Gleaming – 9.9

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When we were children and we were feeling insecure, we clung to the powerful authority figures in our lives.  Mine had just torn down an interior wall of a prison.

It would be so easy to stop fighting.  I was walking into a headwind, swimming upstream, alienating myself from my friend, doubts welling up inside me.  Somewhere in all of this, I’d almost killed someone I’d grown up with- and I had less apprehension or regret about that near-murder than I did about momentarily meeting Capricorn’s eyes, seeing him give me a small nod, as we flew and jogged forward.

We were the frontliners, each of us taking cover at different sides of the same hallway.   Goddess walked down the center.  She indicated one direction, and without words, Capricorn acted.  Orange lights appeared in a swirl, and someone that was sprinting forward nearly stumbled into them.  They scrambled back, ducking out of view.

Capricorn shouted a warning to them, and I barely heard it.

That I didn’t hear it told me a lot about how well I was processing things right now.

I could tell myself that for right now we would go after the one threat we felt unambiguous about, but thought and feeling both told me that I would feel just as wrong about betraying Goddess later on.

Goddess indicated my side.  I pulsed out with my aura.  I saw her react- and I heard the people who’d been approaching stop what they were doing, backing off.

I opened my mouth to apologize, and no words came out.

“Do it again,” Goddess’ voice cut through the noise.

Sure, I thought.  I found my voice.  “Yes.”

I hit her with my aura, soft at first, like a taste of fear in the mouth or a flash of something amazing in the eyes.

Her head moved, as if she was getting a sense for it.  When I tapered it off, she moved her fingers in an almost absent beckoning gesture, like she wanted more.

She nodded all at once, definitive.

“It won’t affect me now,” she said.

I wasn’t in a good place, and I could recognize that the inexplicable gratitude that welled up in me at hearing that wasn’t good.

Focus, I thought.

We’d been in this building before.  It was shaped like a plus sign, with the intersection in the center being the place we’d been held up, a heavily reinforced desk, including the gates we had to pass through.  We’d entered from the one corridor, and the corridor opposite opened into the prison itself.

Opened more since Goddess had taken that wall out.

Our current issue was the corridors off to the sides.  They were apparently for staff, and prison employees had retreated off to either side.  I looked back at Goddess, who hadn’t advanced.

“Deal with it,” she said, without stepping forward.

She’d have her reasons.

On our past visit, I’d noted the shutters.  The shutters were meant to be brought down from the other side, but…

Capricorn was crouched in the corner by the wall that framed the metal detector and gate.  Just past that short wall was the corner and the left turn to the corridor where staff had retreated.  Prison officers, security.  People with guns.  I got his attention, then indicated the shutters, moving my hand to emulate the shutter coming down.

He gave me a nod of confirmation.  I saw orange lights start to move along the ceiling.

I was crouched by the same wall on my side of the hallway.  Behind me, Sveta, Natalie and Lookout were all gathered against the wall.  Lookout was ignoring the situation and focusing on her phone.  Her primary goal right now was in keeping the Warden and his deputy from accessing any computers to start detonating ankle bombs.  Her secondary goal would be to keep an eye on what was going on.

She looked laser-focused on her task.  I felt less like a cape than I had on my first night out in costume.

“Tress,” Goddess said.  “At the desk.  Someone with a gun.”

I barely had time to turn my head before Tress had sent her arms forward.  She grabbed the sides of the metal detector, then slingshotted herself through it, straight at the window of the desk.  The scrape that followed was sharp, suggesting she’d scraped away some paint.  The red light and the buzz of the metal detector was immediate, but she moved fast enough that it seemed like it followed too late.

I didn’t stay to watch.  As off as I felt, I had to act.  I flew up, hands and feet going up and back as I landed with my back to the ceiling, my extremities catching the impact and minimizing the sound.  I flew while keeping as close to the ceiling as possible, cloth skimming across painted ceiling.  I had a glimpse of the people in the hallway, crouched by short walls and benches like I’d been crouched by the wall.  The shutter and its mechanism provided some limited cover.  The fact that the fluorescent lights focused on lighting the lower half of the room more than they focused on covering the ceiling helped.  If anyone saw me and reacted, they didn’t shoot.

The Wretch struck the locking mechanism, disappearing an instant after it had appeared-

A violent image, the Wretch visible to me like it had been in the hospital room, except ghostly, existing only in the form of streaked raindroplets and rain breaking against an invisible surface.  And beyond it- Amy.  

Focus.

I worried I’d have to haul it shut.  I didn’t.  The shutter’s own weight brought it down, with my destruction of the mechanism serving much the same function as hauling down on any release lever or pressing any button would have.  It was built like a garage door, but it was heavier, double or three times the thickness, and it was raucous, metal striking against the metal seat with a sound that would be heard next door.  Most likely the intent.

Capricorn materialized his power, bringing down the other shutter, rock cracking as the metal moved and the individual slats bent.  The impact wasn’t as much of a metal on metal sound as it came down to its housing.  He glanced at my shutter, then stood straighter for a better view.  Orange lights began to move along the shutters, covering each surface.

Sveta.  I flew down to the window, to check that she was fine.  She was already at the window, peeking out.

“It’s fine,” Goddess said.

I extended a hand for Sveta to take.  Too late, as her prosthetic hands seized my wrist, I realized it was the burned one.  It hurt, but I ignored it, pushing through it, as I helped pull her through.  She found the positioning for her legs after they were through.

My arm buzzed and prickled with the pain even after Sveta let go.

Stupid mistake, and a mistake that bad could get us hurt.  Focus, Victoria!

Goddess pushed down the additional barriers and barred walls that we would have had to be buzzed through.  The group fell into step around her, the staff in the two side hallways effectively bunkered in.  Capricorn made a gesture of his hand for effect.  The orange motes became an additional wall of stone, flush against the metal shutters.  It was very possible that it would make the shutters impossible to open until…

Until after.

It was a cold shock to think about how we had to handle the after.  We’d just interfered with law enforcement, and the law was supposed to be one of my go-tos.

Follow the law, if that wasn’t possible, do what was right.  If that wasn’t possible, we were supposed to reach out.

If I set that law aside- and I didn’t want to, but the situation was complicated, then I had other laws.  In the morass of doubts and concerns, I had to get centered and focus again.  I needed to put the events of twenty minutes ago behind me.  Now that we were here, I couldn’t be numb and unthinking like I’d been on the flight in.

Black and white text.  Protocols.  Rules to be followed.  Take all of the feelings and bottle them up, except those warm feelings of Dean, that give those protocols and stark letters their life.

Challenging each other, being competitive and trying to get the higher score.  Getting in actual arguments over it, where we were both pissy the next day.  Making up.  Dean telling me, as we cuddled, that competitive was hard for him, because his dad expected so much, and he could sense his father’s disappointment when he didn’t do his best.  I’d had such a distinct mental picture of Dean’s dad standing in the doorway, because so often when I went over there with Dean, there would be that kind of distance.  As if Dean and I being in one of their living rooms watching a show together meant the room was ours and his dad couldn’t or wouldn’t intrude.  I’d been so able to imagine the disappointment and distance both.

My mind jumped from that to an image of Amy standing in a doorway in the same way.  It-

My heart had already dropped.  The warm memory was wiped away and replaced with a chilled, ugly feeling.  I tried to reason my way through it, think around it.

It hadn’t been when Dean and I were cuddling, but we’d been together.  Another time.  Why had I connected that image to Amy?  The distance?  She hadn’t been disappointed- or, no.  Maybe she had, but I hadn’t known it then.

The ugly feeling persisted.

Had I known?  Had there been some glimmer of a suspicion?

It wasn’t a rhetorical question or a revelation.  Just… a very real question, where both answers were bad in their own way.

The ugly feeling got worse, as I dwelt on it.

I couldn’t cling to that for strength, so long as other memories attached themselves.  Both the times she’d been there when I was with Dean and the times she hadn’t been there when I’d been with him were mucked in together, muddled and muddied, shat on by her proximity to them.  That he’d had to have known.  That she could have saved him and she hadn’t.

I couldn’t.  The kernel of love I felt for him was too hard to reach for.

Then- then the other direction.  Reaching for that other direction meant getting close, meant walking through a corridor of memories and ignoring the person who kept on peering in through the windows and stood off to the side, punctuating so, so much of my early life.

What wasn’t hers?

In the hospital room, studying like I’d studied the master-stranger protocols.  Being the powers geek with the patrol.  Yes.  It was an identity I could and had wrapped around myself like a security blanket.

Never hers.  Untainted, but for a few intrusions looking in on Dean and I.

I wasn’t moving any faster, walking in line with the others, my jaw set, but I felt like I was.

There was another identity, one from another world that had never been hers.   It was a world that’d had- it had had its problems, but it wasn’t hers.  She’d defied it, as a matter of fact.  Where I’d longed for it, thrown myself into that world, she’d run from it.  She’d wanted love and acceptance from our family, but she hadn’t been able to bring herself to join in.

I reached for my mask, where it lay at my upper thigh, the curvature of the mask making for a neat fit.  I slipped it on, hooking it to the metalwork where my hood met my hairline, a band of chain going around the back, securing it in place.  It clicked in a satisfying way.

I wore a face, my face, but it was cast in alloy, untouchable, unmoving.

My breath was warm against my face as we stepped beyond the corridor, through the wholly unnecessary if impressive opening Goddess had made.

The sky was so bright, and it was warm.  There was only a sliver of sun, but after the darkness and the rain, the harsh coldness, the setting was eerie.  Less of a crossing over to another Earth and more of a crossing over to another world.

And there were guards.  The long distances and the open spaces with only chain link blocking off access meant that getting from A to B was more time consuming, and that was a dangerous thing when anyone with a gun had an open shot, often with next to nothing on the far side of us, the targets.

Capricorn began drawing out orange-red motes, clearly intending to give us some cover.

Goddess beat him to it.  With a sweep of her arm, she used her telekinesis to carve a great furrow into the earth.  Dust and dirt was sent flying, and there was a great opaque cloud.  Again, in the moment I saw the earth react, before the dust cloud covered it, I saw the pattern by which Goddess’ telekinesis touched the world, like a hand used to push would leave a handprint.  A line that zig-zagged out, back into itself, out.  The first gunshots erupted, the sounds louder because they could skip off the flat ground like a stone could skip on water.  Our group ducked down, and I put the Wretch out, shielding Sveta, Kenzie, and Natalie.

The dust was clearing, however.  Goddess had pushed out the earth, and where it had piled up, it formed a loose general barrier, thick with stones.

Goddess’ head snapped around.  She reached out, and part of her barrier exploded outward, stones and dirt flying.

“Don’t hurt them!” I said.  My voice was almost drowned out by the follow-up strike.  Something more localized.  Taking out one person who was still after her, following the initial strike.

“Hurt- you hurt the guards?” Sveta asked.

“Maybe they were bad people,” Kenzie said.  “Right?”

“Would you rather be shot by them?” Goddess asked, ignoring Kenzie.

“We have to live with the consequences after,” I said.  “We can do this in a good way.”

“One moment,” she said.  She paused.

I clenched my teeth, lips pressed together behind my mask.

Four hundred feet away, at one corner of a building, brick and glass shattered, a window and balcony coming to pieces.  From what I could see of the follow-up, a series of blasts and destruction within the room she had targeted, she was removing the floor from the room.

“That-” I started.

“A moment,” she interrupted, firmer.  Her focus was wholly on that spot.  There was a pause.  “One fucking moment.”

I remained silent, letting her do what she needed to do.  She turned her head slowly, looking around.

“There was a sniper.  There’s one more on the other side of the complex.  They’re not taking a shot.  They’re too far.”

With a finger, she indicated a building.

“Girls’ side,” Kenzie said.

“The men and women have fled.  Retreating to a fortified position.”

“I could spot them on my phone,” Lookout offered, helpfully.

“No,” Goddess said.  “It’s not a question.  I’m saying it because I know it.”

“Oh, cool,” Lookout said.

Goddess indicated the nearest building on the boy’s side.  “You’ll escort me.  Teacher’s pawns are close, and they were picked to stop me.”

“Is that the plan?” I asked.  “Visiting each building in turn?  Rounding up the capes, dispatch the guards and anyone Teacher set up?”

“Why does it sound like you’re questioning me?”

I hesitated.

I am Antares.  I am a scholar of powers, I was born to capes and raised to be a cape.  I-

I reached, grasping for the strength to push through my doubts.  Me with my mom and dad.  A weird scene, because I had been young, and I’d had a debate with my parents while we’d been out in costume, and I’d been thrown off balance.

I didn’t have time to replay the whole memory in my head.

“Yes,” I said.  The fuller answer found me as I grasped the rest of the memory.  The debate with my parents had thrown me off because they’d talked to me like equals, had considered my opinion valid, conceded points, or defended them.  “You wanted people close to you who weren’t just yes men.  It’s why you had- you had Amy, who you weren’t…”

I trailed off.  Bringing up Amy had slowed my momentum.  Trying to find a word to encapsulate this killed it.

“Aligning?” Lookout offered.  “Inviting to the coolest cool kids club?  Except we’re not all kids, um-”

“Aligning,” I said.  “Thank you for the word, Lookout.”

“Anytime.”

“I did,” Goddess told me.  She turned her head, looking for something.  “I don’t like standing in this open field, when we don’t know what Teacher has prepared.  We’ll walk to our destination.”

I nodded.

Capricorn created barriers to one side of us, as Goddess watched over her shoulder in the same direction.  Natalie looked scared- it might have been the passing mention of a sniper.

“You wanted people who debate with you, offer differing points of view.  You listened to Cryptid, so… is it okay if I bring up some points?”

“Cryptid may not be your best example, Antares,” Goddess said.

There was something ominous in her voice as she said it, even though she looked at me and smiled like there was almost a joke in there.

“I don’t understand.”

“He came to me with a form prepared to counter me.  And that is, as far as I detected, only one of three levels of deception that boy was putting into practice.  You don’t want to tell me that you’re following his suit.”

I wasn’t sure most members of the team weren’t shocked at that.  Looks were exchanged.  Of alarm, concern.

“But he’s helping you,” Lookout said.

“He is.  He’s clever enough that I want to work with him.  Antares, little Lookout, is a little more blunt about questioning me and making me wonder about her, and she already attacked one of my new lieutenants.  Did you have an actual argument, Antares, or are we going to talk about him?  Because if you didn’t have a problem to raise, I won’t be happy you questioned me.”

