Shade – 4.6

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“Help me understand how this makes any sense at all,” Natalie said.

We were outside of a bagel place, close to the station nearest the Wardens’ Headquarters.  Natalie had bought a salad with chicken bits in it.  I’d never liked eating cold chicken, so I’d picked up a salad without the extras, and a toasted bagel sandwich with fish, black olives, tomatoes and cream cheese.  We sat at a table outside.

Natalie was wearing a shirt with a folded collar under a work-suitable navy-blue sweater, with black slacks.  I’d seen Kenzie wear a similar outfit a few days earlier, though Kenzie had had a skirt, and Kenzie had worn it better.

The group’s ‘lawyer’.  She was just a student, but mom’s verdict was that she knew her stuff well enough to serve, and she had a good sense of what was happening in the future.

I explained, “The area we were surveilling had a team of heroes come through, at our urging.  They had a brief interaction with the embedded villain population, suggested they might be sticking around, and then left.”

“And they were followed?  By the entire group of villains?”

“By two, Hookline and Kitchen Sink,” I said.  “They were angry following the discussion, were previously established as exceedingly violent, and they have criminal acts that are awaiting process.”

“They’re not in the nine percent?”

“Is it nine, now?  I was hoping the number would go up, not down.”

“Nine now,” Natalie said.

“They aren’t.  I think most of the villains in Cedar Point are trying to stay clear of that line,” I said.  I took a bite of my sandwich, then wiped the cream cheese from the corner of my mouth with a flick of my thumb.  Thoroughly disappointing.

Nine percent.  I’d known it as the ten percent, which had been a neater, rounder number.  With the courts badly behind, only a certain number of crimes and criminals were being rushed through court, and it wasn’t based on the time of the deed.  There was something which might have resembled a balance right now, but it was slipping fast.  People wanted to focus on getting themselves sorted out, there was plenty of work with reasonable pay, and the people who thought they could game the system ended up falling into the ten percent.  For those who did, the hammer came down hard and decisively.

There was, however, a population of people who’d realized they could get away with things if they avoided being among the nine or ten percent worst offenders.  It seemed to me that the gap was widening as people got more settled in and dissatisfied.  I knew some areas were using a lottery system to deter the lesser criminals, choosing the crimes they’d act on and prosecute by drawing them at random.

“Do you and did you know the crimes these two have awaiting process?”

“Hookline dangled someone out of a fourth story window.  Witnesses saw.  He was presumed to be acting as collections for a money lender.  The neighbors heard shouting about debt, not when Hookline was there, but in general, with the victim and his partner.”

“And you know this how, if it wasn’t pursued?”

“It was reported on in the paper for that area, a few months ago.  I have a copy of the article on my laptop.  I had to take the picture with my phone so it’s not the best.  Do you want to see it?”

Natalie shook her head.  “I’ll believe you.”

“After the article there was a reaction to Hookline.  Some public gatherings, anger, some backlash against the money lender.  Hookline left.  No telling if he was made to, fired, or if he wanted something easier.  Ended up at Cedar Point.”

“And the other one?  Kitchen Sink.”

“One of a couple who worked under Beast of Burden, who was crime boss for New Haven.  Sink handled collections for the protection racket.”

“Any serious crimes?”

“He trashed one business in a way that made it very clear his power was at use.  He creates semi-random items and flings them around, and the business had a lot of semi-random items flung around, shelves trashed, windows broken.”

“Was anyone hurt?”

“I have no idea,” I said.  “Victim didn’t pursue anything.  Authorities aren’t going to do anything if the victim isn’t talking.”

Natalie’s forehead wrinkled.  It was a weird contrast for someone who had a whimsical pixie cut with a curl at the front and oversized glasses, to seem as joyless as she did.  She didn’t seem to like her meal, and she seemed interested but not excited or engaged by this.

I ate more of my bagel sandwich, letting her think.  It would have been so much better if it was salmon, but it wasn’t.  The olives were mushy and lacked bite, which made me wonder if they were old, scavenged, imitation, or if they’d lost something in transport.  The worst thing was the bagel – I’d eaten here before and it had been better then.

“You assaulted and battered two individuals,” Natalie said.

“Let me get my laptop out.”

“They didn’t make the first move, by your own admission.”

“Their intent was clear.  They had weapons.  I’ll show you the video.”

“Please.”

I fished my laptop out of my bag, packed up my bagel and set it aside, and set the laptop down so Natalie could see.  It was a bit warm from being in my bag and being left on low-energy mode, but the boot-up was fast.  I already had the pertinent files and videos in a folder.

“First video, overhead view.  Do you have headphones?”

“I do.”

I waited until she had them out.  She put them on, and I plugged in the jack.  I hit the spacebar to start the video.  She watched, putting her arm up and over the top of the screen, to shield it from the sun.  I offered my own arm to help.  The video came in at an angle, zooming in, and showed most of the conversation, followed by Hookline and Sink’s retreat.

When she started to take off her headphones, I held up a finger, then navigated to the second video.  It showed same events, but a better view of Houndstooth’s group, and then expanded out to show how Hookline and Sink were closing in.

Natalie watched the fight and the follow-up, with Sveta and I retreating.  Moose did the work of freeing Hookline from underneath the car I’d blocked in.

It was hard to see in the noonday sun, especially when I was half-standing, my arm out to help shade the screen, but I could see Hookline’s reaction, slapping away Moose’s hand.  He stalked off, and Sink belatedly followed, something held to his bleeding nose.

“Clear intent to injure,” Natalie said.

“That’s what I said.  I did mention the weapons.”

“There’s a view, and it isn’t my view,” Natalie said, reaching for her salad, “that if you have a power then you’re armed at all times.  Sometimes judges hold that view.  I would rather assume that you would have a judge that held that perspective and be wrong, than to assume the opposite and be wrong.”

“Right,” I said.

“A better option would be to inform the heroes.”

“Couldn’t.  Clairvoyants with some clairaudience,” I said.  I opened a sub-folder, clicked an image, and let it pop up.  A boy in a wheelchair, a woman pushing it.  He wore a helmet with a fake brain under glass at the top.  She wore a bird mask.  “They’d hear anything we communicated, so it was radio silence.”

“You could have dropped down in front of Houndstooth and told him about the situation.”

“Similar risk.  We don’t want to hint at the prior relationship and we do want to suggest there’s a growing presence of heroes, to give them reason to second guess.”

Natalie sighed.  “I’m not a very conservative person in reality, but I do think your situation needs a conservative eye.”

“I can agree with that,” I said.

“With a citizen’s arrest, there needs to be an actual arrest.  I recognize you had to leave after the other villains showed up, but normally the process of performing an arrest like that needs clear indication of a crime in progress or one just committed, and it needs the authorities to be involved.”

“Citizen’s arrest?” I asked.  “Capes get a lot more leeway with those.”

“One second.  The process would be for you to contact me and contact the authorities, before anything happened.”

I opened my mouth to respond.

“Where possible, and it wasn’t possible here.  I get that.”

“Yes.”

“You would, with my counsel and go-ahead, step in, take action, and then wait for the authorities to arrive.”

“Authorities who are only acting on nine percent of the cases,” I said.  “Why a citizen’s arrest and not an arrest with standing?”

“A costumed arrest?  We don’t know for sure if they’re going to allow those with the new legal system.  I’d rather lean on something tidier that we can be fairly sure will carry forward.”

I leaned back in my seat.  “That’s a lot more conservative than I anticipated.  Operating as if capes aren’t a thing?”

“I think capes are going to be a thing,” Natalie said.  “But we have reason to believe they’re going to be a thing people are going to want to handle in a different, more careful way, now.”

I packed up my sandwich and pitched it into a nearby trash can.

“No good?” Natalie asked.

“Bagel was flavorless and textureless.  It looked great and tasted… not like it looked.”

“They got popular, so they started freezing excess bagels and defrosting them to serve.”

I made a face.

“We’re making strides, Victoria, but I think we’re in for a culture shock when people realize that as much as they’ve been waiting eagerly for things to get closer to normal, we’re not going to get a lot of the old normal we’re eager for, and we’re going to get some of the less pleasant parts.”

“You’re talking about the law?”

Natalie shrugged.  She was holding her plastic thing of salad, spearing some with a plastic fork.  Before popping it into her mouth, she said, “Lots of stuff.”

My laptop was taking up some of her table real-estate, so I closed it and pulled it closer to me.

“Expectations,” she said, once she was done swallowing.  “If I’m working with you, I need to know what yours are.”

“That’s a simple question with an answer that could take me a day to get through.”

“Your mom wanted me to ask you if you were still looking for work,” Natalie said.

I tensed a little.

“I was asked to ask the question and pass on the response if you gave it.”

“When we pay you, it’s not for you to be a messenger between me and my mom.  If I want to talk to her I can call her.”

“Okay,” Natalie said.  “She had something else to pass on.”

“And I’m not interested,” I said, my voice firmer.  “Thank you.  I will get up and walk away.”

“Please don’t.  Really, please don’t.  There are a lot of things I want to talk about sooner than later,” she said.  “During our last meeting, I know it was brief, but I wanted the lay of the land.  I was hoping this meeting would be a chance to get a more comprehensive sense of what you wanted to do, and what I’m doing for you.  Both of your mother’s questions tie into that.”

“Did you talk to her about our meeting?”

“No.  Not for the last one.  For this one, I went to someone lateral to her.  She approached me independently with these things, and told me to reach out to you if you didn’t reach out anytime soon.  Because you would want to know.”

I wished I hadn’t thrown my lunch away.  I would’ve liked to have something to violently toss into the wastebasket, as an outlet for what I was feeling.  I shook my head a little.

“It’s relevant,” Natalie said.  “And it’s important.  I promise.”

I shook my head more.  All around us, people were going to and from lunch.  There was actually a city-like stream of cars on the road toward the center of the megalopolis proper.

“Tell me then,” I said.

“There were two attempted breaches into our email server last night.  It looked like it was directed at your mother.  They put a moratorium on sending and receiving email for three hours while they did some backend stuff, and there was another attempted breach partway through that.  Tech people are looking into it.”

I nodded.  I looked at my laptop.  Cedar Point, except I wasn’t aware of anyone who would be especially good at that stuff there.  The speedrunners were tinkers, but nothing suggested they were tinkers with talents that translated to hacking into the email servers in the Wardens’ headquarters.  Bitter Pill was a full tinker, but her specialty put her even further from that kind of operation.

Houndstooth appears, adding to pressure, Sveta and I make our appearance, and a little while later, an attempted look at a close relation’s emails.  I could see the thread.

Would Tattletale have succeeded?  If she had the power to see weaknesses, it could extend to security systems.  During the bank robbery, she’d done something to gain access, though I couldn’t remember particulars.  It had been ambient noise around then.  She’d also collected info on Empire Eighty-Eight.

Someone they hired?  Was the fact that they didn’t go straight to Tattletale important?  A sign of a schism?

“My mother thinks it has something to do with me,” I concluded.

“She was called in for confidential discussion this morning, she got out of the meeting, said she couldn’t get in touch with you, and told me to reach out.  I think so, yeah.”

“I can’t have you being her messenger.  It’d impact how this arrangment works,” I said.

“Even if it’s pertinent?  Letting you know things like the possible breach into emails?  That they’re looking into people close to you?”

“The problem is that it’s always going to sound like a good reason.”

“Could it sound like a good reason because it is one?  Sometimes, even?”

I drew in a deep breath.  I collected my laptop and put it into my bag.

“Don’t leave, please.  I don’t want to drive you away.  I do want to understand,” Natalie said.  “The first and last thing I said at our last meeting was that I was concerned.  I’m more concerned now.”

“Why ask me about whether I was looking for work?”

“Because she asked me to ask you, if I thought it was appropriate, and I thought it might be.”

“Of fucking course,” I said.

“Don’t get angry,” Natalie said.

“I’m not angry with you.”

“Before we got derailed, I was talking about expectations.  You flew into that scene with no hesitation.”

“I’m invincible,” I said.  A lie, yes, but I wasn’t about to trust her with the truth.

“I know that, but isn’t there always some risk you’ll be hurt, or that there will be some consequence?  You’re paying me, you’re involving your family, and the hack could be the tip of the iceberg.  I have to wonder, how much are you putting into this?”

“I know my own limits, Natalie.”

Are you looking for work?”

“Are you going to report to my mother and tell her if I’m not?”

“No,” Natalie said.  “And I’m offended that you’d ask.”

“I’ve been pulling occasional shifts here and there doing cape work.  Keeping the peace at protests, standing guard here or there, in the general vicinity of cape functions.  I volunteer too.”

“Is the volunteer stuff as a cape?”

I sat back in my chair, and shifted the position of my bag.  “Yeah.  Pretty much.”

“It doesn’t seem like much of a balance.”

“You’re aware I’ve never had that balance?” I asked, in my best ‘get real’ tone.

“You went to high school once upon a time, didn’t you?”

“As the girl that was an out and open superheroine,” I said.  “Because of a decision my parents made.”

“I haven’t seen my dad in years.  I don’t even know if he survived.  I know what it’s like to have parent issues,” Natalie said.  “I do get it.  But is this really what you want?  Your mother is concerned-”

I grit my teeth.

“-I’m concerned.  I can definitely see the similarities between you two.  You’re both firm in your convictions and it seems like you both give things your all.  She’s usually the first one in and the last one out at work.”

“Can we stop talking about my mom?” I asked.  Angrier than I’d intended.

“Okay,” Natalie said.  She stopped there.  “Give me a second.  I’ll compose my thoughts.”

I gave her a few seconds.  My ankle crossed over the other, and the top foot tapped against the ground.  My fingers fidgeted with the strap of the bag that laid against my chair.

“I’m your lawyer.  For you and your team.”

“Not my team.  Just a team I’m looking after.”

“There’s an implication of overseeing and ownership, but okay.  I’m the lawyer.  I can give you counsel, and if I know who you are and who you want to be, I can tailor that counsel.  My tendency is to be conservative, because there’s a lot we don’t and won’t know.”

I nodded.  “There’s a degree to which I want conservative.”

“I hear you.  I would strongly encourage something more lawful.  Calling first, letting authorities know, checking with the lawyer, doing what you’ll do, working with authorities after.”

“Not every situation allows for that.  Having a plan is great, and I’m all about laying stuff out and being smart about things.  Sometimes there’s no time, and you have to make choices.”

“Yes,” Natalie said.  She paused, fixing her glasses.  “Yes.  If these are the three stages of the plan, with prelude, action, follow-up, maybe you can skip one, and you can explain it away to the authorities.”

I nodded.  “That’s not unreasonable.”

“Except…  If you have to skip two and rush the other, is it possible that you shouldn’t have acted at all?”

“We should have just let Houndstooth’s group get attacked from behind?”

“Or waited to send them in,” Natalie suggested.  “Or not had them come in at all, if you couldn’t be sure you’d be able to handle the lead-in and follow-up.”

I drummed my fingers on the table.  “There’s more to it.  These guys are in contact with people.  If we let them operate as normal, try to catch them in the act, they’ll use their leverage and catch us first.  We have to apply some sustained pressure.  Test their relationship with their contacts.  We’ve talked it over with other groups and they agree it makes a degree of sense.”

“Houndstooth?”

“They were one.  They really liked it, even.”

Natalie’s brow wrinkled.  “You said sustained.  Do you have more lined up?”

“A team is going to call a local realtor, looking into the possibility of moving in.  We’ll see if they react.”

“Then?” she asked.

“We might have some more people lined up.  Another group might be passing through, and we’ll be more ready if something comes up.  My cousin is swinging by.”

More brow wrinkles.  “You’ll pressure them until they crack.”

“Until they start to.  Then we or someone we trust targets that weak point.”

“When things crack, it’s often sudden.  Hook and Sink would be an example of that.”

I nodded.

“If it’s sudden, it’s hard to take the necessary steps before and after,” Natalie said.

“It could be,” I said.

“You don’t have to give me an answer right now, but please think about what you want this to be.  You can act faster and more flexibly if you’re loose with the law, but you’ll lose your chance at getting a big success past a judge’s desk.  I can help you if that’s the route you need to go.”

“But you think we shouldn’t go that way.”

“The people on the team are young, so you need to think about what you’re teaching them.  You need to think about your balance of real life and cape life.”

“I’m not-” I started.  “I never got that.  Even before I had powers, the cape life had taken over.”

“I can understand why you would resent her for that, but-”

“That’s not it,” I said.

She sat there, waiting like she was expecting me to elaborate.

I almost got angry.  I pushed that back.

“I’m not going to get into particulars,” I said, calm.  “It’s between me and her, and it would make things messy.  Nobody benefits from that.  Least of all you.”

“I’ll take your word for it.”

“Thank you,” I said.  “I’ll think about what you said.  About what I want, what I’m doing, keeping an eye out for balance.  The team and what they need.”

“The kind of counsel you need me to be.”

“Yes,” I said.  “Absolutely.  But I need something from you too.”

Natalie nodded.

“Don’t involve my mother in this.  Don’t pass on information, give hints, or respond to hints.  Lawyer-client confidentiality should be in effect.”

“I’m not a lawyer, exactly.  I can and do intend to do that, absolutely, but-”

“Act like one, here.  Please.  She’ll convey her side of the story, probably not in an obvious way, and I need you to be neutral.  I won’t be sharing my side, but assume I have one.”

“Okay,” Natalie said.

“I can’t get into that stuff.  I can’t afford to,” I said.

“She does care about you, you know,” Natalie said.  “She might not handle it in the best way, I don’t know the details, but I know that she is smart and caring, and both of those things are magnified when it comes to you.”

I stared at her.  My first thought was that I wanted to strangle her, because of the frustration I felt even before what I’d just said, her going against it, and how she seemed to not get it at all.  Even with an absent parent?  I wondered if it was something wholly different, like a parent that had left and cut contact of their own volition, rather than a parent that she’d cut herself off from.

My second thought was to tell Natalie what my mother had done, and to hope she understood.  Even if I knew it would blow things up, cause chaos, screw up Natalie’s relationship with a superior.

I could see the worry on her forehead, as she looked at me.  In that look, I could see that I was the bad guy here.  I was the one Natalie thought she had to worry about, and my mother was the smart, capable, caring professional.

Anything I did in reaction to this would only make me seem more unreasonable.

“Thank you for meeting with me,” I said, pushing the emotion back, doing my best to sound normal.  “Are phone payments okay?”

“They are,” Natalie said.

I took a minute to get everything sorted out, glad to have something to focus on, then tapped my phone against hers.

Sixty dollars out of my account.  A glance at the screen verified my account standing.  I had two hundred for rent to Crystal, seventy five for utilities.  Even before any possible temp jobs in costume, I had enough to get through next month, two or three more meetings with Natalie or even fewer with anyone we replaced her with.  Natalie was cheap and willing and I didn’t disagree with her non-family related advice.  It made sense.

“Thank you,” she said.  “And thank you for lunch.”

“I’ll see you later,” I said.

She was the pawn, not the problem.  My mother had chosen her for a reason.  A play of a sort, possibly unintentional or automatic.  It wasn’t a play my mom had made because she was a mastermind, natural or otherwise.  It was just how she was, how she navigated people.  Everyone close to her had had to learn how to deal with it.

The tragedy was that as much as it was a conscious or unconscious bid for a reconnection with me, it would achieve the opposite.

I put my music on, and walked to the nearest bit of park so I could take off without causing too much of a commotion.

I let myself into the headquarters.  I was secretly glad to find I wasn’t the first person in, seeing Kenzie at the desk, wearing the same clothes from yesterday.

As that fleeting sentiment passed, I was alarmed, seeing Kenzie at the desk, wearing the same clothes from yesterday.

“Kenzie?” I asked.

“Oh!” I heard her speak, though she didn’t move.  Kenzie-at-the-desk winked out of existence.

“…Kenzie?” I tried again.

“I’m on my way!” she said, through the computer speaker.  “I was hooked in by phone and forgot I had a virtual me set up to appear if I called.  It’s only half done.  I’ll be there soon!  How are you?”

“Don’t dive too deep into the team stuff or tinkertech, Kenzie,” I said.  “Take a break, turn off your brain every once in a while.”

“I turn off my brain by tinkering,” she said.  “It’s like how on some computers you can push the number so high it goes back to zero, except it’s brain activity.”

“Kenzie,” I said.  “Put the phone away.  Close your eyes.  Don’t fuss about things.”

“But-”

“Is there an emergency?”

“No.”

“Then hang up, put the phone away, close your eyes, and don’t worry.  Everyone’s coming, we’ll tackle some things, compare notes, and all will be good.”

“Bye.”

“Bye Kenzie.  See you soon.”

“In… twelve minutes.  About.  And Rain is coming, but he’s going to be later.  He’ll arrive in-”

“Hang up the phone,” I said.  “Or I’m going to start unplugging things at random.”

“Bye then.”

I didn’t respond, because it was apparent that Kenzie had to get the last word.  The ambient noise came through the phone for another few seconds before she hung up.  The cube to the right of her desk went dark.

It was strange to be in the space when the others had yet to arrive.  Normally, my focus was on the task at hand, here.  I wanted to be the rock, unmovable, in case others needed to reach out.  It was hard to be that with Natalie’s words in my mind and the room empty.

The whiteboards were people’s thoughts encapsulated.  Mine was numbers to call, things to do, a rough timeline of events, with the next being Auzure’s call to Cedar Point.  They were Houndstooth’s recommendation.  I added notes about the hack.

Kenzie had her costume notes, tinker notes, some drawings in erasable marker of her face, a circle with large eyes, a kiss-shaped mouth, and two buns, and various hearts and stars.  She had two boards, one mounted on the wall behind the one with two legs and four wheels, and the tinker notes spilled out from the side of the one in front to the one in the back.  So did the stars and hearts, for that matter.

Chris’ was at the other end, opposite her desk.  I walked over to it, glancing at the others on the way.  There were some names written down, but most had been erased.

Menagerie
Zoo
Zoological or Zoologic?
Hodgepodge or Hodge?  Podge?

Note to self: bring books for Rain

All written in the bottom left corner.  ‘Chris’ was in the top right corner, the ‘h’ smudged where a sleeve had rubbed up against it mid-write.

Ashley’s board was empty, except for a very elaborate, stylized rendition of her name.  Kenzie had found some fonts and displayed them on the whiteboard for tracing.  Ashley had okayed this one.

Just ‘Ashley’.  Nothing else figured out.

Rain had two boards, like Kenzie.  One on wheels, another on the wall behind.  Unlike Kenzie, they weren’t even remotely organized by topic.  Snag, Love Lost, Cradle, ‘5’, known acquaintances, tinker hands, contact pads, timeline for Snag’s operations, known places the cluster had been with lines drawn to names of acquaintances, name ideas with ‘handbreak’ crossed out because Tristan had apparently vetoed it, a crude calendar with the names of cluster members filling in blanks, Love Lost due tonight… and so on.

Just red marker and some brown, presumably to put in different words in gaps yet keep them distinct.  Or because Kenzie had stolen the red marker to draw hearts.

Tristan’s was next to Rain’s, and Tristan’s was mostly devoted to team name ideas, room layouts, broader organization and schedule, and some minor notes on money spent.  Byron hadn’t really showed up in the hideout, but Tristan had still devoted a quarter of the board to him.  A list of movies.  Aimed at letting Byron maintain a degree of communication with Chris and Rain, it seemed, from the comments on the side.

Sveta was taken up by a mix of art and names.  She’d written out names not in a list, but as solitary words.  Images had been drawn around them.  Beneath ‘Moor’, a girl’s hair, wavy, with a fish head poking out to the right from between the two curtains of hair.  It was very detailed for art on a whiteboard, with each scale getting a texture.  Above ‘Lash’ was a feminine figure in stark black lines with back arched, head back, and breasts pointed skyward, the breasts so pointed they could have been used for Kenzie’s geometry homework.  To the right of ‘Cirrus’ was a face drawn out in lines, frowning.  ‘Berth’ was sitting in the bottom right corner in tiny text.  The image was so small it was barely legible.  It might have been Sveta’s rendition of herself, potato-shaped with arms and legs flailing.  A line was drawn between its head and the word ‘no’, a speech bubble without the bubble.

I felt oddly fond at seeing it.  That kind of mental working was inexplicable to me, but I liked seeing the hints of it.

After Sveta was my whiteboard, neatly organized, then Kenzie’s two, which I’d already noted.

I wanted to help them.

No.  The boards didn’t convey it, the boards were things as they should be, even, but they needed help.

On so many levels, they needed help.

The by-proxy interaction with my mother had affected my mood.  Natalie’s words and concerns had too, but it was hard to know how many of those were my mother’s and how many were her.

The concern, with emphasis on the word like I could remember Ashley doing…  Even after I’d been hurt by the Nine, had worse done to me by my sister, and gone to the hospital, I couldn’t remember my mother ever expressing concern for my activities as a cape.  If such was expressed in Natalie’s expression and words, then I could believe it was Natalie’s.

Concern for what I was doing, the path I was walking?  I could see it being my mother’s, through Natalie-as-proxy.

It made me sad and angry and frustrated all at the same time, and I didn’t have any outlets for that.  The punching bag hadn’t yet arrived and been set up, and I wasn’t about to throw myself at the villains.  Not that I wanted to operate that way.

The villains were so simple, so easy.  Cedar point.  Bad guy central.  I was supposed to dislike what they did and I did dislike it.  I didn’t see anything redeeming in them, I had the power to stop them, and I wholly planned to.  If I could mess with Tattletale in the process?  Bad guy, I was supposed to dislike her, she’d done little that redeemed her, and it was personal, besides?  Yeah.  Fuck yes.  But I’d do it smart, not by impulse.

Others… not so easy.  My dad.  Gilpatrick.  Mrs. Yamada, even.  They were the good guys and they hadn’t handled things perfectly.  I felt varying degrees of heartbreak because of them but I couldn’t blame them.  Not easy.

My life was filled with people I wanted to get angry at and couldn’t, because they were fundamentally broken and flawed.  My mother.  My sister.  Amelia.  Amy.  I’d said her name and thought about her for ten lifetimes’ worth, in just the span of two years.  I felt vaguely ill that I was doing so now, even if it was for the sake of doing as Natalie had asked me to.

The only thing I hated more than being victim to other people’s emotional impulses and fucked-upness was when those other people were so close to me that it all came down on my head.  The furthest thing from easy.

The door opened, interrupting my thoughts.  I turned my head to see.

Sveta and Ashley.  Tristan absent, even though he would normally catch the same train.

“Hi,” I said.

“What are you doing standing in the dark?  At least turn the lights on,” Sveta chided me.

“There’s more than enough light from the windows,” I said.  “It’s bright out.”

“I’d expect that behavior from Ashley, not you,” Sveta said.

“Sounds right,” Ashley said.

Sveta flicked the switch, looking up as the lights took their time coming on.  It made me think of my mom.  Turning on the lights, even when not strictly necessary.  I could remember visiting friend’s houses and feeling like something was odd when other parents didn’t do it.

“What are you doing?” Sveta asked.

“Thinking.”

“Uh oh.”

“Constructive thinking.  I think.  I hope.  Had a chat with Natalie.”

“Uh oh,” Sveta said, again, as she sidled up to me.

I gave her a light push.  She smiled, righted herself, and half-stepped, half-stumbled right next to me.  She gave me a hug from behind, setting her chin on my shoulder.

Familiar sensation, there, in an eerie not-familiar way.

“Tristan’s walking the sprogs,” Sveta said.  “Rain’s late.”

“Kenzie mentioned,” I said.  “The second part.  Sprogs?”

“Chris and Kenzie.  I thought it was clever.”

“It was.”

She nodded, head moving against my shoulder.  “You’re looking at the boards?”

I gestured in the direction of the whiteboards.  “Natalie wants to know our mission statement, so she can fine-tune her advice.  She wanted a lot of things, some harder to put into words than others.  I’m looking at the whiteboards, trying to figure out what the thread is and how I can help.”

“Your board is empty, Ashley,” Sveta said.

“So?”

“Are you going to call yourself Damsel of Distress?” I asked.  “For that matter, what are you doing, costume-wise?”

“If you’re going to tell me not to wear a dress while I’m out with you all, you can fuck off,” Ashley said.

“Not wearing a dress could help with the Manton issues.  You’re more likely to use your power to blow up the edge of a flapping dress than the part that hugs your body.”

“You can fuck off,” she said, again.

“Ashley likes dresses,” Sveta said.  “We’ve had conversations about it.  She thinks I should wear some, and I’ve had to repeatedly reinforce that I don’t have the legs for it, because I don’t have legs.”

“They multiply a lady’s grace,” Ashley said.

“You can’t exaggerate a negative,” Sveta said.

“You’re attached to the image,” I observed.

“Obviously,” Ashley said, turning to face me.

She was attached to just that image.  I wasn’t sure if she had multiple versions of the same dress, but she didn’t change things up much.  She had, however, bought the new dress in Cedar Point, and we’d seen on camera as she considered nail polish.

She wanted to change, maybe.  But… how long had she stuck to this style?  I’d fancied taking Sveta shopping, but now I was intrigued by this puzzle.

“It’s a shame you damage your dresses,” I said.  I indicated the hem of her dress.  “Are you learning to tailor or do you hire someone?”

“I’m studying it.  Saves me money.”

“Okay, so… I have a bit of a crazy idea,” I said.

She narrowed her eyes.

“Bear with me,” I said.

“Bear with her,” Sveta said.  “Victoria knows fashion.”

“You’re leading up to this like you know I’ll hate it.”

I nodded.

“Out with it, then,” Ashley said.

“Hair,” I said.

“No,” was the response, without a beat missed.

“I can’t promise it would work, but hair can confuse the Manton effect.  It might be that the power gets confused because it’s a part of your identity and a part of you, but it’s not alive either.  There are parahumans who impregnate their costumes with hair to make them resistant to their own powers.  There are some who have costumes that are just hair, or mostly hair, but those are pretty scanty, as you can probably imagine.”

“I think I’ve heard of that parahuman,” Sveta said.  When I arched an eyebrow, she said, “The hair impregnation thing.”

“I’m not going to cut it off,” Ashley said.

“That’s fine.  I’m not even sure it would work, and it would be a shame to do it if it didn’t.”

She nodded.

“You could try saving the hairs that come free while you’re sleeping or brushing your hair,” I said.

“How much would I need?” Ashley asked.

“If it did work, you might not even need much.  A strand every quarter-inch or so, along the length, or along the parts that are likely to get clipped by your power.  Maybe a bit more.”

“And it’d be white hairs on a black background,” she said.

“You could, you know, not wear black?” I ventured.

“I like black,” she said.  “It’s elegant.  It works.  The black dress every woman has in her closet for occasions is black for a reason.”

I was actually enjoying myself, because of the puzzle, and because it was my longest interaction with Ashley that hadn’t come to blows.

“Dye it?” Sveta asked.

“Doesn’t work,” Ashley said.  “I have natural silver-blonde hair, but I use my power-”

She put her hand to the side of her head and used her power.  I stepped back, stumbled into Sveta, then reached out to help her catch her balance.

Ashley’s hair settled back into place.  Her pupils took a long few seconds to reappear.

The door swung open.  It was Tristan, looking alarmed.

“We good,” Sveta said.

“My eyes and hair lose their color,” Ashley said, in a non-sequitur for Tristan.

“You’d lose the dye,” I said.  “Probably.”

Kenzie and Chris appeared behind Tristan.  He let them in.

“What happened?” Chris asked.

“Talking fashion,” Sveta offered.

“Which involves reality-shattering explosions, naturally,” Chris said.  He grinned.

He was wearing a newer t-shirt, with a gorn-metal band’s album cover on the front.   Not my style.  He was broader around the middle, but I diplomatically avoided mentioning it.

“You’re taller,” I observed.

“One and a half inches taller,” Chris said.

“He went with the indulgence thing yesterday,” Tristan said.

“Yeah,” Chris said.  “I knew there was a risk I might be useless for the day, putting myself in a state where I just sit around, eat, play games.  So I fucked off.  I’ll hit anxiety a few times in the next while, but I’ll make it mad twitchiness so there’s some more motive behind it, instead of it being paralyzing.  That’ll be fun.”

“That sounds like you’re going overboard.  Shouldn’t you be balancing things out?” I asked.

“Shouldn’t you be minding your own business?” Chris asked.  “Go talk fashion.  I’m fine.”

He walked over to his corner, near where his whiteboard was.  Kenzie moved to follow, and Chris turned around, reached out to grab her by the shoulders, and turned her to face us, before going back on his way, to his whiteboard.

“Fashion,” Tristan said.  “Okay.  We’ve got some stylish and artsy people here.  I’m not so up there on girl-fashion, but I’ll contribute what I can.”

“Ashley is married to this look,” I said.

“Married is the wrong word,” Ashley said.

“How would you put it?” Sveta asked.

“A long time ago, when I was still finding my way, I didn’t even have the clothes on my back, not intact ones.  I had no friends, no family, and law enforcement was after me.  I had nothing.  I spent a lot of time thinking about who and what I wanted to be.  Characters I liked, clothes I liked, people I’d thought were elegant and imposing.  I found this.  I built this,” Ashley said.

What had her role models been, for aesthetics?  Cartoon movie villains?  Evil sorceresses and witches?

“When you had nothing, you found this, and you want to hold onto that,” Sveta said.  “I can understand that.  I hold onto things that were important to me once.”

“Like Weld,” Kenzie said.

“Among others,” Sveta said, giving me more of a hug.

“I don’t want to hold onto anything,” Ashley said.  “I am that.  People spend their entire lives trying to find the right image for themselves and I found it when I was Kenzie’s age.”

“I don’t think you’re going to win this one, Victoria,” Tristan said.

“Theoretically speaking,” I started.

“Alright.  I’m getting out of the line of fire,” Tristan said.

“Don’t be mean,” Kenzie said.

“Call with Auzure in a short bit.  Rain might miss it,” Tristan said.

Theoretically speaking… can I put something out there?” I asked.

“Can I stop you?” Ashley asked.

“Tell me to and I’ll stop right here.  You can do your thing.”

Sveta rocked her head left and right on my shoulder, chin digging in, until I shrugged her off.  Ashley considered.

“Theoretically,” Ashley said.

“Theoretically,” I picked up the prompt, “You’re going to be a hero.  You have a crystal clear image of what you’ll look like as a villain.  Your every expectation is that you’ll stop being a hero at one point and return to villainy.”

“That’s not theory.  That’s fact.”

“But what is theory is… what if, to avoid your hero self and villain self getting mixed up, you tried something different, in the here and now?  It keeps your villain persona distinct.”

Ashley folded her arms.

“Different how?  I get the impression you have something in mind,” Sveta said.

“Pshht!” Ashley made the sound, shushing Sveta.

“Don’t pshht me.”

“What if, theoretically,” I said, “You cut off the hair?  White hair for a white costume.  You can still do something with black accents here and there, but we can go more… white goth.  Or something in that vein.”

“I’m not goth,” Ashley said.  “And I’m not cutting my hair.”

“Theoret-” I started.

I saw her expression change.

More seriously, I said, “You cutting your hair could be a commitment.  You could go back to being the long-haired villainess, but only after a period of time.  You’d be locking yourself into being a hero in the meantime.”

“A hair-based time commitment,” Sveta said.

“There’s no reason to do it,” Ashley said.  “To preserve my costume?  For that minor gain, I’m supposed to risk looking like a simpleton?  No.”

“What kind of black accents?” Kenzie asked.

“No,” Ashley said.

“Black around the eyes, like heavy eyeliner, maybe decoration in the hair, or as part of the mask, something to frame the edges of sleeves and dress.”

Kenzie went still.  She gave Ashley a sidelong glance.

“What?” Ashley asked.

“Back before Mrs. Yamada told me I wasn’t supposed to give anyone a birthday present, I was thinking about what to get you.”

“If Mrs. Yamada said no, then there’s probably a reason,” I said.

“The group was new and Ashley and I were only just starting to talk, so it would’ve been weird, I think.  It wouldn’t be for just Ashley either, it’d be for the group.”

“Spit it out,” Ashley said.

“Eyes,” Kenzie said.  “I can put these things in your mask and it would project over your eyes.  We could have you wear a white costume, and then there would be bits that are black, and then we could make your eyes totally, one hundred percent black, or totally white.”

“Hold up,” I said.

Kenzie turned my way.

“When you say something like ‘I can make this’, I have to ask… how easily?”

“Super easily.  A few hours easy,” Kenzie said.  When I didn’t shut her down, she turned to Ashley, “We could have it so smoke comes off of your eyes and trails behind you as you walk.  or blurry light, like when you wave a sparkler in the dark, or particles, like shapes, or blurs like your power makes, or-”

Ashley put a hand on top of Kenzie’s head.  Kenzie stopped talking.

“Do you want to?  Do you like it?”

“If I went to buy you a gift, to balance it out, so it was equal, what would you want?”

“Went?  I don’t want you to go anywhere.”

“I meant some other time.”

“No gift,” Kenzie said.  “Hang out.  Talk with me.  Come on, we can use your whiteboard.  We’ll talk and take notes, and figure out what your costume might be.  Let me search for things on my phone-”

Kenzie took Ashley’s hand and led her to the whiteboard, tugging her along.  Ashley didn’t object too much along the way.

Near Kenzie’s computers, Tristan had his arms folded, his eyebrow raised.  Sveta had her head cocked to one side as she studied me.  Chris was dumping his bag out on his little table.

“She’s not hard to figure out or anything,” I said, quiet enough that only Sveta would hear me.  “At one point she said we were pretty similar people.”

“That leaves me with way more questions than answers,” Sveta said.

Tristan called out, “Don’t get too into it, you two!  We’re listening in on the call with Auzure soon!”

Ashley raised a hand, waving him off.  Kenzie was just nonstop background chatter now.

“What are you thinking?” Sveta asked.  “You’re introspective today.”

“Extraspective, right this moment,” I said.  “Thinking about the big picture.”

“Think out loud.”

I shrugged.  “The team.  How it fits together.  How I fit into it.”

“A bit of introspection then.”

“No, not exactly,” I said, the thought clarifying as I said it.  “How’s Weld doing?”

“If he could get tired he’d be dog tired.  I need to have a talk with him soon, before things get to a point where I don’t see him ever,” Sveta said.  “I hate to add anything to his plate, but I have to be assertive.”

“I’m glad you have him,” I said.

Sveta smiled.  “I’m glad I have him too.  Even if he’s tired and gone most of the time.  Why are you asking about him?”

“When Jessica- When Mrs. Yamada asked me to sit in with the group and help out.  She asked Weld first, didn’t she?”

“Ah, you caught that,” Sveta said.  The smile disappeared.  “I’m sorry.  I wasn’t sure if you did, and I didn’t want to risk hurting your feelings.”

“Was I second choice?” I asked.

“I don’t think so.  Sorry, I don’t know for sure, but Weld was asked and he said no, but he said he’d be free a little while after.  She could have waited and had Weld sit in, but she chose you.”

“And she seemed okay, almost relieved, at me doing this,” I said.

“As okay as she is with any of this,” Sveta said.

The display on the wall lit up.  The trill of the phone filled the room.

“They’re calling us first,” Tristan said.  “Everyone come.  Seems like Rain is going to miss this.  Sucks.”

We gathered at the desk.

“We need something to call you,” the woman’s voice on the other line said.  “Dido speaking, with Auzure.”

“Dido, this is Capricorn.  You’re on speaker with most of the rest of the team listening in.  We’re working on the team name.  We’ll have something soon.”

“I wanted to go over the particulars, make sure we do this right.  We’re going to be calling…”

I mostly tuned it out.  Tristan had it handled, and it wasn’t rocket science.  I wasn’t that fond of Auzure, either.

Natalie had asked me what I was doing.

I’d been asked to be here.  I was damaged, and Mrs. Yamada knew it.  Why was I here, then?  Yesterday, I might have said it was so I could provide this kind of direction and guidance.  So I could talk to the lawyer, handle situations like Kenzie’s and Ashley’s, and be a friend to Sveta.

Was I right?  Thinking that Yamada had felt like she’d done her job in putting me here?  Was I overthinking things after my talk with Natalie, paranoia rearing its ugly head again?

“Beautiful,” Dido said.  “Should we conference you in?”

“No,” Tristan said.  “We’ve got a number you can call, it’ll route through to them, and it won’t be as blatant as a conference call.”

“Lovely.  I wondered if I should mention something.  Good to work with people who know what they’re doing.  What number?”

Sveta mouthed the word ‘slimy’ at me.

Water off my back, now.  I’d just dealt with my mom and this was easy by comparison.

Tristan gave the number, and the call was terminated.

He checked his phone.

“Rain wants to know if people are okay with him inviting Erin.  They’re still half an hour away.  She gave him a ride and they stopped along the way.  He says he’s safe, no trouble, but he wants to talk, and he wants her here when he does.”

Tristan’s voice was just a bit tight.

“I have suspicions,” Sveta said.

“I know, I think,” Tristan said.

With that, I felt like the musings crystallized.  I wouldn’t know until I talked to Jessica, but I had more of an idea.  Things made a degree of sense.

“Not here,” I said.

“Hm?” Tristan asked.

“Gut feeling, but we’ll meet him to talk somewhere nearby, as soon as this call is wrapped up and we’ve seen how they respond.  Half an hour should be plenty of time.  But let’s not do it here,” I said.

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Shade – Interlude 4b

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Rain climbed down from the back of the pickup truck, slinging his bag over his shoulder with the contents rattling.  Two older guys departed at the same time.  The truck puttered as Rain walked around to the driver’s side door.  He handed over some bills.  The inside of the truck was choked with the smell of cigarettes, and the man at the wheel was partially obscured in the dark and smoke, his features lit by the changing colors of the radio display.

“Thank you,” he said.  He didn’t sound like himself.

He only got a grunt in response.  The driver counted the money before putting it aside.

The two older guys approached the window, one of them with a twenty-four pack of beer that looked badly weathered, as if it had sat out in the rain for a month.  It was the other that went to the window to pay.

With the settlement being so off the beaten track, the only way to get in and out was to either have a working vehicle or to pay someone to make the drive.  Rain was pretty sure that his comings and goings were being reported to people higher up the food chain.

He didn’t have alternatives, not unless Erin gave him a ride.

He kept his head down and made the walk along the side of the road.  Here and there, the packed dirt was loose, not held together by weeds or grass, and his footing slipped.  It made the walk a trudge.

It was late, and houses were lit by candle and lamps.  Across the field, a tall bonfire blazed.  The two guys with the beer were making their way there, climbing over a fence to take the shortest path possible.  Were Rain to visit, he’d see people like Jay.  Old enough to mess around and get into trouble, but not yet married.  There had been a time when he’d wanted to be one of the older boys at those little parties.

Were he to visit, he’d be grudgingly welcomed.  He’d be expected to laugh at the jokes, to agree with the things said, to play along.  He would be expected to take the ribbing and jokes at his expense, and there would be a lot.  He would be expected to keep to the unspoken contract.  Adults let those kinds of gatherings happen because the people who attended played along.  They didn’t complain too much when it came time to do something with or for the sake of the community.  The tribe.  The gang.

Rain walked, well aware he’d let the day, afternoon and early evening slip away from him.  He’d left the others and caught a train, and he’d been unable to bring himself to come back here.  ‘Home’.

Jittery nervousness had transformed into a dull feeling of dread.  That dread leeched into and through him like a poison, as if his realization about his high chance of dying had transformed into something that made him feel like he was being eaten alive, being killed by the dread.

He would have thrown up, if he weren’t so tense that he wasn’t sure he could bend over and bring himself to.

He pushed himself forward.  Erin’s house was the next one, and there was light in the window.  He trudged onward, the earth at the side of the road giving way beneath his feet, as he sank in, pulled himself up and forward, then sank again in a few steps later.

He would have walked in the middle of the road, but Jay’s group was out there at the fire drinking, and Rain didn’t trust them or many of the others to have headlights on and their eyes on the road.

Erin was there, sitting at her window on the second floor.  She was keeping an eye out for him, still wearing the shirt with the cross on the front from earlier.  The light from her television cast the shadows around her in various shades of green.

She raised a hand in a wave as he drew close enough for the light from the house’s windows to illuminate him.  He raised his own hand.

With the house being at the end of a path, and Erin being on the second floor, her voice was almost inaudible as she asked something.  She pointed with him as she asked it, then raised her hand in a barely-visible ok sign.

Was he okay?

Rain stood a very real chance of dying.

He was standing there, not responding, his thoughts tearing through his brain.  He had options but none of them were options.  If he went to the Wardens for help he would become embroiled in something bigger, because he knew things and he’d be expected to share those things.  The Fallen would target him and there was no guarantee the Wardens could keep him safe.  There was a chance it would push away Erin and pull him away from the group, as he was taken to safe custody and expected to testify.  There was a chance the revelation would mean Victoria pushed him away, or Sveta did, or even Chris or Kenzie.

He could share with the group, but for many of the same reasons he couldn’t go to the Wardens, there would be a price.  Things would change.

The person online- no guarantees.

Mrs. Yamada – she could offer support, she could help him ask others for help, but there was a limit to what she could do.

Erin repeated the question, calling it across to Rain.

A moment later, she put her book, down, holding her hand out.  Telling him to wait.

“I’m okay!” he called out.  He wasn’t.

Erin reversed direction and put her head out the window.  In the background, one of her parents- her mom, it looked like, stepped into her room, standing behind her.

Rain raised a hand in a wave, and Erin’s mom waved back.

“I’ll talk to you tomorrow!”  Rain called out.

“Yeah!” Erin replied.

Rain adjusted his bag at his shoulder, then resumed the trudge.  The false normal and the lie that he was okay was something that felt almost real, he could hold to it for a short while.

Not for the entire way back.  When he did arrive at the edge of the property, with its hastily constructed house, the fenced in yard, and the stable, with a field stretching out behind it, the dread, at least, seemed less pointed.

The knowledge he might die sat heavily, all the same.

He let himself into the house and put his bag by the stairs.  Everyone was in the kitchen.  His uncle was looking over the paper from earlier in the day.  Allie had a crossword and dictionary, and Rain’s aunt was engaged in what seemed like her neverending stream of tidying-up and tending to the property.

“Sorry I’m late,” Rain said.

“It’s fine,” his aunt said.  “Did you eat?”

Rain shook his head.

“Food’s on the stove if you want it.  If you don’t, let me know so I can put the leftovers away.”

Rain got a bowl from the cupboard and approached the stove.

“You look like lukewarm shit, Rain,” Allie said.

Rain’s aunt smacked Allie across the back of the head, hard enough that when Allie bent forward, she stayed like that for a few long seconds.

“He does,” Allie said.

“I probably do look like shit,” Rain said.

“Doesn’t mean she needs to say it,” Rain’s aunt said.  She gave Allie a lighter slap on the back of the head, while Allie was still bent over her crossword.

Rain hadn’t yet ladled the stew into his bowl.

He couldn’t do nothing.  He needed…  As horrible as this situation was, as horrible as each new thing he learned seemed to make the situation, he needed to figure something out.

“Uncle,” he said.

He heard the papers rustle.

“Face your uncle if you’re addressing him,” his aunt said.

Rain did.  His uncle was of average height, muscular as many of the farmers were, with graying blond hair that Rain’s aunt cut neatly every few days, and very tan, weather-worn skin.  The man could have looked so normal and disarming, with a face that might even have looked friendly, but instead he wore a perpetual glower.  He never smiled, and he rarely if ever spoke.

There was no light in his uncle.  Had Rain not lived with the man for years, he might have said he was a sociopath, just in how he held himself, the look in his eyes, and how joyless his rote existence seemed.  If the Fallen needed a job done and wanted able, loyal bodies, Rain’s uncle would go without question or hesitation.

“Would you teach me to fight?” Rain asked.

“You don’t want to do that,” Allie said.

“Butt out, Allie,” his aunt said, hand going up but not delivering another smack.  “This is between boy and man.”

Rain’s uncle folded his paper, then stood from his chair, putting it back under the table.  He made his exit by the side door, entering into the fenced-in yard, the door left open behind him.

“What are you waiting for?” Rain’s aunt asked.  “Don’t keep him waiting.”

Rain hurried, going back to the bottom stairs where he’d left his bag.  He opened the bag as he reversed direction, heading to the kitchen, fishing in the bag for the things he needed.

He had one mechanical arm out as he passed his aunt and cousin.  His aunt was unreadable.  Not as dark as his uncle was- his aunt gave the impression the light had been almost entirely extinguished, but the woman could smile, for the rarest of occasions.  She had things she cared about and prioritized.  Dim or reduced to dark embers, but not gone.

He pressed the arm to his shoulder blade, and felt the connection flare, burning through his nerves to his brain.  A small, tiny window opened in his consciousness, with his awareness of the arm and its position.  He was aware of the air against the current that ran along the outside ‘skin’ of the arm and hand.

He used the extra arm to help hold the bag while he got the other arm out, slapping it back against the blade of his other shoulder.

His uncle waited by the wooden fence, the perimeter made up of only three broad wooden slats punctuated by the stout posts.

Standing there, illuminated only by the porchlight, his uncle gave no impression there had ever been a light there at all.

Rain had two more arms to connect, but they were smaller, attached at the elbow, only reaching as far as his wrist.  They were older and he’d tuned them back up to working order with the intention of leaving one for Kenzie to study.  He’d forgotten, in his haste to leave.

He approached his uncle.  When he got within three or so paces, his uncle took a step toward him.  No prelude, no intent apparent in his action.  With a second long stride, the man reached out to shove Rain’s shoulder hard, pushing him toward the fence.

Rain cast out the emotion power around them, and felt the feedback buzz, the faint response that let him know the power was working.

