point, but they make the final call.”

“You’d be telling them to exile me?”

“Probably.  If you can’t fix Hunter?  Almost definitely.”

“That’s-”

“What?  What is it, Amy?”

“It feels like the hate and that kind of idea you’re talking about is coming from the side of you that scared me, when we patrolled together.  When you hurt an ABB child abductor so badly you had to call me to fix him.”

“Well…” I started.  I floundered for a response.  “Fucking obviously?”

“What?”

“I mean, it’s obvious that that kind of side of me is going to be bigger and more pronounced in comparison.  You took all the parts of me you liked and mashed it all together into a big pile of lovey-dovey ‘Vicky’ you could cuddle with, kiss, use-”

She shook her head, violent.

“Don’t shake your head at me.  Yes.  You used me to soothe yourself.  You said you loved me but well before you made me into the w- into that mess that had to go to the hospital, you made me into something that wasn’t Victoria, for your own selfish wants.”

“When I read your emotions and tracked them to their roots, I saw that the memory blocks I originally put into place to protect you were down.  Brain routing around.”

“You took all of me that you liked and you multiplied it and you mashed it all together like some kid mixing their paints together into a single blob.  What the fuck do you expect is going to be left intact and strong, except the ugly parts you didn’t want to touch?”

She shook her head.

“I’ve been rebuilding me.  I’ve been trying to find the good and admirable parts of Victoria for a long while now.  But that other side of me is there and I’ve spent a while trying to ignore it.  The barbaric side.”

“I’ve been trying to find myself too.”

“Fuck you.  I don’t care what you’re doing.  You- fuck you for even saying that in the same breath as what I’m talking about.”

“You are a victim, Victoria.  I’m not denying that.  What happened was horrible and unconscionable and it eats me up inside.  But I’m a victim too.  The Slaughterhouse Nine came after me.  I lost my family.  I lost you.  What happened wounded both of us, and impacted the both of us in a massive way.”

Dot had her teeth set on my ex-sister’s ear, while following the conversation.  A small part of me hoped the little creature would sit back at the fucking gall of what Amy had said and then use its box cutter to slit her throat.

Just a ‘fuck this, not hitching a ride with -this-‘ kind of thing.

Dim hopes.  Dot continued to nibble on Amy’s ear until Amy made her move, pulling her down to her lap, where she absently stroked the doll-sized creature.

I had to play along.  I didn’t want to lie, and I wasn’t even sure I could, but… she seemed genuinely shaken by what she’d taken in when she touched me, reading my emotions.  There was a crack.

And it sucked, but a cracked Amy was the only Amy I could hope to budge in the slightest.  Push too hard and she’d fold into herself and go back to being stubborn.

If I didn’t push at all, she’d steamroll over me.

“Sure,” I said.  “You’re a victim too.  Slaughterhouse Nine and shit.  Carol was a shit mom.  You were lonely.  I could have handled things better.”

“You were fine,” she said, eyes on the floor.  “You were the one good thing.”

“I was angry and hurt from losing Dean and Dad being brain damaged, I hated the idea you had secrets from me, as Tattletale said, and I wasn’t there for you.  Maybe if I had been, then Bonesaw wouldn’t have been able to come after you as easily as she did.”

“You’re fine.  You were the one good thing.  Your feelings made sense.”

“Amy.  You’re a victim too.  Fine.  But what you did you did to me.  What happened to you happened to you.  Blame the Slaughterhouse Nine or see them like a natural disaster… there’s no cause.  You don’t have the right or the position to complain about being a victim when you were the one who hurt me.  Who used me.”

“You keep saying I have no right, I can’t, I’m not allowed-”

“Because when you do something criminal you lose rights.  You lose privileges.”

Amy shook her head, like she didn’t realize she was doing it.  The palm of her hand rested on Dot’s front, while fingers absently scritched at Dot’s chin and neck.  Tiny hands and feet gripped the outer edges of Amy’s hand, tail swishing.

“One hour, you can take me to your therapists, put me in front of your tribunal, let the Wardens decide what to do with me.  Okay.  It might even be a relief, to be sent away.”

Probably not.  But I wasn’t going to test her cooperation.

I would test one other aspect.

“Fifteen minutes,” I told her.

“What?”

“Not an hour.  You don’t deserve an hour of my time.”

“Half an hour?”

I had planned to suggest half an hour, as a fair compromise, but that she’d asked left me with a bitter taste in my mouth.

“Fifteen minutes.  Say what you’ve got to say.”

“I want there to be back and forth.  I don’t want you to tune out.”

“Okay.  Go.”

She nodded, very exaggerated, too fast.  Her hands were visibly shaking, even as she pet Dot.

“Then,” she told me.  “Then um, I’ll start with something I know will get your attention.  Appeal to the side of you that loves cape stuff.  Or loved.  I don’t know if you’ve changed.”

I remained silent.

She swallowed hard.  “Back at the Birdcage, I came into contact with Glaistig Uaine.  She’s Valkyrie now.  I got a glimpse of how powers are organized.  I figured out Gold Morning before it happened.”