“Actual argument,” I said.  It took me a half-second to refocus myself, taking my thoughts away from Chris and back into thinking like a cape, the kind of cape that could debate approaches with my parents.  “The assistant warden of this prison is on our side, and he’s holding off on detonating the ankle bombs because Foresight convinced him.  He’s presumably watching through surveillance cameras-”

“He is,” Lookout said, looking around.  She sounded alarmed as she said,  “Nobody said I should stop him from doing it.”

“It’s good,” I told her, reassuring.  “It’s good.  If you stopped him, he might start panicking and doubting Foresight.  But if this group with a strange person in it starts assaulting his guards and collecting his prisoners…”

“He’s going to shit a brick, use that brick to break the glass, and hit the big red button that blows up those prisoners,” Capricorn supplied.

“Can you block him like you’re blocking the warden?” Goddess asked Lookout.  “Don’t actually do it.  I had a feeling as I asked.”

“I could,” Lookout said.  “But it’d be hard.  I’m already splitting my focus, and unless I want to shut off all power across the complex…”

“Leaving us in the dark,” Sveta murmured.  Her pale face turned to look in the direction of the sun.  No longer a sliver- it was a glow across the sky.  The ‘slivers’ were now only the crimson-purple linings around some of the rare clouds at that end of the sky.

We’d reached the building.  It was the same one the sniper had been in.  It was less like a proper apartment building and more like six cargo containers organized so it was two side by side, another two stacked facing a different direction, and then two stacked at the top, with the original orientation.  Staircases that led down or through were exposed.

Rain and Ashley’s buildings had four people per.  This is a six.  It’s almost like a threat rating, but the buildings with six have the easiest prisoners to manage.

We weren’t going inside just yet.  Goddess was hesitating.

“I think I know why.  If she does that then we become the bad guys,” I said.  “Foresight will find out or think something’s going on- they have good thinkers.  Right now they’re telling him that his staff and superiors are compromised, something dangerous is going on.  He’s listening.  We don’t want to give him a reason to think he’s being played.”

“Then we go after him.  Tress, if I tell you to go to him and keep him quiet and cooperative, can you do that?”

“I don’t know if I’m that convincing.”

“You might not be, but a knife to the throat is,” Goddess said.

I saw Tress’ expression shift.  Hesitation.

“Is anyone else capable?”

“I could try,” Lookout offered.

“You couldn’t be older than twelve, and I need better than try,” Goddess said.  She looked in the direction of the entry-building.  “Trouble’s coming.  It feels like Teacher.”

“It might be,” Lookout said.  “Let me look.”

She turned to her phone.  I turned my focus to the immediate problem.  We had to protect the leadership.

“If we grab everyone, they’ll panic and you’ll get nobody,” I said.  “We told Foresight we’d reach out to our team members and their undercovers.  They’ll let the guy in admin know.  Let’s get our forces together.”

“Teacher realized he can’t get in,” Lookout reported.  “He could’ve figured it out if he’d tried to make a portal a hundred feet in the air, but I guess he’s not that smart.  Like, helloo…”

“He’s attacking the front door,” Goddess interrupted.

“Yes,” Lookout said.  “I was getting around to that.”

“Our guys?” I asked.

“The teams we pulled together are going to be holding him off.  Fume Hood, A.G., Auzure,” Lookout said.  “And others.”

“They won’t succeed,” Goddess said.  “I wouldn’t be aware of the imminent danger if he was going to be scared away.”

“Then tell them, Lookout,” I said.  “Let’s not have them commit to a fight they can’t win.”

“I’ll tell them.”

“Get your people,” Goddess said.  “Lookout and the unpowered girl stay with me.  The rest of you- gather your forces.  I don’t care how you do it, but do it fast.  You know Teacher’s key players?”

“Yes,” Capricorn said.

“We’re doing what I did when I claimed my Earth.  Start from the top.  A prison warden has to be easier than a collection of world leaders.  You can manage this?  Remove Teacher’s pawns, that would give him control.”

“Would help,” Lookout said, her attention back on her phone.  “I’m spending half my time keeping these guys hemmed in, now that they’ve split up.  They’re gathering guards too.”

We don’t know what Teacher’s people are going to do.  They could blow up everyone not on his shortlist, and that could include Ashley and Rain.  It could include Crystalclear and Foresight’s other peopleOr they might do something that isn’t using the ankle bombs.

“We can manage,” I said.

“Um, here,” Lookout said.  She had her bag slung over her back, and she retrieved one of the projection discs.  “It’s kind of broken since last time.  But it has enough charge to draw lines.  It’s hooked up to the computer at home, the surveillance-”

“Short version,” Goddess sounded testy.

“Points at people!” Lookout said.

“Good!” Capricorn answered her, before bumping her shoulder with one fist.  She laughed in response, but we were already heading away.  Further into the prison complex.

I did glance over my shoulder at Natalie though.

She’d been silent, quiet.  What was she thinking or doing?  Did she have a plan?

If she just looked after Lookout’s welfare, I would be happy.  But there was a chance that wouldn’t be enough.  There was a good chance that we needed more than that.  Master-stranger protocols.  We needed one level head in our group.

Fifty or sixty eyes were at windows, staring down at us.  We were in the sixes, the buildings with six ‘apartments’ each, where the minimum risk prisoners were.  There weren’t many.  The fours were more numerous.  More dangerous prisoners who were deemed cooperative enough to have full privileges.

Sveta, Capricorn and I jogged.

“Rain and Crystalclear first,” Capricorn said.  The disc he held had lines extending from it, and some of those lines lit up.

“Yes,” I said.

“I can’t figure you out, Victoria,” Sveta murmured.

“Master-stranger protocols,” Capricorn said.

Sveta looked at him, “What?”

“Master-stranger,” I said.  “We’re under the influence of a power.  We can’t trust our own judgment.”

“And you’re on board with this, Capricorn?” she asked.  “You’re okay with this?”

“Do you trust me?” he asked.

“Not like this!” she exclaimed, stopping in her tracks.

“Do you trust me?” he asked again.  “Forgetting this specific situation, do you trust me?”

“It’s more nuanced than that.”

“Do you trust me?”

“Stop that.  Don’t play your games with me, Capricorn.”

“Do you-”

“Yes!” she shouted.  There was a pause as she gathered her composure.

In that pause, the jeering and shouts from prisoners was audible.  Catcalling, threats.  Offers to get us money if we let them out.

“Most of the time,” Sveta added, more subdued.

“Do you trust Antares?”

“Most of the time,” Sveta said.  She looked at me.  “Yes.”

“Do you trust Weld?”

“What does Weld have to do with this?”

“The protocols we’re talking about are Ward and Protectorate protocols.  If Weld was here he would be following the rules too.  Do you trust Weld?  Do you believe in the Weld fan club?”

“That is the most manipulative shit, Capricorn.”

“If you don’t answer with a resounding yes, I think I win.”

“Fuck you, no you don’t, and yes, of course I believe in my boyfriend, but bringing him up is a stretch.”

“Sometimes our feelings get screwed up.  I’ve had to deal with it before,” I said.  “You know that.”

“Yes,” Sveta said.

“The rules for the protocols are simple.  We listen to the people we can be sure aren’t affected.”

“And you aren’t affected?”

“We’re all affected,” Capricorn said.  “Me, my brother, Antares, the kids.”

“Only Natalie?” Sveta asked.  “She didn’t say anything.”

“I think she thinks that if she’s quiet she could get an opportunity to make a phone call or reach out,” Capricorn said.  “And I don’t think Goddess is that stupid, to let her.”

“I don’t know,” Sveta said.

“Trust us, trust in the rules Weld would have followed.  Because they’re the guidelines of effective heroes.”

“Do the guidelines say how we handle this situation?” Sveta asked.  “Teacher’s attacking, he’s focusing his efforts on the front door.  Goddess is… she wants to fight him here, and we’re supposed to help her.  This is going to become a battlefield, and…”

“And a single mistake could mean our friends lose their lives, or dangerous prisoners get free,” I finished.

“Or Teacher wins,” Capricorn said.  “If he forces us into a retreat or captures us-”

There was a sharp whistle nearby that stood out from the lecherous ones one guy in particular seemed to be doing.  I turned my head, searching for the source.

A prisoner, standing at a balcony, where he had to look around the corner and along the length of a building to see us.  He was a black guy, with tattoos outlined across his face and arms that looked like they had been put on his skin with white-out.  He pointed down, and he held up his hand.

I couldn’t tell if his thumb was out, at that distance, but it sure looked like he had all four fingers up.

I saluted him.

“We’ve got company.  Officers, I’m guessing,” I said.

“We run, instead of fighting,” Capricorn decided.  I nodded my agreement.

Capricorn created cover, orange motes tracing out walls, which appeared just as we reached them.  I flew alongside, the Wretch active.  What the walls didn’t cover, I hoped Capricorn’s setup would.

Which was fine, so long as we just had the one squadron of officers coming from around the back corner of the building.  One squadron, one direction to watch, all good.

But there were others.  We approached the building that Lookout’s compass was pointing us to, and I could see the broken window on the ground floor, with no less than four officers lined up along it, guns pointed out.

I had to push hard to fly out in front, my arms outstretched wide and Wretch stretched out wider.  A momentary stop, working on the assumption the bullets would be accurate, turning to face one direction while flying the opposite, in an effort to confuse-

The Wretch caught a bullet.  In the moment the Wretch was gone, so soon after that I imagined it would have been blocked by the Wretch had it been a tenth of a second faster, Sveta grabbed me by the cloth at the small of my back.  She was already pulling herself to a destination, and in the process, she pulled me too.

I went high, because I could, and because I knew the people shooting at us wouldn’t be aiming that high with their initial battery.  For a moment, I was kind of Sveta’s kite.

We didn’t get away unscathed.  Each of those four officers fired off multiple shots.  I saw bullets hit my teammates.  I saw Capricorn fall in the wake of one shot.

Metal prosthetic body- not all that durable, with the lightweight metals.  As Sveta collapsed into a heap, the three of us stopping at the base of one building.  In the moment we passed through some of the light that reached down past the rectangle of a balcony, I could see the groove in Sveta’s body.  It looked more like someone had buried a hatchet in her side than anything.

And Capricorn- he crawled to the base of the wall, sitting up, before twisting his leg around.  It looked like his armor was up to snuff.  Whatever it was made of was denser, and it hadn’t parted or let the bullet through when it had taken the grazing shot.  Maybe a deflection, maybe a graze.

“All good?” I asked Sveta.  “No damage?”

“Nothing I can tell,” she murmured.  “Get me a patch?  At my back, actually only a short distance from the damage done.  I’ll try not to grab you.”

I found the patch.  I had to fumble with it, finding the way it attached.  There was a part that went inside the armor, inside the damaged portion-

Sveta grabbed it from within, pulling it flush against the armor.  “I think I’ve got it.  Thanks.”

I nodded.

Capricorn leaned out to peer around the corner.  There was a gunshot, and he pulled his head back.

“Night vision goggles or something,” Capricorn said.  He looked around.  “It’s too dark for them to see me, normally.”

I glanced up at the sky.  The sun had set.  No light from above that wasn’t from the moon, and we weren’t near any cities.  The only light pollution was from the prison complex.

“Guys who were behind us are going to catch up with us,” I said.  “If I was willing to hurt these guys, I would.”

“Patched,” Sveta said.  “So long as I don’t pick at the wires.”

Capricorn looked out.  Another bullet made him pull his head in.

“Stop doing that, you’re making me nervous,” Sveta said.

“I guess our assistant warden isn’t telling all his men to stand down,” Capricorn said.  “Antares, you’ve got-”

Something landed on the ground near us.

Trash?

No, not just trash.  An adult diaper.  Used.

I craned my head up to look, saw a wide-mouthed, wild-haired face peering down, and took flight, flying up toward them.

They shrieked, and then slammed their balcony door closed.

I lowered myself to the ground.  Capricorn had already dealt with the diaper, burying it in a pyramid of stone.

“Get my phone?” Capricorn asked.  “I’m wearing gauntlets.”

He indicated where, and I reached for it.

He moved it to the edge of the building, so that only the camera peeked out, and looked at the screen.  The night-vision mode wasn’t great, but even looking over Capricorn’s shoulder, I could see the general shape of the building.

I could also see the bright spots that were his sparks.  He was using the camera to help place them.

I kept an eye out for our pursuers at our rear.  In a prison complex that was inconsistently lit, we were now sitting in the shadows just beside the illumination that came down from diaper-man’s balcony light.

No, nothing was that easy.  I could see the first hints of flashlights mounted on guns.

“Hey Lookout,” I murmured.  “Since you’re messing around with power and systems, if you happened to want to throw these guys for a loop…”

The lights went out around the pursuers.

“Uh,” I said.

“Coincidence,” Sveta said.

“Blocking the window,” Capricorn whispered.  “We blitz.  Go in three, two, one!”

We rounded the corner.  A wall of rock blocked the window.

The door near them opened.  Sveta reached out, missed the knob, threw out another hand, and caught it.  She shifted her stance and hauled the door shut.

A gun fired from within.  The door handle came away.

Sveta, halfway to reeling her arm in, whipped it.  It reversed direction, extending in the direction of the hole.

She grabbed someone or something on the other side and yanked.  They collided with the edge of the opening door, which promptly slammed.  It was only a moment later, and after seeing Sveta’s expression, that I remembered the height that the usual doorknob was at, and what she might have grabbed.

The guards shot out the hinges, and at that point, there was no keeping the door up.  I flew to intercept, and as I saw their movements as they turned to track me, I shifted course, flying up.  With the Wretch active, I hit the ceiling just above the door, where the light was.

We still have pursuers from behind.

“We’ve got two red lines from the compass!” Capricorn called out.

Red line?

I flew back and away, so I’d have a second to think.  I was in the middle of evasive maneuvers when a bullet hit the Wretch.

Changing course, I put myself close to the building, so the overhang above the door would provide some cover from the shooter.

They shot elsewhere.

“Stop shooting my body!” Sveta called out, arms up in front of her face.

I flew straight down.  Wretch out, flat out, all out.  A full speed descent, a downward swipe of the Wretch aimed at the concrete pad that the building was seated on.

The pad shattered.  People all around me stumbled- shadowy silhouettes in more shadow.