That done, he reached up.  His normal hand grabbed his uncle’s wrist.  A mechanical hand grabbed his uncle’s elbow, fingers digging in there, in an attempt to force it to bend.  The smallest hand grabbed for two fingers, pulling them backward.

His uncle pulled his hand up and away, and then kicked Rain in the thigh.

Rain fell, his mechanical hands were too slow to let go, and he could see as the two right arms came apart in pieces, wires stretching between wrist and forearm, forearm and elbow, before snapping.  The individual parts fell to the shadows and grass.

His uncle kicked him while he was down, boot to ribs.

Rain reached for the pieces, picking them up with two left hands.  The forearm, broken at the front, was almost like a broken bottle.  He scrambled back, two broken pieces of his arms held in his real hand and his one remaining, full-size mechanical arm.

He dismissed the emotion effect, re-cast it out, just to ensure it was over his uncle.  Not that it seemed to do much.  He’d tried letting it sit on people and some of the farm animals before.  It didn’t work.  He could only hope there was some nuance he could use.

Fuck, his ribs and leg hurt where he’d been kicked.

His uncle walked away, his back to Rain.  He approached the fence, then reached over it.  Allie wasn’t far away.  She’d gone through the gate and was leaning against the outside of the fence, watching.

A shovel.  Rain’s uncle had picked up the shovel that had been leaning against the fence, almost as long as Rain was tall, with a spade-shaped head.  There was an implicit ‘if you’re going to wield a weapon, so am I’ to the act.

“Don’t kill him,” Rain’s aunt said, from the stairs to the kitchen.

Rain’s uncle turned, and gave Rain’s aunt a long, slow look.

“I don’t want to have to explain it to the leadership,” she said.

Rain’s uncle reversed his grip on the shovel, holding it near the spade-end with both hands.

Rain backed away a little as his uncle approached.

The first swing of the shovel was preliminary, measuring distance.  Swung like a baseball bat, it made the ‘whoosh’ sound as it sliced through the air.  If Rain hadn’t leaned back, it might have connected with his nose.

Rain lunged forward.  He had smaller weapons.

His uncle didn’t swing the shovel back the other way.  Instead, moving his hand up to grip it at the middle, he swung it so the upper end caught Rain’s mechanical arm, the lower end caught his wrist.

The mechanical arm broke with the impact, the shattered forearm dropping from its grip.

Rain felt the pain of the impact against his wrist as something that extended along his entire forearm, through his hand, tingling in his fingers.

He knew how to throw a punch, and with his uncle holding nothing back, he had no reason to do so either.  He closed the distance, his chest connecting with his uncle’s as he punched low, aiming for the stomach, just beneath the ribs.  Repeated blows, strikes with fist sharp against muscle and fat.

Fingers tangled in his hair, gripped tighter until Rain’s scalp hurt.  He was pulled away, then without the hand letting go, he was flung into the fence, cheekbone and shoulder crashing into the broad plank closer to the top.

He was pulled away, not allowed to get his balance, and then thrust toward the fence again.

He used his mover power to arrest the push, to make himself stop.  He drove his elbow into his uncle’s arm, where only the connection pad and the shattered remnants of the arm remained, raking the damaged metal and wire against flesh.

His uncle pulled away, and Rain was there, suspended for another second.

Rain couldn’t cancel out his mover power before his uncle got his footing and came back at him, driving a knee into his middle.  He crashed into the fence and landed hard.

He hauled himself to his feet, one hand on the fence, and his uncle kicked him before he was entirely there.  A kick at the armpit, so Rain’s hand couldn’t support him any longer.  His mover power wasn’t available to stop him from falling, and- and it wouldn’t have mattered in the slightest if it were.

The pain radiated through him, now.  His uncle stood tall, one hand at his arm, which was bleeding, and paced.  The feedback Rain got wasn’t accurate enough to let him know where his uncle was, and it was hard to find a position where he could look up and over.

He grabbed the fence and heaved himself to his feet.

His uncle looked at his aunt, and Rain took that as an opportunity to sprint full-bore for the man.  He leaped, heedless of personal risk, of the fall that might follow, and kicked sideways with all of his force.

He connected, shin to side.  He saw the pain on his uncle’s face.  Then he used his power to suspend himself, before he could tumble hard to the ground.

It suspended him for too long.  There was no canceling it, and however long it lasted, a second and a half, two seconds, maybe even approaching three seconds, it was enough time for his uncle to turn his way and kick him, hard.

Rain dropped, in too much pain to calculate how he broke free of the power’s hold, and landed in the grass and dirt.

He was kicked several times while he was down.  Back, buttock, leg.  He wasn’t sure if he’d been kicked sharply in the side or if it was only the way he’d recoiled and made an existing wound pull that made it feel like it.

His mechanical hands broke at the slightest excuse, his emotion power didn’t do anything he could identify, and his mover power made him a sitting duck in any real combat situation.

The kicking had stopped.  Rain lay there, his breaths coming out as wheezes.  His thoughts were so mired in sick hopelessness that he could barely think straight.

A hand was extended.  It seized Rain by the upper arm, firm, and heaved him to his feet.

It occurred to Rain, too late, that his uncle wasn’t the kind of person to offer a helping hand.

Still firmly holding Rain’s upper arm, with Rain bent over, his uncle struck him across the face.  It was only the fierce grip on Rain’s arm that kept him from being knocked to the ground yet again.

Again, Rain was struck across the face.  His head sagged.

The next hit caught him backhanded, across the ear.  It was impossibly loud, painful, and it made his thoughts dissolve into sparks.  His ear rang like a siren in the wake of the hit.

Rain, almost insensate, punched in the general direction of his uncle’s stomach, turned his face toward the ground so it would be away of any further blows, and kept punching blind until his uncle let him go.

Rain stumbled back, snorted, coughed, and tried to straighten, before giving up on the latter.  He put his hand on his knee to steady himself.

His uncle approached, and Rain backed up.  His uncle’s turn to return the favor, now.  Swats, a knee, a punch, a shove.  Even the lighter contact was painful, because Rain hurt, and each light contact forced him to move one way or the other while existing bruises and injuries punished those movements.

“Okay,” Rain managed, huffing out the word.  “Stop.”

His uncle didn’t stop, pushing out with both hands to shove Rain back into the wooden fence.

With an edge of desperation, Rain pulled out the silver blades.  It didn’t make his uncle hesitate.

He threw the first blade, and the pain at his armpit altered the trajectory, meant he didn’t finish the swing.  The silver scythe passed through his uncle’s head, the two remaining pieces carrying forward, sailing out to strike the side of the house.

A silver line encircling his head, Rain’s uncle stood there, drawing in a deep breath.

“Okay,” Rain said.  He hunched over, hands on his knees, coughed, then snorted.  “Don’t sneeze or do anything.  That’s all.  Thank you.”

His uncle remained where he was, glowering, eye sockets only barely illuminated by the silver light from the mark.

The mark would fade soon.  Ten, twelve seconds.  Rain watched and waited, nervous of the possibility of disaster.

The silver line thinned out, went away.  Rain’s uncle touched his face.  A moment later, the man strode toward Rain, a dark look on his face.

“Stop,” Rain said, voice weak.  He realized the futility of it as he said it.  His uncle didn’t intend to stop until one of them was unable to move.

The other blade still in his hand, he threw it out, with the blade only traveling a matter of feet before it crossed through his uncle’s midsection, the vertical and horizontal lines of the plaid work shirt illuminated in the gloom.

“Stop,” Rain said, again.  “Or you’ll die.”

His uncle looked down, spreading his hands.

Then, his expression changing, the man looked skyward, sighing.  Rain took the twelve seconds of rest to try to gather his thoughts, not looking skyward, but toward the ground.  He-

Heedless of the mark, his uncle kicked him.  The force was such that the silver mark flared, and it cut what lay beneath.

Again and again, the man kicked Rain.  He stomped once, as Rain lay too close to the ground to be properly kicked.

“I think he learned whatever it is you wanted to teach him,” Rain’s aunt said.  “Why don’t you come inside?  I’ll make you tea, and I’ll look over those scratches.”

Rain waited, knowing that if his uncle decided to ignore the order, there would only be more pain.  Pain that could kill him, if it meant he wasn’t able to fight back when Snag, Cradle, and Love Lost came for his head.

Instead, fabric draped over Rain’s head.

“Replace it,” his uncle said.  Perhaps the eleventh and twelfth words Rain had ever heard the man say to him.

Rain reached up and pulled the fabric away.  The plaid shirt.  Sliced across the middle.  His uncle was fine, because-

Because, Rain realized, closing his eyes, the power only affected one thing at a time.  It would hit clothes first, the person second.

He opened his eyes to watch as his uncle walked away, wearing an undershirt and jeans, opening the door to the kitchen and closing it behind him, the light in the fenced-in yard diminishing with the door closed.

Rain lay there, trying to breathe, hurting from head to toe.

“Dad doesn’t even have powers,” Allie said, from the other side of the fence.

Rain winced, realizing she’d seen.  She was still there.

“You did better when you weren’t using your powers,” his cousin said.  She paused.  “You okay?”

Rain’s nose felt stuffed, every heartbeat making his entire nasal cavity pound.  He snorted, hard, and pain ripped through his skull, blood spraying the grass in front of his face.  He huffed out a breath.

“I’m-” he started.  “Fine.”

He was going to die.  Not here, not because of this.  But he was going to die.

“I’m not sure what you were expecting,” Allie said.  “Dad is the kind of guy who thought he’d teach five year old me how to swim by throwing me into a pond.  I think this is him applying that same principle to teaching you to fight.”

Rain huffed out a breath.  His ribs hurt like hell, but-

He drew in a deep breath, winced at the pain.

Not broken.  He’d had broken ribs before.

“I don’t know if you were around then, but when mom had cancer, it was just dad and me and a couple cousins in the house.  He’d do stuff like tell us to sweep, and if we didn’t sweep right, he’d give us the belt.  He wouldn’t even tell us what we did wrong or why we didn’t meet expectations.  We had to figure it out.”

“I remember,” Rain managed.  “I was there.”

“Then why the hell did you think this was a good idea?  There are other people you can ask.  That you have been asking, unless you’ve been lying to us.  You could have gone to them.”

“I could have.  I wanted-” Rain coughed.  “I wanted this.”

“This?  Oh, you’ve gone and lost your mind.”

Maybe, Rain thought.  Maybe he had.  He’d fit right in, if he had.  But he’d wanted, needed to know if, when he was desperate and in very real danger, there was anything he could pull out or do.

There wasn’t.

“You sure you don’t need help?” Allie asked.

“I’ll manage,” Rain said, his voice coming out strained.  He fumbled out with one hand, reaching for the fence.

It took him some time to get to his feet.  He ended up leaning against the fence, hugging it, while trying to breathe properly.

He was pretty sure the dread and emotion in him was enough that he could have thrown up if he’d tried to.  He was also pretty sure he would black out if he did.

A truck roared as it rolled down the dirt road, moving too fast in the dark.  That would be why Rain walked on the side of the road when he walked that way in the dark.

“Rain,” Allie said.

“Mm?”

“I know we’re not close.  I’ve probably been shitty to you.”

“Better than a lot of people,” he said.

“I mean I’m not in a position to ask any favors from you,” she said.

Leaning over the fence, still hugging it, he stared down at the dark grass on the other side.  He didn’t respond.

“But I really, really need you to get your shit together,” his cousin said.

He winced, closing his eyes.  He opened them almost immediately, because he worried he might black out.

“You’ve turned some heads and drawn a lot of attention,” Allie said.  “You managed to do something nobody really thought was possible.  You put a rung on the ladder that’s even lower than the unpowered.  The person with powers that suck.  Because if you have shit powers, you’re not going to trigger and get other powers.  You have no chance.”

“Yeah,” Rain said.  He barked out a couple of coughs, feeling a stabbing in his sides with each one.

“I really, really need you to figure something out,” Allie said.  “If you need something from me to help you figure it out, I can try helping.  But I need you to be… not this.”

He focused on breathing, absorbing the words.

“You know why I’m asking, right?”

He nodded slowly, mindful of the throbbing headache, pounding in his ear, and his sinuses.  He wasn’t sure if she could see him in the gloom.

“Nobody really wants you as a husband for their daughter, or as a husband for them.  They’ll go through the motions but they don’t want you.”

“Yeah,” Rain said.

“Sooner or later, they’re going to get fed up with you.  Then they’ll try pairing you up with someone and getting some babies out of you, see if those kids end up being worth anything in a few years.  When they do, nobody’s going to jump at the chance to be with you or marry their kid to you.”

Rain winced, tried to stand straighter.

“They’ll look back and forth and everyone will avoid eye contact, and then their eyes will settle on my mom and dad.  They’ll pair me up with you, because that’s who mom and dad are.  They’re dutiful, and they’ve sunk so much into this that they aren’t going to stop believing anytime soon.”

He knew it to be true.  He’d worried about it.

“And don’t go thinking of Erin.  I know you like her.  I know you probably hold out some secret hope you’ll get paired up with her.”

“No,” Rain said.

“It’s fine if you do.  Everyone probably does.  She’s hot.  But it’s because she’s hot that she’s going to end up with some forty year old guy close to the leadership, or she’s going to run.  Give up on her now.  If you don’t, I won’t just be the pity incest wife, I’m going to be the pity incest wife with a heartbroken husband.”

“You could leave.”

“Everyone thinks they’ll leave if it looks like they’re going to get a bad pairing.  How many actually do?  When things are close to that point, they start keeping a closer eye on you.  You get asked to have a chat with the leadership.  They don’t leave you the choice.”

Rain used the fence to help himself stay upright as he limped toward the kitchen.

“I’m not going to be one of the idiots that thinks she can get away,” Allie said.  “I’m making peace with it.”

He paused as he saw the shadows of his destroyed tinker arms.

Slowly, he began working his way toward the ground, so he could pick up the pieces.

“Stop,” Allie said.  “It’s painful to watch you.  Let me.”

He let her.

She hopped the fence, walked over to the shadows, and bent down, feeling out for the pieces and picking them up.

“This isn’t going to zap me or anything, is it?”

“Don’t-” Rain paused.  “Don’t touch the oblong pieces, the thin ones.  Hold them by the stems with the wires, or the shoulders.”

“Okay.”

Gingerly, Allie collected most of the pieces.  She handed them over to Rain.  He took the contact pad that had ripped away and switched it off before gathering it into his arm with the torn shirt.

Allie gave him the last piece, then kept her hand on top of it.

“Figure it the fuck out, Rain,” she said.

I’ll die, I’ll get killed by my cluster, and I won’t be a concern for you anymore, he thought, staring into the little dots where her eyes were reflecting the distant fire.

I’ll die, he thought.  I can’t fight my unpowered uncle.  How can I fight… all of that?

“I’ll try,” he said.

The door opened.  Rain’s aunt.

“Allie, there you are.  Inside.  Get the bigger first aid kit from the basement.  I want to patch up your dad’s cuts, and the smaller kit doesn’t have any bandages.”

Allie turned to go, obedient.

“If you want first aid, Rain, knock on the master bedroom door, or go straight to Allie.  She’ll tend to you.  For now, get yourself to bed.  You’re coming to church in the morning.”

Rain swayed slightly on the spot, then said, “Okay.”

The door closed behind his aunt.

He got to his bag and dumped the pieces of the arm into it.  Picking it up, he made his way inside.  The stew had been put away.  No dinner.

He went up the stairs and into his room.  He settled in at his desk.  The day’s homework was on the table, waiting to be done.

Slowly, he set out the pieces of his tinker hands.

Days worth of work.

No secret to be uncovered, no use he hadn’t yet figured out.  Not legs, not claws.

This, these fragile things, they were the only things that came to mind when he reached out for his tinker power.   Between ten and thirty minutes passed while he found all the smaller pieces, setting them in the right places.  He had some wire and tools on his desk, and he got them out.  To start with, he would fix everything he could fix in five seconds.  Then he would move on from there.

The spell was broken as his alarm clock buzzed.  He always set it for the evening, not the morning, because there was a timeframe.

He started to rise to his feet, but he’d been sitting still too long, while hurt too badly.  His body refused to cooperate.

With inching progress, he made his way toward the alarm clock.

“Rain!” his aunt called out from the other room.  “Shut it off!”

Inching progress, shuffling steps.

He made it to the alarm clock, but not to the bed.

Rain’s consciousness was snuffed out like a candle.

Cradle.

His dreams are strange.

A hand slamming down on the table, a paper beneath it.  A mouth opening.  A man that might have been Cradle’s father spoke, but it wasn’t words that came out.  It was the frantic cries of the crowd, the screams, the shouted jumble.

The paper crumpled slightly as the hand on it closed into more of a fist.

In the background, a very prim and proper woman stood with her back to Cradle.

The parents, Rain interpreted.  Disappointment and anger.  I can understand that.

The scene changed.  A balding man in a suit, sitting across from a desk.  The bulletin board behind him had child’s artwork on it.

His expression was plaintive, worried.  The words from that somber older man’s face were the scream of someone that had been burned, stopping as lips closed together, starting as they parted.  His hand moved more papers, sorting through the pile in front of him.

Cradle’s point of view moved, shaking left and right as he shook his head.

The balding older man’s expression changed from worry to something stronger.  Upset.  Deep concern.

The principal, Rain interpreted.  He’d seen variations on this.  It was usually like this, or else smoke, rubble, or broken glass poured from people’s mouths instead of words.  Cradle wasn’t doing so well?

He could understand that too.

It’s even of a similar vein.  Unrealized potential, as far as I can understand it.  Report cards, teachers, father figures, they want something from him and he doesn’t deliver.  He doesn’t hand it over.

Then the long hallway.  The trudge.  Cradle’s hand was visible as he reached up to fix his glasses, as he reached out to the window.  In the distance, far away, the sounds of disaster could be heard.  The stampede, the fire.

School again?  A lonely hallway?  Isolation?  I used to call him the recluse.

Cradle took off his glasses, and all was a blur.  When he put them back on, he was facing teenaged peers.

Their faces moved as if they were shouting, expressions twisting.  The only sound to come out was that of the stampede.  Feet tromping, people shouting with words blending into one another.  Teeth came together as a word was finished, and the sound was of a bone breaking.  One of the teenagers pushed Cradle down.  His glasses were set ajar by the fall.

This time, as he fixed the glasses, he was in the shopping center, standing.

Things moved as if in slow motion.  Inevitable.

What does Cradle feel when he’s here?  Dread?

Cradle’s head turned, everything moving as if it was underwater, as he looked at a group of men and women with tattoos.  They were loud, too loud, as they gathered together, talking among themselves.

He looked the other way.  He saw other faces.  Faces that would be in the crowd shortly.  A couple that were about thirty years old.  Then an older man and woman.

The old couple get trampled early on, Rain thought.

Eyes roved slow-motion in the other direction.  In a store with colorful graphic images in frames, and other things in glass cases, a big guy with long hair, a nose ring and an impressive beard was talking to an older man, while tapping one of the framed cartoon images.  No sound came out of his mouth as his lips moved.

Images like this would be the best Rain would get at seeing Snag’s face uncovered.

There were others.  The twelve year old girl with her friends, that Snag would fail to help.  She would die in the crush, after slipping from Snag’s grip.

A lot of the children and elderly in the mall would be counted among the dead.

One of the three girls said her goodbye to her friends.  The movement was slow motion as she ran across the plaza of the mall.

She was smiling as she approached the woman who waited for her.  The smile fell from her face, she slowed, then hung her head.

The woman showed the girl her watch, tapped it, her words were stern and entirely unheard.  There was only silence in this slow motion prelude to the event.

The woman with wavy red hair, a sweater that failed to hide her impressive chest, and an ankle-length skirt.  Heads turned to watch her berate the child.  The child looked nervously back at her friends.

Love Lost.

Things accelerated, as the scene rushed forward.  Everyone to their positions.

Three explosions in quick succession, loud after the silence, the blasts tearing across the plaza the opening of one of the exits.  Blue flame.

Then the movement, everyone trying to get away.  The layout of the shopping center allowed only one good escape route, and everyone rushed for it.

Another acceleration, skipping ahead in time.  The sound of the stampede, the crowd, all of the noises that had been made or hinted at earlier, now came to the forefront, crashing into the present moment.  Cradle was close to the front of the crowd.  He was shoved, he tried to catch his balance, and he fell.  His glasses came away from his face, they were stepped on.

Twice, he reached for the glasses, and his hands were stepped on.  There was a desperation in it, more of a struggle to get them than there was even an attempt to stand.  The scene was blurred but his hands were as clear as anything.

Close by, a woman screamed, and the sound was prolonged, multi-part.

He found his glasses and put them to his face with bleeding fingers.  He was kicked, stepped on.

Did I subconsciously take myself there?  Rain thought.

He reached up, hand extended.

Pleading for help, reaching and unanswered, Rain interpreted.

How did all of what came before lead into this?

Rain was in the room.  He picked up the chair.

He didn’t venture a response.  He knew what the answer would be.

He didn’t really want to face the others, either.  They were the people who wanted him tortured to death.

For now, he sat in the chair.  There was no reason to stand.  He didn’t even need to find his three tokens.  It wasn’t as if he was giving them away, or getting anything.

His power would be what it was.

Snag approached the table, clearing away the debris, finding his glass.  He turned to stare at Rain.

Rain wanted to answer that stare, wanted to provoke.  He stared across to Cradle’s space instead.  He breathed deep, none of the injuries from earlier present.  They appeared as they were, in a way.  Snag in the same sorts of clothing, partially hiding his appearance, never looking like he’d just come from work.  Cradle wore civilian clothes.  Love Lost…

Love Lost rose from the chair.  Still wearing the muzzle-mask, still wearing the dress with the slit up the side, the heels, her nails painted.  She never took off the mask, now, so it was enough of a part of her to be brought into this space.

Her eyes were downcast as she approached the dais and gripped the edge.  She only lifted her eyes to stare Rain down.  Abject hatred.

It felt like an hour passed before Snag spoke.

“Cradle.  I’d like the coins before we run out of time.”

Cradle came from around the corner of one of the concrete slabs.  He looked worse for wear.

It’s always harder when it’s your night, Rain thought.

Cradle found the coins, gripped them in one hand, and slammed the hand against the invisible barrier that separated his section from Snag’s.  Snag caught one out of the air before it could hit the floor.  The other two landed on the flat surface of the dais.

“You know what the shittiest part of this thing is?” Cradle asked.

Cradle always liked to talk on his nights.

“You infected us,” Cradle said, looking at Rain.  “We each got a piece of each other.”

“Bleed-through,” Rain said.

“So you’ve done some research,” Cradle said.  “We were pretty decent people before.  Love Lost yelled at her daughter, but-”

Love Lost’s hand slammed against the dais.

“But she wasn’t evil,” Cradle said.  He turned to Love Lost.  “Sorry.”

Love Lost glared at him.

“Snag was even a bit of a hero,” Cradle said.

Snag sighed.  “I don’t really think so.”

“The girl you helped?  Friend of Love Lost’s daughter?  Come on,” Cradle said.

“I don’t think so,” Snag said, looking away.

“We were decent people,” Cradle said.  “And now we’re not.  Because of you.  Because you’re infecting us.”

Rain looked away.

“Kill yourself,” Cradle said.  “I don’t want any piece of you in me.  Just… wake up and kill yourself.  You can’t be happy with the Fallen.  So just end it.  Kill yourself.  Everything becomes easier.”

“I’m not going to do that, and I’m not with the Fallen,” Rain said.  “Not anymore.”

“Kill yourself,” Cradle said.  “At least that way it’ll be easy.”

“Are you listening to me?” Rain asked.

“Kill yourself,” Cradle said.  “If you don’t, then some time, maybe a month from now, maybe a year, we’ll come for you.  We’ll take all of that ugliness you gave us and we’ll give it back.  With interest.”

The coins rattled in Snag’s hand.

“Kill yourself,” Cradle said.

Love Lost’s fingernails clicked against the top of the dais.

“Kill yourself,” Cradle said.

The fingernails clicked.

Rain stood, turned with his back to the dais, venturing further into his section of the room.

A bang made him turn.  Cradle had slammed his hand against the dais.

“Pay attention,” Cradle said.  “And kill yourself.”

“You think I’m going to listen to you?” Rain asked.  “Because you say it over and over?”

“I think if I say it often enough, there’s a chance it’ll catch you when you’re weak.  It could cross your mind at a critical time.  It’s a small chance, maybe, but I’m not doing anything else with the rest of my night.  I could keep it up tomorrow night, or the night after.  I could come up with something else.”

Nails clicked against the dais.

“Kill yourself,” Cradle said.

The church service concluded.  The speakers rotated on the regular, and today’s was Mrs. May.  She was a respected figure in the community, but she wasn’t respectable.  She was a harpy of a person, with a shrill voice and a grating laugh she was inclined to use at the slightest provocation, and most people either loved her and her rhetoric, or they despised her.  She performed a lot of sermons, usually with plenty of warning to others and often with women in attendance.  Much of what she said appealed to that crowd.

Rain took some small solace in the fact that because his aunt and uncle had made him come, they had been obligated to sit through this.  They weren’t part of Mrs. May’s sub-congregation.

He wanted nothing more than to go, to get to his workshop, and to do what little he could to prepare.  As he made his way to the door, however, his aunt was caught up in a conversation with one of Mrs. May’s group.  Oh, wasn’t the sermon so delightful?  The word choice here, the passage, wasn’t it perfect?  Rain was here, that was unusual, was Rain married off yet?  No?  What about Allie?  Surely Allie had suitors.

Different preachers to appeal to different crowds, with diehard adherents attending every sermon.  It didn’t matter that the ideas contradicted, that the sermon the nervous Reverend Patman gave to a small congregation of Mrs. Sims’ type was the polite kind of message that could be heard elsewhere, while the inappropriately dressed Mrs. May preached how wives had the duty of keeping their husbands’ balls drained, prostates massaged, and stomachs full.

The people who wanted to believe believed, and Mrs. Sims’ type stayed because… Rain wasn’t entirely sure.  Because there was a safety in madness, maybe.  Part of why he stayed, really.  Or because leaving and trying to forge a life elsewhere was harder than staying and ignoring the ugliness and contradiction.  Harder than lying to herself and thinking she could bring order to this chaos.

Rain walked through the door to the overcast outside.  Allie joined him, her eyes widening slightly in the only communication she would give him that she didn’t agree with the sermon or the crowd.

“Hi Allie,” a guy said.  He was about eighteen, his tousled blond hair was grown out, and he had a natural smile with a mouth that seemed too wide.

“Hi,” Allie said, shy.  She looked down.

“Hi Rain.  You look like you went to war and you fought your way through the entire enemy line.”

“Hi Lachlan.  I think that might just be the politest way anyone could describe this,” Rain said.

Lachlan chuckled.

“You guys are just… hanging out here?”

“We’re waiting for a ride,” Allie said.  “I think Rain would rather get a ride than walk, after fighting through that battlefield you described.”

“I can give you guys a ride,” Lachlan offered.

“No thank you,” Allie said.  “You’re a dear, but I’ll just wait for my parents.”

Lachlan twisted his head around.  “They’re caught in conversation with the Screeching Mimis.”

“Shh!  Lachlan!” Allie shushed him.  Some heads had turned.

Lachlan grinned.  “I’m just saying, they’re going to be a while.  Once those four get their hooks in, people can’t get away for half an hour or more, and with your parents not being regulars, there’s a lot to catch them up on.”

“Don’t underestimate my mom and dad,” Allie said.  “We’re stern stock.”

“I will keep that in mind,” Lachlan said, smiling like he’d been let in on a secret.  He looked at Rain.  “You want a ride?”

Rain looked at Allie.

“Go,” she said.  “It’s embarrassing being seen next to you when you’re this beat up.”

“What?” Lachlan asked.  “Be fair, come on.  Rain’s one of the esteemed.  He’s blessed with power.  He’s like nobility around here.”

“Bastard nobility, maybe,” Rain said.

“You’re blessed,” Lachlan said, voice firm.  He smiled, then said, “And I’m your humble, obedient servant that would be glad to take you anywhere you want to go.  I’m at your service.”

Rain glanced again at Allie.  “If you could give me a ride to the machine shop, I’d be grateful.”

“Absolutely.  Bye Allie.”

“Bye.”

Lachlan led Rain to his car.  It was a nice one, a sleek blue sedan, roughly five years old, and in near-pristine condition considering it had survived the end of the world.  Rain got in the passenger seat with a wince and a grunt.

Every part of him hurt.

He could remember being in the room, the repeated words, and he dreaded tomorrow.  Every moment that passed ratcheted up the dread.

Being hurt and facing a night like that magnified the fact that he didn’t feel rested.  Even naps were beyond him, when his thoughts were this disturbed.

He looked over at Lachlan, and felt a twinge of sadness.

The car whisked its way along the road, slowing here and there to give a wider berth to the people walking on either side.

“You like Allie, huh?” Rain asked.

Lachlan laughed.  “Yeah.  It’s part of why I asked you if you wanted a ride.  I’m at your disposal if you need anything at all, though.  Don’t think I’m disloyal or selfish.”

“It’s okay,” Rain said.

“I sort of hoped I could give her a ride too and have a chat.”

“I guessed that too.”

“You know how I’m sort of the poster boy for the Fallen?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m eighteen, and I’m of a good age for marriage.  They say I’ve really helped out, so I can have my pick of almost anyone.  I made it really clear I don’t want anyone who doesn’t want me, and the leadership told me anyone I took would come to love me in time.  That’s how it works.”

“Okay,” Rain said.

“But I’d rather have someone who wants me, still.  So I was wondering, you know…”

“If Allie was interested?”

“Do you think she is?”

“I could tell you,” Rain said.  “But that’s only what I think.  With something as serious and binding as marriage, you’d want to be sure.  I can ask her outright, then pass it on to you.”

Lachlan chuckled.  “Yeah?”

“If you want.”

“Now I’m nervous.  Yes.  Yes!  She’s great, you know.  There was a campfire a month ago-”

“You heard her playing guitar?”

“She sang.  She doesn’t like singing because some of the others, like Jay- don’t think I’m disloyal…”

“It’s fine.”

“Jay and some of the others make fun of her singing, or they join in and she hates that.  But her singing is really nice.  It was a small group, just a few of us, and we listened, and I think I fell in love with her right then.  If I could listen to her sing for the rest of my life, I’d treat her like a queen.”

“I’ll ask her.  I’ll tell her some of that, if you don’t mind it.”

“Yes.  Sure.  I’m nervous now,” Lachlan said.  “I was also wondering- she’s not necessarily the only one I’m considering.”

Rain’s heart sank.

“Do you know Nell?”

“I know Nell,” Rain said, feeling relieved.  “Jay’s twin.”

“She has power too.”

“Do you like her?”

“I- she’s pretty, and she’s told me she’s interested.”

“But do you like her?”

“She told me she’s interested, and she’s close to the leadership.  Do you know if I have to say yes?”

“I don’t know,” Rain said.  “I might not be the person to ask.”

“You’re the easiest to talk to.”

“If they told you that you can pick anyone… you can probably pick anyone.  But Nell might not be a fan of yours afterward.”

Lachlan frowned.

“Let me ask Allie, on the down-low.  Maybe if she says no, you go to Nell and act like she’s the first and last person you considered for a wife.”

“What if she says yes?”

“Then you would have to decide if having her at your side is worth possibly having Nell be upset with you.”

Lachlan huffed out a sigh.

“The machine shop is just down the block,” Rain said.

“Thank you for talking to me,” Lachlan said.

Rain looked his way.

Lachlan’s hand adjusted its position on the steering wheel.  His hand trembled a little in the moments where it wasn’t gripping the wheel.

“Sure,” Rain said.

Lachlan pulled the car to a stop.  “Gotta ask you one more thing, if you don’t mind giving me a minute of your time.”

“Okay,” Rain said.  “You saved me more than a minute, so I don’t mind.”

Lachlan got out of the car as Rain did.  In the time it took Rain to work his way to a standing position, Lachlan walked around the front of the vehicle to the side of the road and pulled off his t-shirt.

He turned so his back was to Rain.  Rain, in turn, was faced with a tattoo.  Words in bold letters, inches-high, shaded, with thick outlines.  The first word was just below the nape of his neck, and the last was in the small of his back.

Jesus
Virgin-Mother-Fucking
Christ

Two hands, middle fingers extended, were on Lachlan’s shoulder blades, the fingers pointing up and outward.  Each hand had a nail through the center.

“It’s new.  What do you think?”  Lachlan asked.  He smiled as he turned to look at Rain over one shoulder.

“It’s big,” Rain said.

“Isn’t it?  It was hell to get it done.  Shoulder blades and ribs especially, all in one session.”

“It’s… very high quality.  I see a lot of bad tattoos around here, and that’s… the lines are straight, and the shading of the letters are good.”

“Then you like it?  Awesome.  You think Allie would like it?”

“I don’t want to speak for her.  I can ask her.”

“Nah, I’ll show her.  I see her at the bonfires a lot.  Thanks,” Lachlan said.  “I’ll see you around.  If you need anything-”

“I’ll ask.”

Lachlan grinned, and got back into his car.

Rain was left only with the deepest feeling of sadness.  He was so tired, he ached all over, and his heart ached too.  He wanted to tinker, and later, he would reach out to Erin.  She would listen, he would give her a tempered version of how his days had been-

The machine shop was badly weathered, not well insulated, and existed primarily as a large shack, with two stories.  It was where cars and pieces of equipment were brought to be repaired, with communal tools left for anyone to use.

The second floor, though, was mostly left to Rain.  He winced with every step up, then let himself in.

He wasn’t alone.

Erin was already there, sitting with her knees to her chest, face buried in her arms.

Rain’s heart sank.  A tiny, selfish part of himself bemoaned the fact that it didn’t stop.  That he didn’t get to rest.  It was threats to his life leading into him asking to be beaten to restless nights, church, Lachlan

He wondered if that was the monstrous part of himself that he’d passed on to the others.  The person he had been felt unrecognizable now, to the point he couldn’t even say what was him anymore.

Erin was crying.  Clever, brave, beautiful, compassionate, caring Erin.  Seeing her cry made him want to cry, more than anything else in the past twenty-four hours.

He had never seen her cry and he felt as terrified with the unanswered question of what had done this as he had felt with the threat of being tortured to death.

“Are you okay?”

She jumped slightly at the words.  She hadn’t heard him come in?

“No,” she said.  She blinked, and the blink squeezed out a tear.  She looked away and wiped the tear away.  “I’m sorry.  I know this is your workshop, but I needed to get away.”

“It’s okay.  What happened?”

He didn’t want to know.  He wanted to help her at the same time.

“I had a run-in with Tim,” she said.  She swallowed hard.

Tim.  Another of Rain’s uncles.  Tim who was Seir, who wore the preserved head of a horse but was the furthest thing from the lithe, athletic form of the horse, and the furthest thing from the attractive form of Seir the demon, as was described in the book some of the preachers liked to recite from.  Tim was forty, fat, ugly, and he had standing sufficient that he would run the settlement if the top two people in charge were somehow unable to.

A run-in with Tim.  Rain had his suspicions about what had happened.  That it had happened to Erin?

“I’d beat the shit out of him if I thought I could,” Rain said.

“You look like you had the shit beat out of you,” Erin said.  She blinked a few times, wiped away the tears.  “Are you okay?”

He wasn’t, and he couldn’t tell her he wasn’t.  Not when she was this upset.

“I’m always a little bruised and scratched.”

“That’s more than bruises and scratches.”

“I’m okay,” Rain lied.  “And you’re not.  Can I do anything?”

As if that had brought everything back, Erin’s expression briefly crumpled up.  She fixed it with apparent effort, and wiped away at more tears that had been squeezed loose.

She shrugged, and it was very, very apparent to Rain that she was trying to seem cavalier about something that wasn’t cavalier.

He had such a sick feeling in his chest, seeing this.

“Every time I cross paths with him, he makes comments,” she said.

“Yeah.  That’s- that’s Tim.”

She shrugged.  “He told me I should go to church.  Mrs. May is lecturing, I think?”

“She finished.”

“And he said Mrs. May could teach me what I needed to know to please a husband.”

Rain nodded.  If she was marrying Tim

“I told him to go fuck himself.”

“No,” Rain said.  He saw her expression and looked away.

“I know it was stupid.”

“You can’t- he has a lot of power.  It’s not that he’s right, but sometimes you have to keep your head down.  Some of these people will kill you if you say the wrong thing.  Or worse.  Surviving is- it’s the most important thing.”

“I know,” she said.  She averted her eyes.  “I felt like I could, in the moment.  There were people nearby.  I- he pushed me up against a wall, he threatened me with some pretty vulgar stuff, with the crowd watching.”

“You need to get out of here,” Rain said.  “You’re- you’re not Fallen.  You’re decent.  You’re kind.  You think.  You don’t believe this stuff.  You don’t deserve this.”

“I can’t go,” she said.

“Because of Bryce?  Your parents?”

“Of course because of them!  You don’t understand!”

“I really don’t.”

“My parents are the good, decent people.  If I have any good traits it’s because of them and how they raised me.  They- they’re really kind, they were perfect.  They tucked me in at night and they punished me fairly when I was wrong, they- they played with me and sat down to do my homework with me and they really truly loved me.  They did everything right, they never embarrassed me.”

Rain stood there, taking that in.  He tried to imagine what it was like.

“They- they talked to me and cared about what I had to say.  They- they aren’t this.”

“They aren’t Fallen?”

“They aren’t!  They’re… they’re scared.  The world ended and they lost everything, we lost family and friends and everything they worked for, and they broke down a little.  These people got their hooks in and my parents bought it.  But they’re still the same people.  They’ll turn around and realize how bad this is… won’t they?”

“I don’t know.”

Fresh tears spilled forth.  She buried her face in her folded arms, brought her legs closer.

“You need to get out, save yourself first.  Then you can try pulling them out.”

“I think if I do that, I’ll lose them forever,” she said, her voice muffled.

Rain wasn’t sure what to say.

He’d never really had family, certainly not like Erin had described.

Even if she lost them forever, at least she would be okay.

“My dad,” Erin’s voice was small, muffled.

“What?”

“He was there, while Tim said all of that stuff.  Bryce too.  He just stood there.  Then he apologized for my behavior.”

Rain was lost for words.  He felt a tear well up and out and wiped it away before Erin could see.

“I’m so sorry.”

“After Tim left, I freaked, and all my dad would say was that I shouldn’t have provoked him.  He said I should go to church like Tim suggested.  My dad, Rain.  With Bry there.”

Rain reached out, then withdrew his hand.

“I can get a car,” Rain said.  “I’ll borrow one, we can go for a drive.  We’ll do whatever you want, find your favorite food, talk.  Get away from this.”

“I don’t want to go out there,” Erin said.  “Not like this.  Can I stay here?  Please?”

“Of course,” Rain said.  Was it for the best?  If she got in a car with him, he wasn’t sure he would be able to stop driving her away from this.  He’d been born to this, but she hadn’t.

He still felt lost.  He wasn’t sure what to do.

“Do you- can I give you a hug?” he asked.

She didn’t even answer.  She rose to her feet, walked up to him, and wrapped her arms around him, face buried in his shoulder.

He put his arms around her.  He’d never imagined such a thing could feel so horrible and harrowing.  The horribleness didn’t even have anything to do with his injuries, that every point of contact hurt.  It wasn’t his body that hurt.

Rain stared off into space, feeling much like he imagined the shell-shocked in war-zones to feel.

He thought of Cradle’s reaching out for help, people stumbling past him, knocking his hand away.

“Hello?  Mrs. Yamada speaking.”

“It’s Rain.  I’m- I’m really not doing great.  Can we talk?”

“I thought you might call.  Victoria and Sveta reached out to me.  I’d planned to call you this afternoon to check on you.  Listen, I’m expecting a patient shortly, and I can’t adjust that.  We can talk for a few minutes, or, if it’s not an emergency, I can call you in an hour and a half, and I can give you a lot more time.”

“Please,” Rain said.  “The second one.”

“Be easy on yourself, Rain.  I’ll call you in an hour and a half.”

Rain hung up.

He’d reached out and there was a reach back.

He had that.

Erin was asleep on the other end of the room, on a makeshift bed, Rain’s spare change of clothes piled atop her as a kind of blanket.  Her hand was under her pillow and her gun was in her hand.  He wasn’t sure if she knew he’d seen her do it.

Cradle had described him as a monster.  He wasn’t sure if he was, but as he sat at his work table, trying to work quietly, he imagined he was willing to become a little more monstrous if it meant saving the likes of Erin from becoming a lost soul like Lachlan.

His tinkering might have been limited, but he had other skills.  He’d survived in places more rustic than this for a time.  He could make blades.  He could make traps and snares.  His scrap with his uncle had taught him he couldn’t win a fair fight against even the unpowered, not with his powers being what they were.

He’d draw on every resource he had to keep it from coming down to a fair fight.  When he went back to the group tomorrow, it would be with a different mindset.

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Shade – 4.5

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I watched over the group.

We were getting settled in.  Tables were moved, whiteboards arranged, and chairs put together.  It was starting to look more like a hideout.  Sveta was doing her name in a fancy script on her board, Kenzie was doing homework, and I had plugged my laptop in, with my notes up, but it wasn’t my focus in the moment.

Byron had taken his turn.  Two hours and fifteen minutes after we’d parted ways, Tristan was back at the hideout.  He’d taken off his black jacket and folded it over the back of a chair, and was doing some of the setup stuff, while wearing a red t-shirt, jeans, and chukka boots.  He was athletic, and I remembered Byron hadn’t given me that impression when I’d seen him.

“Hey Tristan,” I said.

He’d moved over to his whiteboard, and stepped back and away to look my way.

“Hey, what do you think?” he asked.  He extended a hand, indicating his work: he had sketched out a rough floor plan of the room.  The area was an open-concept apartment, a bathroom closed off, the rest of it without walls, which gave us our room to maneuver, and it looked like Tristan was trying to figure out where the other things we needed might go.  A list of bullet points said ‘cot’, ‘mini fridge’, and ‘team sign’.

I frowned a bit as I saw that last one.

“Team sign?” I asked.

“Sure.  I figured it would be good for morale.  We could have Sveta paint it and put it up on the wall.  Something nice to remind ourselves that we’re a team.”

“I could paint something,” Sveta said, looking away from her work.  “I’m kind of anxious to have a name, and we’d have to decide that first.”

“That could be neat,” I said.  “My take on reading that was that you wanted to hang the sign outside.”

Tristan smiled.  “Something nice and big, colorful, with a by-line saying something about how we’re a covert team of heroes.”

“I wasn’t sure,” I said.

“Believe it or not, I’m not a dumb guy,” he said.  “Stubborn, maybe-”

“Definitely,” Kenzie called out, sitting at her desk.  She was leaning over her homework.

“Most definitely,” Sveta said.

“Fine.  But I’m not dumb.  I’m thinking about the things we need to get in terms of things we can fold up or pack away, since we may be moving a lot.  We can fold up the cot, I can carry a mini fridge, these tables have legs that can fold up to the underside, and for the sign, I was picturing getting three separate canvases and having us put them up there so it connects or lines up.”

“Could work,” I said.

“Three part name?” Sveta asked.

“No idea,” Tristan said.  “Sorry, Vic, you were going to say something?”

“I was going to ask if you train, or if the extra strength is from the powers.  Biokinesis or whichever.”

“I train,” Tristan said.  “I was just thinking of setting up a punching bag or something, actually.”

“Yeah?” I asked.

“I usually end up with restless energy to burn.  I lift, I run on the treadmill, and I had a class I took with Reach, but obviously it’s been a while.  Works with my enhanced strength.”

“So it does help, then.”

“You look like you do something,” Tristan said.

“I do,” I said.  “Or I did.  I don’t have access to my dad’s equipment or the stuff I had while helping out with the Patrol Block.”

“Does it help?  Powerwise?”

I shook my head.  “Forcefield derived strength.  I’m strong enough to tear apart an engine block with my hands.  That wouldn’t change if I didn’t get off the couch and weighed three hundred pounds or if I was a bodybuilder.”

“Why bother if you can tear apart engine blocks?” Tristan asked.

“Why do I walk when I could fly?  I’d atrophy, for one thing, and I can’t always use my strength.  I don’t have the control to do something more delicate.  I- I honestly don’t trust my power, a lot of the time.”

Sveta came to stand beside me, to get a look at Tristan’s idea of a finished floor plan and join the conversation.

“…There’s a middle ground, and I’d like to be able to function in it,” I finished.

“It’s kind of where I’m at,” Sveta said.  “Except I’m not trying to find a middle ground between one hundred miles an hour and a standstill.  I’m using this body to bring myself to a point five percent of the way between zero and a thousand miles an hour.”

“Vroom,” Kenzie said, without turning to look at us.

She’d been just a little subdued.

“And it doesn’t change, then.  It is what it is?” Tristan asked.  “For both of you, I guess?”

“Yeah,” Sveta said.  “Or- I don’t know, but I’m strong enough.  I’m not going to go try to figure out what I can do to make these things stronger.”

As Tristan glanced at me, I made a rectangle with my fingers.  “It’s complicated.  It fluctuates.  I could name some terms and things that apply there, but I don’t want to bore you.”

“I’ve been bored enough times.  I know a lot of the terms.  Sechen ranges?”

“That’s one of them.  Powers often get stronger with certain influencing factors.  You read up on that?”

“We did a ton of testing with Reach, and we saw a lot of parahuman science people while we were trying to figure out a solution.  They think it’s a straight multiplier.  I have one point three to one point six times the strength and overall fitness.”

“Handy,” I said.  “And Byron?”

“A bit of resistance to temperature extremes.  He gets a higher percent, he’d probably remember his specific numbers better than I do, but unless it’s winter or we’re dealing with a heat wave, it doesn’t apply as often.”

“On the note of Byron… the second part to my question is, how does the exercise thing work for Byron?  Because exercise is monotonous enough when you’re getting something out of it.”

“He commented on that a while ago, actually.  We negotiated something.  He made a short list of movies, and I watch his movies while I work out.  Similar thing with the trips here and back.  I sometimes give him extra time, especially if I have something to think about, which is most times these days.”

“That sounds pretty good.”

“Wasn’t always good,” Tristan said.  “Moonsong had some things right, back at the Wardens’ place.  I wasn’t always good at being fair.  It went the other way, Byron-”

Tristan stopped there.

“I won’t finish that thought.  Byron is Byron, and I’m me, and I’ve got to own my shit without comparing.  I wasn’t always good at being fair,” Tristan said.  “I’m good at a lot of things.  I can kick ass and look pretty great while doing it, I’m tenacious, I tend to finish what I set my mind to.  But fair is hard.”

“It is,” I said.

“It’s hard enough figuring out how to be fair to ourselves,” Sveta said.

“Too true,” I said.  I glanced over at Kenzie.

“Punching bag?” Tristan asked.  He pointed at the corner, next to Chris’ whiteboard.  “I don’t need to do anything special for you guys?”

“Regular punching bag for me,” I said.  “I’ll use it.  It’s going to be a chore to move if we change locations, though.”

“Noted,” Tristan said.  “Maybe we should all get one pain-in-the-ass contribution to the hideout and this can be mine.”

“I’ve already got mine,” Kenzie said, from the other end of the room.  She kicked her box and the images projected on the wall changed.

“Bag’s good,” I said, as I started walking over.  “No objection.”

I approached Kenzie.  The image was projected onto the wall in front of her, moving between the two cameras.  An addition had been made, and as each person walked down the street, stylized crosshairs tracked their faces.  Most had logos and names.  A lot of them were just things in the vein of ‘[New31]’ with the number changing, not names.

One of the cameras moved.  It focused in on a scene where two people wearing aprons were smoking by the back stairs of a restaurant.  The little space between four buildings didn’t really qualify as an alley, as it looked like back doors and fire escapes were the only way to get down to the area.  An enclave, maybe.  The camera moved until it tracked a person in costume.  The guy’s mask looked like it covered all but a third of his face, the bottom right of his jaw and the top left of his forehead exposed, with ceramic shards framing each ‘hole’.  Curved metal bars reminiscent of piping extended around to the back of his head, holding the mask in place.

The camera seemed to recognize the mask, and labeled him as ‘[Kitchen Sink]’.  We’d seen him before, but the label thing was new.

Off to the side, as part of a sidebar with data and labels, there were a series of countdown timers.

HT & Team: 8:21

Ashley Train to Station: 0:45
Average Ash Walk Time: 4:10

When I stood behind Kenzie’s chair, I saw that even with a dozen workbooks and pieces of homework strewn in front of her, she wasn’t doing her schoolwork.  She had a projected image in front of her, drawn out in three dimensions, with the same image drawn on a paper in front of her in marker.  The lines of the three dimensional image looked similar to a marker’s.  With gestures and prods of a pen, Kenzie adjusted the particulars.

“What do you think?” she asked.  She used her hands, gesturing, and made it bigger.  Turning around in her chair, bringing the drawn object with her, she moved her hands and superimposed the image over her head.

A mask, or a helmet.  Eyeless, in a way, with a flat pane extending from the eyes, over her nose, down to a pointed chin.  Three round lenses were placed along the line of her eyebrows, one round lens was on each cheekbone, and she had two spherical attachments, much like the buns she tended to wear her hair in.  Probably intended to fit over the buns.

“I like it better than the one you wore for the training exercise,” I said.  “It does make me think of a spider, with all of the eyes.”

“Is that a bad thing?”

“I don’t think you make me think ‘spider’ at all.  It’s a bit too inhuman.  What if… can I draw?  I don’t want to ruin your drawing.”