“Okay.  Were you able to get it to anyone?”

“No.  Not really, but I tried.  I did fill them in once I was out.  But that map, that set of connections, it’s still kind of there.  The central hub is dead and all shards are acting like Cauldron shards used to, not developing right, not aggregating data in the same ways, not updating or adapting to their hosts like they should be.  A lot of just outright dumb now.”

“The broken triggers.”

“Yes.  And Dauntless.  The Kronos titan.”

“A broken second trigger multiplied by a portal and time effect, or something.”

“Kind of.  Um.  But when I work on the right people I see the landscape that’s laid out, the old roads where connections used to be.  I think we’re going to see more.”

“More broken triggers?” I asked.

“More Dauntlesses.  A lot more, and soon.  The city’s the worst spot… it’s like all those portals?  Them being there make it easier for the big, messy results to happen.  Like tearing paper with a row of holes in it.  The holes guide the tear.”

“How certain are you?”

“One hundred percent.  Ninety nine percent.  Weird stuff can always happen.”

I nodded to myself.

“Victoria, the city’s like a lake covered in ice, with countless cracks spread across it.  Powerful capes are staying away from it because they make it worse.  They’re too heavy for the ice.”

“They haven’t said anything.”

“If we abandoned the city and set up elsewhere, those cracks would still spread.  The end result is the same, except it’s a bit delayed and a lot of people die because they abandoned the infrastructure, supply chains, resources, and support the city offers.”

“They’re trying to find answers.”

“They’re trying to find answers to the problem, they’re trying to mitigate the damage by spreading out the stress points, manage how much power is in the city at one time, and do productive hero work while they’re maintaining those balances and figuring out those things.  Just… elsewhere.  That’s what the Wardens are really about.  Like park wardens, maintaining a park by managing who can go in, managing resources…”

“Got it,” I said.  I nodded.  “Got it.”

“Part of the reason I wanted to bring Gimel’s prisoners to Shin instead of letting them run around the city was to do the same thing.  Manage the stress.”

“And if you’re to be believed, they didn’t tell us because they didn’t want us to panic.  Because… Dauntless-like events and broken triggers are going to get more common?”

“They are, but that’s not the ‘because’, Vicky,” Amy said, hunching her shoulders together, leaning forward.  Dot clambered up her arm to her shoulder.  “The ‘because’ is that Scion’s species’ life cycle didn’t stop just because he did.  Even if you don’t fertilize an egg, the chicken is still going to lay it.  All of the passengers are going to fumble together for connections, gather and translate power, and they’re going to… try to spread themselves to other places of interest.”

“Just like that.”  My voice was quiet.  I hugged my knees.  “If you’re to be believed.”

“I am.  Teacher believes it too, but he has bigger plans.  He thinks he can control the damage and control what happens when it all comes together.  He actually has something in common with one of your teammates, because when I look at the landscape-”

“Amy,” I cut her off.

She shut up.

“Can we put the fifteen minutes on hold?  Can you give me a second?”

“Yes.  And yes,” she said.  “I could, um, get you some water.”

I thought of all the things she could do to a glass of water.

“Do they have bottled water here?  Any sealed drinks?”

“Not really.  I mean, yes, they have capped drinks elsewhere, but not in the prison.”

“Then no.  No drink.  Just give me a few minutes.”

“Okay,” she said.  “I could use a break too, actually.”

A few seconds later, she was gone, the door shutting.  Me in my cell.

My hands were shaking, and it wasn’t Amy’s hypothesis.

I took a deep breath, trying to center myself.

I figured out a way to undo and then start unwrapping the bandage on my hand.  Loop by loop.  Their method of bandaging wasn’t any different from ours on Gimel and Bet.

The skin had been connected by tight, tiny threading.  It was swollen, but when I touched it I felt sensation, like I might feel when my foot was slightly asleep.

Fingers, much the same, but I couldn’t really bend them to test their mobility, with the swelling being what it was.

Fingernails… five fingernails attached, two tender to the touch, feeling that same kind of wobbly as a child’s tooth might be, when it started to show signs the kid might lose it.

I’d lost two fingernails when attacked in the prison plaza.  When I’d picked up the skin, only one fingernail had still been attached.

The sweet and good hearted people of Shin had found a stray fingernail and brought it in for reattachment?

Not likely.

Had it fallen on me, landing on my clothes without my notice?

No- the wire had raked along my hand and toward the woman, away from me.  The nail would have been flung toward her, not toward me or onto my clothing.

Had I somehow missed that another fingernail had been attached to the loose patch of skin I’d picked up off the ground?  Had they found it and attached it as normal.

I wasn’t sure.  Possible.  Maybe it was the most likely possibility.

Or the final possibility.  That Amy had lied to me, more than once, in the course of our conversation.  It would be cause for simultaneous gut-wrenching horror and relief; it would suggest she’d used her power on me and hadn’t told me the full truth, but it would also gave some reason to doubt her interpretation of what was coming.

In that, at least, I really wanted her to be lying to my face.

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