I swung backhanded, aiming a punch with no enhanced strength active, but with my aura going from zero to ten.

A hand deflected my swing.  The woman stepped in close, with an underhanded punch.  The first hit my breastplate.  The second, same hand, hit my side, where the breastplate didn’t protect me.

People were cowering, backing up, but this person didn’t flinch.

And the one with the gun wasn’t either.  They brought their weapon around, aimed at my head.

I ducked right, relying on flight to keep me moving, when otherwise it would have been me landing on my side.  At the same instant, Sveta had a grip on the gunman and pulled them away, hauling back on the torso, not the gun-arm.  And, still also in the same moment, they fired.

With me moving one way, and Sveta pulling the gunman the other way, the bullet still clipped the edge of my mask just by the left eyehole.  My head was twisted to the left, pain singing in my neck in a way that promised I’d ache tomorrow.

And the martial artist woman in the prison guard uniform was after me.  Her body was a blur of grays and blacks against a black background, and I barely saw her leg come around.  A kick aimed at my neck, while I was still reeling.

Teacher thrall, I realized.  I brought the Wretch out.  She kicked the Wretch, and the Wretch might have been lashing out or growing out in her direction, because I saw and felt her leg break.

She landed on the three intact limbs, centered herself, and then pounced at me.

“The hell?” another officer asked.

“You’ve got moles!” I shouted.  “It’s why we’re here!”

The gunman was maneuvering to get a shot, his focus on Sveta again.  The second teacher thrall.  The night vision sniper Capricorn had remarked on wasn’t using night vision.  They had something else going on, courtesy of Teacher’s gifts.

And they were dead inside enough that my emotion power wasn’t affecting them.

Capricorn closed the distance with the gunman.  Sveta grabbed the pouncer.

The Wretch’s first hit was deflected, but only barely- the woman was hit hard enough that she was pulled from Sveta’s grip.  She didn’t have a second leg to catch herself on, so she wobbled unsteadily as she dropped to a one-legged squat, put her hands out to either side, and then sprung forward at me yet again.

I ducked low, using flight to orient myself, and kicked out.  She was ready for it, pulling her leg up out of the way- but the broken leg that dangled wasn’t so adroit.  I’d kicked it, hard, and as dead as she was inside, she seemed to feel sufficient pain or shock.  She landed hard across broken concrete.

“Hey!  Stop!” one guard shouted.

Capricorn had been punching the gunman, his gauntleted fist coming back from what couldn’t have been the first hit, starting to move in for a third or fourth.

He stopped himself.  When he let the guy fall, the guy fell limp, unconscious.

His head lowered, fists clenching.

“Can’t stop,” I said.  “We’ve got more coming.”

There were others in the incoming squad.  Capricorn looked down at the compass.  I saw two more red lines.

Teachered people that Lookout had noted and marked in her system.

Fuck me.

“Two of these guys are compromised too,” Capricorn said, more for the benefit of the other guards.

There was an eruption.  The incoming squad was scattered, various members thrown in every theoretical direction.

Rain and Crystalclear leaped from a higher point.  Rain stopped them mid-fall, then let them fall the rest of the way.

“We’re clear?  I’m not going to blow up?” Rain asked.

“You’re clear,” I said, before raising my voice.  “The rest of you who’re listening aren’t, by the way!”

“What the fuck!?” a guy on a balcony shouted down.  “What’s going on!?”

We ignored him.  My phone was buzzing, and the ‘compass’ that was the projector disc showing headings of various threats that surveillance had spotted was lighting up.  One big magenta line, then another, and another.  Red lines were converging.

“I’m really hoping we can close the portal if we need to,” I said, because I’m going to guess that those magenta lines are… bigger threats.”

“The people at the gates,” Sveta said.  She was working on patching her body where she’d taken bullets.  “Powered people.”

“No sweat.  We’ve got the Lady in Blue,” Rain said, smiling.

“Yeahhhh,” Crystalclear said, sounding very unsure.  “Hey, how are we feeling about that?  Because things are looking odd to me here, cracks in places there shouldn’t be cracks.”

His vision.

“We’re feeling master-stranger protocols?” I tried, with a note of hope, wincing a little at the same time.

“I’m not up to date on my protocols,” Crystalclear said.

I sighed.

“Things are screwed up,” Sveta said.

“Okay, it’s not just me then,” Crystalclear said, sounding relieved.  I wasn’t sure he’d sound as relieved if he had the full story.

I pulled my phone free.  My side hurt like a bitch where I’d been punched.  Hit-in-the-organs hurt.

But that hurt was almost welcome.  Hurt was part and parcel of wearing the costume, being in that zone of being a cape.  It was me not being Victoria, for just a little while.

A different headspace.  One of two safe refuges.

And… looking at my phone, I could see that I might need to tap the other- the powers scholar.

Kenzie had surveillance footage, looping between a few isolated clips because the people entering the prison now were destroying the cameras as they came across them, and one of those people was making cameras twist on their mounts to look away.

That would be Blindside.  I was pretty sure that another one was Kingdom Come.  The same guy I’d seen blow up… he must have reconstituted.

And they had a leader.  These squads liked to have a big bad brute in charge, and these guys had picked one I knew well.  Hometown brute, already growing in metal scales that punched through tattooed skin.

Fucking Lung.  Fuck him.

They weren’t alone.

I showed Tristan and Sveta, before turning the camera around for Crystalclear and Rain to see.

As the focus shifted away, my vision remained on Capricorn.  He’d wrapped up ‘cuffing’ the compass-marked threats.  His hand was shaking, and he seemed to be trying to settle down.  There was still blood on the gauntlet.

“Let’s get moving.  We’ve got to get Swansong and whoever Foresight sent to that side.”

“Ah geez,” Crystalclear said.

“We can do this,” Capricorn said, with a courage and conviction that I one hundred percent did not believe rang true, after seeing his hand shake like that.  He looked back at the guards that had backed off after hearing about the moles, as if for validation.  “We’ve got this.”

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Gleaming – 9.8

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For those who missed it, there was a Thursday update.  See the prior chapter.

Sveta was smiling, her face more relaxed than it had been when she had been challenging Byron and I.  Things were balanced out.  Kenzie was content enough.

Yet somehow, with whatever effect Goddess was supposed to have, more people in the room were upset than content.  Me.  Natalie.

Amy.  I didn’t want to think about or focus on Amy.  I didn’t want to think about the fact that she was here, invading my space yet again.  I could still recognize that she wasn’t happy with the current dynamic.

Tristan.

For all the advice, the good advice, that Tristan was supposed to calm down and focus his efforts on our number one enemies here, he was as angry as I’d ever seen him.  He’d taken off the bulk of his armor before switching out to Byron, and I had a full view of his face and neck.  I could see his eyes.

He turned those eyes toward me.  The look was dark, the tilt of his head and the overhead lights casting the sockets in shadow, with the shadows branching out through the lines along the nose and between the eyebrows.  His fist was clenched.

A study in contrasts.  In the moment before he had disappeared, Byron had looked okay.  Less tense than I’d known him to be in a long time.

“Enough,” Goddess told him.  “I can’t stand infighting.”

He didn’t back down, and he didn’t break eye contact.

“I’ve talked to some of my contacts.  They claim they’re ready.  Tell me what you’ve done.”

“We had a skirmish with Teacher,” I said.  “The team that helped us with that should sit this one out.    They’re depleted and as eager as they are, they’re also inexperienced.  Tiredness combined with being spent is a recipe for disaster.”

“You have others?”

“Plenty of others,” I told her.

“When you said ‘the team that helped us’, who was ‘us’.  Everyone went?”

“Capricorn and myself,” I said.  “Capricorn blue, to be specific.”

She looked at Tristan.  Seeing him still staring me down, she touched his shoulder.  He turned away from me to look at her.

“They ran into a cape,” Tristan said.  “Set powers and interdimensional doors on fire.”

“I know her.  Teacher will send her after me sometimes.”

“She’s the prison pharmacist.  She’ll be there.”

Goddess didn’t seem to be too bothered by that.

“Where’s Cryptid?” Kenzie asked.

“Assisting me.  He’s with the team that’s looking for the girl who has my power.”

“Oh, cool.  He’ll be good at that.”

“Can you give us more information on that?” I asked.  “I’ve studied powers in the past.”

“On the day of the final confrontation against the alien, I was pulled away from my world.  Many of my lieutenants and parahuman inhabitants of my world were as well.  When everything ended, Several of my lieutenants slipped from my reach.  I’ve found all but one.  The craven bitch was one of the five others who got powers when I did.”

“One of your other enemies has mentioned your background, and that you… somehow took the powers from the group,” I said.

“Tattletale?  Yes.  She’s similar to the woman with the fire.  She shows up at very inconvenient times.  Sometimes because she’s an unwitting pawn moved by Teacher.  Right now she’s busy keeping her area of this mega-city from collapsing.  A cursed place, Amy says.”

I flinched at the name.  I’d almost been able to pretend she wasn’t here.

“It’s probably because of the fact that she’s busy that Teacher is doing what he’s doing now,” Amy said.

“I want to ask, why are you here, Amy?” Sveta asked.

“Um.  I’m kind of uniquely situated to get a lot of this.  I knew Teacher, I knew Valkyrie, I’ve talked to Tattletale a few times, I had a sense of what was happening with Gold Morning before some others.”

I folded my arms.

“What I was asking is why are you here?” Sveta said.  “In this headquarters.”

“Because I wanted to make sure that everyone is okay.”

“Your being here makes things less okay,” Sveta said.  “I’m speaking for your sister here, because I’m sure she’s trying to avoid causing issues.”

My arms still folded, I nodded emphatically, my eyes averted to the ground.

“You’re causing problems,” Sveta said.

“I’m trying to take care of everyone, including the people important to me.”

“Enough of this,” Goddess spoke, her voice sharp.

Sveta shut up.  Amy went silent.

“Antares,” Goddess said.  “My power testing labs are very good and thorough.  I can’t imagine you have any new information for me.”

“Can I ask what her power is?  I might not know things that are better than what you learned from your labs, but I keep track of capes, as much as it’s possible, with clandestine groups and cults coming out of the woodwork.”

“A power battery.  She has five very minor powers, scraps of powers, but she has the ability to charge one, extending its range out dramatically in a straight line, usable once every long while.”

“And with this power back, you’d extend your range?”

“In a sense,” she said.  She made eye contact, and there was something searching in her gaze.  “Not straight lines.”

“Including the brainwashing?” Natalie asked.

“Nothing is washed,” Goddess said, her voice hard. “It is aligned.”

Natalie nodded, ducking her head down.

Her answer to Natalie’s question hadn’t been a no.

“If you’re done interrogating me, tell me about the prison.”

“I lensed the energy the gates put out to throw Teacher’s attempts to get in or out out of whack.  Teacher’s pawns are stupid-”

“They lack volition,” I said.

“And they’re gullible, which means they’re stupid.  We tricked them into talking to each other and we have most of them identified.”

“Including the people in charge that Teacher got to,” Tristan said.

He didn’t look any calmer.  It was an uncharacteristically cold kind of anger, though, one that left his voice level even as it stood out across his face, neck, and arms.

I could sympathize, on a level, but my anger wasn’t hot or cold.  It just felt sick.  It carried forward from the sick feeling that had come from being at odds with Sveta.  I was thankful that she was defending me and that she wasn’t causing issues, because I wasn’t sure if I could have managed if she didn’t have my back right now.

“We control the access for now,” Kenzie said.  “He’s trying to figure it out, but… I’m looking at data, and it looks like he keeps trying to open the portals a hundred feet below the prison.  The energy diffuses out into the ground.  He did four tries almost right away, and… it’s been a little while since then.  He made one try, still down there.  I think he might be out of energy.”

“Good,” Goddess said.  She smiled.  “Good work.”

Kenzie’s legs kicked, as she wiggled.

“Get ready.  We’ll go now,” Goddess said.

“We have one more play that’s in the works,” I said.  “An ally is going to make a move, and we should watch what happens so we know where people are.”

“Get ready in the meantime, then.”

I met Tristan’s eyes briefly as he turned toward the corner where he’d left his armor.  Still angry, in an inexplicable way.

There was too much to keep a handle on, and telling myself master-stranger protocols felt like it was about as substantial as shouting ‘Santa is real!’ when I knew he wasn’t- and Byron had been compromised.

My option now was Natalie, who I could maybe trust but couldn’t rely on, because so much of this cape stuff went over her head.

Or… or Amy.  Who maybe knew the cape stuff, but who I couldn’t ever trust.

Natalie.  I couldn’t reach out to her now.

And the others… compromised, by the rules and guidelines stipulated in black and white, outlined in tests that tens of thousands of PRT employees had to take and perfect, even the desk jockeys.

I checked my phone.  My phone was safe, covering distant territory.  No messages had been sent by Rain or Ashley before all communications had been shut off.  I looked at the monitors- also safe.

People were heading toward the cafeteria, and in that group, I could see Crystalclear and Rain.  It was good.  Coalbelcher was in the group with some of his lieutenants.  Less good.

In her apartment, Ashley stood with her back to the kitchen counter, her head bowed, her arms folded.  The Damsel, for lack of a better description, sat on a chair, one arm draped over the back, the other along the table, by the laptop that was now closed.  It wasn’t much use to them, now that the internet was cut off as well.

Another screen showed the video feed from Ashley’s eye-cam.  Once we were inside, if for any reason she wasn’t still in her apartment, then chances were good that we’d have to deduce her location.

Goddess walked over to look at the screens.  Kenzie, organizing her stuff and unplugging things from the computer, looked up.

Amy moved in my peripheral vision.  I shifted my stance.  My aura was on and off in such a short period of time it barely rippled past my skin.

She wasn’t focusing on me.  She’d taken a step toward Sveta, who was attaching her armor, her mask on the table next to her.

“Hello,” the small creature on Amy’s shoulder said, voice high.  A few people glanced over.

“Hello,” Sveta said, before returning to what she was doing.  She kept Amy in the corner of her eye.

“Dot, meet Tress,” Amy said.  “My mother told me a lot about her, and I make- made small talk with her boyfriend when I ran into him at the Wardens headquarters.”

“You have a machine body, and you don’t smell much like flesh or blood.”

“Be polite,” Amy said.

“It’s good!” Dot exclaimed.  “So special, to have something made like that.  A lot of love and care.”