“Go ahead.  Use my pen.  Squint one eye when you want it to draw.”

The countdown timers marked Ashley’s departure from the train.  The ‘walk time’ timer was highlighted and started counting down.

I tried my hand at drawing little triangles at the side of each of the round lenses.  A tiny triangle to represent eyelashes.

“Oh, cute!” Kenzie said.  “Can you draw a second, smaller one?  And leave off the eyelashes on the cheekbones, because I’m doing something different there, and-”

“Here,” I said.  I passed her the pen.

She began to change things, keeping all but two of the eyelashes I’d drawn.

Someone labeled ‘[Joe]’ walked down the street, a bag slung over his shoulder.  He entered the same bar I’d encountered Moose outside of.  The one where Snag and Love Lost had gone inside.

I looked at some of the other names.

“Fifi?” I asked.

“Huh?” Kenzie asked.  She looked up, and  I pointed at a blonde girl with hair that looked like she’d just about destroyed it with bleaching.  Frizzed out to the point I doubted she could get a comb through it.  She’d resorted to using a headband and hair tie to try to get it in order.  The headband and hair tie didn’t match her outfit.

“Oh.  She looked like a Fifi.  I named some of the ones I see a lot.”

“She does look vaguely poodle-ish, and Fifi seems like a poodle name to me.”

Exactly,” Kenzie said, with satisfaction.  She returned to writing down something that looked like code and formula, periodically poking her pen at her projected image of her mask.

I looked at ‘Fifi’.  “Poor her.  When I was a little younger than you are now, I tried dying my hair to be like my cousin, and it went badly.  I was so inconsolable.”

“What happened after?” Kenzie asked.

“My mom hired a professional to get me back to normal, and it was mostly fixed.  We bought some products to keep my hair from ending up like that after.  I can’t imagine the professional or the products were cheap, and we were pretty tight on cash back then.  She knew it was important to me.”

My heart hurt a little, thinking of that.

“That’s the way it should be,” Kenzie said.

“Yeah,” I said.

She turned my way, putting on the projected helmet so it was superimposed over her head.  When she took her hands away and moved her head, the helmet moved with her head.

Now, though, the eyes of the mask widened and closed, as camera-like shutters closed around the edges.  The eyelashes moved up and down a little, and shutters moved in lopsided ways, with only some of the shutters closing.  Coming down from the top, curved forward, angry.  Coming in from the bottom.

“Are you changing your expression?”

“Yes!  It worked.  Awesome.  Okay, and let’s try this.”

Her eyelashes moved, until one was pointing straight up, one was pointing straight down.  The eyes all briefly turned white.

“I think that worked.  White eyes and… targeting mode?”

“Not targeting mode.  I could build something like the flash gun into it.  I can strike a pose and do the eye thing, like they’re crosshairs, and flash.  There’d probably only be room for one shot.  Okay, colors-”

She tapped her pen on her desk.  The mask changed from shades of gray to pink and sky blue.  I winced, and she immediately changed to the next.  Seafoam green and black.  Through each change, the circles at her cheekbones remained a slightly different shade, more muted.

“Something less garish, maybe?” I asked.  “That one looks a little villainous.  Cute, but villainous.”

She tapped her pen a few times, then made a mark on the paper.

Lemon-lime and dark gray, with green-gray circles for the cheekbones.

“Better.”

“Ooh, I know a thing.  I can do a thing.”

She turned, and she started scribbling.  She seemed energized.

But as she turned, the image at one of her cheekbones broke up, becoming transparent, like a few squares had been cut out of the image.  It flickered as I moved my head to view it at another angle.

“You’ve got a distortion,” I said.  I pointed.

“Silly me,” she said.

The entire helmet disappeared.

“Something similar happened when your picture was taken at the Warden’s HQ,” I said.

“Yeah.”

“You’re wearing a projection?”

“Not really,” she said.  She scribbled.  “I’m wearing tech, and it conflicts with stuff so it can be hard to coordinate.  I wouldn’t call it wearing.”

“No?”

“Wearing makes me think full-body, or covering my head and I mean, I had that costume thing for the training, and that didn’t last that long.  How could or would I wear something else and have it last all day or whatever?  I mean, I wish I could.”

“I wish I could,” I said.  I didn’t want to press or be harsh, but I didn’t want to let this lie either.  I went easy, instead.  “I’m slightly concerned if you’re using projections like that.”

“I’m not that devious,” Kenzie said.  “I wouldn’t bring something and pretend to have a short battery life so I can hide that I have a longer battery life for something else I’m secretly using.  That’s not what I do and that’s not how I am.”

“I know,” I said.  “I don’t get the impression you’re devious or that you’d go to those lengths.”

Kenzie looked up at the clock.

Average Ash Walk Time: -1:13

“She’ll turn up,” I said.

“I know.  I just want her here before Houndstooth calls,” Kenzie said.  “One second.”

She kicked the cube.  It went dark, and the camera image dropped away.

“Victoria!” Tristan called me from the far end of the room.

“What?”

“Can we use your computer?”

“Yeah.”

Tristan and Sveta gathered together at my computer, Tristan’s hands at the keyboard.

“The tech you’re wearing.  The distortions.  I want to make sure you’re taking care of yourself.  That you don’t have dark circles under your eyes, or bruises, or anything like that.”

She turned her head to look at me over her shoulder and smiled.  “It’s off.  I turned my tech off to synchronize everything across all fields.  This is me.”

She showed me her phone, where the progress bar was filling up.

“Gotcha,” I said.

“I know Houndstooth said stuff.  I think he said it in a caring way because he’s one of the best guys out there.  True blue hero, like Weld.  Like you.”

I was reminded of how I’d handled Presley on the train.  I’d recognized how she’d needed me to be more than human, because she idolized me, she’d seen me as something to reach for.

I wondered if Kenzie wanted me to be the same thing.

“I don’t know if I am.  I’m pretty angry about things.  I’m… really concerned about a lot of things.  Negative emotions drive an awful lot of what I do.”

The lock on the door clicked.  Ashley let herself in, then locked it behind her.  She smiled at Kenzie and me, then gave the other two a small salute.

Kenzie had visibly brightened at Ashley’s appearance.

“The things you do are good,” Kenzie said.  “At least as far as I’ve seen and researched.”

She researched me.

“And I think that’s what counts,” Kenzie said.

“It’s nuanced.”

“If Houndstooth sat you down to tell you about me and he didn’t say I’m bad at nuance, he screwed up,” Kenzie said.  “And he doesn’t screw up.”

The projector box lit up, and the video image popped back up.  Kenzie’s phone changed from the progress bar, and her helmet reappeared, floating just over the paper where it had been drawn.

“Roughly one minute until Houndstooth!” Kenzie reported.

“Got it,” Tristan said.

Ashley approached, standing by Kenzie’s chair, and laid a hand on Kenzie’s left shoulder.

“You good?” I asked.

“Working hands.  No pain.  We’re still working with this cretin?”

Cretin?” Kenzie asked.

“Houndstooth,” Ashley said.  “He didn’t impress me.”

“Okay, wow.  Let me start by saying you impress me,” Kenzie said, looking up at Ashley.  “I love those videos you’re in, and I loved seeing you train.  You’re awesome.  And you’re totally, one hundred percent wrong, this once.  Because Houndstooth is awesome and impressive too.”

“Houndstooth’s concerns seemed to come from a well-intentioned, good place,” I said, interjecting.  Kenzie’s head whipped around to look at me over her other shoulder.  I added,  “And despite that, he seemed to come to some extreme conclusions.  There’s nuance, between where you’re coming from and where you end up.  Like we were just talking about.”

“When I called him a cretin I was being gentle.  He’s a disgusting, disappointing, subnormal excuse for a hero, cape, or human being.”

“I will fight you over this,” Kenzie said.

“You’d lose.”

“I will go to war with you.  Houndstooth was one of the coolest people to me at one of my uncoolest times.”

Tristan and Sveta had noticed things were a little hairy and were approaching at a jog.  I interjected, saying, “We might want to drop this.  Let the topic lie.”

“No,” Kenzie said.  “Not if she’s going to say anything more like what she just said.”

“He talked about you like you were nothing more than a problem.”

“I am a problem!” Kenzie said, raising her voice.

“Easy,” I said.  Tristan and Sveta joined us.

“I’m a problem,” Kenzie said, quieter.  “I was.

“You’re more than the problem,” Ashley said.  “That waste of space didn’t-”

“Do you want to go to war?” Kenzie asked, rising out of her seat.  “I can build an army of camera drones.  I have advantage in the air.  I have battlefield awareness.  And I’ll fight you on this until you explode me all over the place or you say you’re wrong about him.  Don’t say bad things about him.  Not when he’s someone that counts.  Not when you’re someone that counts.  Okay?”

Sveta reached out and pushed Kenzie back down into her seat.  Tristan was closer to Ashley, facing her, ready to get between the two.

“Kenzie,” Sveta said.  “Ashley’s coming from a good place here.”

“I know that,” Kenzie said.  “I also know that Houndstooth is.”

“You’re better than he makes you out to be.  You can’t put so much faith in the words of someone who so clearly knows so little,” Ashley said.

Kenzie shook her head, smiling like she couldn’t believe the conversation she was a part of.

“He’s weak, and he’s a loser.  He’s the lowest of the low.”

The phone trilled with a rising series of beeps.  The projected image on the screen showed the person calling: Houndstooth.

Kenzie leaped forward, swatting aside Sveta’s hand and dodging mine.  She grabbed the front of Ashley’s top, and hauled it down, making Ashley bend down.

Ashley’s hand moved, and Tristan grabbed her wrist, stopping it from going wherever it was going to go.  He grabbed Kenzie with the other hand, ready to pull her away if need be.

“Woah,” Tristan said.

I moved closer, putting my hands on Kenzie’s shoulders, freeing Tristan to focus more on Ashley.

So small.  Her shoulders were narrow.

Kenzie raised her free hand, and pressed it against Ashley’s mouth, so her fingers were on either side of Ashley’s nose.  Had her fingers been longer, the tips and nails might have been near Ashley’s eyes.

“Don’t say anything,” Kenzie said.

The phone trilled its beeps again.

“Please don’t say anything.  Please.”

There was a pause, silence.

The phone spat out its series of beeps.

“Please let this go okay,” Kenzie said.  “That will do more than anything.”

The silence hung.  The phone could only ring so many times.

Kenzie started to smile, and the smile faltered.  “Please?  I’ll do anything.”

Ashley straightened, pulling away from Kenzie’s hands.  She turned away, folding her arms.

The rest of us relaxed.  Kenzie, too, turned away, stepping away from my hands.  She grabbed the phone off the table and tossed it to Tristan.

The phone was mid-ring when Tristan answered.

“Sorry about the delay.  Capricorn here.  Four of the six members of the team are here, and our coach is here too,” Tristan said.  He backed up a few steps, until Ashley was in front of him, facing him.  “I think we’re going to put you on speakerphone if that’s okay.”

Ashley nodded once.

“Great,” Tristan said.  A response for both Houndstooth and Ashley, it seemed.

Kenzie hit a key.

“Hello again,” Houndstooth said.  “I’ve got my team here, and we’re north of Cedar Point.  We’re getting sorted out, costumes already on, but there’s other stuff to do.  Minions to summon, ammo to load.  I’m really hoping that none of it is needed.”

“Same here,” Tristan said.  “We’ve been keeping an eye on things and I think it’s pretty quiet right now.”

“Perfect.”

I raised my hand a bit to signal I was going to speak, then stepped forward a bit.  “Victoria here.  I think there are three villains-”

Kenzie’s hand went up, four fingers extended.

“Four villains out and about around the city.  A few left on a road trip earlier in the afternoon.  There are also a couple you’ll want to be aware of.”

“Anything you can give us is great.”

Kenzie hit a key.  The camera moved to Kitchen Sink, with his ceramic mask.

“Kitchen Sink.  He’s the closest to you, big, minor brute aspect, but his thing is he acts as a blaster.  Long and sustained series of junk being thrown at high velocities.  Everything but the kitchen sink, as the saying goes.”

“That’s so bad a schtick it’s great,” a voice on the line said.  One of Houndstooth’s subordinates, feminine-sounding.

“He’s in the company of Hookline.  Minor mover, has a hundred-foot long cable he telekinetically controls.  It can’t be broken or damaged, short of some very select powers, and it will shake off or slip free of a lot of things that would snag or impede another weapon.  Frost, hands that try to grab it.  So don’t try.  It moves faster and acts like a whip, so be super careful if a fight happens.  There’s a hook on the end, and he’s most dangerous if you’re at or just inside that hundred foot limit of his range where the hook is flying around.  Which brings me to my next point.”

“They’re willing to hurt people?”  Houndstooth asked.

“Kitchen Sink and Hookline are.  They’re part of one clique in Cedar Point that’s more violent than the others.  Aggressive, violent, even borderline bloody.  They might be acting as enforcers for others.”

“Breaking kneecaps,” Tristan said.

“Got it,” Houndstooth said.

“Hookline and Sink,” the feminine voice said.  “Oh my god.”

“Moose seems to be going around between groups, passing on messages or checking on things.  Strong brute, something to do with shockwaves.  He hits hard, he moves a lot faster than you’d expect from someone that big, and he has decent combat sense.  I wish we could give you more information on him, but all I know is from a brief scrap with him.”

“You said the other two might pick a fight.  What about this guy?”

“Low odds the other two pick a fight without checking with the leadership, but if someone was to pick a fight, it’d be people from their group.  Moose would sooner negotiate or look to talk than fight, and he’d only really fight if he thought he needed to or if he was certain he could win.  I think your worry is going to be having something in mind to tell Moose that passes the sniff test.”

“We’re curious what’s going on, the Hill is a mess, and we’re wondering if these are greener pastures than Greenwich.”

Tristan said, “If others are going to show interest, we want to drop a hint.  Something that makes them wonder.  You could mention sponsorship and a reshuffling of jurisdictions.”

“There’s talk of war,” Sveta interjected.  “I know someone who’s having to spend time away, and they’re bringing people in from other teams to fill holes.”

“I heard about that,” Houndstooth said.

“You could use that.  It happened with villain communities in the past.  A void appears, villains rush to fill it, there’s upheaval, and then things settle.”

She looked at me as she said that last bit.

I’d said something like that at the group therapy meeting, hadn’t I?

“If Moose challenges us, I’ll say something like that.”

“There’s also a woman that’s collecting protection money right now.  Bluestocking.  From the brainiac clique.”

“These guys are so lame, I love it,” Houndstooth’s subordinate said.

“There’s something to keep in mind,” I said.  “These guys congregated here.  If something happens, and I don’t know if Moose would let it unless you forced the issue, then you’ll have a lot more in your hair.  They’re banding together and as lame as any individual might be, they’re finding a lot of people who match up with them.  Thematically or in style.”

“We’re seeing that more in general,” Houndstooth said.  “Lots of capes condensed into a relatively tight geographic area.”

“You’re going to see it in effect here.  Two clairvoyants are keeping an eye on the area.   One of them is a clairaudient, so they’ll have an ear on the area too.  I could go into detail, but I think it’s better and easier to just say that once you enter Cedar Point they’re going to be fully aware of everything you say or do.  Be careful what you say, and be aware we can’t communicate with you unless it’s an emergency.”

“That also means no mockery or jokes,” Houndstooth said, his voice quieter, like he didn’t have his mouth near the phone.  “And as far as we’re concerned, your team doesn’t exist.”

“It would mean a ton if you could be especially careful about that,” Tristan said.

“We’ll be careful,” Houndstooth said.  “I trust my guys.  Give us a couple of minutes, and we’ll move through, make our faces known.  I want to plan what we do if we run into the guys you talked about.”

“Call us again when it’s time,” Tristan said.

“Will do.  I like this a lot, good briefing, great intelligence.  This is great stuff, guys.”

The call ended.

Tristan huffed out a breath, glancing at Ashley.

“Great stuff, and he likes it,” Kenzie said, quiet.  Her legs kicked, just barely scuffing the plastic rim that the wheels of the computer chair stuck down from.  “Now I get to see Houndstooth on camera.  Wooo.”

Her voice was so quiet it might have sounded unenthusiastic, but the speed her legs kicked at doubled with that last utterance.

“We should get people out there in case things go bad and we need to extract,” Tristan said.

“I can fly out,” I said.

“I’ll go,” Sveta said.

“I can be there in ten minutes if I need to be, maybe as few as five,” Tristan said.  “I’ll hold down the fort here until then.  Ashley- I’d rather keep you in reserve.  If everything falls to pieces, we’ll bring you in to great effect.”

She nodded, and then she walked away, approaching the empty whiteboard that was supposed to be hers.  Some of her things were in a bag at the base of the board.

Sveta and I stepped out, and I used my flight to lift up off the fire escape.

“I’m worried about them,” Sveta said.  “And I wish there was a flagpole or tree close by I could grab.”

“I can help a bit with that last part,” I said.  I rose up and away, then extended a hand.

She shot her hand and arm at me, and I caught it.  She pulled herself my way, not at her fastest, but fast enough I felt my heart jump in my chest.

I flew back and away, as she hauled herself in, and matched her general direction.  It made for a tiny bit more slack.

She let go of me, and she pulled herself to a tree.  From there, she moved to a roof.

Like a frog’s tongue, snapping out, seizing something.  But the frog went to the fly, rather than the other way around.  To the branch, to the railing, to the fence, then to the chimney.

She was faster than me for short distances, and only a bit slower for the sustained movement.  We didn’t have far to go, so she did pretty well at getting ahead of me.  Only the escape from the fire escape had slowed her down.

“Hold up,” I called out, as she started to move northward.  “Here’s good.”

We parked ourselves near where I’d been the day prior, on a rooftop with the water separating us and Cedar Point.

“I’m glad it’s you and me,” she said.

I bumped her shoulder with mine.

The phone rang.  I pulled it from my pocket, connected my earbuds, and put one bud in my ear, one in Sveta’s.

“One camera on H.T., one in Moose’s general vicinity,” Kenzie announced.  “The valiant H.T. is leading his team in.  Five of them.”

I touched the button on the screen to mute my end of the conversation, so we’d only hear, not say anything.

“We tried to get ahold of Rain and we couldn’t.  I’m worried,” Sveta said.  “I know he’s impossible to get ahold of when he’s with his family, they’re off the grid but I don’t know.”

The phone flicked between a view of Houndstooth and the villains.

“Today’s the third time Chris chose the optimism-indulgence route in five days, I think.”

“What do you mean?  He’s not balancing it out?”

“I asked what he was doing to balance it out and he said I should mind my own business.”

I could see the thread of what Sveta was getting at.

“You’re worried about things as a whole.”

“Aren’t you?” she asked.

I nodded.

Except maybe worry was the wrong word.  It implied hand-wringing.  Sweating, nervousness.

It wasn’t that I was afraid or that it was worse than worry, either.  I was becoming far more aware of the problems, for things as a whole.

What the mother-loving hell?” Moose’s voice came through the earbuds.  It sounded weird, captured by cameras at a great distance, sent to Kenzie, sent to us, passed through the earbuds.  He’d just received the news.  The video on the phone showed him sending people away on errands.  Fetching others.

“We have movement,” Tristan said.  “They’re getting organized.”

We watched.  I carried on with my conversation with Sveta.  “Ashley has had a couple of serious episodes that I’ve seen now.  Many lesser episodes, too.”

“Yes.”

“There’s a big part of me that was waiting for the other shoes to drop and that part of me feels… not worse, now that those shoes have dropped,” I said.

“I don’t feel not worse.”

“I can see flashes and hints of what you’re trying to bring out in Ashley,” I admitted.  “She’s not someone I would have spent time with, in another context.  I don’t know how to handle things when she casually mentions her capacity to murder people, as if it’s a way to win an argument.”

“The threats are usually empty,” Sveta said.  “That’s a plus.”

“I want to figure this out,” I said.  “I want to help.  It’s like Kenzie is a distillation of every vulnerable person I’ve ever tried to help, and Ashley is a distillation of every really fascinating branding exercise where you take a random villain and try to paint them as a hero and even bring out the hero inside them.  Tristan and Byron are this really fascinating problem with powers and I’m a power geek and I really wonder if there’s a solution. ”

“How do you parse Rain?” Sveta asked quiet.

“I mean-” I stopped.  “I’m doing exactly what Ashley got so angry at Houndstooth for doing.  I’m reducing people down to conveniently sized problems.  I get that, you know?  They aren’t just that.  Kenzie is really complex and intelligent, she’s clearly been through a lot, and I one hundred percent believe Houndstooth when he says she’s good hearted.  The fact that she clearly adores Ashley and she fought her that hard on things to stand up for someone else she holds close to her heart?  That’s amazing.  I could say similar things about Ashley, Tristan, Byron.”

Sveta nodded.  “And me?”

“I’m so caught up in everything I…” I tried to find the words, and felt a pang.  I tried to make sense of that feeling as I said, “I find myself missing you, even though you’re there.”

“I know.  We should have talked like this sooner.”

“You’re doing amazing and my biggest fear with you is that I’m going to be an obstruction, not a help.”

“No, I can’t ever see that.”

“I worry.  I don’t want to tamper with something that’s working.”

“I need help.  I’m anxious, and there are things I need.  Not from a teammate, but-”

“From a friend?” I asked.

She nodded, something in her rattling slightly with the movement.

“As one part of that, then, I really want to take you shopping, that needs addressing, because this-”

I touched her top.  She was wearing a beige top with a blue anchor on the front.  The top was in two pieces, knotted above the shoulder, with smaller bits knotted along her sides.

“This is cute, but I really want to see more sides of you.”

“I want you to take me shopping too,” she said.

I reached for her hand, and I gave it a waggle.

“I’m thinking about Rain a lot,” Sveta said.

“He has me worried.  Not just because of the hit out on his head.  But because he’s not telling the truth about everything.  The lies make sense, it seems to make sense to hide things when in his situation.  But I’m not getting to see that good side of him either.  So for now, I want to help him.  But my motivations are somewhat selfish.  My hometown got wiped out by a seemingly insurmountable, inevitable, unstoppable force.  We lost.  I- I don’t think I ever fully came back from those losses.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“And now we have Rain being targeted by a seemingly insurmountable, inevitable, unstoppable force.  I’m being selfish, but I want to help him and get a win this time around.”

“I don’t think that’s selfish.”

“My entire hero career before the hospital and the years leading up to that career were a fantasy or exercise in me having powers and being a hero, and I’m not sure I was ever heroic about it.  I just see that past me as wholly motivated in selfishness, ego, pride, and a drive to be celebrated.”

“I don’t think it’s selfish,” Sveta said.  “You’re not that.  You’re here, doing this.  You’re helping.”

“The ends justify the… possible justifications?” I asked.  “I just had this conversation with Kenzie.  I’m not sure it’s a good thing if I’m having it again.”

“It’s where your head and heart are at.”

I shrugged, looking at the video feed.

Moose and Prancer were meeting up.  Prancer had two friends with him.  On the other feed, the heroes were walking through the neighborhood.  Talking to shop owners and residents.  Sink and Hookline watched from the sidelines, Houndstooth’s subordinates hanging back and watching them in turn.

“Where are you at?” I asked.

“Weld has been telling me things about what’s going on elsewhere.  Things he shouldn’t be telling me, but I think a lot of it is the kind of thing like a husband with a certain position might tell his wife, sometimes, even when those things are confidential.”

“Wife?” I asked.  I raised an eyebrow.

“Shut up,” Sveta said, lifting her chin a bit, looking mock-affronted.  “Not another word about that.”

“You’re the one who said the word.”

“Anyway,” Sveta said.  “I can’t repeat those things, but I worry more than I used to.  I get anxious.  There’s a part of everyone else in the group in me, and when they struggle it feels like I’m struggling.”

“I can sort of relate to that.”

“I need people and I scare them away.  Tristan told me what Houndstooth said.  None of it’s too surprising.  There are people who know a dangerous amount about me and I think they’d hurt me if they had a chance.  I’m a killer.  I’m constantly at war with another side of myself.  I’m perpetually off balance and I don’t know if I’ll ever have that balance.”

“That kinship might be why you’re able to connect to the others.”

“Don’t say it.  Don’t sound like Weld.”

“It’s true,” I said.  “You’re the team’s mom.”

“Oh no,” Sveta said. “That’s so much worse than what I thought you were going to say.  I thought you were going to call me the team’s heart, like Weld does.  I can’t be a mother.  No!”

I was about to respond, but Sveta reached up with a hand.  Her prosthetic finger tapped the side of the phone.

Moose and Prancer.  They’d wrangled three others.  I didn’t recognize any of the three.  Bluestocking was way off to the side, just barely in earshot.  Almost half of Houndstooth’s group had turned around and were keeping an eye on Hookline and Kitchen Sink.

“What brings you here?” Prancer asked.

“Passing through,” Houndstooth said.

“To where?  This is a peninsula.  It’s why Hollow Point is a point.”

Houndstooth shrugged, radiating smug, a lack of concern.

“The Kings of the Hill.  You’re a long way away from where you normally hang out.”

“Changing times.  Some other people might be looking to take over the Hill.”

“That doesn’t explain why you’re here,” Prancer said.

“Maybe they want to be Kings of the Point,” Moose said.

“There’s nothing to be gained here,” Prancer said.  “It’ll take you twice as long and five times as many fights to get half as far.”

Houndstooth laughed.  One or two members of his group were almost simultaneous in laughing as well, but Houndstooth was louder, more confident, and probably the focus of the camera’s microphone, to boot.

The villains shifted their footing.  There were no laughs.  They didn’t seem impressed.

Houndstooth explained.  “You’re aware you just described an uphill battle to a group called Kings of the Hill?”

“Then you should know all the better,” Prancer said.  The force of the response was hampered a bit by the fact that Houndstooth’s group was chuckling again.

Points to Houndstooth, he was doing pretty well here.  This wasn’t the first time I’d seen him interact with someone and not really have the presence or power to stand up to the people he was facing down.

“What a theme.  The hunting hound, nipping at the fleeing deer’s heels,” Houndstooth said.

“If you’re going to nip, I’m going to gore,” Prancer said.  “You’re not going to come out ahead in this.”

“Yeah?” Houndstooth asked.  “Would you like to have a little skirmish right here?  Your eight to our five.  Or are you going to let us pass through?”

“You can’t pass through,” Prancer said, exasperated.  “Its a peninsula.  You can turn around and go back the way you came, though.”

Houndstooth chuckled.  He put a hand on a teammate’s shoulder, and turned the guy around.  The five members of his group turned to go.

“Faster response,” I said.  I touched the button on the phone to unmute myself.  “I’d like to keep a camera on Prancer’s group.  I want to see their response.”

“That’s the plan,” Tristan’s voice came through.

A few seconds passed, as Houndstooth’s team headed back the way they’d come.

“I’m not a mom,” Sveta said.

“Okay,” I said.

There was conversation on the phone.

“I don’t want them in here,” Hookline said.  “Fuck that.”

“We don’t know what they’re doing,” Prancer said.  “It’s fine.  Go easy.”

“They made a mockery of us.”

“They made a mockery of themselves,” Prancer said.

“I think you’re the only one that’s dwelling on the peninsula thing,” Velvet said.

“We’re fine,” Prancer said.

“Were they related to the blonde, Victoria?” Moose asked.  “Pretty much the first thing I said to her was that she’d end up outnumbered and having to skedaddle.  Someone hears that, they might call friends.”

“They’re still outnumbered,” Velvet pointed out.

Prancer replied, “I don’t know, Moose, but yes, we will always have the numbers advantage.  For now I’m content to wait and see what happens.  If they move in, we have the resources to answer them.  Bluestocking?  Can you tell Bitter Pill I want to talk to her about her team?  I want to keep a closer eye on things.”

“I can,” the woman with glasses said.  The one that had been collecting protection money.

“We’ll be fine,” Prancer said.

“What I’m wondering,” Kitchen Sink said, “Could this have to do with the truck of-”

“Shut up this very second,” Prancer said.

There was silence.

“No,” Prancer said, “I doubt it does, and you shouldn’t talk business unless we’re inside with the Speedrunners or Caveat helping to ensure things are private.”

“You’re doing a lot of talking,” Sink said.  “But I’m thinking you’re not doing a lot of doing.  Those guys walked in and walked out.  They might come back and they’ll be a headache.  Speaking as someone who’s been collecting rent-”

“If you want to talk business, you do it inside,” Prancer said.

“-it’s going to impact that,” Sink said.  “We have to explain.  You have to explain, really, because I’m saying fuck this conversation.”

He punched Hookline lightly in the shoulder, gestured.  The pair of them turned to walk away.

“Cracks and clues,” Tristan’s voice could be heard over the phone.

“And two of the locals following Houndstooth’s group,” Kenzie reported.  “They’re aiming to catch up.”

I took off.  I paused in the air, hand out.

Sveta sent out her hand.  With the wind currents above the water, the hand moved off-course.  I flew over to catch it in the same moment she flexed her tendrils and sent the hand to where I’d been.

We coordinated, I caught her hand before it dropped into the water, and she pulled herself to me.  She had a silly smile on her face when she drew close.

“We’ll work on that,” I said.

I flew over the water.  When we reached the first tall building, I dropped Sveta, before changing course again.

She went low to the ground, pulling herself straight to the street level.  I flew high, to the point where Birdbrain shouldn’t have a high enough perspective to see me, much like with Kenzie’s high-flying cameras.

I retrieved my phone.  “Do we act?”

“Act,” Tristan said.

I drew closer.

Hookline’s hook was out, and Kitchen Sink had a machete in one hand and a gallon tank of probably-kerosene in the other.  He kept the large red plastic can, tossed away the machete, tossed away the textbook, tossed away the manhole cover-

I was guessing, hoping they wanted to count coup, injure and disappear.

It didn’t seem terribly bright.  I didn’t want to let them count coup or do worse.  We’d made a pledge to Houndstooth’s group.

Sveta’s hands appeared out of nowhere, grabbing Hookline by the ankles.  He fell hard on the initial tug, and was then dragged beneath a parked car.

The hook moved, lashing out.  It caught on the corner of a building, Hookline’s attempt to haul himself free.

My focus in the moment was on Kitchen Sink.

I landed so I was a foot behind him, pushing out with my aura.

“Run,” I said.

He turned, wheeling around with hand drawn back, a rather large, full bottle of alcohol gripped by the neck-

I smashed my forehead into his nose.  When he didn’t immediately go down, I did it again.  I didn’t give him a chance to recover from there.  My forcefield was down throughout the process, as I stayed within a foot of him, my aura buzzing with the range pulled closer to me, active and focused on him.

I could fly, so I didn’t need footing.  I used it when I had it, to give a little more oomph when I punched him in the stomach, but at the times I would have needed to pause to get my feet in the right places under me, flight drove me forward.  Punch, knee to his stomach, a shove against his shoulder, as he drew the connected arm back to swing with the bottle or use his power to throw it point-blank.

He realized he couldn’t draw either weapon back, and dropped the plastic jug, jabbing at me instead.  He hit me in the ribs, and it hurt.

I hit him in the nose, and I was willing to bet it hurt more.

He realized what was happening, and compensated with an exaggerated step back, anticipating he’d be pushed away, the foot would arrest that movement.

I brought my hand close to his face as I flew up, and he shielded it.

He was trying not to fall down, but with his feet planted far apart-

I flew down, my foot striking on his thigh, close to the pelvis.  It forced him into awkward almost-splits.

My hand on the back of his head, I pushed his face down toward the road.  He didn’t try to stop the movement with his arms out, instead folding his around his face, to shield it.

The impact was hard, elbows striking the road, and from the sound he made, his nose hit the arms that were around his face, and that hurt enough.

Sveta had moved across the street.  She stayed low, and her hand snaked out, snatching for Hookline’s ankles, trying to once again drag him beneath the vehicle, forcing him to clamber or squeeze out.

As I landed on a car roof, intentionally making a sound, he glanced back at me.  His face was bound in ripcord or something like it, with a gap for his eyes.  It pulled his teeth back so they stood out, perpetually bared.

At least he brushed.

The distraction meant Sveta could get a hold on him.  He stabbed an engine block with the hook, to try to arrest his movement, hands on the chain.

I walked over to the hook, and slapped it free.  By all rights, I should have destroyed it, but his thing was that he made his weapon invincible, untouchable.

He tried to catch me with it, but Sveta had him and the hook didn’t reach out as fast as Sveta pulled him beneath a dusty construction vehicle.

I collected a mailbox and a pallet of construction material, and set to blocking off his exits, so he would be stuck beneath the truck until someone got him out.

There were others approaching already.

The fastest of them arrived.  Moose.  Love Lost.  A mismatched pair.

Sveta put out her hand, not extending her arm, and I caught it, clasping her wrist as she clasped mine.

Braindead and Birdbrain had no doubt clued in the local villains.  They would also let people know what Hookline and Sink had been intent on doing.

Others sounded like they were just around the corner.

I glanced at Love Lost.  The woman who wanted to kill Rain.  Who wanted to torture him to death.

Rage.  Anger.  Hate.

There was so much I didn’t know about that scenario, but I could see that the sentiment was very much real.

Her claw went to her mask.  I had just about no interest in seeing what she could do.  I flew skyward and out of reach, bringing Sveta with me.

Hopefully, for just a little bit longer, we would leave them wondering who we were.

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Shade – 4.4

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I was being watched.

I was being watched at a time when Rain was gone, hiding, when Tattletale was in play.  We had enemies, I’d drawn attention.  These things, though, weren’t at the forefront of my attention.  It said a lot that they weren’t.

The slash on Moose’s face lingered in my mind’s eye, when I wasn’t careful about where that eye was turned.

The train was noisy as it rolled along the tracks.  With the longer train journeys, I was primed to expect that the urban would give way to the rural or the buildings on either side would stop.  It didn’t.  Like a car driving down the highway at night, the streetlights reaching into the vehicle interior and then dropping away, the sun’s light did much the same when it reached in at a low angle, extending between buildings to light up the dark train car.

It was just late enough in the morning that most students had made their way to school, but the students with classes in the afternoon block that had stopped in to check in or change were now leaving the schools.  They were heading off to work, to do light construction work, for academic clubs, study halls and to join the patrol block, and many were dressed accordingly.   They looked so young.

The train car was packed, and I was glad I’d managed to get a seat, even though it was one of the narrow, tiny ones by the door that flipped up to be flush with the wall, when a wheelchair or baby carriage needed the room.

I’d first noticed the person watching me because her face had a lot of freckles, and out of the corner of my eye, I’d thought she was someone else.  On closer look, though, I could see that her hair was jaw length and straighter, her facial structure was different, and she was wearing the clothes of a student athlete, with bare shoulders and arms, gym shorts, and a towel around her neck.

I might have dismissed her then, but she’d been looking at me, looking away when I glanced her way.  I found myself looking again a few moments later, because one look wasn’t enough to dismiss the unease I felt in response to a freckle-covered face looming in my peripheral vision, peering past the crowd.  The same thing happened the second time I looked at her.  I caught her staring, and she looked away.

There had been a time that I would have automatically assumed it was positive.  I was recognizable, I’d been a hometown celebrity in a town with a fair number of prominent people, and that had led to me getting recognized by at least one person each time I went out.  I’d reveled in it.

Now?  Traitorous instincts made that the second or even the third rank option in a list.  The first thought in my head on realizing I was being stared at was to go straight to the hospital room, to people staring at wretched me in a vain effort to try to comprehend what they were looking at.  They wondered how I even functioned, how I worked, tried to understand the configuration.  When I moved automatically, the movements caught the eye.

Even with the most polite and iron-willed of them, they struggled to find which eye or eyes they should look at to make and maintain eye contact, and in the search for that common, natural thing, they ended up staring at the rest of me.

At the rest of the wretch, the sideshow freak, the monster.

How had Byron put it, at the meeting with Foresight?  Tristan was nourished by the hardheaded struggle.  Byron was recharged by periods of rest.  It gave Tristan a natural advantage in their endless struggle over a single body.

I was closer to Byron in that.  I was recharged by attention, by adulation, encouragement, worship.  It was a natural progression of the fact that I’d been built to be a hero, because I could put on a costume and do great things and get that attention and encouragement.

Had I done things in a different way, it could have even been constructive and healthy.  But I’d been a stupid kid.  Arrogant.  A little worship was good.  I’d worshiped Dean.  He’d worshiped me.  On a level, I’d reached for the wrong things in places, prioritized certain things over others in how I handled the adulation and the public.  There were a lot of things I wished I’d done differently.

That wasn’t even the biggest part of why, much like Byron, I couldn’t go to my most natural ways of finding recharge.  Like how mental illness obscured the ability of the person in question to even see the problem at hand, my capacity to recover was distorted and damaged.  Tainted.

Tristan had remarked on it too, now that I thought about it.  Needing people.  He wanted to party, to abandon restraint.  I wanted… I supposed I wanted not to illogically, automatically, inevitably think of the wretched thing that had occupied that hospital room, anytime someone paid particular attention to me.

I wanted to not feel a deep sadness sinking in when I caught someone staring.

In the places my head went, the wretch loomed in first place, the hero celebrity in second.  The third place possibility was that this girl looking at me was something nefarious, and that the young, freckle-faced athlete was an agent of Tattletale or a hire from Cedar Point.  Not impossible, but not likely.

Then the fourth place possibility, that she thought I was attractive, not impossible.  The fifth place possibility that I had a piece of my breakfast stuck to my cheek or something in my hair.  The sixth place possibility, that she was staring off into space and I was somehow always in the way…

My thoughts were mired in something so minor, my heart ached indistinctly, and I was just making myself anxious and upset.

I checked my phone.  I could focus on the job.  The mission at hand.

You have 49 unread emails.

It was rare for me to have more than three.

Pinned Email: Houndstooth (2 hours ago)
[7 prior messages]
9:15am it is.  I’ll meet you guys at the station.

(Unread) Kenzie Martin (5 minutes ago)
oh I wanted to ask again is there any word on Rain?  you should be seeing Tristan soon and they are probably in contact

(Unread) Kenzie Martin (18 minutes ago)
thats not me trying to guilt you either

(Unread) Kenzie Martin (19 minutes ago)
it’s okay if you don’t answer

(Unread) Kenzie Martin (20 minutes ago)
but seriously who starts the day with math right?

(Unread) Kenzie Martin (20 minutes ago)
not that they give me detention anymore.

(Unread) Kenzie Martin (21 minutes ago)
I went to the bathroom to send that last stuff because we’re covering the angle stuff and oh m god is it so boring.  is worse because I’m not allowd to raise my hand more than a certain number of times now.  better to go to the bathroom n be productive than to fall asleep in class or get detention right?

(Unread) Kenzie Martin (24 minutes ago)
I’m super excited to do this

(Unread) Kenzie Martin (27 minutes ago)
I think I decided on the name Looksee.  it’s cute right?  It’s different enough from optics to work.

(Unread) Kenzie Martin (34 minutes ago)
[Attachment: costumedoodlewoo_2.i – Touch to open in a new window]

(Unread) Kenzie Martin (38 minutes ago)
I know I said I wouldn’t send you any more messages but I forgot I had these scans on my phone:
[Attachment: costumedoodlewoo_1.i – Touch to open in a new window]

[You have 39 more unread emails.  Touch to continue reading]

If they’d been texts I would have been alerted with each one, but I hadn’t, and they’d accumulated.  I was prepared to continue browsing, wrapping my head around reading through the emails in reverse order, but the train slowed, brakes squealing.

The signs above the exits changed.  Car 3: Blackrock Station.

Students departed, then more entered, but the end result was that things were far less crowded.  I got a look at the girl who was staring at me, and she glanced away, reflexively.

As people exited, seats here and there were freed up.  There was a bit of a shuffle as people hurried to claim seats.  A sixteen-ish year old boy claimed the vacated seat next to me.

In that same moment, though, Ashley moved between train cars, entering mine, spotted me, and approached. She wore sunglasses and the black dress she’d picked up at Cedar Point.  Strapless, with sheer black fabric enveloping the shoulders and arms, decorated with a lace-like pattern of feathers.  The sleeves disappeared into fingerless black gloves.  Her little black shoes looked like dancer’s shoes, which fit with the dress she wore.

I raised my hand in a little wave.

“I thought you’d be around,” she said, lifting her sunglasses.

“I messaged you when I boarded,” I said, touching my phone.  I saw her expression change.  “And you don’t like phones.”

The seat I was sitting in was positioned such that the backs of the actual booth seats were to me.  Ashley leaned against the back of one of the other seats, facing me, and the boy just beside me lifted his bag from his lap and used the room she’d given him to vacate the seat.

“Do you want my seat?” I asked him.

He glanced back, looked at me, looked at Ashley, then shook his head.  He nearly lost his balance as the train resumed moving.

Ashley took the seat, pulling it down from the side of the train and then sitting on it, crossing one knee over the other and placing her hands on top.  Posed, in a very deliberate, conscious way.  Even the angle of her head.

I looked past her to the freckled observer, who again looked away.  Was it my frame of mind, sitting with Ashley, that made it so the wretch wasn’t as close to the surface, the look not nearly as bothersome?

Or was I overthinking it?  Was it that I’d seen the look enough times and seen her reaction enough times that it didn’t feel so heavy, pressing, or potentially hostile?  Less about me and more about her, now.

“He’s sensible,” Ashley said.  “He’ll go far.”

She might have thought I was looking at the boy who’d run.

“Did you take off your sunglasses just to intimidate him into giving up his seat?” I asked.

She put her sunglasses back into place and gave me a small smile.

“You shouldn’t,” I said.

“Why not?  If there was a chance I’d see him again, maybe I shouldn’t, but I won’t.  The city is too big.”

“The little things ripple out.  If you make a positive or negative impression, people mention them to others, those people mention them or carry them forward.  You’re not just interacting with him.  You’re interacting with everyone he’s potentially going to interact with in the future.  To lesser degrees, sure, but I absolutely think it matters.”

“What’s he going to say?  I didn’t do anything, and he willingly gave up his seat.  Is he going to tell all of his friends and family that he saw a lady with scary eyes and he ran away like a stray with its tail between its legs?”

“I think it matters,” I said.

“I wanted to learn from you all.  I’ll have to take that sentiment and think on it-”

“Good,” I said.

“-because you’ve only given me sentiment.  Not one good argument yet.”

I turned my head her way, frowning.  She smiled a little more.

“Let’s say you entered the scene, you’ve gathered all your info, you have a nice costume, you’ve trained, you’re badass,” I said.

“Mm,” she made a sound.

“You have your first big job.  You make a splash, there’s some media attention, video, something like that.  It appears on TV briefly, but people talk online.  They’re the ones who create your online profile and fill in your info, they apply the labels, describe things, set the tone.  What if the guy you scared off ends up being one of them, and he ends up sitting at his keyboard, remembering you as he decides what to write?”

“I didn’t do a thing to him.”

“But did he leave with a good impression of you?”

She shrugged.

“What happens if this guy finds himself in that situation, ready to make a call about you or share his thoughts, and he describes his horrible encounter with you on the train, how you intimidated him and said odious things?”

“I said nothing.”

“And he’s a teenager, he’s a guy, you’re a girl, he’ll think about this scene again, he might be bothered, and he’ll want to resolve that feeling.  Maybe he lies and badmouths you online.”

Ashley looked like she was the very definition of unimpressed.

I shrugged.

“I hate the internet,” she said.  “Despise it.  When I become a villain, I’ll move out to a border world where the internet isn’t established and I’ll take over.  I’ll rule as a queen, without any need to concern myself with teenagers who could lie about me without fear of reprisal.”

“Sounds like a plan,” I said.  It was my turn to shoot her a small smile.

“Yes, yes,” she said.  She brought her head back, leaning it against the wall behind her.  “I’ve been brought low, relying on sentiment over fact.  How the tables have turned.”

“That wasn’t actually what I was thinking,” I said.

I didn’t get a chance to elaborate.  The girl with freckles approached.  She looked spooked, arms close to her body as she held a notebook, but the ‘spook’ was aimed more at me.

Too petite to be the person I’d worried I’d seen out of the corner of my eye, earlier.  Years younger – fourteen, if I had to guess.  Timid, yes, fidgety, that was similar, but in other ways, she held herself differently.  This girl dressed different, sporty and confident.

“Hi,” I said.

“Are you- you’re Victoria Dallon.”

“I am.”

“I’m a fan.  I’ve been a fan for years.”

“What’s your name?”

“Presley.”

“You know, Presley, I was just thinking about how I missed the days of living in Brockton Bay, when I’d get to make connections with people.  I missed that, and you might have just made my day.”

Her smile was tentative at first and then solidified into something more confident.

“I lived in Brockton Bay for a year when I was nine.  My family was going through stuff.  That doesn’t really matter but it’s why I was there, and I saw this picture of you and I loved it.  I didn’t even know you were a real person or what your name was until a month later.  I got a poster of the same picture for my birthday.”

“Which poster?”

“Oh, it had a yellow background, and you were flying, and you had your arms out and behind you, like-”

She took a bit of a pose, chest pushed up and out, arms back with fists clenched near her butt.  Well, one fist.  She held the notebook, still.

“I know the one,” I said.  “That was a magazine cover first, I think.”

“I have the magazine too.  And a bunch of other things.  Even after I moved to Portland I did everything I could to collect each thing that came out.  But the poster was important to me.”

“I’m really glad,” I said.

“It was one of the first things I put on my wall every time we settled into a new place.  Later, whenever I was feeling lost I’d look at it.  I got into sports because I read you were an athlete before you were a hero, except it’s soccer, not basketball, because I’m too short.”

She looked disappointed as she said it.

“You’re in the athletics block,” I said.  “They don’t let just anyone in.  I’d bet you’re better at soccer than I was at basketball.”

“No,” she said, with an expression like that was impossible to fathom, even upsetting, eyes wide.

It seemed she needed me as an idol more than she needed me as a connection or someone she could relate to.

“I got a lot of extra flack and attention from the enemy team because I came from a family of heroes and a lot of people knew my name,” I said.  “Maybe that was why.”

Presley nodded very quickly.  “There’s someone on my team who’s really good, she gets something like that.  I really look up to her too.”

“Are you going to keep hugging that notebook or are you going to hand it over for her to sign?” Ashley asked.

Presley looked startled at that, afraid.  She’d been working her way up to it, and the issue had been forced.

“Be nice,” I said.

“I’m being nice,” Ashley responded.  “The way this is going, this girl-”

“Her name is Presley,” I interjected.

“She’s going to finish telling you how awesome you are, she won’t work up the nerve, and she’ll kick herself for not getting the autograph.”

I rolled my eyes slightly and turned to Presley.  “Do you want me to?”

“Please,” she breathed the word more than she said it.

I took the notebook and I took the pen.  It had been a little while since I’d done this.

“When I looked at you in the poster I told myself that was everything I wanted to be, fearless and fair and strong and poised.  Every time I entered a new part of my life or moved to a new place, I looked at it in different ways.”

I wrote my message on the inside cover, listening while the pen scratched.

“When we had to evacuate because of Gold Morning, we had to leave everything behind.”

I looked up.  “I’m sorry.”

“But we went back, after everything calmed down.  We went back to the house and it was mostly intact, except for broken windows and water damage.  We could only bring what we could fit in the car, but I made sure to bring that.  I wanted it with me for whatever comes next.”

“I can only encourage and inspire, and I’m really glad if I’ve helped with that.  The strength, the fairness, the poise, though, that comes from you.  Everything you’ve triumphed over, surviving the bad days, getting to here, then doing well enough to be part of the athletics block,” I said.  I closed the book, the pen still between the pages.  I passed it to her, and put my hands over hers as she took the book.  I met her eyes.  “That’s you.  That’s your power.  Pretty much what I wrote, but I wanted to say it too.”

As I moved my hands away from hers, she smiled and hugged the book.

A moment later, she turned to Ashley.  She lowered her voice, “Do you have powers?”

Ashley nodded.

“Can you?” Presley held out the notebook.

“No,” Ashley replied.

“Okay, I’m sorry,” Presley said, too quickly, too defensive in how she pulled her book back, how she held it.  She looked at me.  “Thank you so much.”

“You’re very welcome,” I said.

But as I said it, Presley was already retreating, fleeing back to her spot by the doors, amid all the other students who were standing in the seatless area that would have bikes and prams in it at different stages of the journey.

I could have pressed, even taken issue with how Ashley had handled that.

Instead, I gathered my thoughts.  On a level, I did feel refreshed.  It had been a really nice moment, the minor issue at the end souring it slightly, but nice all the same.

I was having to get used to having the nice moments be routinely touched with those sour notes.

“I can’t hold a pen,” Ashley murmured.

I looked at her.

She moved her hands from where they rested on her knee.  She turned one over, moved a finger.  It trembled throughout the small movement.  “I’ll have my appointment after we talk to Houndstooth, get tuned up.  Until then, it hurts to move my hands and I don’t trust my power.  That’s why.”

“You could have explained.”

She gave me a look.

“You could have,” I said.

The look was maintained.  Even with the sunglasses she wore, the disdain was clear.  “Ripple effects, you said.  I wouldn’t be revealing it to her alone.  I’d be risking revealing it to everyone she meets from here on out.”

“The good things have a way of rippling out with more strength than the bad things do,” I said.

“So you say,” Ashley said, “while riding on a train through a city in the post-apocalypse.  Just one of many shattered, damaged worlds.”

“Cute.”

The train slowed.  Presley was at the door, joining the group that was ready to depart.

“I’d like to tell her,” I said, my voice quiet.  “Even if we called it an injury, so you weren’t revealing something vital.”

“You really care about this.”

“Yes,” I said.  “Don’t you?”

“I care,” she said.  “I don’t want to lie and look weak while you lie to look better.”