“There was,” Sveta said.  “The most important person in the world had to work hard to make it even possible, and someone had to study very hard to learn how to make it, and that’s a kind of love too.”

Lookout, helmet on, gear gathered, approached to get a better look at Dot.  I opened my mouth to express a warning, but Lookout stepped back as Amy turned to look at her.

Good, I thought.

Dot didn’t seem to care, instead adjusting her perch on Amy’s shoulder.

“My Red Queen does good work with a lot of love too,” Dot said.

“I’ve seen the work she does,” Sveta said.

I could feel a weight pressing in on me.  Amy looking my way made it worse.

Tristan, on the other end of the room, was getting his armor on.  He watched intently, still silent, but for a few of the strategic comments he’d dropped for Goddess.

“Natalie,” I said.  I was desperate for an out.  “Can we talk organization?”

“Please,” she said.

“We can step outside,” I said, “If you don’t mind your jacket getting wet.  Give these guys some elbow room.”

Natalie nodded.

“Stay inside,” Goddess said.

There went that plan.

Why did this have to be so hard?  One person standing in the center of the room while her squirrel-like companion made small talk was harder to deal with than just about anything.

“My Red Queen has fixed a few of my kind.  Big ones, weird ones.  She could fix you.  She can make you just as wonderful in shape and strong enough you don’t need the body.”

“Don’t volunteer me,” Amy said.  “Things are more complicated than that.”

“But you can!  You can make her any shape at all, and then she won’t need that machine anymore!  Then I can take a hand or take an arm!  It’s all so colorful!”

“That’s enough.  I’m sorry, Sveta.”

Sveta didn’t respond, only giving Amy a cold look that, ten minutes ago, she’d been directing at me.

“But I want-” Dot started.  Amy brought up a hand, and stroked Dot like Dot was a cat.  I saw the contact, and revulsion gripped my entire body.

Natalie looked between Amy and me, and then stepped closer to me, hand moving as if she was going to touch me.  I flinched, and she stopped.

I nodded, and she touched my upper arm, just below the ornamentation of spires there.  She moved between Amy and me, blocking my view, and the gratitude that rolled through me could have stopped a moving vehicle.

I hated feeling weak and powerless in front of people like this- in front of Lookout, who couldn’t understand.  In front of Sveta, Tristan, and Goddess.

I looked away, tried to swallow and it got stuck, caught somewhere between up and down, in a position that paralyzed, too ominous for me to figure out how to breathe again.  I really truly felt like forcing it would leave me either choking, if I moved one way, or outright coughing out a mouthful of vomit.

Fuck her.  Fuck her for being here.  Fuck her for intruding, for not getting it.  Fuck her for her selfishness.

In anger, disgust receded.  I could swallow, the motion hard enough it hurt.

What’s going on?” Natalie whispered.  “This is Goddess’ mind control effect?  And you’re resisting it?”

“I’m not resisting it,” I murmured.  “Every iota of my being is telling me that it’s not a problem, it’s minor, I’m making the sensible calls.  But Byron said I’m affected.”

“Byron is-” she turned to look in Tristan’s direction.

“He’s affected now.  Swansong and Precipice too.”

“Oh,” she said.  “What do I do?”

“If you ask me, we ride this out, treat Teacher as the bigger threat, and we deal with that first.  We resolve the prison situation and we let Goddess go rule her world as she sees fit.  If she asks, we go with, we switch our focus… a lot could be done if we do our part there and use that work and accomplishments there to help Gimel.”

“And if she says she wants to destroy Gimel?”

“My first instinct would be to evacuate everyone and then destroy it.”

“And if she didn’t want to evacuate?  Kill everyone?”

“I couldn’t do that,” I said.

“Just like in the video, then,” Natalie said.

She’d seen Byron fighting me, had apparently heard the audio.

“I can get away and call people,” she murmured.  “The Wardens?”

“I think you trying would set off her danger sense,” I said.  And as I said it, I turned my head.

Goddess stood by the computer terminal.  Lookout was standing by her again, chattering away.  Goddess wasn’t listening, though.  She was watching Natalie and I.

“Be safe,” I said.  “We’ll figure something out.”

Natalie nodded.

I was pretty sure I was lying.

“Do you know master-stranger protocols?” I asked her, my voice a dire whisper.

As expected, she shook her head.

“You’re not compromised.  If you say to do something, anything, I’m going to put my trust in you.  Byron might.  I don’t know.”

Natalie opened her mouth to reply.  She was interrupted by a change in the lighting.  A whole wall of projected images flicked over to being a single image from a surveillance camera.  It was in color, and the sky on the other side was lit by hues ranging from blue to pink and orange.  The shadows of the people in the image were long.

Rain was a step behind Crystalclear.

On another wall, in another panel of projected image, Ashley had moved to the balcony.  Damsel stood beside her, claws wrapped around the railing.  Others were watching too.

“Audio,” Tristan said.

“…this with full knowledge of the consequences,” Crystalclear said.  He’d been close to the head of the group of prisoners that were going to the cafeteria to eat, and now he stopped, arms out to the sides.  Guards were moving to flank, weapons drawn.

“Don’t be stupid, Crystalclear.  Your record is good, you haven’t had problems yet!”

“Yeh, don’t be stupid,” Coalbelcher’s voice was accented, with nasal intonation that didn’t fit him.  “I was looking forward to my dinner, and I get cranky when something or someone gets in the way of that.”

“I have it on good authority that this prison is under attack as we speak.  Part of that attack involves the drugs they intend to hand out at the cafeteria.  I’m asking you to put a lockdown in effect and put everything on hold, medication included.”

“I’m seconding this,” Rain said.

“You’re delaying our dinner, boys?” Coalbelcher asked.

“Yes sir, sorry sir,” Rain said.

“Not smart.”

“Stand down, everyone else, kneel!  I don’t want funny business!”

The other prisoners in Rain and Crystalclear’s group were dropping to their knees.

“If a few hours pass and nothing happens, feel free to come after us, Coal, but we’re pretty sure on this,” Crystalclear said.

“Us,” Rain said.  “Put me out there, feel free.”

“Sorry,” Crystalclear added.

“I’m going to make you sorry if these guards don’t.  Getting between me and my motherfucking meal.” Coalbelcher growled.  From a distance, through the speaker, it sounded more like a child trying to sound menacing.  I wondered if he was more dangerous-sounding in person, backed by reputation, in a Brando-as-Godfather way.

“Down on the ground!” a guard called, indicating Crystalclear.

“I’m already kneeling.”

“Chin to dirt!”

“Again, requesting facility-wide lockdown.”

“Chin to the fucking dirt!”

“Figured it wouldn’t work,” Rain said.

Crystalclear dropped, hands at the back of his head.

“We’re going to cuff you, and then we’re going to take you two back-”

An explosion.

Lookout hit keys.  Our view shifted to surveillance camera footage of the cafeteria.  The detonation had wrecked the door and surrounding brickwork.

“By the look and sound of that, it seems like Crystalclear’s power,” I said, my voice quieter than I’d meant it to be.

“At least they don’t realize it’s him,” Sveta said.

“Yeah.  They had to take the guy who can grow explosive crystals on his head and send them through solid surfaces face-first against the ground, huh?”

The guards were focusing on getting the prisoners away from the site of the blast.  Crystalclear and Rain were pulled to their feet.  They didn’t seem to realize that it had been Crystalclear.  It was possible they knew what he did on paper, but recognizing it in the field was something else entirely.

“Over there,” Rain said, turning his head.

Crystalclear stumbled as he turned partially around, while the guard had a hand at the back of his prison-issue jacket.  As part of the stumble, he brought his leg back and kicked, scuffing the ground.

A moment’s delay, and- an explosion, off-screen.

“Can you get that for us, Lookout?”

Amy had moved closer to me in her effort to see what was going on in the video.  Natalie positioned herself, guarding me.  Sveta, too, had moved to another point.

Goddess was watching but not intervening.  I knew she meant well, but…

Lookout’s voice cut through my thoughts.  “Going back ten seconds.  Play.”

Video footage.  People running from the cafeteria.  One of them was the pharmacist, marked with an icon over her head, courtesy of Lookout’s tech.

Crystalclear had to have put a crystal in his shoe, because he’d sent something forward when he’d scuffed the dirt with his toe.  The explosion was the usual Crystalclear sort, but as it hit the pharmacist, she flinched, reacting, and the explosion unfolded into something more dramatic, with rolling waves of purple flame.

The shoe-crystal would’ve been his plan for if they hadn’t had him put his head to the ground.

The smoke was clearing away.  Our pharmacist was fine in the wake of it.  Of fucking course.

“That’s our cue,” Tristan said.  “We’ll have to trust they’ve got this figured out.  Rain and Crystal know what the pharmacist can do.”

Goddess turned toward the door.  With a power, she bid it to open.  Wind and flecks of moisture came in, beading the first few feet of floorboards.  As she approached, however, wind and rain stopped.

The group headed for the fire escape, Goddess lifting herself up to the railing, then floating down.  Tristan was behind her.

My thoughts were on Crystalclear and Rain, on the pharmacist, and how we’d travel to get there.  To my right, a supporting hand reached for my shoulder.

It was a colorful hand in my peripheral vision.  My first thought was that it was Sveta.  Then, after processing color, that Natalie had pulled on gloves.

A hand of mostly red, black secondary, with lines of gold running through it for highlights.

I hadn’t even fully processed the thought, or the warning shout of, “No!” before I was flying.  Forcefield out- I swung to strike her pre-emptively, before she could make contact.

The swing came at a downward angle.  Floorboards became splinters, and I could hear Lookout shriek off to the side.  I saw Amy’s eyes wide, her stumbling steps back as the floor shifted subtly under her feet.  Dot went from under her jacket to her shoulder, then bounded off.

Floating, I had no reason to move a hair.  I’d spent so long trying to avoid thinking about her, trying to find my equilibrium, to deal.  Even swallowing or breathing could be made hard.  Wearing skin could be hard, when the idea of her was close.

But if I didn’t move a hair, if I was a statue, all bridled fury and potential energy, I could stare her down, and hope that there was something that I could convey here.

My aura was still active.  I was probably disturbing the neighbors.  Just like with the swallowing, I couldn’t bring myself to do more than hold it in uncomfortable, bad-for-me limbo.

“Victoria,” Sveta said.

“Sorry about the floorboards,” I said.  I didn’t look, but it was hard to miss, even in peripheral vision.  “That’s probably the security deposit and then some.”

Amy’s lips parted.  Anger flared in my chest.  She got out just the two and a half words, “I’ll pay-”

I flew in, Wretch up.  She hurled herself back and away, and it was like she was moving in slow motion.  My flight was faster than her running.

Something connected with my forcefield.  With it, the paradigm shifted.  I couldn’t be close, couldn’t risk being touched.  I changed the direction of my flight, placing myself near the wall.

It had been Sveta.  As I turned around, she was reeling in her arm.

Amy had to circumnavigate the hole I’d put in the floor to get to the door.  Dot jumped from Lookout’s arms to Amy’s shoulder as she passed.

“You’ll be happier if you stop here,” Sveta said.  “We have a mission.”

The mission.

Do what’s lawful, do what’s right, when neither are clear, reach out for help.

The law and right aren’t in the prison right now.  They needed help.

“Okay,” I said.  “Absolutely.”

I headed for the door.  Sveta reached out, extending an arm to my shoulder.  I stopped.

“Give her a second to leave.  Some distance will be good,” Sveta said.

“She won’t leave,” I said.  “Because leaving would be the right thing to do.  I have to make her.”

Sveta’s expression shifted, a frown.

“Sorry, Lookout,” I said.  “I probably spooked you.”

She laughed.  I imagined a smile on her face, on the other side of her mask.

I floated past the hole and through the door.  I had to lower my head a little so I didn’t get a faceful of freezing rain.

On the ground beside the fire escape, Amy stood beside Goddess.  She hadn’t left.

“Sorry, Natalie,” I said, as I passed her.  She was standing on the uppermost stair that wasn’t the landing at the top of the fire escape.

“No,” she said, her voice small.  “I get it.”

I wondered if she actually did, now.

Goddess was staring me down, looking utterly unbothered, beyond maybe some impatience about getting to the prison.  Amy stood a little ways back, in her civilian clothes, her jacket’s hood up, her eyes not visible.

And I was- I was shaking, like the cold had gotten to me.

It hadn’t, but close enough.

As I drew nearer, I brought the Wretch out.  I let the rain outline it.

Goddess didn’t flinch.  Amy- I saw Amy take a step back.  She said something I couldn’t make out over the drum of the rain.

I flew around the pair- put myself in front of her, instead.  I touched down on the surface of the parking lot, and the Wretch scratched at it, scrabbled at it with multiple fingernails of a multitude of hands.

She turned away, and I put myself in her field of view again, my expression like stone because anything else would have broken in a second.  My fists were clenched, and I was acutely aware of the burn… yet I didn’t feel pain.  Even the old bullet wound in my upper arm didn’t hurt in this moment, which made me realize it usually did, just a bit.  A tightness that wasn’t there in this moment.

Because I didn’t feel pain, I felt like I could do this.  I could manage this because that almost-contact had shocked my system and my senses were altered in the now.  That allowed me to show Amy.  I could show Goddess because I trusted her.  The others- they knew or they’d seen.

Well.  Maybe they’d seen, but it might have taken the damage to the floorboards to show them.

Adrenaline surged through me to impel, drive me forward, in a moment I was stiller than even a person standing could be.  A person that stood needed to make micro-adjustments to their position, to keep their balance.  Weight shifted from foot to foot.

Not so, for me.  I could have been a corpse.

I saw moisture on her face that wasn’t rain.  Like the two and a half words she’d spoken, it was almost enough to provoke me again.  I felt outrage, seeing that.

I knew I wasn’t being rational.  I knew I was in shock.

Like with the master-stranger protocols, I had to recognize where I was, and what I needed to do.  Things divorced from instinct, biological impulses, and baser needs, like fight or flight.

“Did you get your closure?” Goddess asked.

Amy turned her head to look at the woman, and I could see her eyes.  Bewildered, haunted.  Hurt.

Amy wasn’t under Goddess’ influence.  She was a lieutenant who had connections to key players like Tattletale, Marquis, and Teacher.

I’d seen those eyes before too.  Around the edges of memories that had been wiped away.

“Amy,” Goddess said.

Amy wasn’t up to speaking any more than I was.

“Go to Cryptid.  You’re useless to me here.”

Amy nodded slowly.  She backed away.

I had no idea if she planned to catch a ride somehow, run, walk, or do something else.  I didn’t really care.  She was leaving.  She was gone.

She’d tried to touch me.

What to call it when someone I wasn’t prepared to forgive did something unforgivable?

I wasn’t sure.  But I could cuss at myself in my head, for letting things get this far, for letting my guard down.  A ‘fool me once…’ thing.

As the rush lost its hold on me, the shaking got a bit worse.

“Natalie,” Tristan said.  “Can you lock up?  Tress has trouble with things like keys, I don’t think Lookout keeps keys readily available- she has other things to do with her belt pouches.”

“Yeah,” Lookout said.  “It’s in my satchel.”

The satchel was more like a fanny pack, worn at the back, strap extending diagonally over the right shoulder and around the left side of her ribcage.

“And I don’t want to go up and down the stairs in armor,” Tristan said.

“Okay,” Natalie said.  Tristan threw his keys to her- a small object thrown in the dark.  By his accuracy more than anything, Natalie caught the keys.

And just like that, things were close to normal again.  The shaking in my hands didn’t quite go away.

I saw Goddess raise one hand.  The surface of the parking lot cracked, and in the lighting, streetlights and lights from the nearby building hitting the icy ground at an angle, it made the shift in the ground and the breaks in the ground stand out that much more.

She used her telekinesis to lift up a disc of ground from the parking lot, and as she did it, it was clear that the telekinesis had its own shape to it.  Something geometric.

I’d have to keep that in mind, like I had to keep Sveta’s suit or Lookout’s facial expressions in mind.  Quirks and weaknesses.

Tristan approached.  I could still see glimmers of that earlier anger.  I wasn’t sure exactly what was coming of it, though.  To be that angry and- what?  No focus?  Was he burning it off or eating that anger and digesting it into some other form?

It was too many question marks in a row, coinciding with the shaking of my hands.  I hated feeling weak.  I liked being the declarative sort, the one who could list off bullet points and elaborate on them, not get caught up in wonderings and doubts.

“I get it,” Tristan spoke.  His voice wasn’t his usual.  “The sibling thing.  Wrestling with… with wrongs.”

I nodded.  I could believe it.

“Difference is, I was the wrongdoer,” he said.  “The blood was on my hands.”

He held out a gauntleted hand, where it could catch the light.  Amy had tattoos.  Tristan had metal that had been tinted orange-red, with a wash that let the tint collect in crevices and cracks.

“I’m going to need you to keep me in check,” Tristan said.

“Check?”

“There aren’t many things that get to me, but we managed to press a few of those buttons tonight,” Tristan murmured.  “The last few times I felt like this, I did things I wasn’t proud of.”

“Got it.”

“Keep me from doing something stupid, and I’ll have your back.  Yeah?”

I nodded.

Goddess lifted up her disc.  With a gesture, she picked up Lookout by the satchel, then deposited her on the disc.  Sveta accepted a hand of help from Tristan and I.

While we waited for Natalie, Tristan stood with his eyes on the group.  Quiet, he stated a simple pass phrase.

“Master-stranger?”

“Yes,” I said, barely audible.

“Okay.  I think I remember the rules.  Who’s our person?”

“Natalie,” I whispered.  “Until replaced.”

“Replaced?”

“Byron was affected.”

“I felt it.  Yes.”

“Then the first untainted, trustworthy cape we can find.  We should keep them unaffected where possible,” I whispered.

“Crystalclear?”

“Maybe.”

The disc was ready.  Tristan stepped up onto it, and then he offered a hand to Natalie, lifting her up with no apparent difficulty at all.

The disc levitated- a chunk of ground fifteen feet across that rained a bit of gravel down on the ground far beneath.

I flew.  Goddess landed at the midway point of the disc, and she lifted it, carrying herself with the rest.

Another thing to file away.  She could lift herself, and she could lift a lot of weight, but in the here and now, she was using that power one at a time.

The rain didn’t let up, and being airborne didn’t help.  There were less buildings to break up the flow of the wind, less sources of heat that could warm us up.  My costume was covered in a thin sheet of ice before we were halfway to our destination.

Five minutes after that halfway point, my armor began to crack.  The weight of the ice was its own downfall, and it came away in Victoria shapes, cascading down to empty streets below.

We reached the first portal and passed through.

The weather was different.  The lighting from the now expired sunset, the sky bright even though it was night and it had been raining.

Eerily tranquil.

We approached the second portal in the airlock-like arrangement.  Lookout deactivated the scrambler, and we had a clear shot through, the ability to see through the gate to the other side.

With that clear shot, we had a view as well.

The guards, their guns, and apparently prisoners that they’d released to assist them.  Capes standing at the edges of the group of correctional officers, ready to back them up.

The wave of telekinetic force that reached out struck at them one by one. It had its own pattern, like a series of numbers that matched to the earlier pattern we’d seen.  It swiped over guards and it disarmed them of their weapons.

A moment later, like a fractal pattern cracking the wall before the shape took its form -a pattern not too unlike Tristan and Byron’s power- Goddess tore an entire wall out of the side of the building.  People who had been standing ready to defend this place now scrambled to get clear.

“We tear it all down before we leave,” Goddess said.

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Gleaming – Interlude 9.x

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“What the hell is wrong with you?” Tristan asked.  “What the hell?”

Byron stared his brother in the eyes, incredulous.  “What’s wrong with me?

“Did you take drugs or something?  You’re all aggro, not making any sense.”

“You’re not fucking listening!”

Tristan made a face, shaking his head a little.  “Then I guess we’re not going to get anywhere, huh?  I’ve got stuff to do that isn’t being yelled at for random shit.”

He headed for the door.  Byron stepped into his way, grabbing for his brother’s shirt-collar.  Tristan’s attempt to shove the hand aside produced a small ripping sound.

“My shirt!  Let go!”

“Sucks to lose stuff you care about, doesn’t it?” Byron asked.

“Oh fuck you, you didn’t lose anything.  Now let go.  If you want to bitch and shout about stuff, the parents will be home soon, you can share your feelings while we eat and they can tell you that you’re making no fucking sense!

Tristan’s attempt to push Byron aside and leave didn’t get him anywhere, except to risk tearing his shirt further.  He grabbed Byron’s wrist, hard.

“Tried that.  They take your side.”

“Because I’m right!”

“You’re not right!” Byron raised his voice, which went a note too high.  There were tears in his eyes.

Tristan screwed his face up in disgust.  “Come on, By.  Name one person we know who would look at what you’re doing right now and say ‘hey man, cool.  Good for you for handling this this way.”

“That’s the whole fucking issue!” Byron jerked his hand, tearing the shirt on purpose this time.  Tristan grabbed him with his other hand, fingers digging into Byron’s shoulder and wrist, and shoved him against the door.

Through grit teeth and pants of breath, Byron growled the words.  “Do you know how hard it is to make friends?  To get people who have my back?”

“It’s not hard at all!  And that’s the furthest thing from the issue!”

“It’s the issue!” Byron shouted the words into his brother’s face.  “It’s what I’m trying to get into that thick skull of yours!  Ever since sixth grade, I’ll make the effort to make friends and then you’ll show up to a party or even a place where we’re sitting around and talking and you’re in, you’re part of the group!  It’s only easy for you to make friends because you take mine!”

“It’s not a transaction, you dipshit!  Just because they’re my friends doesn’t mean they’re not yours!”

“It does!  It always fuck-” Byron pulled his hand to the side, ripping the shirt more.  He stuck his other elbow into Tristan’s shoulder, partially shrugging free of the hand that gripped him.  What followed was flurry of him wrestling for a grip and striking out in half-push, half-punch hits, and Tristan doing much the same.  Tristan prevailed, just a bit bigger, a bit stronger.    Byron found his breath.  “It always fucking did, Tristan!  You join my groups of friends and then you make fun of me!”

“Reality check,” Tristan, his face inches from Byron’s, breath hot against Byron’s face.  “Ninth grade, little brother.  That’s what people do.  Dad and our uncles rib each other.”

“Rib!” Byron shouted.  “Not fucking destroying each other!”

His voice cracked at ‘destroying’.  He hated that.

“Destroy?” Tristan asked.  He started to laugh, but he didn’t even get a sound out before Byron pulled his fist free.  Byron bucked, trying to dislodge his brother, and brought a knee up to hit him in the side.  When held back, he scratched- anything to hurt, to convey what words couldn’t.  Tristan winced.  “Fuck, that hurt!  Stop!”

Byron panted.  “If there’s a new thing in clothes, you beat me to it.”

“That’s not destroying you, you shit.  That’s me reading the fucking magazines and paying attention!”

“If I beat you to the punch, wear my hair a way that looks good, you do the same and say I copied you!  I can’t say things without you saying I’m copying!  I can’t talk about a movie I watched or say a slang word without having to wonder if you’re going to use it to get a laugh, or if people will do the pecking order inside joke shit and say you were there first, you beat me to it!  They say it because you keep hammering it in!”

“I’ve been trying to make a point!  You need to walk your own path!”

You’re the fucking parasite!  You’re the one who follows me!  You’re the one who’s walking on my path and calling me the copycat!  You’ve been doing it for years and there’s nothing left for me!  That’s what’s destroying me!”

He pulled his wrist free and punched Tristan in the side.  Tristan grabbed his hand.

“Having nothing I can choose to do with my hair or clothes without you or someone in the group using it as ammo!”

He punched, and Tristan deflected, shoving his arm off-target.

“Every time I say something, you have to edge your way in, say something better or louder or cut me down, every time!”

None of the hits seemed to be really making any impact.  None of this did.

“Not being able to sit down with my friends, because you’re there and I know you’ll all joke about me, and they never did it before you entered the picture!”

“It’s called getting closer to people!  You figure each other out and you know where the lines are and you prod them!”

“You break my lines!  You kick them down and say things and they make fun of me for weeks!  They’ve been calling me ‘little brother’ for a year!”  Fueled with adrenaline, Byron punched out.  Even with Tristan holding his arm, he was able to clip his chin.  “And then you go out with Katie!?”

That?   That’s what this is about?  It was going together to the stupidest fucking movie!  it was one thing!  It didn’t matter!”

“It mattered to me!  I’m trying to convey to you that it matters and it doesn’t get through if I say it, hit you, or scream it!” Byron’s voice was reaching a fever pitch.  “I liked her and now she’s your best friend!  Your beard!”

Tristan’s expression changed.  His voice was as cold as Byron’s was hot.  With a surge of strength, he pushed Byron’s arms down.  “We’re going there?  You’re going to scream it so our parents might hear it if they come in through the door?”

“They know!  Everyone fucking knows because you’re really fucking bad at hiding it!  It’s why they treat you with kid gloves and give you the extra attention while you ‘figure yourself out’!  Katie’s more excited to have you as a gay best friend like in the movies, than she is about having me as an anything!  Even when you’re not there it’s about you, because they talk about how brave you are because you’re out to people, and then they joke I’m weak, I’m lame because they think I don’t have the guts.  I’m not fucking gay!  I’m not weak!  It’s fucking ridiculous that I get the flack!”

Byron started to win the hand-to-hand struggle once again.  Tristan was stronger, but in the sheer emotion that Byron brought to bear, he forced his way forward, arms straining.  He got his leg forward and pressed it against the side of Tristan’s knee, so Tristan couldn’t stay standing.  Inch by inch, he pushed back and pushed Tristan down.

“You’re a fucking- fucking gay basher, then?” Tristan’s voice was strained.

“Fuck you!  Fuck you to hell, Trist!  Fuck you, no!” Byron shouted, his voice a snarl.  “You don’t get to play that card when I have backed you up!  I have gotten in fights for you because they kept saying shit!  Gaylord, gaylord, gaylord, back in seventh and eighth!  Gaylord, gaylord fucking faggot gaylord!’

“Shut up!”

“Sucks to hear, doesn’t it!?  But you know I was shutting them up, back then!  I took the harder path so you’d have it easier and it doesn’t matter!  You don’t care!  It never counted for anything and you even used it against me!  You were the one who called me a pussy after I told them to shut it on the ‘sissy’ shit!  You just take!  You have to win, you make this a competition!  Except when I win, if you can call it that, I don’t get anything except normal, and when I lose I lose people that I care about!”

He pushed Tristan onto his back, and in the moment Tristan put his hand back to push himself to a standing position, Byron moved forward, pinning the arm under one knee.

Both of his free hands fought with Tristan’s free one.  He hit and deflected.

“I.  Lose!  Katie laughs at me!  Rob and Jem call me weak!  Mama and papa talk to you more than they talk to me!”

“Stop!”

“You first!  Back the fuck off!  Stop taking!”

“I’m not taking!”

“You are!  Why can’t you listen?  Stop talking and listen to me for the first time in your shallow, selfish life!”

“It’s not on purpose, you moron!  It’s life!  You’re quiet, I’m loud!  You’re lazy, I’m actually out there talking to people!  So they listen to me more!  Nature and school fucking politics and fucking logic favor those who do and say stuff!  Now stop fucking hitting me or I’m going to hit you back!”

“I’m saying give me a chance,” Byron said.  The volume was going out of his voice as the emotion shifted to something else.  “You don’t have to speak up, you don’t have to butt in!”

“Give yourself a chance!”

“Shut up and listen!” Byron couldn’t get anywhere with the arm, but Tristan was lifting up his head.  With a shove, Tristan’s head cracked against the floor in the basement.  Seizing the opportunity, Byron gripped his brother around the throat, still kneeling on one of his arms.

Tristan’s reply was choked, a non-word.  His one free hand groped, while Byron hunched over, denying him anything he could get much of a grip on.

“Shut up for one fucking minute,” Byron said, calmer than he’d been, though his voice was warped by the effort.

Tristan made a longer, strained sound, trying to get a word out and failing.

“You’re not even capable of shutting up.  Learn to step down.  Learn to give some ground, any ground, okay?  Please.

Fumbling to break Byron’s grip, Tristan was scratching now, groping for weak points.  He wasn’t putting up half the fight he had been.  He hadn’t even been choked for that long.

“All I want is my own space.  Give me room to figure shit out,” Byron said.  “I’m not asking for the world here.”

Tristan’s hand fell to his side.

“Just… nod, okay?  Nod, agree.  Or tap out, show me you can tap out.”