I tensed.

“You’re strong, yes,” she said, her voice barely audible.  She took off her sunglasses.  “Poised?  I think it’s an act.  An effective act, the kind that becomes reality after enough time.  But not enough time has passed.  Fair?  We’ll see.  But fearless?”

She made the smallest of scoffing sounds.  The train came to a stop.

I started to respond, but there was a hollow feeling in my mouth and throat, where the words were supposed to be.  I closed my mouth, then said, just as quiet, “She needs that lie.”

Ashley stared me down.

“Frankly,” I said, still quiet, angry now, “you come across worse and smaller as a person when you say no to something that costs you nothing than you do by admitting you’re disabled.”

“Temporarily disabled,” she said.  “You’re wrong.  I can’t think of anything worse than groveling before a child and telling her I’m weak when I’m the very opposite.  I could kill everyone on this train if it came down to it.  One after the other.  By the time I made my way to the next train car, they would be ready for me, and it wouldn’t matter.”

I tensed as heads turned.  They weren’t responding to the words.  Only the emotion behind them.

Had I just provoked her into another rage on a relatively crowded train?

Would my next words?  Would my silence?  Would leaving?  Staying?

“She doesn’t know that it’s only temporary,” I said.  “She just thinks there’s something wrong.  With you or with her.”

“Let her,” Ashley said.  “Do what you want, but don’t make me regret telling you anything.”

I looked over to the side.  The people had departed the train, Presley included, and the ones boarding had mostly filed in.

“It’s too late anyway,” Ashley said.  “Another face we’ll never see again, that probably won’t make any ripples.”

I stood from my seat.  “I’ll be back.”

“Whatever.”

Glancing back, making sure she wasn’t about to go on a rampage as she had threatened, I ducked and pushed past the crowd, hurrying to the door.  Tristan touched my shoulder as I passed him.

“I’ll be right back.  Can you watch my bag?” I said, turning to face him and walking backward as I said it.  I pointed in Ashley’s direction and mouthed ‘and Ashley’.

He gave me a short nod.

The doors closed behind me as I stepped onto the train platform.  I took to the air.

Why was this so important to me?

With a bird’s eye view, I could search the crowd, looking for the right hair color, the right height, the clothes, freckle-covered shoulders, chin-length hair.

Was this ego?

Was I just seeking out perverse, self-centered worship, after going without so long?  Tantalus finally getting a drink of water after centuries without?  A parasitic, sad wretch of a vampire like in those bad Maggie Holt movies, finally with a willing victim?

I’d found her and I hesitated.

But the train was getting away from me.  I had to act.

Instinct, rather than action.  I wasn’t thinking things through.  I wasn’t acting according to the mission I’d planned and set out, was I?

I landed, forward momentum becoming a brisk walk, then a slower one.  I saw the surprise on her face.  People nearby were startled.

“Sorry,” I said.  “I’m in a rush.  I don’t suppose I could get your email?”

She looked around, possibly looking for Ashley, or at the crowd.

She still held her notebook, and she opened it, scribbling something down.  She tore off the corner of the page, then handed it to me.

“I’ll send you something,” I said.

She nodded, wordless.

I left the ground much as I’d landed.  The train was already pulling away.  I flew after it.

Had I made a mistake, leaving Ashley, when she was riled up?  I had no idea how well she and Tristan got along.  Were my perspectives straight?

It wasn’t even nine o’clock in the morning, and I was mired in a week’s worth of doubts and second-guesses.  That wasn’t me.  It wasn’t supposed to be.

I checked my phone as I flew.

You have 52 unread emails.

I’d had thirty nine or forty, after browsing the initial selection.

I was here for a reason.  Kenzie was one.  Ashley another.  Tristan, Chris, even Sveta… and Rain in particular.  Rain who was taking a day off from everything.

They needed help.  That was the job, the mission.  Given to me by someone I cared about, involving another someone I cared about and the team and place in the world she so desperately wanted.

I could do that.  But I didn’t want to do it at the expense of people like Presley.

The feelings and the ideas took on a different light when I framed things that way.

It played into how I carried myself, after I touched down on the back of the train, on the same kind of little platform at the rear that Rain had used to jump off.

It played into how I walked, how I organized my thoughts.

I could remember going home after my first official arrest.  Bad guy beaten, caught, delivered to authorities.  Everything official, with my mom attending.  I’d walked in the door, and my mother had told my dad that I’d had two firsts.  My first arrest, my first war wound- a cut to my forehead, already stitched up.  She’d used her fingers to move my hair, to show my dad.

He’d looked very tired as he bent down, kissed the top of my head.

He’d offered me cookies and milk and I’d rolled my eyes, even though I’d really wanted the cookies.

I wasn’t sure at all about why or if the cookies played into things, but I did remember how I’d stood straighter, how I’d felt taller, more focused.

That was the feeling I wanted to capture, as I walked down the train car, entered the next, walked down that train car, and then entered the car I’d been in before going after my fan.

Tristan was in my seat, talking to Ashley.  Ashley was tense.  She didn’t look as if she’d calmed down in my absence.

Tristan wore a black jacket over a red t-shirt in a material that looked like it was meant to have sweat wick off of it.  He’d painted his hair again and the color reached to the roots.

He moved over from the seat as I approached, leaving the one between him and Ashley empty.  Ashley didn’t move, her eyes hidden by the sunglasses she wore.  A thin beam of light swept through the length of the train car.  Not as pronounced an effect as it had been earlier, with the train slightly lower to the ground, the train at a different angle.

“I’ve come to believe you’re more deluded than the rest of us,” Ashley said, as I took the seat.  “Thinking any of that matters.”

“Maybe,” I said.  I fiddled with my phone, typing in the email.

“Did you tell her?” she asked.

“No,” I said.  “I got her email, and I flew after the train.  Hi Tristan.”

“From what I gather, you have a fan, and you and Ashley had a disagreement,” Tristan said.

“Yeah,” I said, still typing.  “Any word on Rain?”

“Scared as shit but safe.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Is he going to be okay?”

“No idea.  But if they go after him, we’re not in a position to do anything.  I’d like to ask Houndstooth for advice, see what resources we can tap.”

I nodded.

I paged through the phone, the email entered, and found myself at the home screen for the mail.

You have 55 unread emails.

I checked nobody was in earshot.  There were people in the chairs just beside Tristan’s seat, but they had headphones on.  I figured we were pretty safe.

“Kenzie might be melting down,” I said.  “Or something.  I don’t know how to interpret this.”

I showed Ashley.  I went to show Tristan, and he was already pulling his phone out of his pocket.

He showed me his.

26 unread emails

“She likes you more,” he said.

“I told her I don’t use my phone.  She was bothered at first, but she accepted it,” Ashley said.  “Now I’m glad.”

“What is this?” I asked.  “There’s a part of me that’s weirdly glad for the stream-of-consciousness insight into who she is and how she thinks, even if this isn’t good, but… this isn’t good.  It’s not healthy.”

“It isn’t,” Tristan said.  “But it could be worse.  If anything, it’s a good prelude or warm-up for our discussion with Houndstooth.  We’ll talk with him, we’ll send Kenzie a message, if she hasn’t had her phone confiscated, and we’ll see how things go from there.”

“If you’re sure.”

“I’m not sure of anything,” he said.  “But we all have our weaknesses, and Kenzie’s wrestling with hers.  We’ll figure it out.”

I nodded.  I took my seat between the two.  “Can I ask you two a favor?”

“What favor?” Tristan asked.

“Why not?” Ashley asked.  “I made the mistake of going along with an errand with the two most stubborn people I know.  I deserve whatever I’m subjected to.”

“Could be we’re the two most stubborn members of the group,” I said.  I found myself reaching for that part of me that stood taller, that focused on the mission and the role.  “But we’re the three most style-conscious people in this whole exercise.  We might be missing Kenzie in that.  Three of the four most style conscious.”

“I wouldn’t say Kenzie’s style-conscious,” Tristan said.  “But that’s a conversation for another day.  What’s this about style?”

“I want to take a picture.  Lean in close,” I said.  “Please.”

Ashley gave me a look.

“Please,” I said.  “And since you don’t have masks, you can use my hand, Ashley.  Tristan, cover up a bit with your hand.  Look photogenic.”

“I’ve only had my photo taken twice,” Ashley said.  “They were basically mugshots.”

“Did you look good for the mugshots?”

“Of course.”

“Then look good for this.  Come on.  This could be your equivalent to a poster.  She thought you were cool enough to ask for an autograph, let’s give her a good picture.”

“Okay,” Ashley said.

The two leaned in close, my hand in front of Ashley’s eyes, fingers parted in the middle to reveal one of her eyes.  Tristan used one hand, positioning himself so his hair wouldn’t be in the camera’s frame.

I winked and hit the button to take the picture.

“None of this matters,” Ashley said.

I applied a caption to the picture.

Thanks for coming and saying hi.  Picture just for you– keep an eye out for us in the future.

I showed the others the picture and caption.  I got an okay from both, and sent it.

I held the phone where everyone could see it.  With the first excited response, half of Ashley’s tension seemed to dissipate.  With the second and third, she smiled.

Doing this, helping, functioning in my role, I felt less like a vampire.  Less like I was serving myself, because the feelings were set aside to where they were secondary.

It felt like a good warrior monk frame of mind for my discussion with Houndstooth.

We had to walk a little ways to get to where Houndstooth waited.  He was in costume, and his appearance at the station would have risked a disruption.

All through the short walk across Greenwich, there were signs of the protests and strikes.  Crude posters had been put up, with slogans and rallies to the cause.

It was too early in the day for a real protest, though.  Just groups on street corners, some scattered people making a mess and some cleaning up.  Stasis.

Houndstooth waited on a hill overlooking the city sprawl.  He looked as he had in Kenzie’s projected image.  Anubis writ Western, with a shorter, blunter snout and a costume of mixed panels that straddled the line between being a bodysuit and being armor.

“Thank you for making the time,” Tristan said.  He shook Houndstooth’s hand.

“It was my request,” Houndstooth said.

“Hi,” I said, as he shook my hand.

“Thank you for coming, Victoria.”

He turned to Ashley.  She stood with her hands clasped behind her.

“It’s nice to meet you,” she said.

“It’s nice to meet you as well,” he said, taking the lack of a handshake in stride.

The conversation hung there.

“This is hard,” he said.

“We appreciate you helping out with Cedar Point,” Tristan said.

“We can open by talking about that,” Houndstooth said.  “You’ve visited?”

“Yes,” I said.  “Two of us.  One of us more covert.”

His snout moved more in Ashley’s direction, then he nodded.  “How bad is it, once you’re there?”

I answered, “Protection racket in full swing.  Villains moved in en masse.  People moved away when they could.  Those that couldn’t are paralyzed now, helping to maintain the very thin veneer of normalcy while paying what little they can to the villains in control.  Prancer and Velvet are some of the most prominent drug distributors right now and they’re in charge, so it’s likely serving as a hub for that.”

“Some very violent capes are active there,” Tristan said.  “A few of them we have a tenuous relationship with seem to be gathering soldiers with an intent to go to war.  It looks like that might include us, but we don’t know one hundred percent what they’re up to.”

“As expected, then,” Houndstooth said.

Ashley said, “They have rooms to rent, but they cornered that market.  They’re welcoming newcomers, but only capes, only ones who will help them out.  The businesses are struggling or closed, and nobody outside of Cedar Point is moronic enough to buy in.  Cancer at the roots, the tree will die.”

Houndstooth said, “I remember back on Bet, we had a system we used for the areas where the good guys couldn’t win, or where things were too bad to recover.  It was mostly small towns.  Evacuating, shutting off all power and water from the outside, closing down and blockading the roads, making living there as difficult as possible, perimeter blockades, regular raids, visits from big name capes.  There was serious consideration given to giving Brockton Bay that H.O.S.V. designation.”

I had to assume his attention was on me as he said that last bit.

“They said no in the end,” I said.

“What’s your feeling on that?”

“I think I would have made peace with it if they’d said yes,” I said.  “It wouldn’t be what it is now.”

“It’s a pretty mixed thing right now.”

“It is,” I said.  “I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer.  As it is, it has its positives, it’s meant a lot to some people that it recovered as much as it did, it was a huge part of us rebuilding after the end.  But I’m not at peace with it either.”

“What happens to Cedar Point in the end, then?”

“We weaken their hold, we leave room for more established parties to settle in and act as a counterbalance, instead of things all going the wrong way.  You mentioned Brockton Bay.  We saw what happened when the scale tipped too far one way.  Too many heroes out of the picture, myself included, not enough coming in.”

“If we uncover anything particularly bad, and we might have already found something bad, we’ll strike at them as we make our big play,” Ashley said.

Tristan and I looked at her.

She added, “With the help of other groups and forces.”

“We can be one of those other forces,” Houndstooth said.  “Kings of the Hill aren’t big or strong, but we’ve got our territory and we’re helping to keep the peace.  In exchange, we could use help when it comes to tackling some of the other problems.  Ideally, it would be you three.  Not…”

“Kenzie?” Tristan asked.

“I’d prefer to say kids,” Houndstooth said.

“You’re going to have to get around to talking about her,” Ashley said.  “You can’t dodge the subject forever.  I’ll get irritated and walk away if you try.”

He folded his arms, walking over a little.  The hill had several trees on it, and his armor panels glinted here and there as dappled light touched it.

“You said this was hard,” I said.

“Did she touch any of you before you came here?” Houndstooth asked.

“She went to school this morning.  We came here,” Tristan said.

“I suspected that would be the way it went.  It’s why I wanted to meet when she was in school.  Minimizes the chances.”

“Why does it matter?” I asked.  “We’re bugged?”

“Trackers, cameras, microphones, or-” he paused, and his mask meant that if he was making an expression or trying to convey something with the pause, it was more or less lost.  “-Sound cameras.”

“She’s a lot better than she was when you knew her,” Tristan said.

“That’s great,” Houndstooth said.  “I really do want things to work out for her.  It’s just hard.  I need to protect myself, my old teammates.  I want to protect you.  I want people in general to be safe.  All that aside, again, I do want positive outcomes for her.”

“But?” I asked.

“But the Kenzie I know didn’t allow for that,” Houndstooth said.  “So I had to prepare for this meeting, trying to figure out what to say and how to frame things while not hurting anyone.”

“She’s been in therapy for a little while,” Tristan said.  “She’s improved by leaps and bounds from even the first time I met her.  I really want to reinforce that.”

“I hear you,” Houndstooth said.  “I’m just worried you’re not going to listen, and if that’s the case, then it’s a bad replay of me, our Protectorate leader and our PRT liaison talking to her school.  It’s a replay of us having a meeting with her new foster parents.  It’s a repeat of us talking to the parents of a new friend she’s made.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“We explained, they heard us, but they didn’t listen.  They didn’t take it to heart, because she is- was nine.  She’s cute, she’s precocious, and she has a really skewed skillset where she’s really good at getting close to people and she’s really, tragically bad at staying there.  Messes follow.”

“She’s moving in a more measured way as she relates to the people around her now,” Tristan said.  “She’s more easygoing.  And so far, staying close?  She’s doing okay.  Fingers crossed.”

Houndstooth’s hand moved, thumb tapping against the side of his finger, and it looked like he was going to say something.

“Capricorn, was it?”

“Or Tristan.”

“Tristan.  I hear you.  I’m listening.  She’s in therapy, she’s better.  She’s made strides.  If you had to give her a number, how much better is she?  Throw a number at me.  Eighty percent?”

“Ninety five,” Tristan said.

“Ninety,” Ashley said.

“Okay,” Houndstooth said.  “Five or ten percent of what I saw?  Still pretty fucking bad.  I’d like to give you some advice and double check some things.  As the person who’s been there and crossed his fingers before.”

“That’s not fair, you’re-” Tristan said.

“Tristan,” I said, cutting him off.

I was focused on Houndstooth.  I was pretty sure I’d beaten him by a hair in responding.

“I asked you to have this chat as my side of our mutual agreement,” Houndstooth said.  “I’m asking you to let me convey this to you.  A lot of it is pretty mild.  Give me a chance to say my piece, and you decide what to do with the knowledge.”

I glanced at Tristan.

“I’ll shut up,” he said.  “Sorry.”

“I’m here to listen,” Ashley said.  “Then I’ll say my piece.”

She had a piece to say?  I hadn’t known this when she’d invited herself along as one of the group’s ‘leaders’.

“Please,” I said, to Houndstooth.

“I’ll give you some of the same advice my bosses gave to us and the people who interacted with Kenzie.  Minimize the homework she does.  That includes work-homework.  Cape homework, if you want to call it that.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because she’s so eager to please she’ll hurt herself in the process.  She had an art project in fourth grade, it was supposed to be done over the course of a month, following the instructions from regular handouts the teacher gave.  Eight or ten handouts, I think it was.  She asked kids a grade older than her what they’d done for the same project, and she pulled two consecutive all-nighters to do it.  Her foster parents didn’t even realize she was doing it, because it turns out a surveillance-countersurveillance tinker is really good at sneaking out to the garage and being quiet.”

“Surveillance-countersurveillance,” I said.

“She went that far because she wanted to wow her teacher and see the expressions on their face,” Houndstooth said.

“It wasn’t good,” Tristan said.  “Their reactions.”

“Shocked, almost horrified,” Houndstooth said.  “And Kenzie was devastated to the point of being broken when it didn’t get the reaction she wanted it to.  She was so stressed out over it in the days after that that she threw up in class, which- it didn’t win points with her classmates, and it led to her being transferred to another class.  Devastating on both fronts, because she had classmates she liked and she loved her teacher.”

“How do you get ahead of that?” I asked.  “What do you do to balance it?”

“Treat it like a full-time job?” Houndstooth asked.  “Preventative measures, like the ones I’m recommending.  She’ll go the extra mile unless you set up a roadblock to disallow that progress.  So you have to stay ahead of that.  She’s a headache in that.”

“She mentioned she has a slip for study hall that gets her out of homework.  It sounds like they’re letting her use it,” I said.

“Great.  I’m glad that’s there.  It goes beyond just school.  She’s working on this job of yours at Cedar Point?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“What limits did you set on that?  On her schedule?”

“She needs to do her schoolwork, she doesn’t let it impact her grades or attendance.  Standard rules of conduct for Wards, carried forward.”

“That’s one step, but it’s not enough.  She’s ninety-five percent better?  That five percent says she’s losing sleep, sitting in her bedroom or bunk in the dark, checking cameras and feeds or searching old footage.  She’ll work herself to the bone trying to uncover that gem that she can turn in to earn your affection.”

I looked at Tristan, then Ashley.

I looked at Houndstooth.  “You think this is likely?  Even with her doing better?”

“I would bet you real money.  And I’d be thrilled to, because my team is in a bad spot for funding, and it’d help.”

“Fuck,” Tristan said.  “We can narrow the window, set time restrictions.”

“Or we have her keep the majority of the tinker stuff at our place,” I said.

“Do both,” Houndstooth said.  “She’ll be working on other projects, possibly surprise projects, very similar to her art project in intent and execution.”

“She’s working on some side projects,” I said.  “The eye camera.  A teleporter.”

“You do realize she doesn’t build teleporters, right?” Houndstooth asked.

“She doesn’t lie,” Ashley said, stern.  “Don’t imply she does.”

“I wasn’t implying,” Houndstooth said.  His voice softened, “I framed that wrong.  I think she can build Teleporters.  But she doesn’t.  For the same reason she doesn’t build guns, mechs, A.I., chemicals, bio-stuff.  She can do that stuff, but she’ll make half a percent of progress in the time it takes her to complete a whole project in her skillset.  She’ll spend hundreds of dollars in materials to get that half a percent.”

“And the way you describe this-” I started.  “She’ll actually, genuinely try to complete the teleporter project, even at a glacial pace, at a massive cost to her well-being?”

“Exactly,” Houndstooth said.  “At least as far as I understand it.  She’ll try to finish the project, she’ll believe it and make others believe she can do it, but I’d bet she’d self-destruct before getting a fifth of the way.”

“For all this talk of self-destruction and sacrificing health and sleep, she seems to be doing okay,” I said.  “Freaked out after her call with you, weirdness, but… nothing that can’t be handled, I don’t think.”

“After the art project thing?  When she threw up in class?  Didn’t cry before, didn’t cry after.  Not that we saw.  I saw her cry once, and we were all crying then.  Somewhere along the line, she learned that being troubled means people pulling away or pushing her away.”

“She’s gotten better at showing it,” Ashley said.  “The bag.  That was positive.”

“That’s really, really good, then.  Because before?  It took the world ending to crack her.  Outside of that, you’d have a nine- she’s eleven now?”

“Yeah,” Tristan said.  “Thereabouts.”

“You’d have an eleven year old, then, who’s internalizing so much that she loses hair in patches or makes herself sick.  She didn’t ever cry, she didn’t signal how upset she was.  Even if she’s doing better, you have to pay attention.”

“For ten percent of what you dealt with?” I asked.

“Victoria,” Houndstooth said.  “The school stuff, the Wards stuff was structured.  There was natural pushback when she stepped over lines.  Punishments, rules for the classroom, rules for the Wards, oversight, teams of people having hours-long meetings about her.  The art project, moving classes, her being bullied because of her behavior and her visceral reactions to that, the bullying in school, all of that was the easy stuff.”

“Can I ask about the hard stuff?”

“You can ask, but I don’t know if I can summarize it.  We had a nine year old girl with no stopping points when it came to anything social.  No brakes, a practically nonexistent sense of boundaries, and zero emotional defenses.”

“An acquaintance of ours described her as a bull in a china shop with a profound love for dishware,” Tristan said.

“Don’t joke,” Ashley said.

“It’s pretty apt,” Houndstooth said.  “And I don’t think anyone’s laughing.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“One of her classmates’ families moved away, in large part because of her.    One or two other families were seriously considering it.  At least one of her teachers from the training camps was being investigated with a job and career on the line.  Most people who were involved knew what the reality of Kenzie was, but procedures had to be followed, and when you have someone as vulnerable as she is, you can’t ever be one hundred percent sure.  We had a similar thing with our Wards team leader, early on, but we were more proactive in anticipating it, and they were allegations of a different tint.  I wish I could convey the trail of destruction.”

“No,” Ashley said.

“No?” Houndstooth asked.

“She’s not a bull in a china shop.  She’s not a headache, she’s not a bringer of destruction, a tinker, or Ward, a nine year old, or an eleven year old.  You keep reducing her down, you make her small, and you make the problem big.”

“The problems were big,” Houndstooth said.  “The problems threatened to end several careers, derailed others, and uprooted a family from their lives and hometown.  She likes and falls in love with everyone and it’s only because of us being attentive that she didn’t actively let herself be the prey of a villain group or dangerous lunatic in some desperate hope of finding a connection with them.”

“She’s not prey either,” Ashley said, more heated.  “She’s Kenzie Martin.  She’s a person.  You may have only seen her cry once but I’ve seen her cry more times than I can count.”

“Really?” Tristan asked.  “When?”

“During the meetings.  After.  During private conversations.”

“Crying is good,” Houndstooth said.  “It’s a step forward.  It’s very possible she’s made a lot of steps forward.   It’s clear you guys care about her and believe in her.  But I’ve met and interacted with Kenzie Martin, and I have a really hard time envisioning a Kenzie that’s fixed.”

“Like she’s a broken machine,” Ashley said.

“I don’t want to say better because better can mean partway.  What I’m saying is that I can’t see a Kenzie that was that badly off, who’s… normal now.  Or ever.”

“I hate that word,” Ashley said.

“I don’t think there are any good words for something that hard to encapsulate,” Houndstooth said.

“What do you advise?” I asked.  “About the non-school, non-Ward stuff?”

“Pay attention when she talks about new friends or people in particular, get ahead of that, introduce yourself, keep a close eye on things.  Talk to her teachers.  Talk to her foster parents, or the people at whatever institution she’s at.  They’re probably pretty overloaded, but make them pay attention.  Get everyone on the same page.  Same rules for everyone, boundaries, sticking to those boundaries, limit physical contact and gestures of affection unless okayed by the therapist.”

My eyebrows drew together.  I glanced at Tristan, and he gestured, hand moving as if to dismiss, urging me to move on.  I was pretty sure Houndstooth saw it too.

He didn’t speak up or act on it, though.

I made a mental note about the emphasis on foster parents.  I’d need to have a conversation with others and pay more attention to Julien and his wife.

“Frankly, I’d really lock down the school thing.  See if you can have her rotate classes or do something non-classroom.  Discourage friendships with classmates, because that’s not going to go well.  If she starts showing true romantic interest in anyone, shut it down hard.  I wouldn’t advise her being on your team, frankly.”

“That’s extreme,” I said.

“It’s dehumanizing and disgusting,” Ashley said.  “Until she’s better, no human contact or relationships.  Nobody can get close to her, nobody can show kindness, nobody can help her or accept help from her?  Just a breath or two away from you saying you don’t ever think she’ll be normal.  You’re disgusting.”

She was starting to walk away, toward the path that had led us up the hill.

“Ashley,” I said.  “I get what you’re saying, but we did agree to hear him out as a favor.”

“You hear him out then,” she said.  “Tell me what you think I need to hear when you tell the others.  But I’m not going to stay here and listen to this degenerate imbecile reduce her to a problem that can be solved like that.  She’s human.”

“Can I tell an anecdote?”

“Could I stop you without killing you?” Ashley asked.

“Can you wait for us at the station, Ashley?” Tristan asked.

She stalked off, and we were left with Houndstooth.

Houndstooth looked toward me and Tristan.  “There was a time, about a year back, where I was talking to a teammate.  He said a food addiction was the only addiction that you couldn’t go cold turkey on.  You can’t not eat, and that’s hard, when the addiction makes dealing with food in moderation next to impossible.  Immediately, I thought of Kenzie.  I thought, within a second or two of him saying that, he was wrong, there was another addiction like that.  You say she’s human, but she’s a people addict.  She’s addicted to humans.  You can’t expect a young girl to not interact with people, and you can’t expect her to deal with people in moderation.”

“And you think the way to solve that is to… minimize that interaction to the barest bones?” I asked.

“Over months and years, gradually loosen that belt.  If the therapist okays it.”

I sighed.

“She’s doing exceptionally well,” Tristan said.

“You could hold a gun to my head, and I wouldn’t say she lacked a work ethic,” Houndstooth said.  “She’s brilliant for her age, she’s good-hearted in her way, and she doesn’t deserve a thousandth of what she’s gone through.  It’s heartbreaking and worrying.”

Kenzie had named Houndstooth’s team as her second big heartbreak.

“Fuck the agents.”

“Powers and agents don’t even really play into this,” Houndstooth said. “If you took away her powers and the influence of her agent today, I’d give you all the same warnings tomorrow.”

We let ourselves into the headquarters.

Sveta was on her way.  Chris was taking the day off for more Indulgence, not Wan, and that last part was supposed to be important.

Rain’s absence in particular was very much felt, now that his situation had been painted in stark relief.  Everyone was a little bit worried, now.

Ashley had her appointment.  Tristan had to give Byron his turn.

Kenzie sat in her chair at the table-turned desk, the projector showing the camera’s image of Cedar Point.

“Did you skip class to get here as quick as you did?” I asked.

“No,” Kenzie said, not turning around.  “I went to class, I stopped in at study hall at the start of lunch and asked if I could go early.  They said okay.  You can call if you need to check.”

“I don’t need to check,” I said.  “You’re honest.”

“Sorry for all the emails.  Sveta yelled at me.  Well, she didn’t yell, but she came close.  I sent her almost as many as I sent you.”

“Did you eat lunch?”

“It’s in my bag, in case I get hungry.”

“Too nervous?” I asked.

She turned around in her computer chair and smiled.  “Yeah.”

“Houndstooth wanted to make sure you were okay first.  Making sure you weren’t getting too much homework,” I said.  “He had some tips about how we should make sure you aren’t tinkering yourself to the bone after hours.”

“It helps sometimes.  Distracting myself with it.”

“We should figure out a balance.  He was suspicious you were staying up late, watching and rewatching camera feeds.”

“When I can’t sleep it’s nice to be able to watch that stuff with my laptop beside me in the dark room.  I doze off.”

I nodded.

“Did he say the embarrassing stuff?”

“I don’t know what qualifies as embarrassing,” I said.  “Problems with teachers, school.  Tristan and Ashley defended you pretty fiercely.”

“And you?”

“I just want to figure out what needs to be figured out,” I said.  “So everyone’s happy and healthy, and the team stays together and positive overall.  I shared some of the good stuff I know of.”

“Did he mention the old lady?”

“I’m not sure.”

“She was on the internet and she wanted a replacement for her dead daughter and I almost went with her, and then later we started thinking she killed her daughter.  Embarrassing.”

“That did come up.”

“And how I fell asleep watching TV on my friend’s couch?”

“That didn’t, I don’t think.”

“Super embarrassing,” she said.  “And my foster parents?”

“Very briefly.”

She nodded.  She smiled.  “Thanks for telling me.”

I put my hand on the back of her chair and spun her in circles, my arm passing over her head on each rotation.  “Sveta’s on her way.  I think the others are mostly getting sorted out.  With Rain hiding out, they’re resting up and getting prepped.  Did you get the email?”

“I had my phone taken away.  I’m supposed to go to the principal’s office with my mom or dad tomorrow if I want it back.”

“I suspected it was something like that,” I said.  I smiled.  “Less emails, and no using your phone in school unless it’s an emergency.  Houndstooth is going to make a move late this afternoon.”

Kenzie put her hand out and stopped herself from spinning.

“How’s that?” I asked.

“He doesn’t want to see me or say hi?”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“He probably had a good excuse.  He’s good at those.  It took me a while to figure out.”

“He doesn’t want to tip off the villains about his relationship to us.”

“It makes sense,” Kenzie said.

“Do you want help with homework while we wait?  And you can eat your lunch?” I asked.  “If that nervousness has eased up.”

“I’ll eat,” she said.  “Help with homework would be a good way to kill the time, too.”

“Perfect,” I said.

I stepped away to look at the whiteboards while Kenzie got ready.

Her voice small and quiet, I heard Kenzie remark, “At least I get to see him on camera.”

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Shade – Interlude 4a

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It’s his turn tonight.

They ran, they pushed forward.  A crush of people.

Smoke billowed, and it smelled like burning rubber.  For all the chaos, the noises seemed muted, dulled in how the individual elements mixed, the bodies absorbing the sound.  Shouts here and there cut through the cries, the noise of people, the sound of something falling down, but people further ahead in the crowd were actively grabbing others and shoving them to the side, dragging them out of the way.

Even with the high ceiling, the haze of smoke made the exit sign above the door hard to see.  The point of view blurred, blacked out for an instant as the person blinked.

“Lancaster fire-”  the point of view said, more to himself.  His voice soon rose to a bellow.  “Don’t- don’t stampede!  Don’t shove!  We’ll get crammed at the exit!”

The smoke got to him, and he coughed, hard.

He tried to slow, as if he could influence the crowd.  The force of people behind him pushed him forward, as heavy as he was.  He was a big guy.  Big around the middle, more.  Only a bit taller than average.  It was enough that he could almost see over the heads of the crowd.

He saw a young girl fall, and very nearly tripped over her.  To do so might have killed them both.  He fell to his knees beside her, grabbing at the edge of a sign on the wall to brace himself, one arm around the girl.  He became a barrier, battered by those behind him.  Feet scraped at his back, trying to climb over him.

He watched as the people pushed further down.  He knew what was happening as it happened.  That the press of bodies was keeping people from being able to get the door open, that by the time people realized there was no way forward, the people behind them would keep them from retreating.  There would only be the inexorable, forward pressure.

Straining, every movement made harder by people leaning against him or pushing past him, nearly being knocked over to crush the girl in front of him on three occasions, he rose to his feet.  For what seemed like a minute, it was all he could do to hold his position.

He looked back, and there was only smoke, people pushing toward the exit.  He looked toward the exit sign, and there was only the press, people crammed together until they were chest-to-back, shoulder-to-shoulder.

He looked around, at the trash cans, at the signs that were built into the wall, frames sticking an inch or two out, locked plexiglass doors protecting the contents from vandalism.  He looked up, and he saw the windows and the glass ceiling above the corridor that led out of the mall.  There were high windows that let the light in, and there were latches on those windows.

He reached down, and the young girl shied away.

“Up!” he said.  He seized her arm, and as he leaned down, someone bumped into him.  He nearly fell on her.  Only his grip on the side of one of the sign-frames kept him from falling.

He drove an elbow back, striking at the person who had pushed him.  With more energy, desperation, he reached down to seize the girl’s arm, lifted her bodily into the air, and shifted his grip, grabbing her body to lift her.

“Grab on and climb!” he called out.  “Get to the window!”

She tried.  Sneakers slid against the plexiglass.  Fingers gripped the ledge, and even with him boosting her, she couldn’t get up.  She wasn’t even looking at what she was doing, as she turned her face down and away from the thicker smoke.

Further down the hallway, a group of people fell like dominoes.  For those who wanted to get away, get to the exit, people who couldn’t necessarily see past the smoke or the people immediately in front of them, it was an opening, a way to get forward.  The mob moved forward.  A woman screamed, a multi-note sound.

Seizing the opportunity, only seeing the gap, people pushed past him, bumped into him.  He was holding the girl as he stumbled, and he dropped her.  He doubled over, coughing, trying to keep from getting dragged forward.  He was a big guy and the movement of the crowd was such that his feet left the ground at points, when people pressed closer.

The girl, too, coughed.  She looked at him, wide-eyed, until the smoke forced her to close her eyes, and then she ran for the exit, slipping from his reaching fingers, dodging into a gap of bodies, toward the press, where people were barely able to move.  People were panicking in places, voices reaching high pitches.

“No!” he bellowed at the girl.  His voice was lost in the chaos.

She nearly fell to the ground amid trampling feet as someone stumbled into her.  Then she was gone.

He looked up at the sign, and he reached, digging fingers in where the sign and the wall were.  He stepped on someone, tried to climb toward the window, eye on the latch, darting over to look at the smoke behind him, then up to where the smoke was thick near the ceiling.  The plexiglass front of the sign was a hinge, so it could be opened, and he dug his finger into that gap for the leverage it could afford.

The climb would have been hard on its own, but he was jostled.  His hand slipped, and both his fingernail and the tip of his finger tore off as his hand came away from the hinge.  A thin streak of blood was drawn on the plexiglass.

Someone slid between him and the wall, and he was no longer able to hold himself up.  He landed on the ground, and people walked over him.  His efforts to stand were defeated  by the feet trampling him.  He couldn’t stop coughing, and his vision distorted from the effort.

Behind them, the fire and smoke were getting worse.

He looked up, vision warped to the point that up and down and left and right were no longer clear, he looked at the walls that stretched skyward, the glass ceiling high above, the bodies pressed around him and over him.  The view blurred with the tears in his eyes, growing dark as the people closed in above him.

The image distorted, going black, and he saw stars, flying past him, as if he was being buoyed elsewhere.

A scene faded, unremembered.  Points of light became light.  Darkness became shadows in a large, dark room.

There was no skylight, no corridor, no crowd or mall.  In the center of the room was a spike of twisted metal and glass topped by what looked like a sundial without a marker.  Light shone through the glass as if it was coming through the other side, but no source could be seen.  The different tints of the red-blue-purple light divided the room into four sections, with a fifth left dark.  Each section was littered with debris of different sorts.

Without even needing to look to check the position, Rain reached down for the chair.  Always in the same place, the same position.  The floor in his section was dilapidated.  Uneven floorboards with spaces between them.  There were scattered books, tools that looked like they hadn’t been touched in a while, and some assorted branches and dry pine needles, as if it was a space that had been exposed to the elements.  He put the chair down on the ground.

“I don’t suppose you guys are willing to talk?” he asked.  Again, he didn’t even need to look or check the position of the others.  He knew where they would be.

There was no reply.

The memory had been Snag’s, and Snag was the first to really move.  Snag wasn’t as big as he had once been.  Still tall, but he had lost a lot of weight.  The beard he’d had before was longer now, shaggier.  So was his hair.  There were streaks of paler hair at the corners of his mouth.  The hood of a sweatshirt and the lack of clear lighting masked much of the man’s face, so only the beard was visible.  Snag’s area was a store without things.  Empty display cabinets, cracked glass, metal shelves, a lacquered floor, and more diffuse light than the other spaces.

Snag reached the table, and slammed one hand down on the surface.  He gripped the edges, hunched over.

Someone else spoke, quiet enough he was almost inaudible.  It was how he usually talked.  “You two should know I’m looking into our situation here.  I’ll be experimenting soon, so you should know things might get weird.”

A young man.  Nondescript.  Boring.  Blond hair, average weight, clothes without labels, a bit older than Rain at eighteen or so.  The slabs of concrete and tile made his space look like a hall of mirrors after an earthquake, if the glass was opaque concrete instead.  Shattered, dark, claustrophobic, devoid of the human touch.  The only thing about him that stood out was that his glasses were scratched up, to the point where it wasn’t possible to see his eyes.  He held his head at funny angles to see through the less scratched part, chin high, looking down, or head bent, looking up and out.

Rain had taken to thinking of him as the recluse.  The guy had talked before about not spending much time around people.  He was quiet, weird, and his dreams weirder still.

He hadn’t been including Rain in the ‘you two’.

“What experiment?” Snag asked, his voice hoarse enough to be a growl.

“I’m reaching out to someone.  They do interesting things with people and sleep.  I have no clue what’s going to happen, but it’s possible I won’t show up, or I’ll have a guest.  Tomorrow.”

The woman approached, standing from a sitting position in a squat, small armchair.  She stepped over stuffed animals and broken toys.

She was elegant, wearing an ankle-length dress with a slit up one side.  Her hair was styled into waves and curls.  She wore earrings and a necklace, heels, and her nails were painted.  None of her tinker gear was present.

Her lower face was covered in the mask that could have been described as a muzzle, it clung so tightly to her face, covering nose and mouth.  It was black leather, and it had real teeth set into it.  Fangs.

Her eyes were more vicious than the snarling maw.  She stared Rain down until she’d reached the plate of crystal at the center of the room, and turned around to sit with her back to the thing.  To Rain.  Her head turned toward the recluse, and she tapped one long fingernail to one of the teeth of her mask, her muzzle, before pointing it down, knuckle resting against the mask.

“Yeah, actually,” the recluse said.  “You know ‘em?”

The woman offered one, singular nod.

“Any advice?”

“Why ask?  She doesn’t talk,” Rain said.

The recluse ignored him.

The woman turned, reaching down to the dias.  Rain drew closer to watch as she picked her way through the assorted debris on the table.  The wood was burned and as delicate as charcoal, breaking apart at a touch, crumbling into dust as it fell to the five-sided plate.  Almost everything on the table was similarly fragile.  The glass, the rusty scraps of metal.

She picked out three human teeth, and slid two of them in the recluse’s direction.

“She’s dangerous?” The recluse asked.

Another nod from the muzzled woman.  She tapped a finger on the one remaining tooth on her part of the table.

“I really appreciate that,” the recluse said.  “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“I have a suggestion,” Snag said.  Growled.  He was pacing a little, hand brushing against his edge of the plate as he walked beside it.  One of his fingers was still damaged from the event a year ago.

“Sure.”

“Don’t do it tomorrow night,” Snag said, stopping.

“Why not?”

Snag turned his head, staring at the darkness that separated his section from Rain’s.  He was almost but not quite looking at Rain, shadows heavy around his eyes as he glared.  “Tomorrow is your night.  The night after is hers.”

The recluse turned to look at the muzzled woman.

Snag said, “Let’s do it the night after hers.  In case something goes wrong.”

“Makes sense,” the recluse said.

On my night, Rain thought.

Rain approached the table.  He kept a wary eye on the others as he picked up the debris, destroying it in his hands.  Almost everything was so old, burned, water damaged or rusty that it disintegrated with firm contact.  He cast it aside, letting it litter the floor.  The items scraped and cut his hands on contact, but he didn’t mind.

There were only three items he couldn’t destroy.  Scraps of metal, too dull and thick to be knives, too flat and featureless to be of any particular use.  Like rectangular pieces of a broken glass, but not glass.

The others were sorting themselves out.  Five shards of glass for Snag, three coins for the recluse.  The muzzled woman stared him down.  She’d already handed out two of the teeth that served as her token, keeping one for herself.

Even the others, when they glanced at him, radiated hostility.

“I need to update up one of my arms,” Snag said, his voice low.  He glanced at Rain and turned his back, leaning against the table as he leaned closer to the recluse, lowering his voice further.  “I made a replacement, I want to make the other match it.”

“Today?” the recluse asked, picking up one of the tarnished coins.

“Hmm.  I’m not sure I’ll have time.”

“It’s fine either way, for me.  You?” The recluse turned toward the muzzled woman for that last bit.

The muzzled woman nodded.

Snag slid a piece of glass across the table, to the recluse’s side.  His fingertips stopped at the boundary, and the recluse reached over to slide the glass the rest of the way.

“I guess I get to be pretty strong today,” the recluse said.

“You won’t need your workshop,” Snag said.  “And we could use a better sense of tech, for reasons we discussed on the phone.  Give me your share tomorrow, too, and I won’t need it for a while.”

“I don’t mind,” the recluse said.  He passed the coins over to the others.  Two for Snag.  One for the muzzled woman.

Rain looked down at his rectangles of metal.  They hadn’t asked, and he hadn’t offered.  He had, once, trying to curry favor.  He’d given them his tokens and he’d never received a thing in return.

He kept the three rectangles of metal in his section of the table.

Rain took a seat in the creaky wooden chair and he waited for dawn, listening and hearing nothing of consequence while the three people talked, or, well, two of them talked and the muzzled woman listened.

He’d tried to reason.  He’d tried to talk.  He’d tried being angry.  There was no use.  The only option left was to wait until dawn, and try to listen, to act dumb, and drop comments here and there that could mislead.

He looked over to his left at the dark fifth of the room.  No details, no debris, no light.  No tokens on the table.

He gripped the three pieces of metal in his hands until the edges cut into his fingers and blood oozed out between them.

“Rain.  Wake up.”

Rain’s eyes opened.  No dreams, not really.  Only someone else’s recollections and then the room.  He felt more tired than he had when his head had hit the pillow.  He had a headache and every part of him felt heavy.

“School,” his aunt said, from the bedroom door, her face peering through the crack.

He sat up.

“Go downstairs to eat before you shower, if you’re going to shower.  The girls are making breakfast.”

“I will,” he said, before adding an automatic, “thank you auntie.”

She left the door open as she left.  Rain was annoyed, but held his tongue.

Swinging his feet over to the side of the bed, he looked at his hands, turning them over.  There was no sign of the dirt, grit.  No damage from moving the objects on the five sided table, no cuts on his fingers or blood on the back of his hand.

As he often did, he reached out for his individual powers.  His own power was at its ordinary strength.  The scythes of shimmering, flickering light appeared in each of his hands.  It felt right.

The emotion power- he reached for it and cast it out over the empty space in the middle of his room.  He was aware of it like he’d be aware of a patch of shade.  The effectiveness wasn’t much sharper than creating the shade would be.

When he reached for the tinker power, the ideas that came to mind were paltry, barely much better than how he might manage setting up a snare or the steps for forging a knife.  He wasn’t even especially good at those things.

That left the mover power.  He used it to get to his feet, pushing himself out of bed and using the power rather than his balance to steady himself.

He’d slept in a t-shirt and boxers, and felt exposed as he canceled out the arrested movement of the mover power, stepped over to the door and shut it.  He pulled on a dirty pair of jeans and ran his fingers through his shoulder-length hair until it was reasonable.

His family tended to subscribe to the notion that the kitchen was the center of the home.  The buildings that had been erected for the settlement were set up in a way that made for large kitchens.  Wood was burning at a massive brick stove with room for six frying pans on it, and there were two girls Rain’s age handling food there.  He couldn’t quite remember their names.  Heather and Lauren, maybe.  Or was one of them Jean?  He’d seen them around, but they didn’t go to the school and they’d never talked to him.

Rain’s auntie was at the counter, grating potatoes.  Her daughter, Rain’s cousin Allie, stood talking to one of the men that was sitting at the table, while she took her time drying a dish.

Rain knew only one of the men at the table- an uncle, who had said ten words at most in all the time Rain knew him.  There was no introduction made for the other two men who sat there.

As good as the food was, as much as the stove was warm and the family close and busy, it wasn’t warm in atmosphere.  There was no small talk.  There were some glances from Allie, who was washing and drying, and from the girls at the stove.  The glances were reserved for when they thought he wasn’t looking.

They weren’t kind looks.

Hash browns, ‘made properly’, his Aunt would say, and french toast cut in thick slices from homemade bread.  The bread that wasn’t being used to make french toast was sitting in a basket on the table, with jam and butter sitting nearby.  With the production that went into cooking, there was a lot of pressure to eat, to get full.  For most, it was necessary, with long days of hard work on the farms.

Not that Rain worked on the farms much.

“Thank you for breakfast,” he said.

The girls didn’t respond.

“You gonna have a shower?” his aunt asked.

“A quick one,” he said.

“Stomp when you’re done,” she said, turning the knob at the base of the sink’s faucet, cutting off the water.  The plumbing in the house wasn’t great, and the cold water being turned on meant the shower water would scald.

He gathered his dishes.

“You can leave that for the girls.”

“I already got it,” he said.

He collected a few more things, aware of the looks from the men sitting around the table, and took them to the side of the sink where the dirty pans and dishes were waiting to be washed.

Allie, standing next to him, pulled a knife out of the drying rack.  The metal made a sound as it ran against the side of the rack, singing slightly in the wake of it.  Between that, the weapon, the hostility he felt from the two girls at the stove, he shivered slightly.  He looked out the window.

Those people I saw in my dream want me dead.

He’d paused too long, lost in thought, being as tired as he was.  He was very aware of the stares, of the long looks from the men at the table, his uncle excepted.  The girls had paused in their work.

“What?” his aunt asked, her voice sharp.  She glanced at the girls.  Her voice was sharper as she asked, “What, do you need someone to come up and wash you?”

“Gross,” one of the girls at the stove said.

“Hey!” one of the men barked the word.  The girl jumped.  A rebuke without any elaboration.

“No, auntie, I was just thinking,” Rain said, feeling his face get hot.

“Then save the thinking for school and get going.  We need the sink free to finish the dishes.”

He got going.

The shower was hot, even with the cold water cranked all the way around, and he rushed through the process of getting clean.  The soap, spooned out of a jar with a wooden spatula to his hands, then applied to the critical areas, was a gooey mess derived from animal fat and ash.  He had no idea what the shampoo was, but it was harsh enough to make his scalp hurt, so he only used it every two or three days.

He had scratches and bruises, only some of them from his time with Victoria and the team.  He was ginger with them all, checked for the redness of infection, and dabbed them dry instead of toweling more roughly as he finished showering and started getting dry.  He stomped hard on the floor, three times, as he stepped out of the shower.  The pipes knocked as the water downstairs was turned on again.

The recluse was planning something for three nights from now.  He needed to plan, conserve strength.  It was possible he would be incapacitated, if the others found a way to hijack the rotation or interfere with his days.

His thoughts were occupied with the logistics and conversations he’d need to have as he wrapped a towel around his waist, checked for chin scruff, and then crossed the hall to enter his room.  Clean clothes, bag, shoes.

He did his best to stay out of sight of the kitchen as he headed downstairs, ducking into the front hall and out the door.

The dirt road cut a zig-zagging line between homes and fields.  Things had been situated in a way that had been convenient at the time, but the layout didn’t make for good town planning otherwise.  Other students were walking to school, older siblings watching the younger ones, friends meeting to talk.  Some parents walked with their children to supervise.  Other adults were around to supervise.  The notorious and inevitable Mrs. Sims was bitching at a group of the fifth graders, splitting up groups of friends to make the boys and girls walk on different sides of the road.

A truck came down the road, and the students moved to the muddy sides where the ground was far softer.  It was Jay, stopping periodically to let friends hop into the back.

A short distance behind Rain, Jay stopped in plain view of Mrs. Sims to ask Brianna and Kaylyn Barr if they wanted to ride in the truck, which was already mostly packed with senior boys.

The sisters climbed into the back of the pickup truck.  Mrs. Sims scowled, but she kept her mouth shut.

The truck moved a little bit further down the road and stopped beside Rain.  Jay leaned past his girlfriend.  He had thin facial hair, a baseball cap, and a sweatshirt with a logo on it.  The sweatshirt and cap looked brand new, and they also looked like they were from Bet, with the quality and logos.  Expensive.

“You want a ride, rain man?” Jay asked.

“No thanks.  Walking with a friend.”

“I know who you’re talking about.  You know you don’t have the slightest chance with her, right?”

“Of being her friend?”

“Yeah, right,” Jay said.  He rolled his eyes.  “Enjoy that walk.”

The wheels spun against the dirt road before finding traction.  The pickup truck bucked a little with the uneven transition, nearly tossing Kaylyn Barr out the back as the back end came up.  Only a quick grab by one of the older boys saved her from a tumble.

A cloud of dust followed behind it.  If it was meant to annoy Rain, it didn’t.  He turned his back to the worst of the cloud, looking out at the farmland.

“Rain!” Mrs. Sims called out.  Some of the smaller students on the road flinched.

Rain looked more her way.

“Get yourself straight to school.  Don’t dawdle,” she said.

He could have said something about that.  Jay might have.  If he hadn’t had the experiences he had, he might even have called her an evil person, said she deserved it.  She was an artifact of a prior era, the kind of person who had lived in every small town and rural community he’d known; she was someone who used morality as a stick to beat others with.  He could have asked what she was implying, or challenged her.