Tristan moved his arm.  Byron felt a piercing pain.

He’d been stabbed.

What followed was nonverbal, almost animal.  His grip tightened, because there was no other way this would end in his favor, because he was worried that Tristan would keep stabbing with whatever he’d just stabbed him with.

An impulse or thought ran through the background of it, he knew it was unrealistic on a fundamental level, but he couldn’t afford to lose this last one time.  He’d already been beaten down so much, people he’d once liked had turned ugly, turned on him.  ‘Ribbing him’.

If he lost here, he wasn’t sure he wouldn’t break.

Tristan’s stabs, more aimless, caught on the underside of his arm.  A worse cut than before, but it didn’t seem that much worse.

The blood, though.  What followed was a ridiculous, outright scary amount for the size and depth of the cut.

In desperation, he maintained his grip as best he could, fingers digging into flesh.  Tristan flailed, a flash of gold and black, a sharp point dragging against and puncturing skin.

He felt his own consciousness slip, and it wasn’t because of the blood loss.

He saw silhouettes, paired.  Human, with something to them that he recognized on a fundamental level, or because the vibrations in the background of it all spoke to him.  Warrior and scholar.

Another pair of silhouettes.  Not human.  Not a warrior and a scholar, but a creator and a destroyer.

Another pair…

He opened his eyes.  They widened a bit further as he saw the amount of blood soaked into the carpet.

Mama and Papa were going to be pissed.

He coughed, and in that small action, everything felt wrong.

He coughed again, and when his hand came to his mouth, it wasn’t because he wanted it to.

His lips moved and pronounced a single hoarse word.  “Fucker.”

His vision swayed.  His limbs moved.  He found a standing position, before coughing again.

He hadn’t bid any of these actions to happen.  He was… an inside observer, viewing through eyes, feeling sensations, hearing the hum of the fan upstairs.  He could smell the blood.

He felt cold horror of an almost alien sort as he began to absorb what this might be.  The horror didn’t extend to gut, to the dilation of eyes, to breathing.  The coldness of the emotion was at stark odds with the heated, breathless “Fucker!” that passed through his lips.

Through Tristan’s lips.  The horror welled.

Byron watched as the eyes, not his, moved across the room.  Looking for- for him.  Searching for some sign.  They moved to the blood puddle, then scanned the surroundings, tracing a line up the stairs, zig-zagging in a search for a trail of blood.

Every movement of the eye felt like someone was taking his eyes, wresting them to one point of focus, then to another.  Muscles fired into action, felt alien around the edges because the configuration was right, but the scale and pattern was that one percent to ten percent different.  The muscles forced the body into movement, into balancing to stay upright.

There were more coughs as Tristan rubbed his throat.  He made his way up the stairs, into the kitchen, then wandered through the house, hands running through hair, around the neck, fidgeting.

Byron wanted to struggle, to push out, to find a way free.  There was nothing.  He could feel, he could think, and he could sense what Tristan sensed.  There was nothing beyond that.

Having finished searching the house, checking the small bedroom for Byron, Tristan made his way back to the kitchen.  He took a seat at the kitchen table, and buried his face in his hands, coughing once or twice.  His throat hurt, and Byron felt the hurt.

With every second that passed, not even able to control the focus of his vision or sharpen his awareness on any point within the eye’s field of vision, Byron felt his thoughts growing more confused.  There was nothing here, only void, and everything in thought and emotion bled out aimlessly into that void, with no perspective, no grounding, no action he could take.

Please no, he thought.  Whatever this is.  Please.

Emotions welled, but without a heartbeat, a stomach, muscles, and breathing to give substance, they were like blots of watercolor, bleeding out and into one another.

“Tristan?” Papa asked.  He put down his bike helmet, stepping into the kitchen.  He was sweaty from his ride back from work.  The biking was because he was trying to lose weight, but he was only part of the way there- everything about him from mustache to build were heavy and thick.  Heavy eyebrows furrowed in concern.  “What happened?”

Tristan stared off into space.

“Tristan?” Papa asked.  He seemed to see something that alarmed, because he turned toward the front hall.  “Anita!  Come fast!”

Mama came into the kitchen, still wearing her own biking outfit, her long hair damp near the scalp.  It was Tristan’s eyes, not Byron’s, that searched out the little details that made her her- the shock of white hair by one temple, the twin moles that Tristan had called ‘vampire bites’ as a child.  Byron had felt bad about that, even being the observer to his brother as Tristan unwittingly evoked a look of faint hurt on their mama’s face.

Help, Byron thought, as they turned their attention to his brother.  Please help me.  This is hell.  It’s already hell.

“Byron flipped out on me,” Tristan said.  He coughed, forced the cough, then touched his throat.  “He was upset because I took Katie to the movies.”

That wasn’t it.

“I told you not to,” Mama said, her voice soft.

“He strangled me.  Scratched me.  Punched me,” Tristan searched his arm, pulled back his t-shirt sleeve with one hand to see where Byron had hit his shoulder.

“That’s too far.  That’s too far and then some,” Papa replied.  “We’ll talk with him.  Where is he?”

Please help.  Please notice that something’s wrong.

“Um,” Tristan said, sounding very disconnected.  He wasn’t looking anywhere in particular.  To an outside observer, it might have looked like a thousand-yard stare.  “He stormed out, I think.  I looked through the house.”

“Look at me, Tristan,” Papa said.

Tristan did.

See me in here.  Isn’t that how it works in the movies?

Tristan’s eyes watered.  “Something’s fucked up.  A lot of things are fucked up.  I’ve been sitting here trying to process, but my thoughts are sparks and I can’t think straight.  When I can think straight, I’m worried I have brain damage because it’s really intense.”

“Tristan-”

Tristan stumbled through, not stopping.  “And I’m worried he’s going to the cops or something-”

“Cops?”

“Because I got scared when he was strangling me and I couldn’t even hear anything except the ringing in my ears.  I stabbed him with the pen I had in my pocket to try and make him let go, and he was so angry.  So angry.”

Tristan dropped his eyes.  The thousand-yard stare again.

“Tristan.”  Papa took Tristan by the shoulders.

Tristan made eye contact again.

“He wasn’t making any sense,” Tristan said.

I made sense, you weren’t hearing it.

Their mama rubbed Tristan’s shoulders.  Their papa gave him a kiss on the top of the head.  Byron felt it all and he didn’t feel better in the slightest.

“We’ll get this figured out, mi hijo,” Papa said.

Please help.

“I don’t know,” Tristan said.  “I feel like something broke inside of me.  I can’t think straight- I think in…”

The orange-red light flared between him and Papa.  A will-o-the-wisp from a video game, The diffuse light of a tinted lightbulb without the glass to encase it, condensed into a ball a couple of inches across.

“…sparks and lines.”

Dios mio,” Papa said.  He stepped away.  Mama’s hands dropped from Tristan’s back.  The lights traced thin lines through the air, just as intense as the lights were at their center, but without the diffuse glow around them.

Byron might have been the least surprised of all of them.  Deep down, he’d realized something like this had happened.

Tristan seemed to belatedly realize what was happening.  He pulled away, and the lights and the lines drew together into something solid – a tangle of metal that had been twisted and bent, with razor-thin strips twisting and branching up and out.  It crashed into the kitchen floor, and Tristan nearly fell from the stool in his haste to move away.

In the retreat, Tristan receded.  Byron felt the void he was in fill up, pushing him out-

Byron emerged, and the metal growth exploded into a spray of steam with no heat to it, only a sharp chemical smell.  His parents backed away to the far end of the kitchen.

Byron gasped, much as if he’d surfaced after being held underwater for a very long time.  He found his breath, and then he screamed.  Neither parent could do much more than stare.

“My boys,” Papa said, his eyes wide, his voice filled with heartbreak.  “What have you done to yourselves?”

He felt the void he could slip into so easily, more a sentiment than anything he could touch.  It was as if he was standing with his back to a ledge, an impossibly long drop below that ledge.  With that knowledge came the realization that Tristan was inside him.

Nausea and shock overwhelmed him, and he vomited onto the floor.

Danger.  How much risk do we face?  Is there a chance we get hurt?  What’s medical care like?  Does it involve fighting Endbringers?

Organization.  How many people in the group?  How are arguments resolved?  Is there a human resources department?  Manager?  Team leader?  How is that stuff handled?

Secret identity.  How many people will see our faces?  Know our names?

School.  What do we do about school?

For that matter, what happens schedule-wise with holidays?  Church?

Ask, damn it!  Ask or swap so I can ask!  You’ve only talked about money and costumes!

“Any more questions?” Mr. Vaughn asked.  The man had  shaved head, light brown skin, and both a mustache and beard that were trimmed down to a series of lines, the beard being little more than a narrow arrow that pointed down.  His jacket hung on his chair, and the sleeves of his button-up silk shirt were rolled up, showing only hints of the tattoos at the upper edges of his forearms.

Byron knew because Tristan kept glancing at the guy’s arms.

“Nah.  No more questions,” Tristan said.

“Some,” Papa said.  He hesitated.  “But this is a lot to take in.  I need a moment to get my thoughts in order.”

Mr Vaughn smiled.  “Instead of that, why don’t you hold onto any questions you might have, go home, sleep on things, and you can email our department any time.  We will answer any questions- if you want to send us a hundred, it won’t be a problem.”

No.  There’s a big difference between what they say to our faces and what they say if they have time to compose an email and word things carefully.

“I think we covered most of it,” Tristan said.

“…Yes,” Papa conceded.

No!

“Great!” Mr. Vaughn pronounced, with a smile.

Byron had to bite back his annoyance.  Danger, management, secret identity, school, schedule, holidays.  It was a mantra he mentally recited, so he could fire off the questions when he had the opportunity.

Mr Vaughn leaned back.  “Tell me, what do you think?”

“I’m very interested.”  There was no hesitation in Tristan’s reply.

“I’m not sure,” their Papa said, sounding hesitant.  “To be honest, our number one priority is getting this whole situation fixed.  The PRT has resources.”

“The PRT absolutely has resources,” Mr. Vaughn said.  “I would say they’re above average in what they can offer.”

“Alright,” their Papa said.  He looked at Tristan.

What’s the pitch?

“If you look into it, however, you’ll find they’re strictly above average.  They’re exceptional and consistent at holding things to that level.  You won’t get the exceptional wages, service, or attention from them.  The people at the top have been in the PRT since before Tristan was born.  There’s something called upward mobility, how many promotions you can get or how high you can rise in the hierarchy.”

“I know what upward mobility is,” Papa said.

“Then it should please you to know that when it comes to Tristan and his brother, we can give them mobility, and we can give them something the PRT won’t.  We can give them exceptional.”

“With more risk, I’m guessing?” Tristan asked.

“Yes,” Mr. Vaughn said.  “Being on a corporate team is like being in sales, except you’re selling your own brand.  We’ll pay you handsomely, and you stand to gain much more if you hit our reward points.  You’ll get extra for media events, a stipend for holding higher rankings on the right sites on the internet and any cape ranking lists in magazines.  You’ll get a thousand dollars for every headline you net, five thousand if you get a positive headline in a major paper.  But it’s more work, and not everyone’s cut out for it.  If you don’t think you can sell and you can’t handle the risk, then the PRT is a safer bet.”

“I’m a risk taker,” Tristan said.  Byron could feel his brother’s face stretch in a smile.  “And I think I’d be a good salesman.”

I’m not a risk taker.

“I get that impression,” Mr. Vaughn said, smiling back at Tristan with something resembling a twinkle in his eye.  “It’s why we’re so willing to reach out here, if you’ll excuse the pun.  Costume, starting salary, branding push.  You hit all the marks and then some.”

“Marks?” Papa asked.

Tristan shifted, almost as if he was uncomfortable with their Papa’s participation in the conversation.

“He’s the right age to match the others.  He’s hip, attractive, he has a background in drama, good presentation, and a visually interesting power.  Byron brings a different attitude, good academics, and their interplay is an interesting twist on an established formula.”

Damned with faint praise.

I don’t want to do this.

“I’m excited to do this,” Tristan said.

“We need to consider Byron,” Papa said.  “Don’t jump to making a decision, okay?”

“Of course,” Tristan said.  “I think he’ll be down for it.”

I’m not down for this, but you saying that makes it harder to say no.

I’m still going to say no.

“Let’s hope,” Mr. Vaughn said.  “He can hear me, right?”

“He can,” Tristan said.

“We draw big money.  We pay it forward.  The PRT labs are very good, but every cape under their umbrella needs power testing at one point or another.  It’s in their requirements.”  Mr Vaughn leaned forward.  “Byron, with the contacts we can provide and the money we can pay you, we can give you more help, and you won’t spend years in a queue after getting your requisite, everyday power testing appointment.”

Years.  It was horrible to think about.  A month had been hell.

He hated to admit it, but just the fact that Mr. Vaughn had said his name, addressing him directly, it meant so much.  Only his parents really did it when Tristan was out there. Yet when the tables were turned, he didn’t miss that Tristan was so often addressed directly, with the odd person speaking right past Byron.

But he wanted to say no.

“Come, I’ll show you the facilities,” Mr. Vaughn said.

They all stood.  Mr. Vaughn walked around his glass desk, opening the door to let them out into the main offices of Reach.

“We should let Byron out,” their papa said.  “He needs a say.”

“After?  Please?” Tristan asked.  “He had all yesterday. I’ve barely had today, and I spent a lot of it in the car.  I’m so restless.”

Byron was left to wonder why he had such a horrible sinking feeling at that.

“Okay,” their papa said.  “But he gets a say when we’re done the tour, after you’ve stretched.”

Tristan’s face stretched in a smile that didn’t match Byron’s feelings in the slightest.  This was the hell.  If there were bars to this cell, Byron might have grabbed them, shaken them, screamed.

But there were no bars.  To react like that and be in that state when he emerged was something that pushed others away, which made it impossible to enjoy the time spent with family.  It made them fret, worry.

Danger, management, identity, school, holiday schedule.  He held onto his list of questions.

“Would I be staying here?” Tristan asked.

“Reach travels.  You’d have nice accommodations if you were out of town.  We accommodate your parents if they wish to chaperone.”

“Oh man,” Tristan said.  “I love you, Papi, but-”

“That might be a problem,” their papa said.  “I have work.”

Byron was aware of Tristan’s faint exhalation of relief.  He’s thinking like this is a done deal.

“And your wife?”

“We work in the same office.”