He didn’t.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said.  “Just waiting for the dust to settle so I’m not walking face-first into it.”

Someone else might have made a comment, empathized.  Mrs. Sims only said, “Go to school.  Be a better example for the little ones.”

He walked.

The people like Mrs. Sims and his aunt were easier to deal with than many of the alternatives.  He could understand the people who’d reacted to hurt and loss by becoming harder.  He wished he’d been able to do the same, a lot of the time.

Erin emerged from her house as he reached the mailbox staked out in front.  He waited while she made her way down, her little brother following.

It was hard not to have his eyes linger on her.  She wore a plum colored muscle tank with a cross in black on the front, a black choker with a steel buckle, and black jeans.  The jewelry in her ears matched the buckle of the choker, a series of rings in her left ear and a single piece of jewelry in the right, glittering in the sun as she steered her brother along the path.

He’d come to dislike the muscle tops with those oversized armholes on principle, after seeing so many girls he couldn’t stand wearing them as a trashy sort of look.  Seeing Erin wear it and look so stunning, he found himself doing a one-eighty on the position on the spot.

“Hey, Erin, hey bruiser,” he said.  He stuck out his hand, like he might for a handshake, and Bryce slapped it in a high-five.  He and Rain reversed the directions their hands were moving to lightly slap the backs of their hands together, and Bryce moved forward to mock-punch Rain in the hip, then thigh.  The third punch missed Rain’s groin only because of a timely twist to one side.

“Careful with Rain, Bry.  He looks a little battered, he doesn’t need you giving him more bruises,” Erin said, putting one hand on Bryce’s forehead, pulling him back while Bryce continued punching at the air.

“He’s coming to school with us?” Rain asked.  “I didn’t think he went to school.”

“Next year,” Bryce said.

“I’ve got to drop him off at church.  He’s being punished, and somehow my parents think a sermon is going to give him direction.”

“What did you do, Bry?”

“I said mean things about Elijah,” Bryce said.  “Mr. Jean heard and tattled.”

“You need to be careful who you talk about and how,” Erin said.  “You don’t want to upset anyone.  What if Elijah heard?”

“Yeah, I know,” Bryce said.

Erin gave Rain a look, from an angle Bryce wasn’t meant to see.  Worried, unsure.  “You don’t have to come.”

“It’s not a problem,” Rain said.

“Thank you,” Erin said.

Bryce spotted his friends walking down the road with their older siblings, and started to walk that way.  Erin bent down, putting her hands on Bryce’s shoulders to catch him.  “Nuh uh, Bry.  You’re supposed to be in trouble.  You walk with us.”

She steered Bryce in the other direction, toward school and church, and as she turned, bent over, Rain saw through the oversized armhole of her top.  Stomach, ribs, lacy black bra strap, bra, and a bit of what the bra was meant to support.  The look had been automatic, and the moment he realized what he was looking at, he looked away.

He had very complicated feelings on those tops, now, as he found himself simultaneously trying to memorize every detail of what he’d seen and prepared himself so he wouldn’t be an asshole and look again at what she didn’t necessarily intend to show him.  He was well aware of how the two things conflicted.

“Are you doing okay?” she asked him.  “You’re a little scraped up.”

“I’m always a little scraped up.  I’m used to it.”

They walked, Bryce between the two of them.

“I’ve officially watched the last of the videos from the library.  Even the bad ones, like E.T.3,” Erin said.  “I’m stuck reading and rewatching stuff until they get more.”

“Reading isn’t so bad,” Rain said.  “There were five years where my family didn’t even have power at the place we were staying.”

“Every time you talk about your past my heart hurts a little.  No TV?  No music?”

“Reading by candlelight.  Hobbies.  You figure out how to entertain yourself.  There was a summer some other kids and I dug a hole and covered it with slats of wood, and we called it our hideout.”

Erin pressed the heel of her hand to her heart.

“It was a good hideout.  Really.”

“You were so deprived you couldn’t even build a treehouse.”

“We could’ve.  We wanted to dig a hole.  We covered it with dirt and sticks so people wouldn’t know it was even there, if they didn’t see the hole.”

“How old were you?”

“Ten?  Eleven?  About Kenzie’s age, I think.”

“When I was eleven?  I think we went to Disneyworld at the start of summer.  And I had six weeks of camp with the most irresponsible camp counselors.  Tons of food we shouldn’t have been allowed to have, swimming, mud Olympics.  One of the boys fell on the mud slide and broke two of his fingers.”

“It’s hard to imagine you being eleven.”

“I was the most awesome eleven year old.  Man, I really wanted to go back there the next year, but I think our parents all shared notes and realized how dangerous it was.”

“When I was twelve, I think I spent the summer hunting with my dad’s best friend.”

“That sounds neat.”

“It- no.  No, it really wasn’t.”

“Aw,” Erin said.

“Dull, wet, buggy.  I got to shoot the gun once in three months.  I missed.”

“Aww.”

“I was so excited to get back home and see my friends, get back to my routine.  Then… no home to go back to.  The trip with my dad’s friend was just to buy time for my parents to get everything sorted out for me to go live with my aunt.”

Rain was caught between a yawn and something that might have actually reflected his feelings, and decided to yawn.

“I’m sorry,” Erin said.

Rain shrugged.

“How’d you manage last night?”

She was asking about the dream, as much as she could with Bryce listening in.

“It wasn’t too bad.  Pretty usual.  I’m tired.”

“Yeah.  You gonna grab a nap later?”

“I might.  Have to get through school first, and I’m already feeling like I’ll doze because I have a full belly.  I woke up to three girls around my age cooking breakfast.”

“Barefoot in the kitchen?  Not going to school?”

“Pretty much,” Rain said.

“Spending time with you, seeing how you stack up?”

“I’m the one that’s supposed to be studying or showing interest in them,” he said.

“Creepy as-” Erin paused to put her hands over Bryce’s ears, “-shit.”

Bryce pushed her hands away, nearly hitting her with the stick he held.  He was drawing a line in the dirt road as he walked, with an apparent system in mind about how he did it.

“Creepier when one of them’s my cousin.  I’m pretty sure she’s my actual cousin, too.  It’s hard to keep track.”

“Allie?”

“Yeah.”

“She’s not so bad.  She played the guitar at one of the campfires a bit ago, she was good, and she’s nice, she was nice to Bryce when she was helping out the teachers during a nature hike, even though she hates me.”

“She’s my cousin, Erin.”

“I’m just saying, if you’re going to have cross-eyed underbite babies, you could do worse.”

“Ugh.”

“It’s better to stick to the ones you aren’t related to,” Erin said.

“I don’t want to stick to anyone,” Rain said.  “I’m not interested.”

“They can apply a lot of pressure.  You might end up having to choose one of them.”

“I don’t even know the names of the other two girls.”

“Sounds like another point in Allie’s favor, then.”

Stop.  Please.  Have mercy.”

Erin stretched, fingers knit together, hands turned outward and up over her head.  The black band of her bra jumped into Rain’s attention and shook him the same way a wildcat leaping in his direction might.  What kept his attention was her profile: the way the sun outlined her face, throat, chest.  He looked away, his heart now thudding.

She was so beautiful he couldn’t believe they were talking together.  Her and him?  What the hell had he been saying before about spending a summer sitting in a hole?  What was wrong with him?

She sighed heavily as she stopped stretching.

“My family’s been making those noises,” she said.

Rain glanced at her.  For someone who had been joking a moment ago, Erin looked so sad.

“How bad?” he asked.  He swallowed hard.

“These days?  Bad.  It’s all they think about.  Every conversation, if it runs for more than a minute or two, turns to how pretty I am, and if I have any suitors.”

“You’re talking about the marriage thing?” Bryce asked.

“Yeah,” Rain said.

“Our parents talk about it a lot,” Bryce said.  “With Erin, I mean.  I’m too young to get married.”

“So are Rain and I,” Erin said.

“Rain?”

“Rain’s getting bugged too,” Erin said.

“I’m getting hints.  Girls showing up with chaperones, when they really don’t want to be there, but it’s subtle.  Nobody really talks about it,” Rain said.

“Lucky you,” Erin said.

“Are you managing okay?”

“I’ve been going over to the junkyard to shoot at bottles.  That helps,” Erin said.  She had a serious look on her face.  “Might be good to have the practice if you ever need help.”

“I don’t want to get you involved.”

“Getting caught up in your thing would be a relief,” she said.

“I’m not so sure it would,” he said.  He glanced at Bryce, to see if the boy was listening.

Nope, drawing wiggly lines in the dirt with his stick.

They were close to the church.  There was no parking lot, so the cars and trucks were parked haphazardly.  Some were moving at a crawl as they tried to navigate the parked vehicles and the people who were gathering.

Rain glanced at Jay’s truck as they found a path between cars to reach the church.  Jay was here, then.  Rain was left to wonder whether the Barr sisters had hopped out and headed on their way to school, or if they were attending the morning service, now.

Erin drew looks.  She stood out, and not just because she wasn’t a usual for the morning service.  It was in moments like this that Rain knew he wasn’t letting feelings color his views on her.  He could see the way people acted around her, the way they looked at her.

He was spooked, seeing it.  He knew who these people were, he’d grown up with them, and he knew how they functioned.  On a level, he was one of them.

Erin took Bryce to one of the moms of one of Bryce’s friends.  They exchanged words, and the mom scooted over, having Bryce sit next to her.

Rain was acutely aware of the looks he got too.  The opposite of the ones Erin got, really.

Erin joined Rain at the door.  People were still filing in.

At the front of the church, a shirtless man climbed up onto the stage and walked back to the sanctuary, where the altar was.  The light shone through the stained glass window behind him.  He was skinny, long-haired, and tattooed.

“Yo, faithful,” he said, leaning over the altar.

There was a murmur of responses from the congregation.

“I’ve been watching, and I’ve been thinking.  You guys have been asking me when I’d speak again, and I think it’s time I say a few things.”

There was a louder murmur, with a few hoots and whistles from certain locations.

“We’ve had some hard days,” he said.  “Less jobs, the strikes, the talk of war, it’s getting colder out, and I think that reminds us all of winter.  Last winter sucked.”

There were more murmured responses.

“It was cold, there wasn’t enough shelter, there wasn’t enough food.  Not everyone made it.  We did better than some, but we lost six.  We remember them.  Jack, Josh, Georgia, Kiara, Christian and Rhys.  We remember them, and we remember the cold, hunger, and sickness that took them from us.”

The responses were more animated.

“May they be with the Lord.”

It demanded a response.  More of a response than the last.

“We remember the bad days, we remember the end.  While I was doing that watching, listening, and thinking, I could tell.  People are scared.”

His tanned face was expressive as he emphasized words like ‘end’ and ‘scared’, lines crinkling in around his eyes, betraying him as thirty-something.  He gripped the podium as he talked.

“All through the city, through the many worlds, people are scared shitless.  Bad days are coming.  Everyone knows it.  You know it, am I right?”

There was a more vocal response.

“Yeah, you know it,” he said, his chin rising a bit.  “You fucking know it.  Sorry parents, you can cover your kids’ ears if you’re shy, but this is how I talk.  Honest.  I’m gonna be honest with you.”

Rain looked at Bryce and the woman he sat with.  She wasn’t covering Bryce’s ears.

He looked at Erin, and saw how tense she was.

The speaker continued, “You’re scared and you’re scared with good reason.  It’s going to get messy.  People are going to die.  People are going to deal with worse than death, because that’s where we’re at.  That’s how it is in the worlds we dwell in.  It’s inevitable.”

He remained where he was, lean muscular arms bristling with sun-bleached hair  as he gripped the altar, letting that hang there.

“We’re gonna be okay,” he said, his eyes narrowing.  “I memorized a passage.  This king Sihon would not allow Israel to pass through his territory.  Sihon gathered all his people together and went out against Israel in the wilderness, and he came to Jahaz and fought against Israel.  Then Israel defeated him with the edge of the sword, and took possession of his land.”

He pulled his hand away from the edge of the altar and struck it with his hand.

“You know what that says to me?  It says you get in our way, you pick a fight with us?  You’d best be prepared for the edge of our fucking swords.  You’d best be prepared for us to take possession of your land.  Do not get in our way, am I right!?”

There was a vocal response.

He raised his voice to be heard as he preached, “Cover your kids ears if you’re raising pussies, parents, but I’m going to say things that gotta be said, and if your kids haven’t heard this yet, you’re doing something wrong.  This is the credo we live by.  There are fuckers and there are the fucked, and we are fuckers of the highest order!”

Cheers.  Bryce reacted, joining in.  Erin started to move, to enter the church, and Rain stopped her.  He glanced around to make sure nobody had seen.

“We are right and we are righteous!”

Cheers.

“We saw the end, we preached the end, and we survived the end!”

Some people stood from the pews, which forced others to stand if they wanted to see.

“They can shake and sweat and worry about winter and war, but we’re going to fucking thrive!”

Bryce stood on the pew, his high voice joining the crowd’s.  He probably didn’t even understand.

Erin didn’t repeat her initial impulse of trying to go in, pulling her little brother away.  Rain let his hand drop.

“We don’t get cold, we set our enemies on fire!”

Erin leaned close to Rain to be heard over the roars.  “Can we go?”

He nodded.

“If we get hungry, we raid, we pillage, and we’ll eat them alive!”

Cheers.  The sound of the mob made Rain think of the mall, of Snag’s dream.

“None of that pussy skipping of the impolite parts.  We go Old Testament on the asses of our enemies!  Slaves, war, and disaster!  We’ll go full Revelations with a rod of iron, and dash nations to pieces!  Anyone who’s read that far knows, the end ain’t gonna be pretty, it ain’t going to be kind!”

Rain turned to go.  He was aware that people were casting glances his way, that they were seeing him leave.  It would be remarked on.

But he’d heard variations of this ‘sermon’ for all of his life.  If pushed, he could probably write one.

For now, his focus was on Erin, as he saw how deeply unhappy she was, leaving her brother behind.  He caught up with her, walked at her side.

She saw him looking at her, and said, “His behavior gets worse after they make him go to church.”

“I’m not surprised,” Rain said.

“It doesn’t make sense.  It’s idiocy.”

“It’s not about sense.  It’s about feeling like they have power.”

“They have it.”

“Some.”

She flinched at that, then looked over her shoulder.  She slowed.

“I could go in there, drag him away.  But they’d get upset with me, and it’s just…”

“You have to pick your battles,” Rain said.

“I don’t get to pick any,” she said.  “When do I get to pick a battle and get one I can win?”

He didn’t have an answer for her.  The question echoed something he’d felt for some time.

He clenched his fist, feeling the frustration and anger boil up.

In the distance, in the background, he could hear the preacher raising his voice.

“This is the end and the ending has always belonged to us!”  The acoustics of the church magnified the voice.

“Let’s go,” Rain said.

“We are the Fallen!”

The church shook with the furor of the crowd and Rain shook in what felt like equal measure, as he saw the hurt on his friend’s face and clenched his fists with a force that should have seen blood seeping between them, as it had in the room he’d dreamed of.

“Thirty-five, forty people?”

“As a rough estimate,” Snag said.  “But you’re not a soldier or a team player, from what I heard.”

“No.”

“Beast of Burden recommended you as more of an assassin.  Thirty five to sixty individuals with powers.  Plus armed henchmen, drones, minions.  We go to war, we do it with the sanction and assistance of the major names, and we intend to leave no room for any result except the one we need.”

“You want them wiped out?”

“Broken, scattered to the wind, if need be.  But this one…”

The distorted image projected on the wall of the headquarters shifted.  Snag pushed a piece of paper across the table.

“Seventeen years old, by our best guess.  We don’t know his name, but we have an idea about his powers.  Breaking things, primarily.  Mover ability.  Tinker ability.  Emotion power.  The last three are weak.”

“You’re asking me to kill someone young.”

“That hasn’t been a problem for you before.”

“No.”

“Whatever happens in the chaos, whether they’re scattered, broken, arrested, killed, the result we want you to ensure is that this one doesn’t walk away.”

“Makes sense.”

“We could have reached out to someone else.  We reached out to you.  You should know why.”

“Because you want this kid to suffer.”

A rustling noise, muted.

It was Love Lost who handed the thin slip of paper over, her claws glinting.

The man at the table investigated the check.

“You really want this kid to suffer.”

“We want him to face a fate worse than death,” Snag said.  “But we can’t have that and have him dead at the same time, and we need him dead.  If he suffers as much as possible along the way to that conclusion, we’ll be satisfied.”

“If you’re paying, we can satisfy.”

“The check will clear.”

“Then you’ll get that satisfaction you’re after.”

The conversation paused as something grabbed their attention.

“What in the fuck did you do to them?” Chris asked.

“Shut up, Chris,” Sveta said.  She gave Rain a worried look, and Rain flinched away from the compassion.

“Victoria’s in a fight,” Kenzie said.  “I hope she’s okay.”

Rain pushed his hands through his hair, backing up.

“I hope we’re okay,” Kenzie said.  “This is a bit much to deal with just us.”

It’s not to deal with you, Rain thought.

He could see the way Sveta was looking at him.  Putting pieces together.

He couldn’t blame her.  He was just now realizing what he was up against.  For a year, he’d seen them at night.  He’d seen them talk, getting everything in order.

For this.  To destroy him.

Even hiding among the Fallen wouldn’t protect him.  He’d clung to that reassurance and now it was gone.

He turned to go, grabbed his bag.

“Rain,” Tristan said.

“I gotta go,” Rain said.  He collected more things.  The key he’d been given. “You look after Victoria.  Tell her thanks.”

“Don’t panic,” Tristan said.

How was he not supposed to panic?

“Thanks for everything, Tristan,” Rain said.  “I’ll be in touch, but I gotta go.  I can’t-”

He couldn’t.  He wasn’t sure what to do.  There was no answer.  He had three people after him and they were stronger, more capable.  He couldn’t do anything.  He couldn’t breathe.

Choking on the sentence he hadn’t finished, he hauled the door open, stepped out to the fire escape, and made his way down at a run, trusting his power to catch him if needed.

He ran until he couldn’t run anymore.  He walked, feeling the full force of dread catch up with him as he slowed down.  Then he ran again.

“Rain!”

Rain turned.  With the panic firmly set in, his first instinct was fear.  Even at a familiar voice.

Tristan.  Tristan had run after him, and the guy barely looked winded.

“There you are,” Tristan said.  “Oof.  I turned down the wrong street back there.”

Rain was silent, except for his hard breaths.  He felt like he was going to throw up.

“You can’t run.  Don’t panic.  Trust me, shitty things happen when you panic.”

“I’m dead,” Rain said.  “I’m a dead man walking.  Holy shit.  They’re going to torture me to death.”

“You’ve got to tell people, Rain.  You’ve got to tell Victoria, you’ve got to tell Sveta.  Kenzie.  Chris.  Even Ashley- she won’t blink either way, but you should tell her.”

Rain shook his head.

“I’m surprised you didn’t already say,” Tristan said.

“I can’t.  I can barely admit it to myself.”

“What were you going to do if Snag or Love Lost mentioned the Fallen while negotiating?”

“I don’t- wouldn’t it be easier?”

“Easier?  Yes.  Better?  No.  It’s best if it comes from your mouth first, Rain.  The others think this is all lined up against us.  But it isn’t.  We’re just liable to get hit with the collateral damage.”

Rain wasn’t sure what to say or do.  He shook his head.

“No?  No what?”

“You tell them.”

“I’m not going to tell them.  I’ve been in situations like this before, trying to be an ally, ending up only hurting.  Talk to them.  Tell them.  Write them a letter if you need to put the words in order.  I’ll back you and argue on your behalf.”

“I heard that the Fallen attacked Victoria’s hometown.  What if they hurt someone she cared about?  What if she says she’ll only help the team if I’m not on it?”

“Do you think she would?  I’m not so sure.”

“What if?” Rain asked, stressing the question.  “They attacked people who were evacuating.  There were groups that kidnapped people on the absolute worst day in history, raided them.  What if it turns out they hurt people Kenzie cares about?  Sveta- do you know what they say about people like Sveta?  What I’ve said about people like Sveta?”

“I know what they’ve said about people like me,” Tristan said, setting his jaw.  “What you’ve probably said about people like me.”

Rain flinched, breaking eye contact.

“Look at me, say it, and I’ll tell you it’s okay.  Because you’re working on it.  You’re better.”

“I think you’re really underestimating how little I want to face that side of me, that said those things.  Or how little progress I’ve made from being a sack of shit.”

“Look me in the eye,” Tristan said.  “Say something like, ‘hey Tristan, I used to be the kind of guy who’d call you a faggot or look down on you because you really like the dick.'”

“C’mon, man,” Rain said, cringing.

“Then you say you’re sorry, and I say it’s not a problem, I figured as much, and I reaffirm that you’re a friend.  Really easy script.  Then you say it to Sveta.  We’ve talked about so much shit, we’ve worked through so much.  You have to know we can be cool with this.  All of us.”

“I know,” Rain said.  “I get it.  Fuck.  But-”

He was interrupted as Tristan’s watch started beeping.

“Fuck,” Tristan said.

“-But I don’t want you to be cool with it.  I’m not cool with this,” Rain finished.

“I gotta change.”

“Yeah.”

“Look after Rain for me, Byron,” Tristan said, then blurred.

Byron wore a long-sleeved, slate-blue shirt with a snake on the front, and jeans.

“I’m going to go,” Rain said.

“What are you going to do?” Byron asked.

“Hide.  Figure things out.  Think.”

“Okay,” Byron said.  “I think all three of those things sound pretty reasonable.”

“Can you tell the others?  Fill them in?”

“I think if Tristan is saying no, I should say no too.  Especially when I’m not part of the group.”

Rain sighed.

“Go.  Hide.  Think.  Spend time with that ridiculously awesome friend of yours,” Byron said.

Rain allowed himself a small smile.

“Maybe call Mrs. Yamada.”

“Maybe.”

“Seems like a big enough emergency to give her a call.”

Rain nodded.  It helped, knowing he could do that.

It helped, hearing Byron calmly lay things out, agree that it was right to get away and get safe.  Tristan understood a lot of the other stuff, the fighting, the struggle, the- even trying to come back from being a scumbag.  But Byron understood other things.

“Thank you,” he said, without even really realizing he’d intended to say it.

“You have allies,” Byron said.  “Friends.  Me included.”

“They have thirty-five to sixty people with powers, a hired assassin, and a grudge.”

“And we have a bit of time.  We’ll use it.”

“We?”

“Fuck off,” Byron said, without smiling or even sounding like he was amused or annoyed.  “You’re a friend.  Of course I’m in this.”

Rain swallowed hard.

“Today was valuable.  The team has a sense of what they’re up against.  Mostly.”

“You think I should tell them,” Rain said.

Byron shrugged.  He was Tristan’s inverse, in that he wasn’t one to push, even when he had strong feelings one way or the other.

“I’m going to hide out at the compound for a day or two.  I, uh, I’ll think, and maybe I’ll explain when it’s time to come back.  When there’s a clearer picture of what’s happening.  Make sure they don’t do anything in the meantime?”

“Sure.  Tristan heard too, and I think he’d agree.”

“Thank you.”

“If you’re going to hide, you should go before they wrap up that meeting and decide to catch a train heading in the same direction you’re going.”

Rain nodded, swallowing hard again.

He turned to go.  Not running, this time, but walking as fast as he could.

To seek sanctuary amid monsters.

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Shade – 4.3

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It was Sveta who said it, not Rain.  “If they go inside, we’re going to lose track of what they’re saying.”

“Have they said anything yet?” I asked.

“No,” Rain said.  “The woman doesn’t talk so it would be a one-sided conversation.  If they’re here, they’re here for something.  I want to know what.”

“Anything you guys do risks blowing your surveillance,” I said.  “You might gain more information if you leave it alone.  Just saying.”

“I might miss something vital,” Rain said.

“You might,” I said.  “It’s really up to you guys.  If you need help, I’ll back you up.”

Tristan walked forward, and half-sat on the desk, head turned so he could keep one eye on the image.  “Hypothetically, if we did act on this, what would we be doing?  Picking a fight?”

“We could,” Ashley said.  “Rain said they were injured and needed maintenance.  It would be timely, it would keep them injured and out of the picture.”

“On their turf?” Tristan asked.  “With who knows how many villains in the immediate area?”

“And it would blow our surveillance, like Victoria said,” Sveta said.

“You’ve been quiet on why they’re after you, Rain,” Chris said.  “You never talked about your trigger event.”

“As a rule, it’s not good to ask people about their trigger events,” Sveta said.

“As a rule,” Chris said, “It’s vital information about who we’re fighting and why they’re doing what they’re doing.”

“Chris,” Sveta said.

“Sveta,” Chris said.  “Detach from your emotions, focus more on their emotions.  Are they passionate?  Driven?  Is it personal?  If any or all of the above are true, it changes the rules of how they act.  They might act even if they are injured or needing to do some maintenance.”

“People don’t act by rules,” Tristan said.

“Some people do,” Chris said.  “Byron does, or did, based on what you said.  They might.  But we need more of what Rain knows about who and what they are and where they come from to know that.”

Kenzie turned around in her seat.  “I was just telling Victoria I didn’t like the idea of her prying into my past or where I come from.  It would feel pretty gross and unfair if we pushed Rain to do it now, when he obviously doesn’t want to.”

“Hypocritical might be the word you’re looking for,” I said.

“I’m learning so many words today,” Kenzie said.

“Putting all that aside, is there any way to listen in, if they went inside?” Rain asked.  “They’re a block away from where Prancer went before.  If they go there, what can we do?”

“I could rig something,” Kenzie said.  “But it would be fragile and iffy.”

“I can’t help but notice we’re changing the subject,” Chris said.

“Look.  Just- I need this,” Rain said.  “I’ve told Tristan everything and I’ve told Sveta some of it.  If Tristan thinks it needs to be said, he can say it.  He’s more objective.  But I really want to know what they might say, I want to start making preparations now.”

“I’ve been keeping my mouth shut,” Tristan said.  “I’m in a weird place, knowing what I do, not wanting to betray a friend.  I feel like if I said anything at all, even if the reasons were good, it would still be betraying Rain.”

“I can take apart things,” Kenzie said.  “Kludge it together for an emergency thing.  It won’t take long but we’d need Sveta to hurry over there to plant it and that’ll take a few minutes.  If that’s what we’re doing.  I don’t want to break my things down if we’re not doing this, though. ”

“I’m probably going to regret saying this, but I’ll stand up for Kenzie,” Chris said.  “It’s going to be shitty if she starts taking apart good work so she can get it done in time, and then Rain doesn’t hold up his end any.  That’s not fair and it’s going to lead to resentment.”

“I don’t care about fair,” Kenzie said.  “But thank you, Chris.”

“Don’t thank me.”

“I’m going to anyway.  It means a lot.”

“No it doesn’t.  I just don’t want the headaches,” Chris said.  “And Rain is being the biggest headache on the team.  Maybe except for me, but I don’t have anyone trying to kill me and I’m not really asking for anything, so I think I can get away with it.”

Rain ran his fingers through his hair, turned and took a step to one side, like he was going to walk away or pace, and then stopped, because he couldn’t take his attention off the screen.

Tristan was in a hard place, knowing what he did but having a friendship on the line, Sveta maybe wasn’t as much of a friend to Rain but she was also more sensitive and kind, and she didn’t know as much.  Rain didn’t really have other allies in the group he could turn to.  Certainly not Ashley.  Not Chris.  Kenzie just wanted to know if she should get started building her thing.

Somehow, he ended up looking at me.  He looked spooked.

“If Kenzie builds the thing, I can fly over and plant it,” I said.  “I don’t mind showing my face there, it fits with the plan, there’s a lower risk of the surveillance operation getting discovered, it works.”

Rain nodded, tense.

“But I do think Chris may be right.  If the group is extending a hand to you and you’re not extending trust back, that may not be fair.  You should share something.”

“Okay,” Rain said.

Kenzie spun around.  She grabbed one of her flying eyes and pried open the side, pulling out a black rectangle.  She swapped it with a spare.

“It’s personal,” Rain said.  “It’s emotional.  Not helped by the dreams, by the possible personality bleed across the cluster.  Some things I’ve caught lately made me think there might be some.”

I listened, my expression still, arms folded, mostly watching what Kenzie did while Rain talked.  I was going to have to deploy this thing.

Kenzie popped open the jewelry case with the camera she’d put in Ashley’s eye, then tore off the section under the lens.  She flicked at parts with her fingers to get them spinning and then held onto others, unscrewing them in the process.

“They blame me, for the events around the trigger.  I’ve told Sveta all of this.  The dreams are biased, selective, cherry picking from my perceptions.  They make me out to be more of a bad guy than I am.”

“I don’t think you’re a bad guy at all,” Tristan said.

“I’m not a good guy either.  And maybe that’s because of the bleed coming the other way.  I feel like a completely different person than I was then.  And I know – I think Snag is too.  I’ve seen his perspective and his dreams, and he’s willing to murder now?  Maybe the agent took half of my anger from back then and divided it among them, aiming it back at me.”

“What happened?” Ashley asked.

“I fucked up.  I had a chance to save them and I didn’t,” Rain said.

I looked away from where Kenzie was spinning things to screw in the eye-camera beneath the major lens of the flying eye, looked at Rain, and saw how miserable he was.

“How does Erin fit in?” Sveta asked.

“She doesn’t.  She knows the story but she hasn’t seen the dreams.  I think if she saw the dreams like the three members of the cluster did, she’d hate me too.  But she doesn’t.”

“And ‘of 5?'” Chris asked.

I turned my head.

“My username, online,” Rain explained.  “I don’t know what happened to the fifth.  It’s complicated.  I can think of a few people it might be.  People that didn’t make it.”

Kenzie turned around.  The camera looked worse for wear.  I realized it was the nice one, with the adaptive camouflage or whatever it was.  Panels were missing and wires exposed.  She beckoned me to approach.  I did.

“Put the lens side against the wall or the roof.  There’s a plunger on the side here, you see?”

In a groove along the side, normally meant to aid in aerodynamics or something, the metal rod ran flush with the body.

“I see,” I said.  I looked at the screen.  They’d walked past the place where Prancer had gone inside.

“Put it up against the surface, then slowly, super slowly push that in.  There’s no resistance built in, so you could push it in in half a second if you weren’t careful.”

“What would happen?”

“We’d lose it.  That’s four days worth of work and the eye camera is six days worth of work, and some of those parts were hard to get.  Please don’t push it in fast.”

“How slow do I depress it?”

“Um.  Take, like, a minute, to get it from here to here, if you can.  Be ready to stop if I tell you to.”

“How are we communicating?”

“Phone?” Kenzie asked.

“Phone,” I said.  “Got it.”

I checked I had my phone with me, that it had battery, and then got my earbuds, plugging them into the phone and then putting one into my ear.  I collected the football-sized camera.

“Give me something to eat?” I asked.  “Granola bar or something?”

Chris walked over to his bag, fished for something, and then tossed me a bag of chips.  I caught it, then caught the paper-wrapped meal he threw my way.  I put everything into a bag.  My mask, computer and notebook were in the bag already, which was good.

“It’s not kiss-kill,” Rain said.  “Or, like Victoria said a few days ago, it’s kiss-kill with good cover.  I’m weaker than them, and the dreams give them a reason to hate me.”

“I’m good to go?” I asked.

“I think so.  Thanks for doing this,” Sveta said.

I gave her a pat on the shoulder as I passed.

“Thank you,” Rain said, with sincerity.

I was at the door when Tristan said, “Might not need the camera after all.”

I looked back.

They hadn’t gone indoors.  They were in a parking lot.  A group of people was standing around a van.  They had masks on.

“I’m still going to go,” I said.  “We don’t know where they’ll go or what they’ll do.  Patch me in somehow?”

“I’ll video call you,” Kenzie said.  “We’ll talk to you and you can look at your phone to see what’s happening.”

“Okay,” I said.  “That works.  That’s going to do a number on my monthly limit.  I might have to get an unlimited plan.”

“They don’t have any of those anymore, not after the end of the world,” Kenzie said.  “I checked.  And they get peeved at me when I borrow anything, so I have to be really careful with my cameras and junk.”

I could have responded, but I didn’t want to get stuck in a conversation.  I let myself outside, then flew from the top of the fire escape.

Might have to have a conversation with the big hero teams to see if they have any options, I thought.  It would be nice to have the fancy earbuds that the Wards used to have, or just a special phone plan that let us handle higher-bandwidth operations.

My phone rang in my ear, startling me even though I’d expected it.  I thumbed at my phone to answer it.  Rather than any of the others, it was the audio from Kenzie’s camera, observing the interaction between Snag and the group in the parking lot.

“…Snag.  This is Love Lost,” Snag said.  Recognizable enough.  His voice was a deep growl.  That was his ordinary voice, it seemed.

“Love Lost?  Shouldn’t it be No Love Lost?”

There was a brief pause.

“She doesn’t talk,” Snag said.

“That might make negotiations hard.”

“We’ll be fine,” Snag said.  “I’ll cover things.”

“Your friend isn’t coming?  Cradle?”

Cradle was the potential third, then.

“He isn’t.  Just me, just her.”

“I’m Secondhand, this is Last Minute, Final Hour, and End of Days.”

Still flying, I pulled my phone from my pocket, being careful not to drop it.  I hated using my phone while airborne.  It was so easy to let my guard down.

“Your name doesn’t match,” Snag said.

“I don’t mind,” Secondhand said.

I could see the image on my phone.  I made the reel gesture to zoom in on the one I wasn’t familiar with.  Tall, with an elongated face and head, bald, with an elaborate waxed mustache, and round sunglasses.  He wore suspenders over a shirt that was rolled up to the elbows.  The arms crossed over his chest were muscled.  A bit of a steampunk vibe, even though his clothes weren’t that old fashioned.

The time manipulators had another teammate, then.

“You wanted to meet.  Here we are,” Secondhand said.

“We’re similar in how we approach things,” Snag said.  “Maybe we can trade, teach each other something.”

“Maybe,” Secondhand said.  “Sounds good.”

“Maybe the deal’s lopsided in your favor, but you give us a hand when we need it.”

“Ah, I thought that was coming.  We heard you were recruiting.”

“Mm hmm,” Snag made the sound, and it came off more like growl than agreement.

“The more the merrier?” another member of the Speedrunner’s group asked.  It might have been End of Days.

“The more the merrier,” Snag repeated, sounding the furthest thing from merry.

“Why don’t you take a look and tell us what this means to you?” Secondhand asked.

There was a pause.  I looked at my phone.  The back door of the van opened.  Snag approached, with the woman -Love Lost?- hanging a bit back.  She had curved claws at her fingertips and thumb, with a thin framework of rods and bands at the back of her hands to keep those claws in place.  She had more glittering around her feet and ankle.  A mask covered her lower face.

“Victoria?” Sveta asked, through the phone.

“What’s up?” I asked, holding the phone to my ear, so I could use the mouthpiece there.

“Kenzie’s handling the camera and things.  I’m hanging back, Tristan’s close.  We’ll be your people, mostly.  Can you tell us anything about the Speedrunners?”

I was glad I’d checked my books and notes.

“Seattle.  B-list villains, but that’s partially because Seattle was setting a really high bar around the time they were active,” I said.  “Partially.  They’re time manipulators, but complicated by the fact that they have at least one tinker in the group.  It could be that they’re all tinkers.  A family thing like how forcefields run in my family.”

“They don’t look like family,” I heard a voice.  It might have been Chris, or Rain speaking with a funny tone.  Probably Chris.

“That’s what they’re talking about sharing, then,” I heard Tristan.  “Tinker know-how.”

“Probably.  Um.  Each of them has a power, but they augment that by having tinker stuff they wear.  Secondhand can cover a lot of ground really fast, but can’t affect anyone or do much while he’s doing it.  Can’t hurt you, can’t move stuff, can’t set traps.  But we already talked briefly about him earlier.  He’s the one doing regular sweeps of the area, looking for trouble.  The tinker stuff he wears reduces the strain on his body and lets him operate like that for longer.  And it means that when he pops out of that mode, he does it with a boom.  It gives him some offensive ability.”

“That doesn’t feel B-list,” Tristan said.

“I’ll get to that momentarily.  I’m doing these guys out of order.  Final Hour, he has a targeted slow.  One target at a time, if he’s aware of them, he can slow them, as an ongoing thing.  He can swap it with a moment’s notice.  Tinker gear applies other effects to slowed targets.  Makes it so being slow also crushes you and makes it hard to breathe, or chills you.  Makes it so he can target a friend and make it so they fall slow, and reduce the impact of their landings.  He had a thing which screwed with-”

“This works,” Snag’s growl interrupted me.  “I could do something with this, if I had time to study it.  I could use the engines you’ve got here to make emotion effects I channel through my tech last longer, or prolong battery life.”

“Good,” Secondhand said.

A pause.  A metal on metal sound.

“What’s she saying?” Secondhand asked.

“Love Lost likes that.  She thinks she could do something with it.  Right?  Yeah.”

“Alright.  Doesn’t tell me much,” Secondhand said.  “How about you show us something?”

“It’s damaged, but you should get the picture,” Snag said.

I checked the phone.  He was using one of his overlong, mechanical arms to pull off his other arm, holding it out by gripping it at the midpoint, the shoulder near End of Days and the hand near Secondhand.

It was my first clean look at the whole group of Speedrunners, as Kenzie zoomed in the camera.

Secondhand was fairly normal in build, with goggles and a flat-top cap.  He managed to not look old-fashioned.

Last Minute was shorter, stout, with a lot of muscle and fat both.  His gadgets hung from a high-tech belt.

Final Hour was more muscular, with tech wrapped around one of his arms, ending in a blunt design that resembled a brass hairdryer, with red smoke pouring from the fans and vents along its length.  Aside from the brass helmet he wore, which covered his entire head the armor covered only half of his body.

End of Days, well, I’d already gotten a look at him.  He wore a mask that wrapped around his head in a broad band, from eyebrow to cheekbone, with the black sunglasses on top of that, but it was hard to imagine how he’d be less recognizable when his facial shape, lack of hair, and mustache were all so apparent.

“Keep going,” Tristan said.

Where had I been?  Final Hour, right.  “He could attach an EMP thing to his slow that slightly hampered powers, made machinery grind to a halt.  All through this oversized thing he wore that covered his arm and hand.”

“He’s wearing it now,” Sveta said.

“Okay, right, can’t see while I’ve got the phone to my ear.  Foresight said they were using Final Hour to mask their business dealings.  He was their heavy hitter and he might still be.  I was thinking he might be using the EMP thing or something like it to keep people from looking in.”

“I hope they don’t use it,” Kenzie said.

“Probably wouldn’t work outdoors,” I said.  “Last Minute moves things backward in time.  Emphasis on things.  Not people.  Carries an assortment of tinker boomerangs, bombs, weapons.  If Secondhand didn’t have the tinker-ish name, and if there wasn’t a chance they were all lesser tinkers, I’d say Last Minute was a contender for the team’s tinker, with his arsenal.”

“What’s the catch, or what’s the tinker component?” Tristan asked.

“From what little I remember, his gadgets don’t act the same when moving in reverse, or it has added functionality while being reversed.”

“Fuck me,” someone said.  I thought I heard someone else groan, too.

“Yeah.  Boomerangs fly a different path, or split apart so one version carries forward and one retraces its path,” I said.  “That sort of thing.”

I’d slowed while flying, and now I stopped.  I didn’t want to enter the territory and draw attention when it wasn’t quite time.  I had a sense of what Birdbrain and Braindead did, and there was a risk Secondhand would do a patrol when the meeting concluded, to see what their potential business partners were doing.

I settled on a roof, walking as I landed, then stopping to stand on the corner of the roof.  Cedar Point was on the other side of the water, on a peninsula across from me.

“End of Days?” Tristan asked.

“I don’t have a clue,” I said.  “Nothing about name or appearance stands out to me.”

“Fuck,” I heard a voice.  Rain, I was guessing.

“Why are they B-list?” Tristan asked.  Not the first time he’d touched on that.

“Because the tinker stuff is limited.  The batteries take time to charge,” I said.  “When they were active in Seattle, they had something like twenty days between the jobs they pulled, and they had weaknesses.  The batteries ran out if engagements were prolonged and once that happens they lose a lot of their muscle.”

“They might have recruited End of Days to cover that weakness,” Tristan said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “It’s not out of the question.”

The Speedrunners took longer to examine Snag’s arm than Snag had taken to examine whatever they’d shown him.  I watched through my phone, grieved a bit for my monthly limits, and waited.

On the screen, Love Lost stepped away from the meeting, walking down the length of the parking lot.  She stood with her back to the group, hands at her sides, fingers and claws spread.

“I like her,” Ashley said.  “Good style.  It’s going to be a shame to smash her face in.”

If we engage her,” Sveta said.  “If we even go that far.”

“Of course,” Ashley said.

“What’s she doing?” I asked, more to myself than to the group.

It took a few more seconds, but someone walked down the street.  A woman with a purple hood and antlers.

Prancer’s partner.

“Love Lost saw her coming,” Tristan said.

“Sensed,” I corrected.

“The woman- Love Lost, she has the emotion aspect of the power,” Rain said.  “Maybe it includes some emotion sense.  Detecting people.”

“If so, I’m glad I didn’t just drop in nearby,” I said.

Velvet said something.  The camera didn’t catch it.

“Sorry!” Kenzie said.  “Sorry!  I didn’t have the sound camera turned that way.  It’s finnicky.”

“Don’t turn it toward those two, stay focused on Snag’s group,” Tristan said.  “Velvet’s already walking away.”

“It was brief,” Rain said.  “I think she’s just checking on things, making sure it’s all peaceful.”

Love Lost rejoined the group.

“What did the queen of Hollow Point want?” Secondhand asked.

Love Lost was silent.

“Right.”

“Are you done with my arm?” Snag asked.

“Oh, yes.  Go ahead.”

“Mm.”

“I have a question, and it’s one I’d regret not asking,” Secondhand said.  “Who are you with?”

“With?” Snag asked.  “Ourselves.”

“I’ll elaborate.  We’ve got a few cliques forming already.  Bitter Pill in charge of the brains, watching, listening, planning the longer-term plays.  Not necessarily here, mind you.  Could be jobs elsewhere.”

“Mm hmm.”

“Beast of Burden in charge of the hostiles, the ex-cons, ex-birdcage, ex-covert military, ex-cage fighters.  The ones who are good or even eager when it comes to hurting people.”

Snag commented, “We’ve had conversations with a few of them already.  Beast of Burden included.  We’re looking for people who are good or even eager to deliver the hurt.”

“Great.  We’ll keep that in mind.  Final clique worth talking about, you’ve got Prancer in charge of the organization side of things.  The diplomacy, recruitment, and a lot of the lower-key, ongoing business.”

“And?”

“And I don’t think we’re going to divide up into factions and end up fighting each other.  I say clique because like attracts like and sooner or later, you’ll get pulled into one of the major groups.  Each serving a role.”

“We’re our own group,” Snag said.  “We don’t care what clique you belong to.  You want access to our stuff to study and see what you can learn?”

“We’d have to talk about it among ourselves, but I think we’re leaning that way.”

I looked at the phone, as the Speedrunners exchanged looks.

“Yeah,” Secondhand said, after assessing the others.  “Let’s assume we’re good to go forward with this, but we won’t set anything in stone until my friends and I have had a conversation.

“Preliminary offer: we pay you fifteen thousand dollars, and we give you access to our tech for study,” Snag said.  “You give us access to your tech, and you lend us a hand when the time comes.”

“For this job you’re planning?”

“If you want to discuss it, I can invite others who’ve pledged to help.  We’ll discuss in one of Prancer’s venues.”

“Maybe.  We’d have to talk it over.  What timeline?”

“Soon,” Snag said.  “Anything more should wait for the discussion.”

“How difficult?”

“Hard to say.  I don’t want to tell you something and have it reach the wrong ears, and there are a lot of wrong ears.”

“Give us some idea.”

“Eight or nine young people with powers, is our best guess.  Mostly teenagers.  We don’t know who else, or what the exact number of adult capes, allies, or other resources they might have.  Teenagers are easiest to track, because they move more.”

Someone spoke, and I had to view my phone to check who it was.  Last Minute.  “Hard to say?  That sounds easy to say.  A minimum of eight or nine people with powers is difficult.”

“With the recruitment we’re planning, we’ll outnumber them three to one,” Snag said, in his characteristic growl.

“You’re talking people with powers?  Not mooks, not henchmen?”

“People with powers.  All going well, we’ll have them outnumbered three to one even if they call in help.”

“Pulled from Cedar Point?”

“Pulled from many places.  We have a thinker contact and that contact is calling in friends.  This contact and their friends are capes with names you’ve heard of, that everyone has heard of.  We have Lord of Loss committed to the job.  We have one or two others of similar caliber who may or may not participate, but who will contribute meaningful resources if they don’t show up personally.”

“You don’t do things by half measures,” Secondhand said.

“We don’t believe in half measures,” Snag said.  “In the bigger job, or in our deal with you.  Tech for tech, fifteen thousand for the job, but I’d like the two things bundled together.  We establish a working relationship and even a mutual dependency before the job starts.”

“Mutual dependency?”

“A reason for people to second guess themselves before wondering if they can drop away at the last minute and they won’t be missed because the crowd is big enough.  It was known to happen at events like Endbringer fights, before Gold Morning.”

“Speaking for myself, not having consulted the group…”

“Of course.”

“I don’t mind that approach.  We’d have to discuss the money.  Spread across a four person team, it doesn’t amount to that much.”

“When I did the community center job…” Snag started.  He paused, letting the statement hang.

“You did it with stipulations and expectations.  Stipulations handled, expectations met,” Secondhand said.  “We’re aware.”

“That counts for something,” Last Minute said.  “It needed doing, and it was done well.”

“Trust that we intend to do this well,” Snag said.  “The three of us have spent a year steadily working toward this.  If you want more money, we could discuss it.  We’d want references to justify it, a guarantee you’ll earn your keep.”

“I think we could manage that.  Instead of money, though…”

“Hmm?”

“Cradle.  He’s your best tinker?”

“He can be.”

“Maybe you sweeten the pot.  Include his work.”

“That can be arranged.  You give us your references and recommendations in exchange.”

“Alright.  I like the sound of that.  We’ll talk.”

“Good,” Snag said.

Secondhand put out a hand.  Snag reached out with his giant mechanical hand, enclosing it around Secondhand’s hand and forearm.

They all shook hands.  Snag’s giant mechanical hand made for a peculiar image as it met Final Hour’s hair-dryer stub of a limb and the two shook.

When steampunk-ish End of Days gingerly took Love Lost’s clawed hand in his bare hand, he bent down, kissing the back of it.  With her back to the camera, it was impossible to see her reaction.

The Speedrunners split up into two groups, two getting into an older car, and two getting into the van with the tech in the back.

Snag and Love Lost walked back the way they came.  Love Lost turned her head to watch as the cars pulled out of the parking lot and then drove past the pair of them.  The camera that was perched on the edge of the building slowly turned to follow the pair.

As the camera zoomed in, the sound clarifying, the metal noises of Snag’s hands periodically touching the road and Love Lost’s claws clicking were very audible.

Kenzie must have changed something, because the sound faded into the background.

“Good?” Snag asked.

Love Lost gave him a singular nod.

“They’re good to have.  Versatile, and it’s good to have that tech.  I can think of ten things I could do with that.”

Another nod.

“You’re good for the meeting at the pub?”

A final nod.

“Pub,” I heard Tristan say.  “Kenzie?  Do we deploy Victoria?”

“I have an address.  Only pub in Cedar Point, I think.  Across the street from where Prancer went inside.”

I brought the phone up to my face.  “Love Lost might be able to sense people, and there’s Birdbrain and Braindead to account for.”

“It’s up to you, Victoria,” Tristan said.  “But it would really, really help if we could get more of this kind of exchange.”

I stepped off the roof, realized that someone was standing on the sidewalk on the far side of the street, staring at me, and saw the alarm on their faces.  I gave them my best heroic salute as I started flying instead of falling from the roof of the two-story building.

“Ashley and Rain are kind of quiet,” I said, to the phone.

“I don’t like phones, where I can’t see faces or reactions,” Ashley said.  “I’m fine.  This is good.”

“I’m not so fine,” Rain said.

Understandable.

Right.  I’d maybe talk to him after, or encourage him to reach out to Yamada.  Even better, he could get around to making that call to the hero teams.

But for now, going into enemy territory, I needed to look after myself and the mission.  I now needed to make prompt decisions for things that I’d hoped I’d have a few days or weeks to think about.

“Radio silence unless it’s an emergency, or you need to tell me to stop deploying the camera, Kenzie,” I said.

I heard a faint ‘boop’.

No assistance, now.  Just me and my intel.  I put the white mask on.

Primary concerns: Braindead and Birdbrain.  Clairvoyants both.

Braindead was a tactical thinker, who could designate a set area in three dimensions, setting out a rectangular prism where he sensed everything in the area.  He could cover a small town with his power and have a general awareness of everything that happened in that town, but if he designated a smaller area, he got more clarity, more attention of simultaneous things at once, and he was aware of stats.  Non-numerical values for abstract things like physical wellness, martial combat capacity, and run speed, for everyone in the area.  Smaller area, more and more accurate stats.

The drawback was that he was a twenty-something guy that spent an awful lot of time sitting in a chair with a diaper on, drooling, mumbling, and feeling acutely uncomfortable.  When his power was active, and for a time after, he was unable to act on his knowledge himself, or even to effectively defend himself.  He had been on the side of the good guys, once, which was why his power information was such common knowledge.  Something had changed or snapped.