“Ah, I envy you,” Mr. Vaughn said.  “I’m sure we could work something out if we needed to.  Come, let’s walk. Tristan, you should wear this mask, temporary, to protect your identity.”

Tristan pulled the mask back on.

“And Mr. Vera?”

“I might as well.  I feel ridiculous.”

The walls of the entire building were decorated with a stylization of Reach’s logo, a symbol that was clearly meant to strike a middle ground between a flame, the loose silhouette of an outstretched hand, if that hand were drawn with a very limited set of swooping lines, and an arrow.  The symbol stretched diagonally across walls, separating the bold color on the bottom half from the white on the top. Tiles on the floors had whatever colors were on the walls at one edge, dissolving into less and less squares. It was the kind of thing that could have been tacky, but so much of the rest of the building was high quality, with high resolution images on framed posters, benches, railings, and other things in striking designs.  It looked more like an art museum than an institution.

They’d been to the institution, the PRT offices.  Past the lobby, there hadn’t been a lot of polish.  The room where the staff worked on computers had smelled like stale coffee and printer ink.

But Byron was wary of things that presented a polished facade to hide their flaws. He knew well enough because he was inside a living embodiment of it right this moment.

Mr. Vaughn waved to a musclebound man who was standing beside a computer in a gym.  The man waved back.

“Gym.  Free to use.  We have one staff member who is there at all times, professional trainer, and between nine and four there’s a second person in the building who can turn up in five minutes, if the man on call is busy with someone else.  You look like someone who hits the gym.”

“I am.”

“What sports are you into?”

“Right now it’s rock climbing, mostly.  Some snowboarding, some surfing, but that’s only doable if we’re in the right place at the right times.  I was into football in grade seven, but I got injured, had to sit out for the season, and lost interest.”

“A lot of injuries,” papa said.  “Too dangerous.”

Byron felt Tristan’s eyes move over papa’s face.  No doubt worrying as Byron was hoping.

Ask.  Danger!  What’s the risk?

But their Papa was silent.

“There’s a pool as well, if you surf, you probably swim.  It’s a very, very nice pool.  Some of the members of Reach will use it as a place to take selfies or, ah, ‘selfless’ shots.”

“Selfless?” papa asked.

“Another kind of selfie, papa, don’t worry about it,” Tristan said.

“For heroes,” Mr. Vaughn explained.  “They will have social media. The face is hidden, shots are taken from behind, or below the shoulders only.  It teases the fans, gets them thinking about the person beneath the costume. The boys and girls will take these ‘selfless’ photos by the pool, or while standing on rooftops.”

“I’m not sure I like any part of that,” papa said.

“I’m sure you raised Tristan and Byron to be smart about these things.”

Papa laughed, abrupt, which looked like it surprised Mr. Vaughn.  He looked at Tristan. “I think you might have misjudged my son.”

Papa!

“He is very smart, but not about that sort of thing.”

Byron felt Tristan turn his head to look at Mr. Vaughn, felt the heat in the face, the clench of a hand that indicated emotion more than anything in his voice betrayed it.  “I think what my dad is saying is that if it sells, I’ll probably end up doing it. But if it’s about modesty or… whatever other issues my dad has with it, yeah, it’s probably not me.”

“Why would you want to get people to think about who you are under the mask?  Keep it secret, Tristan,” Papa said.

“I will, I’ll just… tease.  Misdirect.”

“All posts to social media are held for a short period of time and run past our staff,” Mr. Vaughn said.  “Each will be scrutinized to make sure there is no danger, nothing that can be misinterpreted.”

“See?” Tristan asked.

“I do see.  I see so much of my younger self in you,” papa said, one hand cupping Tristan’s chin, shaking it.  “And this is why I’m worried.”

The longer this goes like this without me getting a say, the more likely I am to say no.  Not that I’m sure it’ll matter.

Danger, management, identity, school, holiday schedule.

“I love you too, papa,” Tristan said, reaching up no to push the hand away, but to fix the mask.  But as they rounded a corner, he pulled back a little, breaking the contact.

“The cafeteria,” Mr. Vaughn said.  “And… the young members of Reach.”

Byron was forced to look where Tristan looked.  He’d seen the images in passing, enough to know the names.

A helmet that consisted of a face-shaped plate at the front with chiseled features, hinges at the brow, the back and sides of the helmet fashioned to look like rolling locks of hair- all ivory and silver.  The bodysuit of the costume wasn’t skintight, but a material thick enough to hold the armor plates that were worked in rigid. the armor’s edges and the pattern along the suit’s chest and down the legs echoed the rolling waves of hair.

The white of the costume’s face was supposed to draw the eye, but Tristan’s eyes touched on the face, then shoulders, arms, chest, down the side of the body, as if noting silhouette, then pausing for a tenth of a second on the package between the guy’s legs before moving and across to the person just behind the teenage guy.

Figurehead, Byron thought, with a bit of exasperation.  The glances were something he’d had to get used to.

Tribute was taller, and again, he had a high quality costume, sleek and form-fitting down the body.  A decoration extended up from a disc at the chest, like a raised collar, but gold, and with nothing joining it to the shoulder.  More gold and more disc motifs decorated belt, mask, gloves, and formed a pattern on the inside of the fabric that draped down from the belt to the ankles.  The skin that was visible was a cool black. Byron would have thought Tristan would pay more attention to the guy, given his apparent fitness, height, but no- Tristan’s gaze paused for that tenth of a fraction on Figurehead’s mask as it cut across again, to the man standing to the other side of Figurehead.

Then there was Boundless, all angles, athletic, muscular, but in a lanky way, like a basketball player.  His mask and the pattern on his bodysuit weren’t shaped like anything, but instead had a pattern that started from a ridge at the center of face or chest and swept back in sweeping lines.

Another person Byron couldn’t identify, hadn’t seen in marketing.  Newer, maybe.  Lean, skinny, and fidgety.  Her mask was like a cat’s, with ears that were worked into the side, sweeping back.  Chain links ran down the black-bodysuit-covered neck and draped over the shoulders and over a flat chest.  More chain decoration extended down the hands to oversized claw-gauntlets, which dangled from the elbow, leaving her hands free.

Steamwheel was a girl tinker with a mask that was hard metal, starting at two rectangular frames and extending down, leaving the forehead uncovered and mousy, greasy brown hair free.  Short, flat-chested, maybe young.  In full costume she was a titan of metal with a dramatic wheel mounted on it.

Then, more eye catching, there was a another girl, with a veritable mane of silver hair, a bodysuit that clung to the body, styled in a complex weave of jet black and silver locks that made it look like her hair was worked into her costume- the harlequin-ish design had one arm covered in the metal molded to look like hair, with blades extending up and sweeping back from the rigid structure.  Tristan didn’t look, but Byron knew from pictures that she had a very generous chest. Coiffure.

And, beside Coiffure, the last member of the junior team.  Raven-haired, wearing a dress-ish costume that she wouldn’t have gotten away with in the Wards, her legs long and slender.  Like the others, fine molded metal was persistent across the design, and hers had crescent moons and discs with crescents worked into it, extending up from shoulders and from her mask in a diadem or crown style.  She could have played a princess in a movie.

Her mask left more of her face exposed, enough that Byron could see her lips, painted with lipstick. For whatever reason, Tristan noticed it, focused on it, and Byron was treated to a view of the slight smile.

When he had been looking at photos of the team, he hadn’t even paid much attention to her.  Seeing that small smile? He was paying attention.

“So this is the guy we heard about,” Figurehead said.

“Is he joining?” Tribute asked.

“I’m tempted,” Tristan said.

“Discussion is pending,” Papa said, firmly.  “And I have questions about things like school, other things I’m apparently supposed to email about.”

The adults left.

Let me out.  I should meet them too.

Tristan approached the group, all smiles, shaking hands.  There was a brief demonstration of his power.  The newer member was introduced as Furcate.

Let me out.

It was everything that had happened with his prior friend groups.  Tristan bullying his way into things, elbowing Byron out.  If Byron knew them first, Tristan knocked him down a peg on his way into the group dynamic.  If Tristan knew them first, Byron never had a shot.

I’m going to say no, you asshole.  I’m going to veto.  I’ll ruin this any way I can, if you fucking don’t give me a chance to get to know these people.

“We’re going to have to adjust tactics, with Boundless leaving in a few weeks.  Less mobility on the team, more stand-in-place-and-mess-them-up types,” Figurehead said.

“I’m pretty mobile,” Tristan said.  “You get in fights then?”

“We’re supposed to be careful about how we go about it,” Coiffure said.  Then she winked.  “We have a lot of ‘accidental’ run-ins with villains and crooks.”

“Perfect.”

“If you want food, by the way, we’re totally stocked.  There’s a microwave too,” Figurehead said.

“Oh man, thanks,” Tristan said.  “I’m ravenous.  It was a long car trip, and we grabbed gas station food.”

“Figured,” Figurehead said.  “I’m going to grab something too.”

Byron’s anger mixed with disgust.  Eating was a singularly unpleasant activity when one had zero control over their body.  The mastication of food, the involuntary nature of the movements, the acute awareness of how the mouth felt different, the food dissolving into slurry.  Byron’s tastes were slightly different from Tristan’s, too.

The entire team ducked into the cafeteria.  Tristan got a sandwich loaded with cheeses and deli meats, and had Tribute show him how to use the panini press to heat it up.

With every chew, Byron felt his patience tested.  He couldn’t see what he wanted to look at, couldn’t ask what he wanted to ask, couldn’t rejoin or add an anecdote as he saw the moment, watched it pass, and left it well behind.

He would get his turn, right?  He’d be able to meet these guys for more than a few moments?

He talked about sports.  He talked about movies, and shows, and the team talked about heroics.

“It’s a bit of a head trip, when you get your head around how the corporate side of it works,” Figurehead explained.  “You hear about the ridiculous money they bring in for having us show up for a company’s event or putting on a show at a convention, right?  Six figures, and we only get six thousand each?  That’s what took me the longest to adjust to.”

“I don’t really care about the money,” Furcate said.

“That’s because you’re weird,” Moonsong said.

“Yep.”

“We’re a corporate team, hon.”

“Reach had the best costume design,” Furcate said.

“That was the deciding factor, huh?” Coiffure asked.  When Furcate nodded, Coiffure shrugged, before using one hand to flick her hair over one shoulder, to better expose the silvery waves and whorls along the shoulder.  “Well, it’s not like you’re wrong.”

Tristan extended a fist toward Furcate, “I think you and I are going to get along.”

Furcate hesitated, then slipped one hand into the oversized cat’s-paw gauntlet, before tapping it against Tristan’s hand.  “I’m going to get something else.”

“Eat something that isn’t shitty candy,” Figurehead said.

“I’m going to get seconds,” Tristan said.  “That was the best sandwich I’ve ever had.”

Byron hadn’t even noticed the taste, he’d been stewing over being trapped within, too busy trying not to think about slick tongue rolling through masticated food.

The realization that Tristan planned to take the time to make and eat a whole other sandwich -not even a small one- made him want to scream, to lose his mind.

His thoughts were a storm of fuckery, of vitriol and plots to get his brother back, to maybe finally get through to him and score one win, when Tristan realized that his selfishness in this moment had cost him a chance to sign up with this team.

Meanwhile, oblivious, Tristan made another sandwich, then put it in the press.  He plated it up, grabbed some napkins, got another drink, and then sidled up to Furcate, who was grabbing what looked like lemon drop candies, of the sort grandmothers might buy and keep in a ceramic bowl, collecting dust.

“Do you have a preferred pronoun?” Tristan asked, voice quiet.

“Hm?” Furcate asked.  Her entire posture was immediately more defensive.

“Sorry if I’m totally wrong.  I was listening to see what they said, but they dodged around it.”

“They,” Furcate said, guarded.  They looked over at the group, then added, “I’m saving the ‘she’ for when I feel done.”

“You know if I have a shot with any of the guys on the team?  Figurehead?”

The tension in Furcate’s neck and shoulders relaxed.  The response was a head shake.

“Damn.”

Tristan returned to the table.

“Welcome back,” Coiffure greeted him.

Tristan held up his sandwich, like he was toasting the group.  Byron knew that if he tried to do the same, it wouldn’t work, somehow.

“I was remarking to the others, you look very interesting to my power,” Figurehead.

“Ah,” Tristan said.  He sighed a little, almost resigned.

“Is there a story?  Does the boss know?”

“The boss knows.  I’m kind of a special case.  Literally, I think there’s a label for it.”

“Fifty-three?” Coiffure asked.  “Is it only obvious if we get your clothes off?”

“Ha ha,” Tristan said.  He winked at her.  “Hate to disappoint.  No.  Case seventy.”

“I don’t know that one,” Figurehead said.

“I share a body with my brother.  He would be joining the team too.”

“Yeah?  Shouldn’t we meet him then?” Moonsong asked.  “Come on out, brother.  Don’t be shy.”

“I have to let him out, just like he has to let me out.”

“Then what the fuck is wrong with you?” Moonsong asked.  She moved her hands dramatically.  “Let us meet him already.”

Byron was so stunned by that line that he had trouble processing it.  He felt only confusion as Tristan held up his sandwich, pronounced, “Goodbye sandwich, I’ll miss eating you,” with dramatic flair, and then stood from the table.

Tristan took off his mask, turned his back to the group, and tossed it up, before releasing Byron.  Byron only barely managed to catch the mask.

He put the mask against his face, holding it there as he turned around, still putting the cord back behind his head.

He saw Moonsong smile, red lipstick, almost pleased with herself, or pleased with him, and he felt his heart skip a beat.

He realized he’d been looking at her, just her, in a way that would have been very obvious.  He dropped his eyes.  He looked at the others.

“So.  You interested?” Tribute asked.

The list of questions he’d meant to ask had already flown from his mind.  With them went his reservations about joining the team, his anger, and the intent to stick it to Tristan.

“I think I might be,” he decided.

The team was dusty, battered, and bruised, with a few cuts here and there.  Nice costumes were damaged, and where they weren’t damaged, they were soaked through with sweat.

Tristan walked them through the door, limping slightly.  Steamwheel clunked off in the direction of the garage.

Reach’s staff was waiting for them.

“Injuries?” Mr. Vaughn asked.

“Nothing serious,” Figurehead said.

“Event report?” Mr. Vaughn asked.  “It’s late, so make it a short one.”