I flew just over the rooftops.  It wasn’t me flying at a height where I could pull my phone out, because there was a very real chance I could fly into something like a power line or chimney.

Braindead’s power operated in three dimensions.  X, Y, Z.  A set area of north, south, east, west, up, and down.  If he wanted all of the stats and information, and if he wanted to minimize the other drawbacks of his power, like the recovery time, up and down were often the variable he could sacrifice.  He could cover an area three city blocks wide along the west-east axis and three city blocks long along the north-south axis, while only covering six to ten feet of up and down.

Against Braindead alone, flying high and sticking to rooftops was a really safe bet, to stay out of his realm of awareness.

Against Birdbrain, that was a weakness.  Birdbrain was a tactical clairvoyant of a complementary stripe to Braindead.  Top-down clairvoyant awareness, much like if Kenzie operated solely through tinker eyes-in-the-sky pointed straight down.  She also had thinker powers of another sort, worked into the main clairvoyant power, but she wasn’t an ex-hero, and the information wasn’t in files.

She was really good with a gun, highly mobile, and thus she was very good at defending Braindead while he was incapacitated.

If I stuck to rooftops, Birdbrain would detect me quickly.  If I went to the ground, I’d be in Braindead’s realm.

I flew under things when I could, just to try to throw Birdbrain for a loop.  It took me a second to orient myself and find the buildings I was looking for, even when I knew they were part of the downtown strip.

No sign of Snag or Love Lost.  They were already inside, I hoped.  With luck, I would be able to get the camera online shortly.

I set down on the roof, my forcefield down, and put my bag down in the corner of the roof, against the raised lip.

Fully aware that it was very likely that an eye in the sky was watching my every move, I used my body to block the view of the bag’s contents, and pulled the camera out, placing it against the corner, where the bag would shield it.  I got my notebook out, opened it to an empty page, and put it across the corner of the roof, before pulling out the chips and what turned out to be curry in a pita wrap.

Curry in a pita was not a mix I’d run into before, but I wasn’t going to complain.  I put the wrap on my notebook, weighing it down, and the chips by my bag, against the ledge of the roof.

My backpack shielded most of the camera from view, the notebook’s placement shielded any view of it from above.

I had to take it slow.  I sat on the roof, leaning against the ledge, opened the bag, and adjusted the plunger.  I reached into the bag, and discovered they weren’t chips, but a salted pork rind thing.

Urg.

I ate a few, penned down some general observations of the neighborhood, and then adjusted the plunger slightly downward, as part of the process of reaching down to fish for another mouthful of overly-salted pork things.

It took maybe a minute and a half to two minutes, because of the regular pauses here and there.  I heard the ‘boop’ through my phone, took that as my signal, and pulled my phone out to cancel the call, being sure to keep it at an angle where someone watching from above me couldn’t see the phone’s face or display.

I was nervous, remaining where I was.  Every moment I was here, I was guarding the camera, the camera was presumably filming, and we were getting information.

Every moment I was here, I was being watched.  My forcefield was down, because having it up risked it damaging the roof, building, or the camera.  The locals were getting time to figure out what to do with me.

We wanted to stir the hornet’s nest, to keep it stirred to exhaust resources and keep them from being particularly effective villains.  Those same hornets could sting.

I ate some of Chris’ curry in a pita, just to look like I was on a typical stakeout or patrol, and I wished I’d brought a drink.  I took notes, with an eye to graffiti and symbols, to names and sayings.  Things I could look up later, to see if I could divine any other names or personalities that had settled in Cedar Point.

It was maybe five minutes in total before they decided they were uncomfortable with me being where I was.  Across the street, a big guy in costume emerged.  Blond haired, a metal mask with fur on it, and a combination of metal and what looked like horn or natural armor plates on a brown costume.  His gauntlets looked menacing, with fur, metal, and studs.

He looked pretty B-list, all in all.

He beckoned for me to come.  I wondered if I should gather my bag.

I decided to take a risk, leaving it where it was.  I flew down to the street below.

“I’m Moose,” he said.  “You’re unwelcome.”

“The last time I came, you guys called Tattletale.  She told me to get lost.”

“Yup,” Moose said.

“To me, hearing that, I’m inclined to think I should show up more,” I said.

“Ahh, nope,” he said.  “No, I think you’ve got the wrong inclination there, Glory Girl.”

I shrugged.  “What can you do, Moose?”

“What I’m going to do, Glory Girl, is I’m going to tell you how this is going to go down.”

“Do tell,” I said.

“Two brutes, like you and me, heavy hitters, we’re liable to have a brawl.  I’ll avoid breaking anything breakable because I have an investment in Hollow Point here.  You’ll avoid breaking stuff because you’re one of the good guys.  You don’t want that bad PR.”

“Makes sense,” I said.

“We’ll have a really polite knock-down brawl, as such things go, and you’ll trounce me.”

“I’ll trounce you?”

“I said I’d tell you how this was going to go, and I’m pretty sure that’s how it’s going to go.”

“Thinker power?” I asked.

“Only thinker power I got is decently good common sense,” Moose said.

I nodded.

“So you’ll trounce me.  Thoroughly.  You’ll embarrass me, even.  Not because you’re a girl and I’m a guy, but because you’re strong and you have more experience, and because fighting someone who flies is a massive bother.”

“You could surrender.”

“Can’t.  Invested in this place.  But there’s more to it, Glory Girl.”

“Not my name anymore, by the way.”

“Oh, really?  Sorry about that.”

“I don’t have another to give you, not yet, but I thought I’d let you know.”

“If you’re going to stay, I gotta fight you and I gotta get trounced.”

“That’s a shame,” I said.

“But there’s more to it.  I’m pulling from that common sense, now.  You’ll trounce me, I’ll be embarrassed, and in the time it takes for that to happen, others are going to show up.  They won’t interfere, but they’ll stand around and they’ll be ready to fight you if you’re insistent on staying.  You’ll be outnumbered and they won’t be inclined to play fair, except that they’ll let you leave if you’re willing to leave.”

“Which I will.”

“Good to hear.  Except… can we just skip straight to the part where you leave?  I don’t want to be embarrassed and you don’t want to run scared from a group of menacing looking capes.”

“I’m supposed to run scared from you instead, Moose?”

“You can knock me around as you make your exit, if you’d like.”

“Really?” I asked, a little incredulous.

He shrugged.

“This isn’t a trap?”

“Nope.”

I used my flight, and rose up off the ground.  He didn’t react.

I flew at him, forcefield up, fist out.

He met my fist with his, moving faster than I’d expected.  The shockwave from the impact knocked me back and up into the air.  I righted myself and hovered on the spot, ten or so feet off the ground.

The shockwave was weird.  Intense, and focused.  There was more to that Brute power.

“I can’t embarrass myself too badly,” he said.  “There’s an audience.”

I looked.

In the window of the pub, Snag had risen to his feet.  Love Lost was sitting, still, watching through the window.  There were a handful of others.

I met Snag’s eyes momentarily, and tried to look a little surprised.

Then I flew at Moose again.  I pushed out with my aura.

His reaction to the fear and awe was to strike out, a solid punch, not a reckless one like most would throw reactively.  I didn’t follow the awe with an attack, and I was glad I hadn’t, because the chances were good that I would’ve been hit.

Instead, I used his momentary bewilderment to fly over his head, because it was easy to do, it required him to turn around.  Better yet, it involved a lot of readjustment of footing and balance, at the same time he was recovering from the emotional hit.

Watching, waiting, feeling more like the warrior monk as I used this approach, I tried to identify the time his footing was still off, his awareness of me imperfect, and I dove, striking him with one foot in the collarbone.

In the process, the wretch decided to strike out too.  It hit him across the face, knocking the mask off.  I saw blood, and the tracks of fingernails.

He fell, and he sat there, his head turned away from me, one gauntlet-covered hand moving to his face.

“You okay?” I asked, flying up and looking away.  I didn’t want to be accused of peering beneath the mask.

“I’ll mend,” he said.

I didn’t wait, and I didn’t look back.  Back to my notebook, to my bag and book and Chris’ meal.  I packed it up, collecting the camera.

When I’d crossed the water and reached the edge of the neighborhood where the hideout was, I called the others.

“Thanks for that, Victoria,” Sveta said.

“How’d we do?”

“We didn’t get the very start and we didn’t get what would’ve been the end, but we got some, and I think everyone’s happy with that,” she said.  “You okay?”

“I’m alright.”

“Come back.  We’ll talk, and you can see what we got.”

I flew back.  I didn’t fly in a straight line, being mindful of any possible pursuers, and I flew lower to the ground as I drew closer to the building where the place we were renting was.  I landed at the edge of the lot and walked to the fire escape.

Ashley, Sveta, Kenzie and Chris were all present.  They were watching a distorted and monochrome image of the inside of the pub, projected on the wall.

I noted the absence of Tristan and Rain.

“He ran,” Ashley said, her voice low.

“Rain?”

“He got spooked,” she said.  “Tristan went after him.”

“To reassure,” Sveta said.

Chris reached past Kenzie to hit keys on the keyboard.  The image on the projector screen changed.

“You suck at that,” Kenzie said, elbowing him.  “Here.”

The image was distorted, as if viewing something underwater, with a film of grime on the lens.  The sound, however, was only slightly muted.

“You really want this kid to suffer.”

“We want him to face a fate worse than death,” Snag said.  “But we can’t have that and have him dead at the same time, and we need him dead.  If he suffers as much as possible along the way to that conclusion, we’ll be satisfied.”

“If you’re paying, we can satisf-”

The message cut off as Kenzie hit a key.  She looked back at me, shooting me what might’ve been an attempt at a reassuring smile.  Not so reassuring.

“We’ll figure something out,” I said, to myself as much as them.

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Shade – 4.2

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“Classify the following angles as obtuse, acute, or right,” Kenzie said.  She sighed.

“You know this?” I asked.

She looked up from her homework and rolled her eyes.  “Yes, I know this.  I didn’t have the words to describe what I knew before taking the class but I get this.”

“Make it interesting,” I said.  “Challenge yourself, try to answer as fast as you can, and try to get past where you’re having to think about it and get to where the knowledge is automatic.”

“Acute, acute, obtuse, right, acute, obtuse, acute, right, right,” she said.  “I’m really tempted to sit down and make up my own questions to leave on the worksheet for the teacher, except I’d have to look things up to make sure some mathematician didn’t already give it a name.  What’s it called when it’s a full circle?  Three hundred and sixty degrees of angle?”

I frowned.  “You’re asking me to think back about seven years right now.  Complete, I think?”

“Full, complete, or perigon,” Chris said.

All heads craned around to look at him.  He was sitting in a corner, a table to his left, with so many things piled up that the bag, costume, snacks and notebooks loomed well over the top of his head.  He sat on a chair with his feet up on the seat, a comic and phone on his lap.  He had his headphones on, but only one was covering an ear.

He realized people were looking and frowned.  “What?”

“You actually have a brain?” Tristan asked.

“I studied it a few weeks ago,” Chris said, shrugging, turning his attention back to his comic.

“I’m pretty sure I don’t remember studying that when I was your age,” Tristan said.

“I self-study.  There aren’t enough seats in schools so they gave us the option of doing these workbooks and handing them in.  I’ve lost track of how far ahead I got,” Chris said.  “It’s why I don’t have homework.  My regular schoolwork is the homework and I get that done earlier in the day.”

“Perigon,” Kenzie said to herself, hunched over her worksheet and books, a pen in hand.  “That one sounds best.  Let’s call this one a… hyper-perigon angle.”

“More complete an angle than a circle?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said.  “If you want to get into multidimensional space then you have to get there somehow.  So you make a circle that’s more closed than a regular circle and that gives you an in, right?  It can be theoretical if you want but obviously this is one of a hundred ways I can start pushing the boundaries.”

“Uh huh.”

She drew on the paper with her pen, drawing out a perfect circle and then scribbling out extra lines and numbers.

“You’re aware you can’t hand that in now, right?” I said.

“It’s fine, it’s fine,” Kenzie said.  “Once you’re there you can start thinking about lenses positioned to use the excess space you’ve given yourself and play that out.  I heard somewhere that images that hit the back of your eye get flipped upside-down, and the brain turns it back upright.  So we write something down that lets us toy with that concept…”

Her pen moved as she wrote out a mathematical formula.

“…And from there we get the reflected extra space on the other side of the lens constant.  In brief, we start talking about hyper-hyper-perigon angles.”

“Hyper is right,” Chris muttered.

“Shh, leave her alone,” Sveta said.

Kenzie looked up at me, “This is where I have to leave you behind, Victoria, because I get stuff that’s hyper-hyper but I can’t help you get it.”

“Frankly, you left me behind a minute ago,” I said.  “What are the hearts, stars, and apples you’re writing down?”

“It’s algebra, duh.  You don’t have to use X and Y or A and B.  You can use anything to represent the variable.  I like hearts and stars and apples.”

“I feel like if you autopsied Kenzie, she’d have a bowl of breakfast cereal instead of gray matter.”

Kenzie spun around, sticking out a hand to grab the desk so she didn’t keep spinning.  She stared at Chris, “I feel like if we autopsied you, Chris, we’d find you have one of those tumors with teeth, eyes and hair in it instead of a brain.”

“There’s a good chance you actually would,” Chris said.  “That’d be cool.”

“Yes it would,” Kenzie said, very seriously.  She spun herself around, grabbing the desk, now facing her defaced homework.

Sveta walked over from the whiteboard, where she’d finished tracing the faces that had once been projected onto it.  An artist’s sketch of the  players we’d seen and been involved with.  Another part of the whiteboard had some name ideas.

“You can’t hand that in,” Sveta said.

“I said that already,” I said.

Kenzie looked up at me.  “People often ask how the tinkering stuff works.  It’s real easy.  All it takes is closing a circle extra closed and having the right lens to use the wrinkles and bulges that result.”

“Easy,” I said, smiling a little.

She continued drawing out math and lines.  She had a steady hand when it came to drawing out the geometry.  I idly wondered if her tinker power played into that.  She began drawing out a gun, similar to her flash pistol.

The drawing of a woman’s face was comparatively, almost ludicrously crude compared to the gun she’d drawn out.  Kenzie scribbled out the eyes, then wrote out ‘I gave boring angle homework and now I’m blind foreverrrr’.

She wrote out a few more ‘r’s and then paused, scribbling out ‘boring’ and writing ‘obtuse’ above the scribble.

“Kenzie,” Sveta said, with a truly impressive amount of disappointment in the one word.

Kenzie turned her head slightly, looking up at Sveta with one eye that twinkled with mischief.  She looked back at her work, writing down an extra ‘oh no’ by the teacher’s head.

I cocked my head, listening as Kenzie worked with renewed energy.

“You’re getting carried away,” Sveta said.

I looked at the boxes near Kenzie, saw the projector box  to Kenzie’s right had a face lit up.  It was pointed at the whiteboard Sveta had been working on, but no longer projected the camera images of the faces.

Reaching down, I plucked the pen from Kenzie’s hand.

She didn’t protest or stop me, only leaning back as I picked up the paper.

I walked a few paces away, holding up the sheet, glanced back at the projector box, and then walked another two paces.

The projected image of the scribblings, tinker notes and doodles disappeared.  I turned it around to show Sveta.

She took the sheet, then experimented with moving it inside and beyond the boundaries of the projector box.  Kenzie perched on the edge of her seat, watching, her tongue sticking out between her teeth, where she lightly bit it.

“Well played,” I said.

“I said it was fine,” she said.

“You did.”

“She filled in some of the right answers with real pen marks while scribbling,” Sveta observed.  She turned the sheet around, moving it through the air.

The scratched out word with ‘obtuse’ over it had been cover for putting ‘obtuse’ into one of the blanks.

“Very well played,” I said.

Sveta handed the sheet back.  Kenzie put it down and moved her hand.  The projector moved the image of the scribblings on her whiteboard, leaving the sheet normal.  She flipped it over and sighed, head lolling back.  Without looking at the sheet, she said, “Acute, right, obtuse, acute, acute, obtuse.”

Sveta approached, putting a hand on Kenzie’s head.  “How about instead of doing the math homework you could do in your sleep, you take advantage of having us here to help you with stuff you aren’t as strong with?  What do you struggle with?”

“I get As in everything and A pluses in some stuff.  But I work on English for the longest and I’m a little less good at gym.  Mostly when I get bad marks it’s because I lost marks because my teachers are fed up with me.”

“Fed up?” I asked.

“Mrs. Beyer docked my grade because I wanted to stay inside at recess to talk with her about a project and she said I couldn’t and she needed a break from me.  She said no ifs ands or buts and I said but, so she penalized my grade.  Then when I tried to argue she took off a mark for every word I said.  Five marks for five words, and one for the but- don’t even say it, Chris.”

Chris was talking with Tristan and Rain.  “You’re so self-important you think I’m listening to you?”

Kenzie smiled, rolling her eyes a bit.

“English, then?” Sveta asked.

“It takes me the longest,” Kenzie said.

Sveta looked at me.  “How were you in English?”

“B minus or thereabouts,” I said.  “I did better with the courses I took at the hospital than I did in high school.”

“How come?”

“I write good papers and I’m good with themes and symbolism, but the classes I took in high school spent so long on each thing I felt like my brain was turning inside out with boredom.  I’d start resenting the books and I sabotaged myself by not doing the related work or reading it myself.  Don’t do that, Kenzie.”

“I do well in English, even with the parts we sit on forever,” Sveta said.  “I’ll take point in helping Kenzie, you help?”

“Sure,” I said.

My role ended up being even more backseat than that.  Sveta had read the book, and I hadn’t.  I stood back, watching, glanced back at the others, where the three boys were talking video games, which they had been doing since before Kenzie had started on her homework, and I rolled my eyes.

Rain stepped away from the conversation.  Grabbing a marker from the packet, he wrote ‘Rain’ at the top corner of his whiteboard.

Below that, he wrote, ‘names’, followed by ‘Bracer’, ‘Clasp’, and ‘Pinch’.

I approached, looking.

“No homework?” I asked.

“I like to do it late.  My family mostly leaves me alone while I’m doing it, and I get to tire out my brain and distract myself from what sleeping actually involves.  I can go straight from that to bed.”

I nodded.  “Sounds like you have a system then.  If you ever need help with studying, I’m happy to help.”

“I’m a pretty crummy student, but I get by.  I think I’ll be okay.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yeah.  I can’t see myself doing anything that leans too heavily on the school thing anyway.”

“You’d be surprised at how it comes into play,” I said.

“Maybe.  But…  I dunno if I see myself being alive and well a few years from now.  That might be some of it.”

“Because of your cluster?”

“Because capes don’t tend to live that long.  Because things were going south well before Gold Morning and it doesn’t feel like anything’s over or stopped.  Every day, I think about the fact that there are still Endbringers out there.  Broken triggers.  Dangerous people with too much power.”

“There’s heroes.  People stopping those things.  Maybe you’ll be one of them.  People die- it sucks but not all of them die.  Not all of us.”

“I guess,” he said.  “It might sound like I’m trying to ask for a pep talk, but I’m really not.  Right now, I’m focused on things I gotta do.  Like a name.”

That was my signal to back off.  Fine.

“Clasp is a fairly decent name.  Could work with the right costume.  I’m not sure it feels right with the blaster power.”

“I was thinking of seizing something, as a prelude to something, or unclasping as… it sounded better in my head.  Don’t laugh at my terrible names or reasoning, please,” he said.  “Making a name that captures all of your powers when you have four is a pain in the ass.  I’m just brainstorming.”

“I’m not going to make fun,” I said.  “I have no idea what I’m going to call myself when I get back to the costumed heroics.”

“Yeah,” he said.   “I was trying to think of names that might sound like they refer to the hands and the set-up, knock-down part of the power.  Kind of.  I don’t know.”

“Bracer’s taken, by the way,” I said.  “I’m not sure of the others.”

He reached down to the pile of stuff at the foot of his board and picked up one of his tinker arms.  It was just a bit thinner than his regular arm, just a bit shorter.  Kenzie’s picture of a gun had looked more ‘tinker’ than this.  It was wires with sheet metal bent into a crude, hand-like shape around it.  He brought the textured plastic pad up to his shoulder and bound the straps around his shoulder, armpit, and upper arm before tapping it twice.  He winced, showing his teeth momentarily.

“Hurts?” I asked.

“Nervous connection, and a bit of excess energy with the switch-on.  I could fine tune it so it doesn’t shock me, but I might break something in the process.  Ashley’s hands are made by someone who doesn’t even focus on prosthetics and they’re better than what I make.”

“You might be better than you think.”

“Mrs. Yamada thinks I have self esteem problems, but I do suck, so it’s more like I’m too aware of my reality.  My blaster power is okay, because it’s mine, but it’s kind of all or nothing, leaning just a bit toward nothing, especially if I’m avoiding trying to kill, which I am.”

“Okay,” I said.  I thought of him jumping off the train.  I wondered how honest he was about it.  “The mover power, it lets you…”

“Stop.”

He stepped back, then jogged a few steps, stopping mid-run, as if he’d frozen in time.  He hadn’t, though.  While suspended at an angle someone else would have tipped over, he twisted around and put a foot out to one side.  He moved in another direction, back to his board.

“Any limitations?  If I used my full strength and threw you, would you only slow down?”

“No.  I’d stop.  If I timed it right, I could fall from a plane, hit terminal velocity and then stop myself just before hitting the ground.  It’s- it’d be useful then, it’s useful if I want to not fall over or if I want to maneuver a bit.  But it’s not that amazing as powers go.”

He wasn’t lying, then.  Not about that.  There were uses, but it did sound somewhat limited for even a secondary power.

He seemed to read something in my expression, because he had further protests, “It’s really not that amazing.  I have to wait between each use of it, and it’s not something I can build a name or identity around.  The emotion power has no impact or visual side to it, so it’s out too.”

“A few of the multi-triggers I’m aware of tend to have more… I’m not sure what the word is.  Esoteric or abstract names.  The one villain in my town was Circus.  The solution to a disparate set of powers is to just create something more out there that has its own identity, and then fit your powers to match, instead of trying to fit your identity to a random set of powers.”

“Identity like what?”

“Like… if you’re standing back and using your blaster power, maybe something like a warlock aesthetic.  You could have a robe, multiple arms, you’ve got your ‘magic’, both with the blaster power and the emotion one.”

“No,” he said, quieter than before.  He stared at the board.  “Not like that. That’s not me and I don’t want to go there.”

“Okay,” I said.  I folded my arms, looking at the names he’d put down.  “If you like video games… is there an aesthetic or character or kind of game you could tap into?”

“I’d be worried about choosing something I get tired of a month from now.”

“Just…” I started, trying to think of a good argument.  “Just as a starting point, to get you thinking.”

“The space opera game I got from Chris, one of the things he gave me to keep me sane when I’m out in the middle of nowhere and I don’t want to bother Erin.  Chris, what’s the Void class I played, the worker one?”

“There are three.  Miner, welder, and rigger.  You played either of the last two.”

Rain nodded to himself, then looked at the board.

He started to write something down.  He got as far as Rig when I said, “Rigger and Rig are taken.”

Rain threw down the marker and he clenched both his tinker and regular hands into fists.  “Son of a…”

“Sorry to be the bearer of bad news,” I said.

“What does it matter?” Tristan asked.  He was still hanging with Chris at the one end of the room.  “Names are taken, so what?  It’s not like there’s a system out there enforcing that stuff.  Kenzie could call herself Optics, it’s not like there’s a PRT.”

“I don’t want to though,” Kenzie said.  “It gets complicated.”

“Okay, but for the sake of argument,” Tristan said.  “Why couldn’t she if she wanted to?”

“Rigger or Rig could still be alive,” I said.  “And we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future with people picking up where the PRT left off.  Finding a good name and identity you’re comfortable with is hard, and capes tend to be protective of their names as a result.  Mix-ups and headaches used to be common and we don’t want to go there.  People travel to your town to literally fight you over a name.”

“I’m still not sold on the PRT issue,” Tristan said.  “They’re gone.  They aren’t coming back.”

“The remnants of them are.  Organizations using their files and methods.  A military-esque group following the rules and regulations of the PRT’s code of justice.  There are headaches involved.”

There was a knock at the door.  Sveta started toward it, but Kenzie leaped out of her chair and beat her to it, opening the door.

Kenzie saluted as Ashley entered.  Ashley had a plastic bag with books and her dress in it.  She moved those things out of the way, holding them while Kenzie fished the two camera drones out of the bottom of the bag.

“Good work,” Tristan said.  “Lawyer-person left some tips, but I liked a lot about how you handled that.”

“It was very natural,” I said.  “You’ll probably like the headaches you gave them, putting them on the spot like you did.  Kenzie got some of their conversation after.”

Ashley smiled.

“How was the train ride?” Sveta asked.  “You might have to go back and forth a bit, I hope it isn’t too boring.”

“It was fine.  I read a book.  A baby cried after looking at me and I was amused.”

“A baby cried?” Tristan asked.

“I look intimidating, apparently.”

“Or it cried because it’s a baby,” Chris said.  “Babies cry about everything.  They’re stupid like that.”

“It cried because of me,” Ashley said.  “I’ve made enough people cry to know when it’s because of me.”

Chris shrugged.  “I’ll defer to the expert.”

“It could be because you’re different,” Kenzie said.  “The first house I was in growing up, there were mostly only black people in my neighborhood, and I remember my aunt had a baby and the baby cried whenever he saw a white person.  It might be like that.  Except you’ve got the cool eyes and hair.”

“On that topic,” Ashley said.  “Eye.  Mine’s bothering me.”

“Oh, sure, I’ll get it,” Kenzie said.  She ran to her desk, then ran back to Ashley, who bent down, one hand on Kenzie’s shoulder.

Sticking a pair of tweezers into Ashley’s eye, Kenzie grabbed and withdrew the camera.  It had a flat head like a nail, but the camera’s body more closely resembled a pin in how thin and long it was, with wires encircling its length in a double-helix.

I winced a little, watching it come out.  Ashley didn’t seem to mind.

“I can’t stand that,” Sveta said.  “Maybe it’s because eyes are one of the only things I have, but eeesh.”

She rattled a bit as she shuddered or mimed a shudder.

“It’s phased out, you wimps,” Kenzie said.  “It’s not actually stabbing anything.  It treats the eye as a portal and a model and unfolds in non-space using that framework.”

“I felt it moving around,” Ashley said.

“It’s mostly not actually stabbing anything,” Kenzie corrected her statement.  “One to three percent in reality at most, stabbing at things.  Sorry.  I’ll fine tune the phase.  It might be responding to your power.”

“I have regular appointments with someone who can give me a replacement if you destroy my eye,” Ashley said.  “I’m not worried.  I trust you.”

“Awesome,” Kenzie said, wiping the camera-pin with a tissue.

I wasn’t sure it was ‘awesome’.  I knew who that person was.  Bonesaw.

“We watched what we could before you left and the flying cameras ran out of battery,” I said.  “Then we talked about plans and did some homework.”

“Thinking about names,” Rain said.

“Rude jokes about names too,” Chris said.  “Tristan had a good one.”

“Glad I missed that,” Ashley said.

“You have a board, just so you know,” Kenzie said.  “You can make notes.”

“I’m fine,” Ashley said.  “What plans were you talking about?”

“We wanted to wait until you were here to do anything,” I said.  “Tattletale’s a persistent issue.  She’s lurking in the background, and she’s hard to shake.  Instead of having her looming, it might be nice to rattle her a bit.  It might be possible to do it in a way that doesn’t tip her off about who you guys are or how you’re operating.”

“How?” Ashley asked.

I explained, “Kenzie can call her old teammates.  We’ll offer an exchange.  A favor for a favor.  We know that the people in Cedar Point are easily spooked.  This is new, untested ground, and thanks to you, we know that Prancer is the closest thing they have to a boss and he’s inexperienced.  We can put them on the back foot.”

“I’ll give you the transcript and a recording so you can check it out on your own time,” Kenzie told Ashley.

“Back foot?” Ashley asked.

“They’re easily spooked and Tattletale gave them free questions they can ask.  They’ve used some already, and they might have used them all,” I said.  “So… we leverage hero groups and some secondary people.  They do a one-loop patrol or light investigation, show their faces.”

“Pressure,” Tristan said.  “Part of why you patrol in the first place, but we’re using other people.”

“We can apply pressure on our own,” Ashley said.  “We have me, and we have Chris.”

“The law student said you should back off a bit,” Sveta said.  “You did a good job of being intimidating and believable.  It would be better if we stirred the pot some, let them focus on other things, heat dies down.  There’s less of a chance they’ll investigate you if they’re focused on heroes.”

I jumped in, “Seeing how you were in Prancer’s face, I think it might be better to have you keep doing that, than to have you inexplicably be nicer or calmer.  We just drop you back into Cedar Point when they’ve already got their hands full, you get to make them miserable and blindside them.  They might even turn to you for help.”

“And that gives us power,” Ashley said.

“And we have a trump card,” Tristan said.  “The recording of the conversation with Tattletale.  That’s endgame stuff, but if it turns out she’s digging and she’s on our trail anyway, we can use it to mess with her.  We can give them the impression she wanted us to pressure them so they’d use questions and keep buying her services.”

Ashley smiled.

Hm.  Maybe not the best thing if Ashley was that pleased with my idea.

I decided I had her on board and I had her playing nice.  Time to sell her on the more cautious, moderated part of things.  “We play this slow, but we can maintain power, we can put them on the back foot, and we have a way of screwing up one of the major players on the bad guy’s side.  That last one is the kind of thing we’ll want to consult outside parties for.  Tip off the Wardens or one of the big teams that we’re messing with Tattletale, in case they want that to coincide with something else they’ve got going on.”

“More people involved is more chances a spy gives up the wrong info,” Chris said.

“Very true,” I said.  “That’s where it’s good to make it so we’re only calling people we know and trust.  Former teammates.  I think we can reasonably assume the likes of Chevalier are fairly legit.  Others, we control the information we give them.  We do this smart.”

“I like it,” Ashley said.

“I can call my old teammates,” Kenzie said, collapsing back into her computer chair.  She put the eyeball-pin camera into a jewelry box.  “I don’t know if they’ll say yes, but I can try.”

“If everything else falls through, I can call Weld and ask if he knows people,” Sveta said.

“There are options,” I said.  “I met some people at the community center.  They might help me out.”

“I know people too,” Ashley said.  “From my appointments.  I can try asking when I next run into them.”

“You’re sure?  You actually have hero friends?” Tristan asked.

“No.  But they’re heroes other people trust to work with someone like me, we talk, and I can exchange favors with them.”

“That’s awesome,” Sveta said.

“I’ll call mine, first?” Kenzie asked.

The others agreed.  Chris was still in the corner with his phone and comic, and Tristan walked over to grab him, wheeling him to the center of the room so he’d participate.  Chris did crack a smile at that.

“Still feeling that hit of joy from the other day?” Rain asked.

“Indulgence, not joy.  I’m indulging myself or other people if I smile.”

“Shhhh!” Kenzie shushed people.  “I’m on the phone.”

There was a pause.

“Hi, Houndstooth,” she said.

Pause.

“I found it online.”

Pause.  Sveta used the break in Kenzie speaking to shoot me a worried look.

“It’s technically online.  It didn’t take much to figure it out.”

Pause.

“No, I don’t want to bother you.  I’m part of a different team now and we’re doing our thing.  Yeah.  We’re calling people we know and trust and exchanging favors for favors, and I thought I’d ask you, since you seemed like you might be interested based on how the last conversation went.”

Pause.

“I thought it went okay,” Kenzie said, smiling and rolling her eyes.

Pause.

“It’s fine.  Really.  I’m not-”

Pause.

“Okay,” she said.  She pulled the phone away from her ear.  “Houndstooth wants to talk to the person in charge of the group.”

I saw Ashley and Tristan exchange looks.

“I hate phones,” Ashley said.

Tristan reached for the phone.

“Houndstooth.  I’m Capricorn.  Yeah.  Team Reach.  Group of six with a coach that’s a partial member, kind of.”

He glanced at me as he said it, and I shrugged.

“Everyone’s here.  We’ve got a thing going on, we were thinking of cooperating with other groups.  Can I put you on speaker?”

There was a pause.

Kenzie turned around, and hit a key on her keyboard.

An image appeared in the center of our group, and most of us backed away.

A still image of a person.  He had a sleek, Anubis-like helmet or mask that encapsulated his head.  His actual outfit was sleek as well, but Western.  Nothing of an actual houndstooth pattern, ironically.

“You’re on speaker, I think,” Tristan said.

“Hi guys,” Houndstooth said.  He sounded more adult than ‘kid’.  “I’ve got to admit, I’m wary.”

“Understandable.  I get that this comes out of nowhere,” Tristan said.  “Listen, this is a take-it-or-leave-it thing, we’re fine if you decide it’s too much of a question mark and pass.  Offer is a favor for a favor.  There’s an area we’re interested in, and we’re hoping to get some other people showing up there, patrols.  Maximizing pressure and seeing what we can shake up.”

“What area?”

“Can’t say until you agree, but it’s not too dangerous.”

“I can think of a few places it could be, especially if you’re a new team operating in open jurisdictions.  New Brockton, or one of the Fallen camps, big or small.”

Kenzie wrote something down.  She held up the paper.

he’s smart

“Less dangerous than that, even,” Tristan said.

“We show up, we… patrol, make our presences known.  What’s the fallout?”

“Twenty percent chance they pick a fight?” Tristan asked.  He looked around at the group.

“Ten at most, and only if you stick around.  I visited and they took half an hour before showing their faces,” Ashley said.  “They won’t go for the jugular, either.  Worst case is they bruise your pride.”

“I’m feeling more like this is one of those places the B-listers are moving to, now.”

“No comment,” Tristan said.

“Yeah,” Houndstooth said.  “And we can call in a favor in exchange?  What sort?  You patrol somewhere or help us pull off a complicated arrest?”

Kenzie pointed to herself.

“We’ve got Optics, who’s not calling herself Optics anymore, for one thing,” Sveta spoke up.

“You’re lucky,” Houndstooth said.  Kenzie sat up straighter.

“…but I’m thinking in other directions.”  Houndstooth finished.  Kenzie slouched in her seat.

“What kind of directions?” Tristan asked.

“I’m thinking.  Capricorn, can I hold onto this favor without naming it?”

Tristan looked around.  There were a few nods.  Tristan said, “Sure.  That was my original take on how this would go.  The others seem cool with that.  I’ll give you my phone number.”

Tristan gave his number.  There was a break while Houndstooth took it down.

“If you’re game, I think we can let you know where we’re thinking of,” I said.  The others nodded, so I added, “Cedar Point.  Hollow Point in villain vernacular.”

“You know,” Houndstooth said.  “It bothered me that it wasn’t being looked after.”

“That was my feeling too,” I said.

“Who’s speaking, can I ask?”

“Victoria Dallon.  I used to be Glory Girl, and I’m the coach, so to speak.”

“I know the name.  Hi.  You’re wanting to rattle these guys?”

“That’s the basic idea,” I said.

“Basic idea?  Even before you said that, I had the impression there was a less basic part to the idea.  Am I right about there being more to this?”

“Some.  Nothing that impacts you negatively,” I said.

Tristan spoke up, “We’re hoping to tap some others, maintain pressure, and hold off on getting personally involved until we know how much reach these guys really have.”

“They’re bit players.  This thing happens now and again.  It tends to self-combust.”

Tristan looked at me.

Passing the ball to me?  I said, “We know how much reach they probably have, and there’s some.”

“Interesting.”

I went on, “Personally speaking, I don’t want this to combust.  Some skirmishes are probably inevitable, but these guys aren’t, as was said earlier, going to go for the jugular.  I want to keep it limited to that.”

“I don’t want to see any places combusting either.  If you think it’s safe and if you want to help save Cedar Point, I think I can sell my team on a patrol or two.”

“That’d be great,” Tristan said.

“If something happens and we get in over our heads, you back us up or call the bigger names?”

“Of course,” Tristan said.  “Probably the latter.  We’ve got kids and stuff, and we’ve been urged on multiple fronts to keep on the down-low.”

Ashley looked annoyed at that.

“Alright,” Houndstooth said.  “Hm.  I know another team that might be okay doing something similar, if you’re wanting to get others on board.  I can put you in touch with them, but I’d want a minor favor.  One I already have in mind.”

“If they’re trustworthy and won’t spill our role in things or why people are showing interest in Cedar Point.  What’s the favor?”

“They are trustworthy.  Before I commit my team, I want to meet you guys face to face.  Grab a coffee or something.  Glory Girl and Capricorn and whoever else is in a leadership position.”

Kenzie sunk further in her seat, so low her head couldn’t roll backward off the back of the chair.  Instead, she slid to one side, her head closer to the armrest.  She indicated herself, pointing, eyes rolling back so the whites showed.

“I think that should be fine,” Tristan said.  He looked at Kenzie, and she nodded, exaggerated.  “Yeah.  That’s good.”

“Great.  The team I’m thinking of is Auzure.  Corporate.”

“I know them,” I said.  “I’m not sure they’re my top choice.”

“I don’t recommend them lightly,” Houndstooth said.  “They’re by-the-book, serious, they’re strong for a small team, they stick to their word, and they’re looking for opportunities to get out there.”

“That last bit is what concerns me,” I said.  “They’re looking for exposure and this team wants more subtlety.  We want the villains in Cedar Point wondering why heroes are there and tapping their resources.”

“And you get to see what resources they have.”

“Basically,” I said.

“You keep using that word and I keep realizing you’ve really got a plan. Okay.  I think I like this.  Auzure is out, then?  That’s your gut feeling?”

“Can I put you on mute while I confer?” I asked.  “I’m just the coach, I don’t want to make decisions.”

“Yep.”

Kenzie sat up and hit a key on her keyboard.  A red ‘x’ appeared over the mouth and ears of the hologram image of Houndstooth.

Really weird that she had that, I noted.

“What’s up?” Tristan asked.

“I interviewed for Auzure.  They were just a bit sleazy.  Greedy.  Their reason for interviewing me was to get at my family, just as one example of a red flag that came up.  My feeling is if you guys bring them in, they’ll try to do something flashy or get more involved than you want them.”

“If that’s the case, I’d rather avoid them,” Sveta said.

“They sound like the bad kind of corporate team,” Tristan said.  “But I might be biased.  Okay.  Any thoughts?  Objections?”

“We could use them in a limited capacity,” I said.  “Have them make a phone call, instead of actually showing up.”

“Phone call?” Rain asked.

“Yeah.  Can I just see what Houndstooth says to this?”

“Sure,” Tristan said.  “Unmute.”

“Houndstooth,” I said.

“I’m here.”

“In the interest of keeping Auzure involved in only a limited capacity, what if we had them call someone and ask about renting space?  No commitment, just see if the person reports it to the villains in town.  The villains would probably stress over the notion.”

“Stress you want.  Yeah.  Could work.”

“Ideally, we’d ask Auzure to call when Auzure is busy.”

“You don’t want them in your jurisdiction?”

“…Yeah.”  I said.  I almost said ‘basically’.

“I hear you.  Yeah.  I think they’ve got something going on right now.  Rumors of war on the horizon.  Earth C.  If you used them in the next week, I don’t think they’d pick up on hints.”

“We’d need to figure out who we want Auzure to call, so that the person called might tip off the villains.  It might be tight to get that information in a week, but yeah.”

“You’ve got Kenzie.  I think you’ll do just fine on that front.”

I looked at Kenzie, expecting her to perk up.  She smiled, but she didn’t really show much more enthusiasm at the praise.

“We’ll have that face to face meeting,” Tristan said.  “We can hammer out particulars then.”

“Yes.  I’ll call you after I’ve raised the idea with my team, and we’ll figure out a time to meet.  I’ll keep quiet on it being Cedar Point until they’re on board.”

“Great,” Tristan said.  “I’ll let you go now.”

“Alright.  Another day, Capricorn.”

The phone call ended.

“I like him,” I said.  I looked at Kenzie.  “Good recommendation.”

“Yup,” she said.  “He’s going to want to dish out all the super embarrassing dirt on me from two years ago.  Uggh.”

“We know the dirt,” Rain said.  “Most of us.”

“Uugh,” Kenzie groaned.  “It’s like having friends over and your parents bringing out the photo album.  Except way, way worse, because I wasn’t a baby when I messed up with Houndstooth around, and it’s so much worse than being in the tub or having food on my face.”

“We know your history, we know you’ve made great strides,” Sveta said.  “I can’t speak for the others, but to me, you’re about those strides and those successes.  You’re not defined by your worst days.”

“Uuuuuuggh,” Kenzie said.

“Right?” Sveta pressed.

“Yeah,” Kenzie said.

“It didn’t sound like that call was easy to make.  If Houndstooth is on the up-and-up, then it was a really, really good recommendation,” I said.

“He is.  He’s one of the best true-blue heroes I know,” Kenzie said, smiling a little.

“Two teams we can use to apply some pressure and get Cedar Point to reach out to Tattletale,” Tristan said.

“Even if they catch on, they’ll be left wondering.  Heroes on your turf aren’t something you can ignore.  Ignoring that makes you look weak,” Ashley said.

I nodded.

And one way or another, we would strain the relationship with this group and Tattletale, and make them less likely or able to call on her when we made our play.

This worked.

Kenzie stood from her seat, walking over to her board.  She began copying down a redacted version of the scribbled-down tinker notes from before.

She was bothered, that much was clear.  Now she was stepping away to dwell on the tinker stuff.  That didn’t seem like the worst thing in the world.

On one wall, the one operating camera drone was showing a view of Cedar Point.  Sunny, largely abandoned, and a little rough around the edges, covered in graffiti with broken things here and there from a riot or protest that hadn’t been cleaned up after.

The group was talking amongst themselves, about what needed to be done and arranged.

“Rain’s thing needs some attention,” Tristan said.

“We can talk some about that tonight, and talk more tomorrow.  Offer for an escort stands, Rain.”

“Nah,” he said.  “I don’t want to play that card yet.”

“Kenzie said she could do some of the surveillance from home, but we’ll probably want to meet here if we meet,” Tristan said.  “Kenzie will be a regular.  I can come once in a blue moon.”

“I’ll be here when I’m not there,” Ashley said.  “If I’m holding off, then I’ll be here for the next bit.”

“Cool,” Kenzie said, turning.  She’d added something to the board.  ‘Name?  Look-see / Looksee’.’

“I’ll be here too,” Chris said.  He’d stood from his chair and was walking around Kenzie’s desk, peering at the tinker stuff.  “Or around here.  Sometimes I just sit around outside or find a place to read comics or watch stuff on my phone.”

I saw Kenzie nod to herself, glancing back over one shoulder at Chris.

‘Cool’, she’d said.  I wasn’t sure it was.  I hadn’t quite anticipated this, but with people being where they were, with the older members helping Rain, Ashley being available for surveillance, it meant Kenzie and Chris and Ashley would be spending more extended periods of time together.

Or, put another way, the ex-Slaughterhouse Nine member and the two ‘kids’ of the team.

“I’ll stop in regularly,” I said.  “Keep an eye on things.”

“Yep,” Sveta said.  “Rotate or something?  With overlap, because you and I need to hang out.”

“Naturally,” I said, smiling.  She’d picked up on the same concerns I had.

“A few of us here at any given time,” Tristan said.

There was a bit more conversation, hashing out particulars of schedule, as well as who was available on what days.

“I could stop in at Cedar Point.  They know I was poking my head in before, but there’s no reason to let them think I’m gone and dealt with,” I said.

“You’ve got the hero itch,” Sveta said.

“It’s not the hero itch,” I said.  “It’s that Tattletale told me to go away and it means something if I don’t.”

“It’s the-”

“Chris!” Kenzie raised her voice.

Chris froze.  He was leaning close to her projector box.  Stuff was piled on top.

“Do not touch my bag!” she said, way louder and more intense than was necessary.

“Not touching a thing,” he said.  “Relax.”

“I’m not going to relax!  Back off!”

“What, is it going to blow up or something?” he asked, with a chuckle.

Kenzie strode forward, through the group, “Step back and leave my stuff alone!”

“I didn’t touch anything.  Really.”

“Kenzie,” Sveta said.  “He didn’t touch anything.”

“And stop saying my stuff is going to blow up!” Kenzie said, volume still raised.  She shot Chris a look and smiled.  “Pretty please?  It’s really not funny.”

“That was my fault,” I said.  “I brought it up first.  I’ve dealt with tinkers and hyperdimensional tech makes me nervous.”

“You’re fine,” Kenzie said.  “You’ve been cool.  I like you.  I have more mixed feelings about Chris.  And I have very strong feelings about things like my bag being messed with.”

Chris threw his hands up, retreated to the chair that Tristan had initially brought to the edge of where everyone was standing, and kicked at the ground, wheeling himself back to his corner.

I met Sveta’s eyes.  We communicated more or less telepathically: more supervision would be needed.

Kenzie was now rummaging, gathering her stuff and getting it organized.  She had what looked like a gym bag, white with pink piping as trim, and big plastic zipper tabs.  She put stuff in it and then picked it up.

“Want to have a chat, Kenz?” I asked.

She drew in a deep breath and sighed heavily, bag held close.  “Fine.”

“It’s not obligatory,” I said.

“It’s fine.  Yes.  Chat.  You’re cool.  Some people aren’t.”

“Referring to yourself?” Chris asked.

“Not helping, Chris,” Tristan called out.

I led Kenzie out the side door, to the fire escape that was the access to the mostly unfurnished apartment.  The air outside was far warmer than the air inside.  It was late in the afternoon.

“Sorry,” Kenzie said.  She put her bag down on one corner of the fire escape, then leaned against the railing, looking down as she wound her foot around the strap.

“It’s okay,” I said.

“I’m really glad you’re here,” she said.  “And I kind of like that you don’t know all the bad stuff.”

“You’re worried about what Houndstooth is going to say?”

“I don’t like being embarrassed,” she said.  “And it’s really, really embarrassing.”

I didn’t like standing over her, so I walked over to where the stairs met the little platform of rusty slats and sat down sideways with my back to the exterior wall of the building.  Not facing her directly, but I could comfortably look her way.

“I hear you,” I said.  “I said it before, but I’m grateful you were willing to get closer to that territory to help everyone out.  I have things I don’t like thinking about or getting into and I know what it takes to go there.”

“I didn’t even really think about it so it’s not all that,” Kenzie said.

“Are you okay?” I asked.  “Is there anything I can do?”

“Talking is good,” Kenzie said, eyes on where the strap was wound around her ankle and foot.  “You ever- have you ever been so humiliated that you wished the earth would open up and swallow you up?”

“I think everyone has.  It’s part of being young, that you fumble your way through things.”

“Urgh,” she said.  “I… I once embarrassed myself really, really badly.”

“Yeah.”

“And it wasn’t just one earth that split open but a multiverse of them.  I was so humiliated an alien actually noticed and reached between those earths and into my head.  And now I- everything’s messy and hard.”

“Sveta and the others seem to think you’re doing better.”

“I am.  I’m mostly good.  I backslide now and again, but I get a handle on things and I have people who help when I do.”

“That’s good,” I said.  “That’s an achievement, especially when you’ve got an alien tied to you.  You’re swimming with an anchor around your waist, and you’ve reached the shallow water.  That’s incredible.”

Kenzie nodded.  She didn’t smile.

“He saw me not long after everything went wrong.  And then he saw me a while later when I joined his team and I wasn’t exactly great then either.  Even if he saw me at my best now I don’t know if he’d be able to look past all the bad he’s seen before.”

“You might not be giving him enough credit,” I said.

“Maybe,” Kenzie said.  “But I might be giving him just enough credit, and I might be really worried that this cool heroine who’s helping us out might see or hear about the bad and then she not be able to see past it, either.”

“The others have heard some of it, haven’t they?”

“From my mouth.  That’s different.”

“They’ve heard it and they want you on their team.  They respect you.  Whatever happens, I don’t think Houndstooth can say anything that’s going to have more weight than what Sveta says, because Sveta’s awesome and I respect her a ton.”

“She’s great,” Kenzie said, staring down at her feet.  “She’s the best.”

“And,” I said, pausing.  “Whatever he says, I don’t think it should have more weight than what you say, either.  Not when people like Sveta trust and respect you and I trust and respect her.  Okay?”

Kenzie sniffed.  A slightly runny nose, now.  She wasn’t crying that I could see, but she might’ve been close.

“Can I give you a hug?” I asked.

“No,” She said.  She stooped down and picked up her bag.  She craned her head around, and looked through the window.

The window was opaque, the surface blurred.  Kenzie’s tech, I realized.

“Come,” Kenzie said.  Bag in her arms, she hauled the door open, and held it for me as I followed.

The others were watching.  Sveta was on her way to the door, no doubt to let us know what was going on.

Two people were in the center of the camera’s focus, walking down the streets of Cedar Point.

I recognized one as Snag, and I could guess the other was the woman of Rain’s cluster.

Rain turned his head, looking at me.

I had an idea of what he was going to ask.  He couldn’t leave this opportunity to get information alone.  He couldn’t afford to.

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Shade – 4.1

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Ashley took her time exploring Hollow Point.  Much of her attention was on the stores and the people within them.  A store with supplies for those living on the fringes and in the tent cities, a used bookstore that was selling books taken from homes in the old world, ten dollars for a cardboard box full, a closed children’s clothing store.

The people that noticed Ashley were quick to avert their eyes or mind their own business.

She paused at a manicurist’s, looking within.  There were rows of comfortable looking chairs with small tables beside them and foot baths below each seat.  Ads in the window showed a variety of nail art.

Ashley held out her hand in front of her, her black nail polish contrasted with the colorful ‘Chevalier’ pattern, mimicking the delicate gold flourishes on a silver background.  She moved her hand to compare to the ‘Alexandria’ image.

She stepped away and walked a little ways down the street.  She peered into more closed buildings, passed a bar where the man at the counter pretended not to see her, and then walked by a clothing resale store.  She paused at a clothing store, and then entered.

She looked through a series of black dresses and skirts, taking some off the rack and draping them over one arm.

“Ma’am?” the store employee asked.  The young woman looked terrified.  “Can I help you with anything?”

“I’ll let you know.”

“Please do.  I’ll be at the counter.”

Ashley continued browsing, picking out an assortment of dresses, until she had eight gathered.  She approached the change room and paused, looking at the sign that said only three articles of clothing could be brought into the changing area.

She entered the area, but didn’t step into any of the booths.  Instead, she stood before the mirrors, holding dresses against her front.  She paused as the front door opened, the bell jingling.  A male voice asked a question, and the cashier said something in response.

She left six of the dresses where they were, and took two with her as she returned to the woman’s side of the store.

“Damsel of Distress,” the man said.  He wore a mask with antlers at the corner, forking and extending into the wild locks of hair.  He’d used face paint to blend his face into the mask, but the paint mixed multiple colors, with a golden sheen to the paint above his eyes and black on his lower eyelids and lower eye socket.  He wore a jacket that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Robin Hood, with a stag’s head and a singular antler in gold, running from the collarbone, along the collar, and over one shoulder.  “What brings you to Cedar Point?”

“Is it Cedar Point or Hollow point?”

“That depends on who you ask.  Some of the more colorful locals prefer the latter.”

“The capes.”

“The capes.  Yes.  I’m guessing you’re here for them more than you’re here for the shopping.”

“I’m here to see what’s here,” she said.  She turned away from him to pick through some clothes.  She lifted the sleeve of a dress that was still on the rack, the dress was opaque, but the sleeve was sheer with a lace pattern worked into it.

“And?”

“And I’m not impressed so far.”

“What did you expect to find that you’re not seeing?”

“Organization.  A timely response to my arrival.  I’ve been walking around for nearly half an hour and you’re the first person to show their face.”

“We prefer discretion.”

“It feels toothless.  A sanctuary for villains, and you let people walk in here without stopping them?”

“We’ve been keeping a close eye on you.”

“Eyes aren’t teeth.”

“Some are, when you add powers to the mix.  Shall we take this discussion outside?”

Ashley looked at the two dresses in her hand.  She put one back where it belonged, and then approached the counter.

“Um,” the salesgirl said.  “You can have it.  It’s on the house.”

“Is it?” Ashley asked.

“Store policy.  The owner hopes that you’ll have a positive view of the store, in case of future trouble.  Would you like a bag?”

Ashley looked at the dress, then shook her head, slinging the dress over one shoulder.  She looked at the villain with the antlers.  “We can talk outside.”

“I’ll be right with you.”

She walked out of the store, glancing over one shoulder to see him discreetly passing some bills to the salesgirl, who ducked her head in acknowledgement.

The streets were mostly empty, without many cars, parked or otherwise.  Some of the stores had tunnels or alleys that led to parking lots, but even those didn’t have many vehicles.  Employee parking, when many stores had only one employee on average.

“I’m Prancer, by the by,” Prancer said, as he exited the store.

“The messenger.”

“I’m- no.  Not a messenger,” he said.  “If Cedar Point is anyone’s, it’s mine.”

“I was there when you first raised the idea of a gathering place.”

“Then you know what we’re doing.”

“I walked away halfway through your speech.”

“Ah,” Prancer said.

A car pulled out of the alley, turned a corner, and then drove through the neighborhood, not slowing as it passed the pair.

“Normally when one villain visits another’s territory, there’s a token show of respect.”

“Normally,” Ashley said, “the person holding the territory does something to earn the respect.  Normally, when someone brings up respect, they’re prepared to back up their words.  Are you going to back up your words and give me some evidence that you deserve even a token show of respect?”

Prancer didn’t immediately reply.  The two stared each other down.

“You’re going to be one of the difficult ones, it seems,” Prancer said.

“If you’re relying on convention and expectation then yes, I am.  If you show me you deserve my time and respect, I’ll give you it.  If you think I’ll give it to you because you run this territory, you’ll be sadly disappointed.  I might even supplant you.”

“That’s a dangerous game, Damsel of Distress.  Making threats, forcing people to play their hands.  You don’t know what cards someone has up their sleeves.”

“I have ideas.  You appeared alone, no bodyguard, no backup.  You appeared late.  You can’t back up your reputation.”

“You might have the wrong ideas about the kind of territory this is.”

“Enlighten me,” Ashley said.  It almost sounded like a threat.

“Come.  Walk with me,” he said.

They started walking down the sidewalk, in a neighborhood where a third of the businesses were closed.

Prancer did the talking for the first leg of their walk.  “Any community of capes will have its rules.  Standards and things it does that benefit everyone in it.  I’m not a warlord.  I manage a very diverse group.  If someone causes a problem, if someone tests us, I can and will give that diverse group direction or adjust the rules.  I can and will point one of the many, many powers we have at our disposal here at that someone.  Some are dangerous, some are devious, and some aren’t even parahuman kinds of powers.”

“Political.”

“Economic.  Social,” Prancer said.  “I might not be a warlord, I might not even be a warrior, but I have reach.  A few words from me, and you might find it very hard to find work with a parahuman group.  You might find that people won’t recruit you or do business with you.”

“Am I supposed to be concerned?  I’m not looking to join any team, Prancer.  I’m not looking to buy or sell petty drugs or prostitutes.  When I decide to act, I’ll be leading a team, not joining one, and people will flock to me regardless of what you say.  They’ll do business with me because there’s no other choice.  I’m ready to call that bluff of yours.”

“And be the first I make an example of?  No.  I’m something of a schemer, a bit of a politician, and I’m a very good businessman.  But if you’re going to deal with me, you should know that above any and all of that, I’m a salesman.  If we’re talking about bluffs, I know bluffs when I see them, Damsel of Distress.  I know you came here because you want something.”

“I did.  I finished some shopping and I have your measure, and I have the measure of your neighborhood.”

“Something drew you away from your cozy apartment in an unassuming neighborhood, away from your regular appointments with therapists and the Wardens.  Your years of history before Gold Morning are a pattern of laying low, being quiet, committing crimes to get food and clothes, and then getting restless and bored.  That’s when you traditionally start stirring up trouble.  Are you restless?”

“You read my files.  If you’re expecting that level of access to intimidate me, you’ll be disappointed.”

“I think you’re bored.  I know you’ve been hanging around the Cabin, or the Lodge if you want to call it that.  I know you like spending time at the tea shop.  I know that when you get restless you often look for people to spend time with.  The Jewel of Boston, the Slaughterhouse Nine.  We know how those stories ended.”

“I’m alive and many of them are dead.”

“That’s not how I would have put it, but alright,” Prancer said.  “If you want something here, you should ask.”

“I thought I might want to find a place around here, but if you’re slow to respond to my arrival, you might be slow to stop heroes from getting in my way.”

“You want a place in the community?”

“And security, assurance I won’t be harassed.  You know about the appointments.  They’re why I’m left free when other ex-members of the Slaughterhouse Nine are still under lock and key.  They study me then, I let them, and I want to leave it at that, for those days and those times only.  I don’t want to be surveilled or scrutinized when I don’t have to be.”

“We have a variety of security measures in place.  If you chose to move here, if we allowed you to, I think you’d be satisfied.”

“Empty assurances.”

“More robust assurances would come only when we knew we could trust you to some degree.  Obviously, we’re not about to share particulars with a stranger.  You could turn around and join a rival group and share that information with them.”

“And if I became less of a stranger, it would require an investment of time and trust.  At that point it would be hard to escape.  Sunken cost.”

“Then it seems we’re at an impasse.”

“So it seems.”

“And I can expect you to leave promptly, then.”

“I’ll leave when I’m ready,” Ashley said.  She turned to walk in another direction, heading for another clothing store.

“Switch to the overhead camera.  I want to see what Prancer says and does.”

“I’ll project onto the other wall,” Kenzie said.  “I want to keep the main camera on Ashley.”

She struck a few keys.  One face of the projector box behind her desk lit up, projecting onto the wall.  The image was blurry and badly affected by the light around the room at first, as any projector screen could be, but it swiftly clarified, crystallizing into an image as sharp as any flatscreen television.  It was an overhead of the street.

The overhead image split, until that screen showed two camera views of Prancer at the same time, one directly overhead, and another that gave something of a view of his face.

The main camera, on the wall in front of and above Kenzie’s desk, showed Ashley’s point of view.  The view bobbed with every step Ashley took, and was periodically obscured when Ashley blinked.

Tristan was bringing things into the room.  The team’s temporary accommodation.  Rain was in the corner, where a table had been set up, laying out parts of mechanical arms while Chris watched.

In the center of the room, Sveta, Natalie the law student and I watched things on the cameras.

Natalie had her arms folded.  Her hair was shorter than most boys wore theirs, with a curl at the forehead, her glasses seemed oversized for her face, and her forehead was wrinkled in worry or concentration.  She dressed in clothes that made me think she’d picked clothes out of a magazine without reading the rationale behind those clothes.  She wore a blouse that fit her body closely, made of a faintly reflective material, with a black ribbon tied where it drew the collar together.  She wore a straight-cut skirt that started at the waist and ended at the knee, and dark hose, with tidy, heel-less business shoes.  It was the kind of thing that made a model in a magazine look stunning, but Natalie was five-foot two, she didn’t really have a waist, and the outfit made both of those things very obvious.

“What do you think?” I asked.

“I think it would be very hard to explain to a judge why your agent took the free clothes from the store,” Natalie said.  “I think you could explain it, but it feels like an implicit protection racket and that’s something that would be thrown in your faces.”

“Hey Tristan.  Can I grab one of those whiteboards?” I asked.

“Sure.”

The whiteboard didn’t have the legs or rollers attached yet, so Sveta held it upright for me.  I wrote down the bit about taking the dress ‘on the house’.

“I don’t like the threatening tone, either.  Entrapment has a pretty high bar, but if your agent threatens the targets, implicitly or explicitly, to insinuate herself into that environment, it casts a lot of it into jeopardy.  They’ll turn around and say they had to do these things because a woman in black who can kill people by pointing at them was telling them to.”

I wrote it down.  “We’ll tell her to tone it down.  How long until we can communicate with her, Kenzie?”

Kenzie spun around in her computer chair, pulling her legs close to her chest to keep them out of the way of the desk’s edge.  She stuck out a foot, kicking one of the boxes to the right of the desk.  A bar appeared diagonally across it.  “Sixty percent.  Ummmm.  Fifteen minutes until we can be totally sure they’re not tapped into cell towers or internet.”

“I actually have a lot of concerns about her as an undercover agent.”

“She’s not an undercover agent,” Tristan said.  “She’s just there.  Keeping an eye on things, keeping an ear out.”

“That’s an undercover agent,” Natalie said.

“She isn’t joining any team or participating in anything,” Tristan said.

“No espionage, no immediate risk,” Chris added his voice.

“I have concerns,” Natalie said.  “I’ll just say that.”

Ashley was investigating a bookstore now, on the main screen.  Our testing of the waters.

On the other screen, Prancer was meeting a trio of others.

Kenzie glanced at it and hit a key.  Windows popped up, with three-dimensional models of each face, mask included.  A young woman with a purple hood with nascent antlers sticking up through it, a skinny woman with rusty nails instead of teeth, and a woman in a white jacket with a doctor’s face mask.

I named them.  “Velvet and Nailbiter.  That might be Bitter Pill, but she hasn’t shown her face or been photographed any for the files.  Is there sound?”

Kenzie hit a key on her keyboard.  “It’s going to kill the flying camera’s battery.  We get a minute or two and then I need to bring it home.  Or we get three minutes and I bring it halfway home, and someone has to go over to pick it up wherever I land it.”

“Alright.”

“…up to?” Velvet asked, her voice playing from a speaker.

“Looking around.  She was thinking of moving in, but she didn’t like how long it took us to turn up,” Prancer said.

“She’s aware we were watching her, isn’t she?”

“No.  And she doesn’t give a shit, either.  I outright told her and she was more concerned about the fact we hadn’t shown ourselves sooner.  She’ll be a problem if she sticks around.”

“What kind of problem?”

Tristan, Rain, and Chris had stopped what they were doing and drew close, to listen and watch.

“She was quick to talk about supplanting the local leadership.  We operate with a soft hand and she seems like the sort that respects only firm ones.  There’s more to it, ties into something we’ve heard from… key voices.  I’d rather have that conversation somewhere more private than this.”

“Do you want me to deal with her?” Nailbiter asked, her words whistling through her teeth.

“No,” Prancer said.

“Why am I here then?”

“Because I think you and her are similar.  You respect strength, you know how power works.  You’ve dealt with scary customers.  If we end up interacting with her more, and especially if she moves into the neighborhood, I think we want you to be on point, interacting with her more.”

“I can do that.  She was Slaughterhouse?”

“Briefly, and you were Birdcage.  I think a lot of the same principles apply.”

Nailbiter chuckled, a wheezy, whistling sound.  “I never thought of that.  Probably.”

“If this visitor of ours winds up being a problem, I don’t want you stepping into the fray against her.”

“Why not?” Nailbiter asked.

“Because I don’t know how it would turn out.  I’d rather make moves where I know the result in advance.”

“Whatever,” Nailbiter said.

Velvet made a sound, then drew closer to Prancer, putting her arm around him.  He put his arm around her.  “Not whatever.  I like that kind of thinking.”

“Thank you,” Prancer said.

“I’m curious what that thing is that you don’t want to talk about in the open,” Velvet said.  “Can we go inside?”

“We can.  You’re free to carry on with your day, Nailbiter.  Thanks for coming.  Pill, I want to ask you about some import-export work.  Can you come?”

There was no sound from Bitter Pill, only a nod that the camera caught.

The group split up, Nailbiter walked away.  The trio headed into an alleyway.  The airborne camera moved, trying to get a view of the alley interior, and only saw a door close.

The image changed, as Kenzie typed.  It showed an overhead map of the area.  Kenzie marked the building they’d entered with a red highlight and a little flag icon, then began typing out a note.

“Can you get sound of building interiors?” I asked.

“Kind of not really,” Kenzie said.

“That’s real clear,” Chris said.

“I’ve got one camera with good aerial camouflage that I really don’t want to get damaged because it took a whole weekend and a lot of stuff to put it together.  I have two more that don’t have special camouflage, they’re just painted to match the sky, and I can only use them if the sky is the right color, or if I don’t mind them being spotted.  They could get destroyed and I wouldn’t mind them breaking that much.  It would take me something like two days to get more advanced sound built into any of them, and then I’m putting a lot of eggs in one basket or I’m making a disposable camera not so disposable.”

“But you can do it?” I asked.

“I’m better with visuals, but yeah, I can do it.”

“Even if we decided it was worth building, it would take a while before you had that kind of microphone online,” Rain said.

“It’s a sound camera, not a microphone,” Kenzie said.  “But yeah.  And I’m trying to figure out the teleporters and the longer ranged cameras and I’ve got to fix up some old stuff so it’s ready if we need it, and that’s all stuff I really should do, and if I’m doing that I’m not doing any of the fun stuff.”

Ashley, on her screen, paused to write something down.

LEAVING SOON

She used a small burst of her power to destroy the paper shortly after writing it down.

Kenzie snapshotted the note, then typed it up, adding it to a log in the sidebar, where it joined two other brief notes that Ashley had written on her way into Cedar Point.

“One thing I’ll say about Ashley?” Tristan said.  “She’s provocative.  From what I saw of that conversation, she impugned Prancer’s leadership right off, forced him to prove himself, gave us a sense of the power structure.  She almost had him talking about anti-surveillance measures, but he’s being smart about keeping that mostly under wraps.”

“He probably has some we haven’t heard or talked about,” I said.

“She didn’t make any friends while she was doing all of that,” Rain said.

“We don’t need her to make friends,” Tristan said.  “She’s not going undercover.  Not explicitly.  She’s just… there.  Keeping an eye on things.”

I said, “My instinct is that if she keeps pushing on the level she was, people will get antsy or suspicious.  It might be good to have her hang back, wait a bit before making contact or visiting again.”

“I could swing through,” Chris said.

“We should wait until we’re more settled,” Tristan said.

“There are actually a few obstacles to figure out,” I said. “Sorry to take over the one whiteboard here.”

“We got a lot of the whiteboards because we thought we’d have one for each member of the team, and one for you, Victoria,” Rain said.  “Two for Kenzie and two for me because we’re tinkers and you can never give tinkers too many surfaces to write stuff down on.”

“Yus,” Kenzie said.  Her legs were kicking a mile a minute as she focused on her computers, a box to her right and the projector box on the far side of her desk, the camera images playing on the wall.  One of the split-screen images showing the overhead of the building Prancer had entered turned red, blacked out, and then disappeared, shrinking down to leave the other image, which was tracking Nailbiter.

“Can you project the faces you had onto one of the whiteboards?” Sveta asked.

Kenzie brought up images, then moved the projected image until it overlapped one side of the whiteboard.  She had to look over one shoulder as she moved the mouse to make sure the image was in place.

Sveta dropped her hand, and used a tendril-wrapped marker to slowly trace out major facial features, hair, and the outlines of the masks for Prancer.

I looked at Natalie.

Natalie’s forehead, perpetually wrinkled, wrinkled further as she raised her eyebrows, looking from whiteboard to whiteboard, screen to screen.  “I recommend moving slowly at first.  I’ll give you some general, not-a-lawyer advice on things for free.  It’s interesting and it’s relevant to what I want to do in the long run.”

“Okay,” I said.  “That’s great.  I’m not sure how slow the initial moves are going to be, though.  The team needs to get some things out of the way before they have more freedom.”

Sveta turned her head.  “The stuff Foresight said?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “We’re situated on the very outskirts of Cedar Point, here, and you can’t move into the area until a few hurdles are crossed.  You can’t really have Ashley or Chris spend any extended time in the area until the Speedrunners, Birdbrain and Braindead are dealt with, and we can’t move this headquarters into enemy territory if they’re going to find it and trash the place.  In an ideal world, you’ll want to do something about Tattletale’s involvement too.”

“I’ve been thinking of Tattletale as an inevitable thing we’ll have to deal with,” Rain said.

“There are things you can do,” I said.  “We can discuss those things when Natalie is gone.”

“Actually,” Natalie said.  “I should probably go.  I have a class tomorrow morning and then work at the Wardens’ building tomorrow afternoon.”

A class.  I felt a tiny bit of resentment over the fact that she had that.

“Alright.  Thank you for coming and saying hi,” I said.

“It’s interesting,” she said, forehead wrinkling in that worried way.  “I really recommend you be careful.”

“As careful as is possible,” Sveta said.

Natalie nodded.  “It was nice to meet you all.  You have my number if you need it.”

There was a chorus of farewells.  I walked Natalie to the side door of the building, where the fire escape was.  The way down was steep, and she kept one hand on her little messenger bag and the other on the railing as she made her way down, bringing one foot down to a step, then bringing the other foot down to the same step.

Her entire demeanor made me feel faintly anxious.  I didn’t have a great read on her yet, she’d spent ten minutes at the temporary headquarters here, and most of it had been spent observing.

It was something of a relief to have her available if we needed her, and it was a different kind of relief to have her gone.  The others, too, seemed to relax a bit.

“Natalie seemed nice enough,” Sveta said.

“She did,” I said.

I took a moment to get Natalie’s number off my phone and put it on one corner of the whiteboard I’d been using, the whiteboard leaning against the wall.  I then wrote down Gilpatrick’s, with a note beneath it.  For emergencies only.

The Patrol was a resource, Gilpatrick was one too.  I didn’t want to overuse that card, though.  Gilpatrick had already been too kind with being a reference for me while I hunted for work.

With those numbers in the top corner, joined by my own, I wrote down ‘Hurdles’.

We’d already covered the basics of the major players on the scene.  Speedrunners, Birdbrain, Braindead, Bitter Pill.  There were others that we’d learn about, I was sure.  Prancer was the closest thing we had to a kingpin that needed toppling.

In a hypothetical world where everything went perfectly, I wouldn’t have minded getting Tattletale as a part of things.  I wasn’t sure my hopes were that high.

I put them down as the people the group needed to knock down before they could fully set up.

I wrote down ‘Team: Needs name & brand.’

“Ooh,” Kenzie said.

She was watching me write stuff down, her attention no longer on her computers.

“Here,” Tristan said, approaching my whiteboard.  He held it up, and then created the orange sparks.  They solidified, becoming the legs that raised the whiteboard up to a convenient level.

“There’s no rush to name ourselves,” Sveta said.

“No rush,” I said.  “But it needs doing.  It’ll be easier to interact with other heroes once you have something.  Are you taking a cape name?”

“Probably,” she said.  “I’m not sure I want to go the doll route.  A little too similar to Mannequin.  A lot of the reaching, grabbing names are already taken.”

“Brainstorm, think about it, see what feels comfortable,” I said.  “Kenzie and Tristan, you guys too.  You probably can’t use your old cape names.”

“I was Optics,” Kenzie said.  “I can’t use my old name, I don’t think.  PRT owned it.”

“Exactly,” I said.

“I think I can use Capricorn,” Tristan said.  “When we reached out to the first Capricorn for permission, they signed over the rights to Byron and me, not to Reach.”

“You’re sure?” I asked.

“Ninety-nine percent sure.”

“That simplifies things,” I said.

“Observer, Pupil, Scrutinizer,” Kenzie said.

“Those are terrible,” Chris said.

“Um.  Watcher.  Eyewitness, Gape?”

“Oh yeah,” Chris said.  “Gape.  That doesn’t have connotations at all.”

“Beholder?” Kenzie asked, her eye on her computer screen.  “Spectator.  Specs.  Voyeur?”

“Voyeur.  Perfect,” Chris said, filling his voice with sarcasm.  “Little Kenzie watching through the window while you change.  We could make that a thing.”

“What kind of thing?” Rain asked.

“You could be Groper,” Chris said.  “Sveta could be Hentai or Tentacle Love or something.”

“Ew,” Sveta said.  “And lame to go there.”

Chris smiled, seemingly not bothered that he’d bothered Sveta.  “I could be…”

“Short and curly?” Rain asked.

There were a few chuckles.

“And Victoria, she needs a name and she’s sort of a member of the team,” Chris said.

“I’m shocked, just shocked, at how Chris finally starts participating more when the rude stuff comes up,” Sveta said.

“I’m not,” Kenzie said.  “That seems like it’s one hundred percent Chris.”

I smiled.  Chris had given me an in, and if I was going to get along with these guys, I needed to put something out there.  “If you want to give me a vaguely rude name, tie it to my attention-grabbing aura, me being hard to crack when my defenses are up?”

“You have an idea?” Chris asked.

“Pearl,” I said.

“That’s… really subtle,” he said.  “Kind of wimpy.”

I shrugged.

“I don’t get it,” Kenzie said.

“I like it because Kenzie doesn’t get it, so I don’t feel weird saying it around her,” I said.

“That’s a good line of thinking,” Sveta said.  “I approve.”

She’d stuck out her fist, and I stuck out mine to meet it.  “Thank you.”

“I actually agree with Chris,” Kenzie said.  She’d turned around and was looking something up online.  “Pearl is pretty lame as innuendo goes.”

“But it works,” I said.  “It fits.  That has to count for something.”

There was a throat-clearing noise, interrupting the back-and-forth.  All heads turned toward Tristan.

“I think I have all of you beat,” Tristan said.

“Of course you do,” Rain said.

“Even if you didn’t have us beat, you’d say you had us beat,” Chris said.  “And then you’d ruin the joke by insisting you win even when yours is lame.”

“I’m one hundred percent positive I win,” Tristan said.  “I have the best rude name.  Guarantee you.”

“One hundred percent is pretty confident,” Sveta said.

“I’m one hundred and ten percent confident, even,” Tristan said.

“Out with it, then,” Chris said.

Tristan straightened, fixed his armor at the front, and cleared his throat, drawing it out.

“You’re setting us up for disappointment,” Rain said.

Tristan cleared his throat again, exaggerated, until everyone from Sveta to Chris was rolling their eyes.

“Wet and Horny Teens,” Tristan said.

It said something that nobody wanted to give him a laugh at that.  It was Chris who cracked first, falling out of his seat before the impact let the initial guffaw loose.  I chuckled, half at Tristan, and half at how much Chris seemed to be enjoying this.

“That’s atrocious,” Sveta said, but she was smiling.

“Tristan is pretty atrocious, so it makes a lot of sense coming from him,” Rain said.  “It says a lot that that’s his idea of subtle.”

“It’s subtle like a brick through a window,” Sveta said.

“Come on,” Tristan said.  “You guys give me so much shit, you don’t give me any credit.  I deserve a win for this one.  It’s great.”

Chris was on the floor still, pounding one fist on the floorboards while holding in his laughs.

I looked over at Kenzie, who had her back to the group, her face in her hands as she held in her laughs.

Immature, stupid, but so valuable to have the little bonding moment.  I had a smile on my face as I returned to the whiteboard.

My eye returned to the people the group needed to take down, the ones who were in the way, or who were set up in such a way as to make the covert information gathering fail from the get-go.

I wrote down ‘Rain’s situation’.

He needed protection.  I added the three members of his cluster, and then drew an arrow, looping back to Tattletale.

The smile dropped away from my face as I stared at her name.  It kept going back to her.  She was a massive obstacle.

Sveta came to stand next to me, looking at my whiteboard.  “Distract me from these perverts.”

I stuck out my marker, putting a dot beside Tattletale’s name.

“You’ve got a bit of a grudge,” Sveta said.

“I’ve got a lot of a grudge,” I said.  “A lot of things would be simpler if we could do something about her.  I’m thinking…”

“You have an idea?” Sveta asked.

“Yeah,” I said.  I turned around.  “I have an idea.  I don’t suppose you have any contacts or favors you can pull in?  With capes, specifically?”

“Maybe,” Sveta said.  “Weld, and Weld’s friends.  I’m kind of reluctant to go there though.”

I nodded.  It made sense that she was reluctant.  Sveta wanted to stand on her own.  Going that route would be the opposite of what she wanted.

“What’s this?” Rain asked.

“Friends, contacts,” Sveta said.  “Capes we could reach out to.  Victoria has an idea.”

“I do,” Kenzie said, perking up some as she caught wind of our conversation.  “Or I might.  I can try.  What’s this for?”

“Making a first move, in a way that won’t give the lawyer headaches,” I said.  “It’s not going to make us any friends though.”

“Seems to be an emerging pattern, that,” Rain said.

If we aren’t in a position to behead the snake, maybe we can de-fang it.

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Glare – Interlude 3

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Dot moved slowly and carefully through the store.  She placed a hand on the floor for the added balance and weight distribution, then slid the hand left to right and back again, pushing it through a layer of dust that gathered and tumbled onto the back of her hand.

She was glad for the fingerless glove she wore, because it let her feel the finer details while keeping it clean and warm.  The floor was cool and moist.  The exterior wall of the store was letting the rain in, and the rain traced a path through one portion of the store, cutting thin rivers through the dust.  Wet in places, dry in places, but persistently clammy and dirty.  Perpetually colorless.

It was the lack of color that got to her the most.

It was one of the big stores, where everything was gathered together into tall stacks and piles beneath and on metal racks.  The lights were fluorescent, and they flickered.  The buzzing sounds the lights made were more constant than the light.

A menacing sound.  Menacing, glaring lights.

It was safer to climb on the stacks of cardboard boxes than it was to walk on the floor or to make contact with the wood and metal of the shelves.

She paused as she climbed to a higher shelf, figuring out how best to ascend while minimizing dangerous contact.  Finally, she decided to take a risk by grabbing a metal cross-bar, hauling herself up, and setting her feet on a series of plastic bottles in cardboard trays, stacked higher than a man was tall.

She couldn’t read well, but she could recognize the labels.  Pills.  Vitamins, probably.  If these were here, then there might be better offerings close by.  She searched the nearby piles until she found cardboard boxes with cartoon characters on the front.  Pictures of cartoon character heads were beside not-cartoon images in shiny monocolor shapes.

Dot opened a box, careful not to make noise, and fished inside.  A plastic bottle within, and inside the plastic bottle… a colorful assortment of gummy vitamins.

She fished out the contents and pushed them into her mouth until she could barely close her jaw.  The artificial taste overpowered her nose and mouth.  Her eyes rolled back into her head with the effort of chewing.

A loud noise made her freeze.

The doors had been opened.  She heard loud footsteps.

She climbed deeper into the stacks of vitamins, listening and watching.

“Hellooooo!” the call was drawn out.  Dot tensed, listening as the greeting bounced around the building interior.

Dot waited.

“Anyone here!?”

She waited, silent, peering through the gaps between the cardboard boxes and plastic bottles.

Another voice could be heard saying, “Lights are on and nobody’s home?”

“They could be out, or a group of refugees might have stopped in on their way to the portal.  They could have set up power and scavenged before leaving things behind for others.”

Dot winced with every tromp of boot on tiled floor.  She could hear people rummaging, pulling down boxes and tearing into the contents.  Things fell to the ground.

She changed locations, putting some distance between herself and them.  It didn’t help; their explorations meant they drew nearer to her as she lurked on a high shelf.

“…names you can’t pronounce, grab that first.”

“Why?  Preservatives?”

“Preservatives, yep.  Keep a close eye out for the products with the wrong names.”

“Wrong names?”

“If it’s not called soap, but a ‘cleansing bar’ that means it’s so loaded with crud that they weren’t legally allowed to call it soap.  That shit is gold to us, because the chemicals in it mean it lasts.  If it lasts, it can be resold back home.”

“Soap goes bad?”

“It can.  I’d rather take the misnamed shit that lasts than take something more legit home and find out it went bad.”

“Good point.”

“We’ll teach you all the tricks.  It’s a good gig, believe me.”

“Yeah.  Hey, are those fridges?”

“Yeah.  I wouldn’t get your hopes up.  Power was probably out for months to a year before someone got this building back on line.”

“You think they have ice cream?  Or those push-freezes?”

“You don’t want ice cream, remember?  You want-”

“Frozen dairy-like desserts or something.”

“Now you get it.”

Dot watched as the younger man jogged across the floor to what was almost certainly his imminent demise.  He opened the glass door to the fridge display and began picking his way through cardboard boxes.

She could see the green lights appearing in the background of the display, flicking on one by one, apparently at random.

The older man noticed, stopping in his tracks.

“Jackson!” he screamed the word.

The machine rammed through the wall.  Six feet tall, six feet wide, with two legs, it slammed past metal racks, past food in cardboard boxes, through the glass doors, through the metal that the doors were attached to, and into Jackson.

Both legs broken.  From the way he hit the ground, his arm might have been broken too.

One mechanical leg thrust out, then dragged Jackson back into the hole in the wall.  Another reached out and began depositing a thin white fluid on the bloodstain.

Jackson’s mentor was running and the machine was just starting to clean up the blood when two more belatedly thrust their way out through the walls.  They paused where they were, seemed to decide what they were doing, and then used wheels on their underbellies to roll along the floor, the two forelimbs out and ready.

Gaps appeared in the face of each machine as they drew closer.  Jackson’s mentor shouted to friends elsewhere in the building as he rounded a corner in the shelves and stacks.

He made the mistake of grabbing onto a metal strut at the edge of one set of shelves.  The face of the strut moved, changing in angle, and jerked upward.  A machine had taken a blade and camouflaged it to look like the red-painted metal surface, and it managed to carve deep into Jackson’s mentor’s hand.  The machine that controlled the blade moved.  It wore a cardboard box.

Dot made a mental note of that as she remained frozen, watching.

The people were running, gathering together.  They narrowly evaded the machines, using corners and their small size to stay clear as the machines from the fridge wall careened down the wide aisles.

It didn’t matter.  They were already dead.

She could hear the gasps and shrieks.  Here and there, weapons were deployed.  Sprays of darts, more blades from innocuous surfaces, wire.

The gasps became more numerous, the sounds strained, and the activity of the scavengers slowed.  The ones who realized what was happening didn’t have the words to report it to the others.

Gas.  Invisible, odorless.  They gasped and used everything they had to try to draw air into their lungs, but the machines were putting something heavier than oxygen on the ground floor of the store.  Now they drowned.

Dot had lost family to this very same thing.  She had seen how painful it was, and she had known how painful it was to watch someone she cared about die that way.

She took her time picking through the boxes of vitamins, putting them in her bag.  It was nice that the gummy vitamins didn’t rattle.  She picked up other things as she navigated the shelves, including bandages and some random bottles.

An explosion drew her attention.

Someone in a costume.

Another explosion, followed by two more, and one of the big machines from the fridge wall collapsed.

Apparently alerted by one of the dying, the woman in costume climbed up onto the shelving units, to get to higher ground where there was air.  She threw a blue light out of her hand, and it detonated on impact with the next machine.

Back at the fridges, some of the fridges and surrounding wall had already been reconstructed.  Two more of the large cube-shaped machines squeezed through the gaps in the wall that were still there, before getting their wheels under them and hurrying in the direction of the woman in costume.

Dot moved closer to the ground to get a look.  It was important to know just how far gone this building was.

The entire area behind the fridges was gone.  Green flashing lights, wires, computers and metal twisted into shapes that helped it to provide a framework.  Machines were working slowly and steadily to refine and develop things.

In the opposite corner of the building, the hero climbed behind a stack of cans.  A spray of flechettes punctured the paper with no resistance- there was no tin to the cans, only the labels and the haphazardly perched tops.  The machines had already collected everything and then put things back so it looked like it hadn’t been touched.

The heroine fell and hit the floor.  She had been darted, punctured across the face and shoulder.

You die too, Dot observed.

Against all odds, though, the heroine had managed to hold her breath.  She got to her feet and she ran.

Dot climbed carefully, avoiding suspicious surfaces as she navigated the piles.  She kept one eye out for things she could use and one eye on the heroine.

A box cutter, left on the surface by a past employee.  Useful.  Dot grabbed it.

One of the machines shifted position.  Two legs on the ground in front of it, backside resting on the ground.  Its face opened wide, and a salvo of missiles fired forth.  Ten, twelve, metal canisters with streams of vapor painting the air in their wake as they flew in lazy arcs or even tumbled through the air before getting their bearings.

However haphazard they looked, they didn’t hit anything they weren’t supposed to.  They traced courses between stacks of pasta and boxes of cereal, through the struts of metal shelves, and through the two-inch gaps between shelf and the floor below.

The heroine shot at shelves, bringing down the contents in showers that might block the missiles.  Some missiles detonated.  Others navigated the falling debris, and the heroine shot at those next.

Some missiles didn’t detonate, but they weren’t missiles in actuality.  They were tricks.

The heroine backed up, then saw the two new arrivals, two more of the big ‘soldier’ machines.  She ran for the door.

But the machines had had her since she had let them know she existed.

The heroine made it to the door, and then a metal skewer harpooned her hand.

Blow it up.  Lose the hand, Dot thought.  She realized she was rooting for the heroine despite herself.

The heroine fought, and she’d had to stop running to fight.  More skewers impaled her forearm, then her other hand.

She used her power, she shot at shelves, but she lacked the angle.  The machines reeled in, using the wires attached to the skewers, and the heroine was hauled into the air, arms out to either side, legs dangling.

Dot sat, and she waited.  She ate more gummy multivitamins and she observed the machines.  She watched as the mess was slowly cleaned up, boxes pulled back into position, products lined up, and sections of floor that had been shattered by missiles were fit together like jigsaw pieces.

Here and there, deep in the craters and crevices, the ‘trick’ missiles had delivered payloads that weren’t explosive.  They looked like veins of metal in rock.  In weeks and months, they would ‘hatch’, revealing the machinery that had built itself within.  For now, they were paved over.  Smaller machines filled in cracks with something white that would harden, with daubs of black for the speckles in the tile.  A blade scraped away the excess, and a small nozzle provided a covering of dust to match surrounding floor.

A close eye would notice where the floor was different, but it would have to be close and careful.

The machines weren’t too challenging to destroy.  Dot’s groups had sometimes destroyed them.  The trick was that they set in roots wherever they went.  Each time they reached a new place, they would keep emerging from that place, from walls and floor and rock and tree.  It took care and attention to get the machine out of each of those things, and while that care was being taken, machines elsewhere would emerge, march, and make inroads along the flanks.

Green lights here and there went dark, the machines hibernating.  Dot deemed herself safe to move.

She stuck to the high ground, while the still-active machines continued their work below.  She eased herself closer to the heroine, and paused, observing.  Here and there, the woman kicked or struggled, and the machines didn’t respond.  Blood streamed down and dripped from her toes to her floor.  Each time blood accumulated enough to drip and make a small splash on the floor, a machine zoomed out to spray at it and then wiped it away before returning to its hiding place beneath a shelf.

Dot leaped.  She landed on the woman’s shoulder, and the woman’s face twisted, contorting into a wordless scream at the sudden, added weight on her injured arms and hands.

Then the woman looked at Dot, and her expression changed again.  Fear, alarm.

Dot was small, only about as large as the woman’s head, and she was colorful.  Her clothes had been stolen from dolls and pieced together with diligent care.  Her tail with its fur tuft on the end swished with the box-cutter it held..

“Help me.”

Dot shook her head.

“I have people who are counting on me.  I have a sick sibling, they need me to bring in the money from this work.”

“I have people too,” Dot whispered.  She stuck her tongue up to pick her nose, then drew it back into her mouth.  “Some sick too.”

The heroine made a small sound, bowing her head.  “I’ll help you, I’ll- I’ll convince people to give you medical care.  We can trade.”

Dot reached out with one hand, and she pushed the tab that extended the blade from the box-cutter.

“I’ll do anything,” the heroine said.

Dot paused.

“Anything,” the heroine said, seizing on the pause.

“My king,” Dot said.  “Where?”

“Your king?”

“Yes.”

“I can take you.”

“No you can’t,” Dot said.  She hugged the box cutter against her chest with two spotted arms, red spots on yellow-white flesh.  “You die here.  I’m not big or strong.  Machines are.  If I go for help then you dead before I’m back.”

“Please.”

“Tell me where my king is and I’ll be fast.  Merciful.”

“I don’t- this isn’t about me.  Can you- can you let them know the Machine Army is this far north?  They shouldn’t be on this side of the Raleigh chasm.”

“They kill me on sight.”

“Find a way?  Please?  I’ll tell you where your king is, I help you, but you need to tell them.  We need the Wardens to stop them before they get their roots in.”

Too late, Dot thought to herself.

The woman seemed to take it as assent, when it wasn’t.  “The Wardens’ headquarters, probably.  It’s- it’s on Gimel, where a lot of the trains go.  The train nearest here goes there.  You’ll want to look for a building with a statue of a knight with a sword at the front.”

Dot took a two-handed grip on her box cutter.

“Tell the Wardens.  Let them know, so they can take measures.  Tell them Burnish said it.  It might save your King’s life.”

Dot paused.

“Yes,” she said.

Then she cut into the woman’s throat, until blood sprayed from the artery.  She opened her mouth wide, until the teeth on the upper half of her mouth pointed in the same direction as the teeth on the lower jaw, and bit in deep, locking her mouth in place.  She swallowed the blood, gorging herself.

Vitamins, protein, nourishment.  She would fill herself here, then visit her brothers and sisters.  Then she would set out on her quest.

A distance below them, machines washed away the blood.  After the heroine had been kept up and out of the way long enough to ensure her power wouldn’t be a problem, she would be cleaned up too.

Dot felt energized, her focus as sharp as the box-cutter.  She knew where their king was.

King Rinke.  Nilbog.

She clung to the underside of the train.  The ground was a blur beneath her, periodically studded with rocks and branches.

Those of her kind who ventured into the human’s civilization didn’t tend to return.  She knew it was a risk.  She knew she had a one percent chance when it came to this.  She’d said her goodbyes accordingly.

Blackspot would be left in charge.  He’d been unwell lately, and he might be too unwell to lead their group.  He was thirteen and that made him old, and after their discussion, her communicating in broken English and gesture and him communicating in chirp, he’d agreed.  She suspected he’d made the decision because he hoped she would bring their king back somehow.  It was Blackspot’s only chance at being recycled and made into new life.

Lump would be second in command.  Lump had been injured a year ago, after running into humans.  He barely moved now.  When he died, the group would be more free to move, but they wouldn’t leave him behind until then.

Lump was one of the only big ones that were left.

Dot used her tail to fish out a gummy vitamin from inside her tunic where it sat close to her belly.  It stuck to her skin and had to be peeled away.  She chewed it slowly and carefully.

She was thirsty.  She hadn’t anticipated how dehydrated she would get.  The chewing got her saliva flowing, though some unfortunately flowed out through the corners of her wide mouth.

There was a hole that smelled like shit, leading into the train interior, but she didn’t want to climb up into there.  Shit didn’t bother her, but the smell would hurt her ability to stay undetected.

She was a scout and a spy, a messenger to a king in captivity.

She would endure.  She clung to the bolts and bars, arching her back when she saw a branch or rock that might scrape at her, and she chewed.

The train slowed.  She shifted her position, ears reorienting to catch more sound.  Every detail she could pick up would matter, now.  She was in hostile territory.

The train rolled to a stop.  Doors hissed as they opened, and the crowd began to make their way out.  Dot peered between the wheels and up, to see the refugees and the scavengers, as well as the men and women and boys and girls in uniforms who came and went.

She dropped to the tracks, and she moved to the dark corner, crawling through the dust and grime to help cover up the color of her spots and outfit.

Too many for her to slip across the platform.  Would she have an opening?  She crept along, looking for vents, for cracks, or anything where she could slip through.

Too new a building, too maintained.  This was nothing like the kingdom or the ruins she had known during her five years of existence.

The only time she had seen this many humans was when their kingdom had been invaded.  She had been aware as each set of humans boarded at different stops, but for all of them to get off here, for there to be no more tracks?  This had to be the end.  Their destination and hers.

She trembled with anticipation as the stream of people from the train slowed.

Boots were more serious than shoes.  Matching boots were most serious.  She associated matching boots with the men with guns that worked with the people in costume.  When men with matching boots and people in costume got together, it was often to kill her kind.

She would save her king.

She crept along the underside of the ledge, where the platform jutted toward the train.  When the train left, would she be exposed?

She would do anything for her king.

Her weapon was ready.  The box cutter.  It still smelled like the blood of the heroine.  Of Burnish.

Thinking of the blood made her think again about how thirsty she was.

“Christ,” one of the boots said.  “Incoming.”

Someone else groaned.

“Good afternoon,” a woman said.

“Afternoon,” was the curt response.

“You’ve got a thtowaway.”

Dot froze.

“A thtowaway?” was the response.  There was a sound of an impact, light.

“Thomething thmall.”

“Is this like when you had us stop the train, put the entire city on hold, made us get the bomb disposal bot under the train with a camera, all to show us some squirrel roadkill caught in the machinery?”

“I’m here for a reathon.  Thith ith what I do.”

“Every time you jerk our chains you lose trust, and you’ve jerked our chains a lot.  You haven’t done much to regain that lost trust.”

“I wouldn’t jerk your chain, Adam,” the woman said.  “I thpecialithe in noticing thmall thingth, and I know how thmall and thort your chain is.”

There was laughter.

Dot wondered if she had any options.  There hadn’t been anything she could use to disguise herself as roadkill.  What would she do if the train started moving?

“Can you actually see short, uh, chains?” another woman asked.

“No comment.”

“I think we have a camera we can drop to the track.  It should be up at the station proper.  We can do a quick search.  You want to grab it, Adam?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“I’ll make a call, ask them to keep the train put while we search.  Stay close, Rat?”

“The name’th Ratcatcher.  I’ll thtay clothe.”

Dot made her way along the car, until she found one of the holes near the shit-hole.  This hole didn’t lead up into the car, there was a grate barring her way, catching hair and other gunk, but it was just wide enough for her to squeeze most of the way into.

She waited, listening, until she heard the clatter.

Her role in the community had been a scout, to start with.  She had ended up a leader after a while, but she was still a scout at heart.  Exploring new places, figuring out ways to deal with traps, with the enemies that lurked out there.

She had dealt with the Machine Army.  This little toy wouldn’t stop her.

With clawed toes and the opposable toe on her foot, she clawed some of the hair out of the drain.

Patience.  Care.  Machines were predictable, once they had revealed their tricks.  The challenge was to find the tricks without being discovered or caught.

She watched as the machine passed under her.  Dropping from her hiding place, almost noiseless, she landed right behind it.  She used all of her strength to tip it over, then wrapped the hair around the wheel and reached up, tying it to a bit of metal at the base of the hole, where a passing rock or branch had made the metal rougher.

Snagged, caught, but in a believable way.

She darted away, as voices commented on the situation, trying to riddle out what had happened.  A human dropped down between the platform and the train itself, ducking low to peer between wheels, looking for the little camera drone.

The platforms were mostly empty, and most of the watchful eyes were focused on the little drone and the issue.

She stuck her head up, ears low and close to her body, tail swishing beneath her, and then made a break for a vent.

A human moved, making a run for her.  Shoes slid on the smooth floor of the station platform as the human put herself between Dot and the vent.

“Not so fatht,” the woman said, as Dot skidded on the floor, stopping.

The woman was small, as humans went, and she wore a costume that covered most of her body.  Her mask was roughly cone-shaped, but the paper or wire that kept the mask pointy had been dented or damaged at one point, and the nose drooped a bit.  Rodent-like, with ears sticking out and back at the side, flat against the side of her head.  The eyes behind the eye-holes were large, dark, and moist.  If Dot unfocused her eyes a bit, it looked like there was nothing behind the eyeholes.  Dark hair draped around in front of the ears and down the back of the woman’s head.  As pointy as the mask was, she wore a hood or a hat with a point going the opposite direction.

She wore a jacket, denim, with a threadbare collar, a striped shirt beneath, and a thin chain belt with mousetraps dangling from it.  Her socks were striped as well, extending high enough that they just barely met her denim cut-off shorts.

Dot was willing to admit that if she was going to die, at least it was at the hands of someone with a good aesthetic.

“You thall not path,” Ratcatcher said.

Dot remained where she was, frozen.

“Can you talk?” Ratcatcher asked.

“Yes,” Dot said.

“I like your colorth.”

Dot stretched out her hands in front of her, looking at her arms.

“I bet you’re beautiful when clean,” Ratcatcher said.

“Yes,” Dot said.  She was.  She wasn’t interesting looking, but she could talk and she could use her hands, feet, and tail, well, and she had some pretty patterns: her namesake spots.

“I want you to go home,” Ratcatcher said.  “If we fight, I’ll win.  I thpecialize in dealing with your type.”

“I’m here to deliver message,” Dot said.  “That all.”

“What methage?”

“Burnish.  She went to a store.  Machine Army was there.  She wanted me to tell.  North of the Raleigh chasm.  They were surprised.”

“We thought it was your people,” Ratcatcher said.

“No,” Dot said.  “I watched.”

“You didn’t help?”

“Too small, too weak.”

“That’th no ekthuthe.  Burnith was a good one.  Nice to me.  I’ll mith her.”

Dot remained where she was.  She looked back.  No sign that the men who were investigating under the train even realized she wasn’t there anymore.

“Thank you for your methage.”

“I’ll go now,” Dot said.  “But can I have water?  I’m so thirsty.”

“Come.  Vending machine.  Have you theen thethe?”

Dot had, but she shook her head.

Ratcatcher held out a hand.  Dot was wary, but she ventured closer.

“Thay hello to Raththputin,” Ratcatcher said.  “Thtay in my pocket for now.”

In another time, another world, Dot might have stayed.

But she had a king to rescue.  A king adored by his people.  A truly great man.

As Ratcatcher reached into a pocket, change jingling, Dot saw opportunity.  She leaped for the ground, went under the vending machine, and then ran along the wall, darting for the vent.

Big people were often slow.  Ratcatcher wasn’t.  Fast reflexes.  Fast in general.

But Dot was faster.  Had the vent not already had a corner peeled away, Dot wouldn’t have been able to make it inside.  As it was, she ducked inside, and Ratcatcher’s gloved fingers only managed to seize the ends of the hairs at the end of Dot’s tail.  Dot hauled herself free.

Ratcatcher moved her mask aside, fingers going to her mouth, and then whistled.  “Trouble!”

But Dot was already in her element.

She ran through dusty vents, navigating the guts of the building.  Flashlights periodically shone into the vents, illuminating areas.  She avoided most of those beams of lights, going this way and that, until she found another convenient point, where two pieces of metal weren’t flush together.  She squeezed through and pulled her bag after her.

It was another minute until she realized two things.

Ratcatcher had friends.

The convenient openings in the vents and leading from vent to the inside of the walls of the station were there because of those friends.

Dot had dealt with rats before, but these rats were the sort that were very ugly and very large.  In the right light, they might have been mistaken for very ugly, small dogs.  Dot had always liked that story when the King read it from the scary children’s book.  The children got the dog and the dog turned out to be a Mexican sewer rat.

These rats were that sort, apparently, and they smelled like Ratcatcher’s pocket had.

She drew her box-cutter, extending the blade, and sized up her opponents.

Three rats against her and her boxcutter.

It might have been an even fight, but she had her devotion to her king on her side.

She would rescue her king.

The building that held her king was fitting for the stories.  The statue lacked color, but it had the right atmosphere.  She was bleeding but she told herself that this was how things were in those stories.  The heroine at the foot of the castle of the evil empire, the king in captivity.  She hurt from the battles already fought and faced the greatest challenge yet.

Getting inside wasn’t hard, but getting up was.  The vents were barred and had cameras, and people were already on guard when she arrived, keeping a close eye on those same vents.

She could only wait.

Patience was essential to a scout.  The fact that every inch of her hurt from her fight with the sewer rats made the patience a little different.  She had been hurt before, and she had been hurt in a way that made each breath an effort.

Breathe in, breathe out.  If she did that once, she was one step closer to being better and being okay.  She knew it was a long journey, but surviving was important.

Surviving was especially important now.

He was close.

She would free him, and he would usher in a new age of greatness for her and her people.  She might even have a place at his side, where she could be close to him at all times.

She wasn’t even sure what that would be like.  She had been ecstatic when she had seen mere glimpses of him, back in the old Kingdom.

Breathe in, hurt, breathe out, hurt again, feel the scratches and the bites when she shifted position.  Breathe in, breathe out, double check she wasn’t anywhere she might be found.

She licked at her wounds, and she licked at the dust and grit, so her colors would be bolder.  She licked her hands and ran wet hands over her hair, smoothing it.

She had arrived early in the morning, on the train, and now she waited until the sun was high in the sky.  Each breath was a step closer to wellness and moving again.

She dug in her small pack for the bandages.  They were the small kind, with sticky sides.  She had brought the colorful ones with cartoons on them for luck, and now she placed them over her wounds, along with little bits of cotton and fabric to soak up the blood.

It seemed like there were more people who came and went than there were stars in the sky, but her senses might have been playing tricks on her.

The trickle of people slowed.  When some made early returns, they smelled like food.  Midday meals, then.  She waited until everyone was back and working, sluggish from the food in their bellies, and then she made her move.

Up the underside of the stairs to the second floor.  Into a crack between a booth and the wall.  Up to the third floor, in a similar way.

There was security guarding the way from the fourth floor to the fifth.  A commotion gave her a chance to slip through.  It helped that she was small and it helped more that she was experienced.

Now she explored.  The fifth floor didn’t seem much like a prison.  The sixth was closer, with more security, more computers, more monitors.

She heard a voice, and she caught a familiar name.

“…Rinke.”

“I don’t see the point.  He’s a broken man.”

Dot clutched at her chest, just over her heart.

“He’s a great man.  Him being broken or not broken doesn’t change that.”

“I don’t see the point, Riley.  I don’t think I’d gain anything, and I don’t think the people I care the most about would be very happy about me hanging around with him.”

“You hang around with me.”

“Someone has to check your work.”

“Whatever.  I’m going to go talk to him.  I think you should join us.  You can check my work after, we’ll make it fast.”

The pair started to walk away.  Dot checked the coast was clear, then followed.

Up to the seventh floor, then higher.  Her body ached, every one of her movements harder than they had been before she had started climbing up to the top of this monstrous building, but she knew she was close.

A dining hall, with lots of tables, and a kitchen off to one side.  It smelled like a hundred different foods.

The two girls didn’t talk much as they walked.  The younger one was on the cusp of adulthood, but she smelled like blood and sickness.  She was blonde, wearing a dress.

The older one had crossed the threshold to adulthood.  Her arms were striped or marked somehow, almost completely covered with freckles, and her brown hair was tied back into a ponytail.  She wore jeans and a top with spaghetti straps, and had a jacket folded over her arms, which she held close to her body.

“You don’t find it sad?  Spending time around him like this?”

“Sad?” Riley asked.  “No.  It’s… reassuring.”

“How?”

“It’s a crazy, fucked up, upside-down, inside-out world.  I think he understands that.  He lives in that world.  Not in a fantasy version of it.”

“It seems to me like he lives entirely in the fantasy.”

Riley chuckled.

There was another security checkpoint.  The two passed through, and Dot was forced to hang back, watching them go through.  She couldn’t pass herself.  It was sealed off like the old kingdom had been.  What was the word?

Quarantined.

She found vents, and she climbed through the vents.  The vents, too, were quarantine-sealed.

She hated that she was so close.  Her king was in arm’s reach, and she couldn’t touch him.  He was talking, right this moment, and she couldn’t hear him.

Patience, she told herself.

Patience.  A scout had to know patience.  She was here to free him, to give him power again, even if it meant him taking her apart and turning her into another kind of life that he could use.  Achieving that goal had always been something that would take time.

She searched vents, and she found one that had a gap she could use.  She worked at it, wedging her box-cutter into the gap and wiggling it until she could get fingers in the gap.  She used strength to widen it further, felt air escape through the rubber seal she’d peeled away, and knew she’d broken through the quarantine protection.

With more work, she was able to get an entire arm through.  Screws scraped against metal as she worked them through.

She found her way into the walls, and from the walls, she found her way to a double-layered window with wire mesh between layers.  She could see glimpses of the scene from an angle, distorted, by peering through the side of the thick glass pane.

The girl and the woman sitting at a table, separated from King Rinke by another thick glass wall.

Almost frantic, Dot searched the interior of the walls, looking for gaps, anything she could use.  Everything was sealed, everything secured.

The answer ended up being the power outlet.  She worked at the outlet, clawed at the seal that cemented it to the wall, and moved it enough that sound could get through.  Later, when it was quiet, she could get through too.

“…a Red Queen and an Alice, then.”

“Or you could call me by my name.”

“I’m quite fond of Alice.  She was a chaotic force in the worlds she visited, you know.  She questioned, she challenged.  A revolutionary in absurd worlds held captive by their own conventions and riddles.”

“This supposed Red Queen and I are friends, you know,” Alice Riley said.

“I’m not sure I’d go that far,” the Red Queen said.

“They were friends and enemies both in the story,” King Rinke said.

“You know, Jamie, I told the Queen here that you were one of the people who really got it.  I drew comparisons to our friend Valkyrie.  The Queen and Valkyrie know each other, you know.”

“I’m flattered by the comparison, my Alice.  I’m not surprised they know each other.  Queens are well-connected.”

“I’m getting sort of sick of being called a Queen.”

“My dear, you have all the power in the world.  You can move in any direction you choose.”

“Less than you’d think.”

“You’re here, aren’t you?”

“I’m… I think if I’m here, it’s because I’ve been checkmated by her.  She implied she’d waste my time if I didn’t go along with this.”

“It’s very, very easy for even a Queen to be checkmated, if she doesn’t act like a Queen.”

“I’m starting to think I’m not smart enough to keep up with this conversation.”

Riley the Alice laughed.

“You should visit again, Red Queen.  Have tea.  Keep an old man company.”

“You’re more than an old man,” the Alice said.

“A king without a kingdom,” King Rinke said.

“A fallen king is still a king,” the Alice said.

King Rinke tittered.  Dot, hiding in the wall, smiled at the expression of joy.

“Yes, I do remember that,” King Rinke said.

“We should go soon,” the Alice said.  “We’ve finished our tea, and we’ve got work to do.  The Red Queen needs to check over the, ah, vial I’ve created that says ‘drink me’, and make sure it’s safe.”

“Please don’t make anything like that,” the Queen said.  “I’d hate to see it go wrong.”

“My work doesn’t go wrong.  Thank you very much.  It was wonderful to see you, Goblin King.  I’m sorry the visit was short.  I mostly wanted to introduce you two.”

“It’s been an experience,” the Queen said.

“What’s next for you, Red Queen?  What will you do, once you’ve seen what our Alice has been up to?”

“I’ll… I guess I’ll be at my father’s side while talking to some of the most powerful people in all the known worlds, and I’ll see my parents, trying to say goodbye and yet unable to pull away, or making my greetings and being pushed away, and I’ll continue to feel like I’m in the wrong places every step of the way.”

“You’re a queen.  You have such power.  You can go anywhere you want, if you’re willing to wield that power.  Your struggles are because you’re trying to be something you aren’t.  Take that as advice from a king who has lost his kingdom to a Queen who has yet to claim hers.”

“I don’t like what happens when I try to use power to claim anything.”

“Then use position.  The fact that you’re a queen affords you power by default.  If you stand in the right places, things will change as a result.  Use that.  Recognize it.  Things may start going the way you hope they might.”

There was a pause.

“I’ve said similar things,” the Alice said.

“Yeah,” the Queen said.  “I worry because the only people willing to talk to me say similar things, but I’m not sure they’re people I should listen to.”

“A king without a kingdom,” King Rinke said.

“Let’s go with that,” the Alice said.  “That’s probably it.”

There was a slight commotion, chairs moving, dishes clacking against surfaces, as the girl and the woman gathered themselves together and stood from their seats.

“Come again, Red Queen.”

“I can’t make promises, but I’ll be in the building a lot, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility.”

There were more noises, and then doors shut.

Knees pulled to her chest, tail wrapped around her, Dot felt warm and happy, her king’s words wrapped around her, filling her up.

She barely dared to move the outlet, to force her way past it, to break the spell and to try to have more.

But she had to save her king.

The King had a bodyguard, a strong soldier of a man, taller than the King, muscular, and clearly dumb.  The bodyguard noticed her before the King did, and reached out to touch the King’s arm.

“Ah,” King Rinke said.  He had a sad expression on his face.  “They’ve been watching me closer for the better part of the morning.  I suppose you’re why.”

Dot wasn’t sure what to say or do.

“Come.  Can you talk?” he asked.  He seated himself, his bodyguard reaching for the chair to steady it as the King sat.  The King stuck one leg straight out in Dot’s direction.

“Yes,” she said.  She leaped forward in the same way and lurching way her heart leaped into her chest.  She ran up and along his leg, up him, to him.  Clawed fingers and feet clutched for the fabric of his shirt.  His gray-touched beard tickled her head and back.

She could smell him and he smelled like home, like family and love.  She felt his hand on her back, and she felt it pet her.

She could have cried, if she weren’t so dehydrated, if so much of her body’s energies and fluids hadn’t gone into bleeding and healing.  Every ache and pain, from hours of clinging to a shuddering train to fighting rats and scaling a building interior, prying her way past sealed building fixtures, it became a dull, throbbing reassurance that she’d done right.

“You worked hard to get here.”

She nodded.  “Yes.”

“You’re the third to get this far.  One of only two that could talk.”

Third?  She wanted to ask, but she was worried about the response.

“I didn’t make you, did I?  You were birthed.  You look like Polka’s get.”

She nodded, hard, head rubbing against his shirt as she clutched tighter.  He knew her.  He didn’t know her but he knew where she was from and so he knew her.

“Polka the third?”

“Fourth,” she said.  “But thank you for thinking I’m like the third.  She was the most beautiful and clever.”

“The fourth was clever too,” he said.  He stroked her.

“I come to save you,” she said.  “You can use me for material.”

“I wouldn’t do that,” he said.  “Not for one as beautiful and noble and brave as you.  No.”

She felt the tears well up.  Noble.  Highest of praise.

“No,” he said again.  He gave her a stroke, from head and ears to tail, and then he reached down, hands on her arms and shoulders, and he moved her back and away.

“No,” he said, a third time.

With that, she understood what he was saying no to.

“We need you.”

“No.”

“The others get sick and die.  They want to be recycled.”

“No,” he said.  “No, daughter of Polka.  I’m too old, and I’m watched too closely.  They’re watching and listening even now.  We had our chance, and as our Kingdom stood on the brink of war, your king chose the wrong allies.  The Alice that just visited me was one.”

Tears flowed now, but they weren’t tears of joy.

“We lost.  I’m firmly in check.”

“But-”

“No,” he said.  He stroked her, then held her firm with one hand around her shoulders, while he reached for his tea.  Gently, carefully, he tipped it to her mouth.  “Drink.  You’re thirsty.  You look exhausted.  The caffeine will help.”

Dutifully, she drank.

“And then you should go.  Go back.  Find the others.  Take care of them.  Be gentle with humans you meet.  So few of them understand power, and so many of them have so much, now.”

He moved the cup again, and she drank again.

She shifted her feet, placing them under her, and then stood, one foot on each of his legs.

She embraced him, arms in his beard, clutching at his shirt.  His hand pressed against her back, and her tail wrapped around his wrist.

As quiet as she could manage, she whispered, “You say this because they’re listening.  You must want to be free.”

She felt the hand at her back move, pulling her back and away again.  She leaned against it, moving back so she could see his face.

She understood now, why the Alice had used the word ‘broken’.

“There are things I’ve talked to my Alice and the Valkyrie about, but reclaiming my kingdom or starting another anew isn’t in any of the many realms of possibility or fancy.”

“But-”

“No,” he said, one last time, and the look of pain in his eyes was proof to the word.

As she’d jumped to him as her heart had leaped with joy, she jumped away at the pain, both his and hers.

“Your name, child?” he asked.

“Dot.”

He smiled.  “Fitting, for the daughter of Polka.”

She nodded, but she didn’t feel like smiling.

“Go home, noble dot.  Do us all proud.  Tell the others whatever they need to hear.”

Her hand clutched at her chest, over her heart, and then she turned to go.  Into the wall.  Back the way she came.  Every ache and cut and scrape felt magnified as hurt radiated through her.

Going down was as hard as going up had been, but this time she didn’t have anything to go to.

Back to Blackspot, with his sickness and his hope of being reborn?  Back to Lump, who got weaker every day?

To tell them what?

More rats waiting for her, probably.  Other things.  More pain.  More machines, inching into their territory.

As much as she hated to admit it, the others were dead.  She was one of the strongest who were left, that she knew about.  There were other tribes and groups, there were armies, but they fought for a kingdom that hadn’t had a king for a very long time.

Hurt and pain turned black and angry inside her.

She thought of the machines and she thought of Burnish’s words.  The fact that warning people of the machines might save her king.

By the time she’d reached the sixth floor, moving slowly, the idea had found its root in her head, much like the the machines found root in rocks and metal, seeds of machinery that spun out and made it so a rock could crack like an egg, revealing gears and a thousand moving pieces.  Machines that made machines, all hiding and deceiving and inching forward with endless patience.

Small things were capable.  She had power of her own.

She needed purpose to drive her forward, and her purpose, the goal in her mind, was to go back to that store, to find a piece of machine, and then to put it on the train.

The machines would hatch in the heart of all the known worlds and the humans would lose their kingdom too.

It was that hate and thirst for vengeance that pushed her forward, now that she didn’t have her king to serve that role.  Those feelings boiled up, leaving wet streaks on her cheeks as she crept forward, from hiding place to hiding place, shadow to shadow.

The stairs were tricky.  From the sixth floor to the fifth floor, it was open area, trick to navigate.  Someone sat on the stairs.

The Red Queen.

Dot settled in, finding a place to sit and wait.  She watched the one the King had called a Queen, and she licked her wounds, both real and metaphorical.  She wished she was interesting enough in design to lick her own heart.

Something, a huff of pain, a wheezing breath, a scuffle, it made the Queen look.

The pair locked eyes.

“We got a warning about you,” the Red Queen said.  “You’re not getting up to trouble, are you?”

Dot shook her head.

“You’re hurt.  Come here.”

Dot hesitated.  Then she crept closer.  She flinched as the Queen moved her hand.

“It’s okay.  Move your hair aside.  I’ll touch the side of your neck.”

Dot pawed at her hair, moving it.  She felt the touch at her neck.

The pain around the cuts and the bites faded.  The aches and sore joints sang with euphoria as they became normal and the endorphins that had flooded her body to help remained.

She reached out, with arms and tail, and wrapped herself around the Red Queen’s arm.  She stared at the tattoos, black and red, tracing one hand along the ray of a sun.  Not colorful enough, but… not bad.  She had spots, too, but of a very different sort.

“Why are you sad?” the Red Queen whispered.

“My king doesn’t want me,” Dot said.

“Can I?” the Red Queen asked, moving her hand, and Dot saw.  Dot nodded, and closed her eyes as the Red Queen stroked her.  A different, lighter touch.

“I’m stuck too,” the Red Queen said.  “I’ve finished my work for the day, but someone I’m supposed to stay away from is just downstairs.  I think I know how it feels.”

“If I could have one thing only, I would have him close.”

“Yeah.”

“As a friend or a master or a King or anything.”

“Yeah.”

“But I can’t.”

“And that anger of yours?  What are we going to do about that?”

Dot might have been surprised, but King Rinke had called this woman a Queen and Queens were supposed to be capable of great things.

She kept her mouth shut.  Amazed as she was, she wasn’t dumb.

“How about… in exchange for that healing I just gave you, you keep me company for a little while?”

Carefully, slowly, Dot crawled into the Red Queen’s lap.

The Red Queen stroked her, and each stroke was like the inhalation, the exhalation, the single step toward feeling a little bit better.

Even when the hand stopped moving, and rested on Dot’s shoulder, when Dot stared at the missing fingertips, she felt a little more okay.

They sat there, long after the coast was clear for the Red Queen.  It was only when people came up the stairs that they were forced to move.  The Red Queen moved Dot closer, putting on her jacket, and closed up the jacket so Dot was held close, and it was good, Dot’s ear pressed down to the Red Queen’s heart.

The Red Queen started down the stairs, one arm helping to keep Dot in position within her jacket.

“I’ll help you with your anger if you help me with mine.”

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Glare – 3.6

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Group Text (@ Ashley Stillons, Chris Elman, Kenzie Martin, Rain Frazier, Sveta Karelia, Tristan Vera)

Me: Morning, everyone.  I’m planning to swing by the Wardens HQ today.  Some Qs for people, going to talk to a family  member about what you guys might need to do legally.
Me: In interest of not taking over your thing, anyone want to come with?  You can make calls & be involved

Ashley S:  I have appointments

Sveta K: I can come. I know my way around.

Kenzie M: I’ll come! are you going in the morning or afternoon?
Kenzie M: I can have my parents call in to school and get me out for the day if I have to

Sveta K: I don’t want your schoolwork to suffer

Me: Afternoon

Kenzie M: I’m an A+ student I can miss a day

Sveta K: No you can’t.

Me:  It’s best to stick to the rules of the old days.  Try to keep grades where they were before you joined a team.  If you can miss your study group for this that’s ok.  We meet at 2

Kenzie M: coo

Rain F:  Can’t make it

Tristan V: count me in

Me: Sveta, Tristan, Kenzie, & me then.  Chris is welcome if he wants.  2pm at the front doors.  Take extra time to travel, P.transportation strike may futz things up

I’d had to take the train to get to the Wardens’ HQ.  It was a fortress of a building, indomitable, and it was situated near the largest cluster of portals in Gimel, very possibly the largest cluster of portals in all the known worlds.

I looked  up at a knight in plate armor with his bowed head, both hands on the pommel of a sword, with the tip resting on the ground.  A cloth wrap partially covered the legs, like a flag worn around the waist, long enough to reach the knees in front, and to drape near the ankles at the back.  Two shields stood behind the figure, hanging in the air at a height and position reminiscent of folded wings.

It was typically simplified when shrunk down for website images and badges, the position of arms, hands and shields suggesting the lines of a ‘W’ for the first letter of ‘Wardens’.  Here, it was four stories of statue, built into the front face of the building.

It put me in mind of Gilpatrick’s speech.  Five pounds of gun, fifteen pounds of armor?  No.  Here, at this scale, it was fifty tons of sword, a hundred and fifty tons of armor and shield.  Every inch and pound of its composition was symbolism.

“It’s something, isn’t it?” Tristan asked.

“Yeah,” I said.  “It’s something.”

I turned to look at him.  He’d just walked up to stand beside me. He’d tidied his hair some.  I had the impression he’d started to dress up for the occasion and his other impulses stylewise had taken over.  His shirt was a button-up, red silk, with buttons in twos at the regular intervals.  He wore it very casually, with the sleeves rolled up and the buttons undone at the collarbone.  He’d paired it with a nice pair of black jeans, and he’d painted his hair a red that more closely matched his shirt.

“Reminds me of that video that circulated online for a bit.  Chevalier and the last fight against Behemoth,” Tristan said.

“Absolutely,” I said.  “Probably intentional.  It’s a good mental image to have, the hard fight and the great improvements that follow.”

“And the disaster that followed that?” Tristan asked.

I frowned at him.

“It’s reality,” he said.

“It’s a little pessimistic,” I said.  I glanced back.  I spotted Sveta making her way up the steps from the sidewalk to the raised bit of ground in front of the building.  “Hey!”

She wore a black dress that gathered together as a halter neck, with tights covering the legs.  She’d redone some of the paint on her arms and shoulders, the paint around the ball joint and along the shell that encased each arm fresh and glossy.

“You guys dressed up a bit,” I said.

“We exchanged some texts,” Tristan said.  “I think we psyched each other up some.”

“I was redoing my paint after all the running around and tree climbing yesterday,” Sveta said.  “I started overthinking things.”

“You look good,” I said.

“Thank you.  You too.”  I was wearing a very similar outfit to when I’d been job hunting.

Kenzie was last to catch up to us, running up the stairs.  Knee-high socks, a skirt with overlapping stripes, and a blue sweater in a light material, worn over a shirt with the collar poking up through the neckhole.  The pin in her hair looked like a bow, but it was two-dimensional and metal.

“Did you go home to change?” Tristan asked.

“No,” Kenzie said.

“You actually wore that to school?” he asked.

“It looks nice, thank you very much,” she said.

“I agree,” I said.  “I might have worn something similar when I was around Kenzie’s age.”

“I can understand you not getting bullied,” Tristan told me.  “Your parents are superheroes.”

“I don’t get bullied either,” Kenzie said.  “I wouldn’t mind if I did.  It would at least mean my classmates would pay attention to me.”

“They don’t?” Sveta asked.

“Feels like everyone’s busy with their own thing,” Kenzie said.  She looked up at the statue that stood in relief from the front of the Wardens’ headquarters.  “Still hurting from recent losses.”

“We’ll see what we can do to keep future losses from happening,” I said.

“Absolutely,” Kenzie said.

Inside the building, statues of key members stood off to either side of the lobby.  Chevalier, Narwhal, Valkyrie, Legend, Cinereal, Stonewall, Topflight and Miss Militia.  The building was set up so the people on the second, third, and fourth floors could stand at the glass railings and look down at the lobby, and vice versa.  People in business clothes were walking every which way, upstairs, and people on the ground floor were free to peruse the gift shop or wait for tours.

There were larger display boards set up around the edges of the lobby, much like the maps that were stationed around malls, but these showed off the icons for each of the teams under the Wardens’ umbrella.  They might have been touchscreens.  There were screens for Advance Guard, Foresight, the Attendant, the Shepherds, and smaller teams like the Kings of the Hill, the Wayfinders, and the Navigators.  The screen for the Attendant was still up, but it was dark, only the faint outline of the Attendants’ icon on the screen.  The Shepherd’s screen had been moved forward and to a position of more prominence.

It was darker than the PRT offices had been.  The aesthetic of the PRT of yesteryear had always been predominantly white, with black stenciled letters and icons, the periodic bit of chrome or mirror when tech was required.  Here, it was dark stone, lined in gold or brass, and the lighting made me think of a cinema with lights set on high ceilings and tuned to be unobtrusive.  It was transparent and open in layout and the suggestion of there being very few barriers, like with the glass railings, or the way that it really looked like anyone on the ground floor could go anywhere without checkpoints or security.

“Where are we going?” Sveta asked.

“I should check on my mom first, see if she’s free for a short conversation.”

“Where is she?”

“Legal or Liaison.  I’ve been here twice before, but the first time they were still getting everything put together, and I don’t remember much from the second.”

Sveta turned around slowly, then pointed.

“Good,” I said.  “Thank you.”

“Are you on good terms with your parents these days?” Sveta asked.

“I’m…” I started.  “No.”

“Is she going to help?” Tristan asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “It’s not that kind of bad terms, where she’d say no, I don’t think.”

“Is it the kind of bad terms where you invite someone to come with you so you don’t have to worry about the ‘rents being super embarrassing and lame?” Kenzie asked.

“If I had any idea on what she might say or do then this would be easier,” I said.  “I think it’ll be fine.”

The stairs led from either side of the front desk to the second floor, going around the statue-in-relief that mirrored the one on the front of the building.  The security checkpoint was on the second floor, more or less hidden behind the statue and the slab it stood out from.  Glass walls separated the walkway from the offices and departments  around the building exterior.

“Names?” the man at the desk asked.

“Victoria Dallon, Sveta Karelia, Kenzie Martin, Tristan Vera,” I said.

“Intentions?”

“We have an appointment with Foresight on the fifth floor.  I was also hoping to stop in and see my mom at her workplace.  I’m not sure if she’s at Legal or Liaison right now.”

“Her name?”

“Carol Dallon.”

“One second.”

The person made a phone call.  I waited, a little nervous, emotions stirred up.  Anger, frustration, disappointment, worry.

Kenzie had her chin at the top of the railing, as she looked down at the lobby.  Sveta stood next to her, with Tristan off to one side.

“Is Weld getting a statue?” Tristan asked.

“Not for a while,” Sveta said.  “That’s more for people who’ve put in the years, and he only just got in.  He’s got a preliminary thing in the gift shop.”

“No shit?  Awesome.  We should stop in at the gift shop before we leave.”

“You’re such a kid,” Kenzie said, sticking out her tongue at Tristan.  He reached out to muss up her hair and she ducked back out of the way.

“Victoria, was it?” the person at the desk asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“Your mother says you can go up.  She’s at Legal on the third floor.  She’ll take her break when you arrive, so you’ll have about fifteen minutes.”

I resisted the urge to wince.  Fifteen minutes was too much.  Still, saying that would cause problems.  “Great.”

“Give me five seconds, and I’ll give you your guest ID cards.  Can your friends come to the desk?”

We lined up in front of the desk.  The printer didn’t take long, spitting out four cards in four seconds.

“Check your names are accurate, please, and- there seems to be a problem with miss… Kenzie?”

He turned the card around.  A slash of distortion masked Kenzie’s face, tracing from her cheekbone to one corner of her forehead.  It looked like the heavy compression artifacting that came with any image that had been compressed too many times, but it was dense to the point that her eyes, nose, and cheekbone were almost completely covered.

“Do you want to try again?” Kenzie asked.  She had her phone in her hand as she clasped her hands behind her back.  I saw the screen momentarily light up.

The man tapped at the keyboard for a few seconds, then turned around to grab the card as the machine spat it out.  He gave a singular nod and passed the card with its attached lanyard to Kenzie.  Picture normal.

We headed for the stairs up to the third floor.

“I didn’t know they were going to take our photos,” Kenzie said.

“What are you even doing, obscuring your face like that?” Tristan asked.

“It’s not on purpose, obviously, it’s a byproduct of tech I’m wearing.”

Once we reached the third floor, there was less in the way of civilian-facing offices, and there were more people in suits and business clothes.  The glass wall had letters applied to it.  Just ‘303 – LEGAL’.

My mom had had a study back at our house, with the hundred or so legal tomes with all of the case history, precedent, and whatever else, on top of the books we’d fashioned ourselves, binding in a variety of ways, saving team stuff, parahuman case files we’d printed off the net, and more.

This was that, it was the same kind of heavy oak desks that my mom had had in her study, the shelves, the desk lamps and the scattered paperwork that had yet to be gathered together and bound.  It was files and filing cabinets, a storm of legality as if a giant had sneezed in a legal office.

My mom might have been one of the older people around.  A lot of the lawyers looked young, and at two in the afternoon, jackets were off and slung on the backs of chairs, sleeves were rolled up and perfect hairstyles were just a little bit messed up.  She was doing a lot of the talking, taking charge and getting people organized.

A young lady approached us at the doorway.  “If you’re wanting to lay charges against the Wardens, or if you have witness testimony to give, you’ll want to go to Casework on the second floor.  I know it’s confusing.”

“My mom is Carol Dallon, I’m just stopping in to ask a question.  The people at check-in said it was okay.”

“Oh wow, yeah, look at you.  I definitely see the resemblance.  Your mom is awesome, you know.”

“I know,” I said, my eyebrows going up momentarily.

The lady stepped away to fetch my mom.

The feeling of trepidation got worse as I watched my mom walk toward me.  It was hard to divorce this scene and image with my memory of being on the street outside my mom’s house, the hurt and the feelings there.

My mom smiled, acknowledging the other three.  “Victoria.  This is a pleasant surprise.”

“I  had a conversation with dad last night.  He suggested that you might be the person to ask for this thing these guys are doing.”

“Ah,” my mom said.  She barely seemed fazed by that.  “Just business?”

“More or less,” I said.

Man, I was still so pissed at her.  I was more pissed somehow that she was being nice and casual.

“I’m happy to help however you need it,” she said.  “The only issue is I can’t step away right this minute.  We’re waiting on a phone call from some people in the would-be government, and my coworker is away on a late lunch.”

“I don’t need you to step away,” I said.  “These guys are starting up a team.  Dad suggested they’d do best if they had someone legal to call up before any big moves.  Make sure charges stick.”

My mom looked over at the three.  Kenzie put her hand up in a small wave.

“Is that Sveta?”

“Hi, Mrs. Dallon.”

“I didn’t recognize you at first.  I can’t believe it,” my mom said.  She approached Sveta, taking Sveta’s hands and lifting them up.  “What beautiful work.”

“I’m pleased with it,” Sveta said, ducking her head a bit.

“And the art- is this yours?  It reminds me of what I saw you working on during one of my visits.”

“It’s mine.”

“It’s stellar,” my mom said.

“I don’t suppose you’d know someone you could put us in touch with?” I asked, more tense than I’d wanted to sound.

“I can ask around.  Are you paying them?”

“I think we’d have to,” I said.

“We’re pretty overloaded right now.  I can’t make promises.”

“I don’t think the team has any major moves planned for early in their career,” I said.  “Having someone available a month from now or two months from now might be good.”

“I’ll see what I can do, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re still moving at this clip two months from now.”

“What do you do?” Tristan asked.

“We’re lobbying on behalf of the Wardens.  The government is figuring out the law as we speak, and we’re trying to figure out the most effective approach to handle law and parahumans and how they interact in the new world.  A lot of precedent, citing past history, pulling from the law of Earth Bet.”

“It sounds heavy,” Tristan said.

“We’re deciding the legal fabric of the new world.  It is,” my mom said.

“Can you sound some people out?” I asked.  “Having someone we could trust to be discreet would be ideal.  It wouldn’t be heavy.”

“I’ll ask around.  I know we’ve got a few ex-law students who are in limbo,” my mom said.  She gave me a look.  “They could use the extra funds, and they should have enough knowledge of the system as it stands.  They’re even on the ground floor for the legal system we may end up with, if we’re successful here.”

“Thank you,” I said.  “We’ll discuss and I’ll look at the books, and we’ll see if we can pay them something fair.”

Keep it business.

“Would you come to dinner tonight?” she asked.  “We can talk.  If I have a better idea of what you’re doing, I can find you a better fit.”

“I’d really rather not,” I said.

“Communication is key.  We should talk.”

“Another time,” I said.  Weeks or months from now.

“Okay,” she said.  “I’d like to invite your sister to a sit-down.”

My dignity and grace were dashed away, just like that.  A startling, painful jar from reality to somewhere else.  The lights of the brightly lit legal office seemed too bright and the dark shadows and the dimly lit building interior of the Wardens HQ and its lobby seemed too dark.

It was very, very hard, in the moment, to separate my recollection of being outside the house with her inside that house, from this, and to convince myself that she wasn’t here, somewhere nearby.

“Nah,” I said.  My voice too soft.

“Victoria-”

Mom,” I said, my voice sharp.  “Do you want this conversation to go in the same direction as the one at the barbecue?”

“That’s up to you,” she said.

I thought about saying something regrettable.

“Bye mom.  Good luck with your thing.”

She looked like she might say something, but she smiled instead, and said, “Good luck with yours.”

I turned to go, and the others followed.

We walked a little way around the circumference of the floor, between the offices to our right and the railing to our left, until we were a distance away from the legal department.  I leaned on the railing, and wrapped one of my hands around the other, squeezing it.

Sveta put an arm around me, and then Kenzie walked up to the other side of me and put a hand on my back.

“I’m okay,” I said.

There wasn’t an immediate response.

“She was never my favorite person,” Sveta said.

“You seemed to get along with her before.”

Sveta shook her head, hair flying out a little ways.  “You were always really down when she was due to visit, and you were down when she missed visits.  And you were down after she came.”

“I was down all the time.”

“It was different kinds.”

“Family’s hard,” Tristan said.  “It really sucks sometimes.”

“Yeah,” Kenzie said.  “Family can be the best and it can be the worst.”

Sveta let her arm slide off my shoulder.  It settled on Kenzie’s head with a faint clack.

“Ow,” Kenzie said.

Sveta’s fingers lifted up, then came down, in a pat.

I stood straighter, and Sveta moved a bit away, her arm reeling in, giving me freedom to stand back.  “Hopefully this gets you guys one step closer to being a team with everything you need.  We should go talk to Foresight and see if we can get you the rest of the way.”

“What’re we talking about with Foresight?”

“Jurisdiction,” I said.  “There might be a few other pieces of ground to cover, finances, selling info.”

“Sounds good,” he said.  “You up to talking about the kind of info you can gather, Kenz?”

“I think so.”

The fifth floor wasn’t built around a hole in the floor like the bottom four were.  There wasn’t a view of the lobby, a railing, or anything of the sort.  Another security checkpoint was set up at the base of the stairs.  With our lanyards and guest IDs, we were clear to go.  Our arrival was preceded by a shift in lights visible from the stairwell.

Masks on.

The floor plan was closer to a proper office building, with hallways studded with posters and pictures of team members and leaders, teams, and framed news articles.  The hallway to the right of us had ‘SHEPHERDS’ and a shepherd’s crook running down the length of it, a burgundy stripe of paint lit up by lights on the underside of the crook.  Red-brown colors to the wall, and the articles and pictures were all for the Shepherds.

In the hallway to our left, Foresight, blue and black paint and lights, Foresight members and victories on the wall opposite.

A door opened and a few Shepherds stepped out into the hall.

“Holy shit,” one said.

“Fuck,” Tristan said, under his breath.

It was the moon girl, from my job interview with Attendant.  She was the one who had urged me away from the Fallen.  I was hardly enthused to see her either.

“Tristan,” she said.  “Tell me you’re not interviewing for a team.”

“I’m not,” he said.  “I’ve got the team already.”

She pursed her lips together.

“History, Moonsong?” someone asked.

“Yeah,” Moonsong said.  “Tribute knows.”

“Yeah,” the guy who was apparently ‘Tribute’ said.  He wore what looked like a hypermodernized version of the suit of armor with the cape over one shoulder.  It wasn’t old fashioned armor, though.  It was panels on a bodysuit, and the cape was cut to cling close to his body, angular for flowing cloth, with glowing lines where the sharp angles were.  “History is putting it lightly.”

“We’re late for an appointment,” Tristan said.

“You’re the guys who are talking to Foresight,” someone else said.  “They mentioned something like that.”

“Yeah,” I said.  Then, aware of the opening in the conversation, I elaborated with, “Hello again, Moonsong.”

“Hello,” she said.  “What was your name again?”

“Victoria.”

“You seemed cool, Victoria.  What are you doing with this bastard?”

“Wow,” Tristan said.

“Just helping out,” I said.

“He doesn’t need it, and he doesn’t deserve it.”

“Whatever’s in the past, he gets his second chance, like anyone.  He wants to help people, and I’m going to help him do that.”

“He’s one of the monsters you help save people from,” Moonsong said.  “You get that, right?”

“That’s not fair,” Kenzie said.

She stopped as Tristan put one hand out in front of her, keeping her from jumping forward in his defense.

“Tribute and I arrested him,” Moonsong said.  “You know that, right?”

I could see the lines in Tristan’s jaw standing out.  He said, “I know.  I remember.”

“I want to see Byron,” Moonsong said.

“Not your call.  His turn isn’t until later.”

There was a shudder, and then my hair started to move.    The light further down the hallway seemed to grow darker, and my stomach lurched in a sensation that I connected to a lot of aerial acrobatics.

“You want to pick a fight here?” Tristan asked.

Tribute shifted his footing, stepping forward a little, and clasped his hands in front of his groin.  With his head bowed slightly, he was faintly reminiscent of the Wardens’ emblem.

I stepped forward, ready to put myself between them, and I felt the stomach-lurching sensation again.  My leg buckled, and I nearly fell.

My hair was floating now, and my legs were straining, almost locked in position with the stress of keeping me upright.

Gravity manipulation, but somehow a mix of zero-grav and enhanced gravity.

I flew instead of walking, and it was hard to keep my position.  I stopped when I was between Tristan and the other two.  “This isn’t helpful.”

“Victoria,” Moonsong said.  “I’m going to tell you how this goes.”

I felt the gravity shift again, an attempt to put me down against the floor, and threw up my forcefield to avoid twisting my ankle or hitting the ground too hard.  I was glad my skirt wasn’t the kind that could flip up, as it hugged my thighs, but my midriff was exposed now.

“Tristan joins the team, and he charms the pants off of everyone he meets.  He’s good at the stuff he does in front of the camera, he’s good at the hero stuff, he’s strong.  He gets decent grades, he makes friends, he finds allies and he works on them.  Because that’s what sociopaths do.  He doesn’t actually care about them.”

“Sociopath?” Tristan asked.  “You’re as deluded as ever.”

“He jokes and acts all cute about how he’s competitive, he likes to win, and he tends to win so you don’t really see how sore of a loser he is when things go bad.  He sets his sights on something he wants, he gets it.  Sets his sights on something else, he gets it.  Until he doesn’t get what he wants.  Like being team leader or getting a key role in an event that’s coming up.  That’s when he starts using the people he’s been working on.  They’re usually desperate people.  Vulnerable ones.”

I thought of Rain, who Tristan had called a friend.  Or did the whole team count?

“It’s called leaning on people when you’re struggling.”

“It’s called manipulation.  And you’re good at it,” Tribute said.

“Fuck off,” Tristan said.  “Drop the power use and let us go.  We’ve got things to do.”

“Moonsong,” Sveta said.  “I don’t think you know Tristan as well as you think.”

“Same,” Moonsong said.  “I feel really sorry for you if he’s already got into your good graces.  Because that bastard is the kind of guy who hires someone who kills people by looking at them to cover his ass, and uses them against teammates.  He likes to win and he wins at any cost.”

“We know the story,” Sveta said.

“I doubt you know the entirety of it.  Have you split the discussion fifty-fifty between listening to him and Byron?”  Moonsong asked.  She didn’t even wait for a response before deciding, “No.  Because it doesn’t work that way.”

“I gave Byron the opportunity,” Tristan said.

“Yeah,” Moonsong said.  “I know how that goes.  Like with Team Reach’s therapist, right?  You get your turn, Byron gets his, you go in for extra advice, you take over, and somehow the team’s therapist gets weird ideas in his head about Byron.  You suggest things and then when Byron gets his turn he’s having to play defense, get rid of these preconceived ideas.  He gets no time of his own with the therapist, because he’s stuck trying to undo the damage Tristan did during his time.”

“All I did,” Tristan said, lines standing out as his neck, “Was try to figure shit out.  There’s a lot to figure out with the situation being what it is, and somehow I end up doing the legwork.”

“It’s a lot of work to manipulate everyone around you, isn’t it?” Moonsong asked.

“Stop,” I said.  “Stop this.  Now.”

I pushed out with a faint hit of aura.

“Please,” Sveta said, adding her voice to mine.

“I want to hear that Byron is okay, from Byron’s mouth.  I don’t give a shit about Tristan’s time.”

“Fuck this,” Tristan said.  “Fine.”

He blurred, his eyes becoming crimson points, then transitioning to become teal.

Byron, wearing a sweatshirt and jeans.

The gravity effect dropped away.

“Hi Byron,” Kenzie said, her voice small.

“Hi Kenzie.”

“You okay?” Moonsong asked.

“I’ve had better weeks, but things with my brother are as tolerable as they get,” Byron said.  He slouched, sticking his hands in the pocket of the sweatshirt.  “You kind of went overboard.”

“I had to check.”

“I know,” Byron said.

There was a noise behind us, and I turned to look.

Foresight.  Anelace and someone I hadn’t met.

“Why don’t you come on in?  Step into the office,” Anelace asked.  “Moonsong?  Can I have a word?”

Foresight’s administrative office wasn’t the same office I’d been in when I’d interviewed with them.  Their headquarters was situated elsewhere, and this was something else, a space set up for meetings, for paperwork, interactions with other teams and more.  Much like the hallways had, it looked like an office.

Right away, Moonsong, Tribute, and the member of Foresight stepped into an office, closing the doors.  The blinds were at an angle where I could see where they stood, but not their expressions or what they might be saying.

Anelace stepped into the back, then came back to the sitting area.  He looked at us, then at the other members of Moonsong’s group.  “Come on.  Let’s keep everyone separate until things are settled.”

Our group walked into a back room, a single table and some nice chairs in a room with a coffee maker and microwave.

“I was looking forward to seeing you again, Victoria,” Anelace said.  “Sorry it’s not under better circumstances.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“I’m going to go talk to the others.  There won’t be a problem if I leave you guys here?”

“Not at all,” I said.

Anelace left us in the room.  Kenzie flopped forward, forehead hitting the table, arms extended all the way in front of her.

Byron changed back to Tristan.

“No,” Tristan said, quiet.  “So long as I’m here, Moonsong is going to be frothing at the mouth.  I’m trading out until she’s good and gone.”

They swapped back.  Byron slouched into his seat.

“I didn’t know that about the therapy, Byron,” Sveta said.

Byron shrugged.

“It’s why you don’t want to sit in for Mrs. Yamada’s?”

“It’s part of it,” he said.  “Look, I don’t want to demonize Tristan or anything, like Moon is so good at doing.  He has his good side, but a lot of the time, I’ve got to conserve my strength for dealing with the rougher patches.  Minor, basic stuff.”

“Do you think he’s a sociopath?” I asked.

“No,” Byron said.  “But I think… he’s got to be the worst possible person to end up sharing a body with.”

“Is there anything I or we can do to make it easier?” I asked.

“I’m working on a camera that looks inside Tristan to find Byron, or vice-versa,” Kenzie said, without raising her head.  “It’s not going so well but I’m going to figure it out.”

“Thanks Kenz.  No, nothing makes it easier.  You can… tackle the broad strokes, you can be careful not to talk past my face to say something to Tristan and never do the opposite when Tristan’s the one in front.  It doesn’t make a difference with the stuff that really matters.  That’s my stuff to deal with.”

“What stuff?” I asked.

“He’s… stubborn, destructively stubborn, he holds this idea of what should happen in his head, and if that doesn’t work for you then you’re probably going to be pretty unhappy, because you aren’t going to change anything about it.”

“Reminds me a bit of my mom when you describe it that way,” I said.

“Yeah, but you can walk away from your mom, can’t you?” Byron asked.

“Yeah,” I said.  I sighed.

“I really appreciate that sigh.  Maybe you get it,” he said, leaning his head back until it rested against the wall, his face turned skyward.  “He thrives on competition, you know.  He’ll be a terrific hero, probably.  Put a challenge in front of him, and he’ll give his all to kick its ass.”

“But?” I asked.

“That’s him.  That’s who he is, intrinsically.  I don’t know if there’s a but.  It’s reality, and it’s reality that I’m the challenge and he’s energized when it comes to the tug of war over this one body we share.  He thrives on it in a way, and I’m… drained, beaten down.”

“We have your back,” Sveta said.  “Not just Tristan’s.  We’re backing Capricorn, and we’re invested in finding answers for both of you.”

“I appreciate that.  But I don’t like this.  At best, it’s… more draining.  More of me being beaten down and left more exhausted.  At worst… Moonsong might be right.”

“At best,” I said, “It’s Tristan doing what he’s good at doing.  What happens if he doesn’t have that outlet?”

I didn’t get a response.

There was a knock on the door.  Anelace, the dagger-themed member of Foresight.

“Can you join us?” he asked.

We migrated from the team’s lunch room to the office where the team leader, Moonsong and Tribute were seated.

The leader stood by his desk, one foot on his chair.  He looked larger of frame, and had Foresight’s symbol on an eye patch.  A bit of a corsair look, with a jacket and lots of belts, and long black hair tied back into a sailor’s ponytail.  Veins of gold decorated his costume.

“Sorry for the hassle,” Tribute said.  “History.  Things never really resolved so much as we all walked away with the situation left halfway through a disaster.”

“It’s alright,” I said.

“We’ve been having a conversation with the Shepherds,” the leader of Foresight said.  “They’ve explained some of the history.  It muddies the waters.”

“We understand,” Sveta said.  “Sorry about this.”

“They had the suggestion that we make sure both of the Capricorn twins are on board with this plan of yours.”

“Why’d you have to drag me into this, Moonsong?  This doesn’t help.  I don’t want to own any part of this, whatever they do.”

“I will always fight to give you your voice.”

“I don’t want to speak,” Byron said.  “I want to ignore this side of my reality and conserve my strength for the fights that need it.”

“Is that a no, then?” the leader of Foresight asked.

“No,” Byron said.  He seemed to flounder for a moment.  He looked at me.  “Fuck.”

He didn’t break that eye contact with me as he said it.  My eyebrow went up.

“Don’t let me get in the way of you giving these guys their chance,” Byron said.

“You’re vouching for them?” the Foresight leader asked.

“Yeah.”

Byron punctuated the sentence by changing into Tristan.

“I’m good with this,” Tristan said, shifting his posture to avoid looking at Moonsong.

“Good,” the Foresight leader said.  “Thank you for your time, Shepherds.”

Tribute and Moonsong left the office.  Just Anlace, the leader, Kenzie, Byron, Sveta and I, now.

I looked around the office and saw an article.  The leader was on the cover, with the name ‘Brio’.

“You really want to do this?” Brio asked.

“They’re suited for it,” I said.  “They have the ability to gather the information and figure out how to crack the toughest nuts.  Tinker devices and people on the ground who won’t get a second look hanging around Hollow Point.  They get the info, they sell it to you guys, and if you want it, they work with you on the actual cracking of the nut.  Joint operation, or it can be solo, one way or the other.”

“Are you participating?” he asked.

“If I’m wanted, I’ll add my strength to theirs for the big plays.”

“To be honest, there’s a lot about this that could work,” Brio said.  “When the Wardens gathered us all together, they assigned territories by lottery.  We’ve got other things we’re focusing on, and Hollow Point is in a bad way.”

“If you’ll pay a modest fee, enough to cover their lawyer, buy the info, keep them supplied, they’ll bring you in for the actual arrests.  It’s a win for you guys, while these guys do the leg work.”

“If it works,” Brio said.

“Yeah,” I said.

“We’re hard workers,” Kenzie said.  “We’re really good at what we do.”

“I don’t doubt that,” Brio said.  His voice had a tone shift that suggested he was used to talking to kids in a certain context.  “You have a lot of hurdles.”

“We’ve been doing our initial research,” Anelace said.  “Figuring out how we might fix Hollow Point.  They’re tied into some bigger-picture stuff.”

“Tattletale,” I said.

“Her on one end,” Anelace said.  “But she’s more the kind of person you have to deal with further down the road.  Once you scare them, they’ll call her.  They already called her once about us, and she reached out to try to convince us to leave the area alone.”

“And?” I asked.

“And we’re leaving it alone, or we were, until you sent your proposal,” Brio said.

I nodded.  Not good to hear, but understandable.  I wondered what played into that decision.

“On the front end, you’ve got some others to deal with.  You’ll have to get past them before you can even start on the project.”

“Who?”

“Speedrunners,” Anelace said.  He turned around, reached for a file, and put it on the desk, pushing it in our direction.

“I know them,” I said.  I left the file for Sveta, Tristan and Kenzie to look at.

“A couple of times a day, they use their time powers.  Sweep the area, search every nook and cranny.  You won’t be able to set up shop.”

“That’d be Secondhand,” I said.

“They use Final Hour to cover other business.  Even if you avoid being caught in the sweeps, you won’t be able to look or listen in if they’re conducting meetings in banked timestreams.”

“And Last Minute is still with the group?” I asked.

“Yes.”

Fucking time manipulators.  “Something to work out in advance then.”

“They’ve got two thinkers, Braindead and Birdbrain, working as a team.  You won’t be able to have undercover agents if they’re checking things.  You will be tracked and your agents will be thoroughly investigated.”

More folders hit the table.

“Powers complicate things, and they’ve got a lot of powers there,” Anelace said.

“Bitter Pill, tinker,” Brio said.  “A lot of the people in Hollow Point are expected to partake, and that means truth serums, just to start with.”

I looked at the other members of the group.

“You really think you’re up for this?” Brio asked.

“Just speaking for myself, I’m more excited to do this than I was before you started talking about what we’re up against,” Tristan said.

“I already have some ideas,” Kenzie said.  “Not about the time guys, but I have ideas.”

“We knock the time guys down first,” Tristan said.  “Without a question.  We’ll have to.  We can do this.”

I looked at Sveta, who had been quiet.

“I want to do this,” she said, meeting Brio’s eyes.

“Then we’ll give you our files as starting points.  You guys own this if it ends up being a disaster, you keep us informed, and-”

“In exchange,” I interrupted, “You guys give us access to your costume sourcing.”

“I can do costumes,” Kenzie said.

“Without battery lives?” I asked.

“Oh.”

“Give us access to your costume manufacturing. I know you have it and I know you’re branching out to share it.”

Anelace and Brio exchanged a look.  Brio nodded.  “Okay.”

“And you give us your blessing to operate in this territory,” I said.

“I don’t know if I like what I saw earlier,” Brio said.  “Blessing might be a strong word.”

“All parahumans have their issues,” I said.

Brio seemed to consider for a moment.

He extended his hand to shake.

We shook it, each of us in turn.

No name yet, costumes to be decided, codenames to be determined.

But we were a team with a mission.  We were doing this.

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