“Do you want to hear how the fight went or how the media’s going to report on it?” Coiffure asked, one eyebrow arched.

“Time spent asking that question could be spent telling me both.  Then you can give your costumes to the design team for repair and go to bed.  It’s been a heck of a week, let’s rest when we can.”

“We did okay,” Tristan said.  “Scritch, Scratch, Snicker and Snack all got away.  We got one of the other powered ones, Hell’s Belle, and the civilians didn’t get a scratch on them, despite her attempts to pull some hostage stuff.  I think the cameras will be kind, when they report the news in the morning.  Extra kind if they get surveillance video from inside the building, because that hostage stuff was some of the best caping I’ve seen.”

He put out a hand.  Furcate tapped their cat’s paw to his gauntlet.  He moved his hand in Coiffure’s direction, and she did much the same.

“Anyone disagree with the assessment?” Mr. Vaughn asked.

There were head shakes here and there.

“Good.  We’ll see if you’re right about the media tomorrow, Capricorn.”

“I always am.”

“You’re getting cocky.”

“Deservedly.”

“So far.  Not that I don’t like that.  Mr. Bigs loves you for it.  Anything else?  Questions, any resources you need to request?  If there are disputes about the team or issues you can’t bring up here, you bring them to me or the appropriate staff member.”

With a sweep of the hand, Mr. Vaughn indicated the other staff- trainers, spin, social media, design, and accounts.

“Tristan’s taking over as leader,” Figurehead said.  “Someone’s going to mention that.  I’m not bothered, though.”

“He’s the least experienced member here,” Mr. Vaughn said.

“He’s good.  Really, I don’t mind.”

“I hate to admit it, but he’s good,” Moonsong said.

“Why do you hate to admit it?” Tristan asked her.

“Enough,” Mr. Vaughn said.  “Get costumes to design as soon as you’re back in civvies, then rest, do your things.  It’s been a tough few weeks.”

The team began to break away.  Tristan hung back to unstrap his armor, where a blade had cut through pauldron and the entire length of the arm.  He handed it the guys from design.

“How’s the power?” Mr. Vaughn asked.  The others had left.

“Metal and rock,” Tristan said.  “More rock than before.”

“I want to set you up for another appointment with the lab.  We should stay on top of this.”

“Not going to complain,” Tristan said.

“It’s working okay for you?  Things aren’t harder.”

“Well, they’re harder,” Tristan said.  “Ha ha.”

Mr. Vaughn smiled.  “Puns don’t do well in front of press, online, or anything of our other marketing battlefields.  Don’t you dare do that to the team.”

“I won’t,” Tristan said.  He smiled behind his helmet.  “It’s fine.  Easier to be cautious, avoid hurting people.”

“And Byron?”

Tristan gave his armor a once-over, then passed over control.

Byron was even more ragged and battle-damaged.  His costume was trashed.  Funny how that worked.

“Almost entirely water now,” Byron said.

“And putting aside the power things… how are you?”

Byron had no idea how to answer the question.  “I’m- things are better than they were.  The schedule helps.”

It was only after the words had left his mouth that he realized the lie.  Did Tristan sense the lie, feeling the slight changes in body language?

No.  For Tristan to notice, Tristan would have to pay attention to him.

“You know where my office is,” Mr. Vaughn said.

Byron nodded.

He made his way to the showers.  He took off his costume, rinsed off, and experimented with his power.  Sprays of water.  When he contrived to get some in his mouth without spraying himself, it didn’t have that chemical smell or taste to it, like the suffocation gas had.

Rather than give the damaged pieces, he decided the entire costume needed attention, and deposited the whole suit of scale mail with the design guys.  They would be pulling an all-nighter.

On his way back to the dorm rooms, he saw and waved at Figurehead.  Then it was back to his room.

He couldn’t sleep.  More accurately, he couldn’t bring himself to lie down in the bed, couldn’t bring himself to give up the time he would spend unconscious.  It wasn’t supposed to count, but-

Suffocation gas, the thought crossed his mind.  It was hard to breathe, to swallow.  It had been a heck of a week, as Mr. Vaughn had said.  Something practically every day, whether it was fights or showing up at an event for law enforcement.  As fun as the cape stuff could be, with the banter and the team interplay, the emotional highs and lows had their cost.

And he had so very little available to spend.

He made his way to the desk he shared with Tristan.  Homework.

He felt like if someone said one mean word to him, he could burst into tears.  Homework felt just masochistic enough to punish himself for not going to bed.  Just enough to not break down into sobs.

At least with homework, he could tell himself that the time he spent in the here and now was time that he was freeing up later.

While the questions were easy and mindless, it was a good distraction.  But they weren’t all easy.  There was a paper he needed to write, and he was supposed to frame a thesis.

Try as he might, he couldn’t think to put the thoughts into action.

Pen tapped.

Frustration welled.

Pen jabbed.  Stabbed his thigh.  The pain was a shock, like a wake up call.

There’s something wrong with my brother, like the piece that can get him to compromise and understand just isn’t there.  And I’m stuck with him.

The pen jabbed again, near the same spot.

There’s something wrong with me.  I felt like I was going to lose my mind from all of this months ago.  Things haven’t gotten better.

In a fit, like he wasn’t in control of his own body, he brought the pen down ten times in half that many seconds.

He released his hand.  The pen fell to the floor.  Rather than pick it up, he kicked it.

He jumped, hearing a knock at the door.  He hadn’t shut it.

It was Kay.  Furcate.  They wore pyjama bottoms and a t-shirt, hair tousled like they’d just woken up, rather than like they were just about to go to sleep.

Byron’s hand pressed over the spot where blood was seeping into his pyjama shorts.  “Something up?”

“Can I come in?”

“I’m not really up to company right now,” he said.  “Is it important?”

Kay nodded.

“Okay,” Byron said.  He swallowed hard, then nodded.

Kay approached, until they stood behind him.  “Open.”

“Wha-” Byron started.  A hard object was pressed between his teeth.

One of Kay’s old lady lemon candies, that tasted like menthol, citrus, and ass.  Kay’s favorite.

Just as he was coming around to the idea that this too could be masochistic, he felt Kay’s arms around his shoulders.  A hug from behind, Kay’s face smushed against the side of his head.

His fingers gripped the fabric of his shorts, tight around the oblong spot of blood.

They gave him a pat on the shoulder as they broke from the hug.

“Good work tonight,” Furcate said.

Then they were gone.

He didn’t let go of fabric, find another pen, or even think about much as he sat there, trying to summon up the strength to- to what?  Go to sleep?

“Byron?”

His feelings leapt into another paradigm, where they shuffled around in confusion.  He twisted around to look.

Brianna, at his bedroom door.  She was wearing clothes, not nightwear.

“Want to get some fresh air?” she asked.

He nodded.  “I need to change.”

“I’ll be waiting by the front door, then.”

She shut his door as she left.

He released the fabric that he’d clutched in his hand for long enough that the blood had stuck to his palm.  A bandage covered it, and from there, he was quick to get his clothes on, fixing his hair with his fingers.

Fresh air was… very much what he needed, when being where he was felt so suffocating.

Jacket on, boots on, and… yeah.

They left through the front door, and then they walked.  It was late enough that there could be trouble, a good hour for muggers.  Silly to think about, when they were as capable as they were.

“Kay sent you?” he asked.

“Kay?”

“They stopped in for a minute.”

“I think Furcate checked on everyone.”

“Oh.”

At the center of the little park was a fountain, and around the fountain were stairs in concentric circles.  Brianna sat on one stair.  He sat down on the step her feet rested on, his shoulder near her knees.

She slipped down one step, so she sat down beside him.

“I want to talk to you, not the back of your head.”

He smiled.  “Alright.”

“Thank you for agreeing to come for this walk.  If you’re half as tired as I am, you must be dead on your feet.”

“Too tired to sleep.”

“Yes,” she said.  She smiled, red lipstick parting to show white teeth with the bar of a retainer across them.  He felt that emotional jumble again.  “Yes, exactly.”

“I can’t promise I’ll be a very good conversation partner.”

“No,” she said.  “Me either, probably.  When I joined the team, Mr. Vaughn was on about how I was the daughter of a politician, I should be very good at the speech and the presentation-”

“You are.”

“Yes, but there’s pressure!  And even now, there’s pressure, you know.  I invited you and now I’m obligated to not make you regret it.”

“We could sit here for two hours, keeping each other company without saying a word, and I wouldn’t mind,” he said.

Words he immediately regretted.  Words he wouldn’t have said if he weren’t as tired, as emotionally raw.

“Good to know.”

Her shoulder touched his as she leaned a little closer.  She turned to look the other direction, and her hair brushed his ear.

The entirety of his focus, every inch of his being, was consumed in that oval-sized point of contact, where her shoulder shared its warmth with his.  His head swam with the smell of her shampoo.  Something like tea, but refreshing.

“I’m going to suck and say something that might be really lame,” she said.  “Then you’ll think less of me.”

“I don’t think that’s possible.”

“I think you’re really strong.”

He shook his head.

“Really.  You’re managing despite a situation that would drive anyone crazy.”

“I’m not managing,” he said.

“Aren’t you?” she asked.

He shook his head.

“Is there anything I can do?”

“This,” he said.  “This is nice.”

She reached out.  Her fingers worked their way between his.  She clasped his hand.  “Like this?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“I wouldn’t even know how.  I’m not sure what I’d say.”

“I can’t imagine,” she said.  Her voice was a whisper and it sent tingles through to the core of his body.  Like the stab of the pen, it sent a shock through his body, as sure as anything.  It reminded him that a girl this pretty and this amazing was sitting with him, so close that she could whisper and he could hear in that nuanced a way.

“I’m glad you can’t.  It sucks.”

“That it’s your brother, that can’t make it any easier.”

He allowed himself a slight laugh.  “Oh man, you have no idea.”

“I have some idea,” she said.  “I’m pretty sure everyone has some idea.”

“Now you’ve lost me,” he said.  He wasn’t sure she had, but he didn’t want to be right about his initial take on the statement.

“He’s doing the whole gay thing, because he likes to be bold and out there and-”

“No, Brianna.”

“-it’s weird.  It’s creepy!  That’s all I’m saying.”

He pulled his hand away.  He saw the look on her face, like he’d slapped her.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“No,” Byron said.  All of the warm, fuzzy emotions, everything that made everything feel okay was now something black and bitter.  Disappointment was the predominant feeling in that stew.  “That’s- I have a hundred issues with Tristan.  But that’s not one.  I think I’m going to go.”

He stood.  Brianna grabbed him by the wrist.

“And he’s listening.  He sees everything I see and hears everything I hear,” Byron added.  It was intended as a way to get her to let go, to break this and- and…

…To go back to that room where shorts stained with blood were lying in the corner.

She didn’t let go.

“Stay,” she said.  “Fuck him.  Just… stay?”

“I can’t betray him like that.”  I have to live with him.

“I worry about you,” she said.

I worry about me too, he thought.

“…And I really enjoy your company,” she added.  “I would like to sit for those two hours in silence.  If- maybe we could?  And that way there won’t be problems?”

Byron turned his thoughts over in his head.  He was so tired, so heartbroken.

“The only way…” he trailed off.

“Yes?”

“Give Tristan a shot.  Try to be open minded about his being gay.  Okay?”

“It matters to you?”

“It- I think really highly of you, Brianna.  You’re good at so many things, you’re smart, you’re stylish, you kick thorough ass.  But this makes me think less of you.”

He could see the hurt on her expression.  He was stunned, bewildered that she cared enough that she could even feel hurt at all.

She tugged on his arm, as if to get him to sit again.

“Yes?” he asked.

“If it matters to you.  Yes.”

He allowed himself to be coaxed to a sitting position.  She took his hand like she had before.  She leaned into him more than she had before.

“Tell me about your family,” she said.  “Tell me everything about you.”

Everything is a lot.  That would take a very, very long time,” he said.

“Perfect,” she whispered.

They talked until the sun was rising.

“I thought for the first time that I was legit going to lose my mind!” Tristan’s voice was raised.  He paced.  “Holy fuck.  Holy fuck!”

To experience Tristan like this was to be in a plane with an erratic pilot.  There was no way to wrest control, to change the course, to pull up from a nosedive.  There was only remaining in the seat, helpless.

“Like the most boring movie in the world!” Tristan said.  “Nothing happening for hours!  You can’t- no!

Had Byron been possessed of blood, that would have been a moment that his blood had run cold.  Had he had eyes, they would be widening.

A moment of realization.

In the wake of last night, spent with Brianna, the issue wasn’t that Brianna had been homophobic.  Conversely, the fact that Byron had stood up for Tristan wasn’t even a point of data in this moment.

It wasn’t even the time spent.  Yes, Tristan was mentioning that, but Tristan had gone days with even less happening.  Days of silence, when Byron had been almost nonfunctional in the first weeks, the two of them trying to find their way.  Tristan had given up control at their Papa’s orders.  Byron had spent hours just staring at the television, at repeats, nothing going on.  Then Tristan had retaken control and without comment he’d taken care of the eating, resumed his day with only the periodic freakout.

Tristan had been able to deal with that.  In this, something was different.

For the large share of those hours, Byron and Brianna had talked about themselves.  Byron had done most of the talking.  He’d even tried to keep the topics relevant to Tristan’s interests when he could.

That was the issue, in the end.

For his brother, listening to him was so impossible that it was literally harder than doing nothing at all.

And with that, a realization of just how insurmountable the obstacle was.  The fact that Tristan might never understand, because he wasn’t even willing to begin trying.

That was what would make blood run cold, eyes widen, if Byron were anything more than a watercolor splotch diffusing out into a void, along for the ride.

A half-dozen hours of listening to Byron explain his perspective had Tristan more on edge than Byron had ever seen him.  Byron had ran out the remainder of his day, deferred control a couple of hours early… and Tristan was seemingly unable to get over it.

“I can’t,” Tristan said.

Tristan shucked off his bodysuit, and then donned civilian clothes, with a clear intent to go out.

The plane with its erratic pilot dipped.  Tristan made his way out of the building.

“Capricorn,” Coiffure said, noticing him as she entered.  She was costumed, and she looked like she’d just come off a patrol shift.  “Everything okay?”

“Nothing’s okay.  I’m losing my fucking mind.”

“I can get the boss.”

“No,” Tristan said, stopping in his tracks.  He fidgeted.  “I can’t do this, but- that would spoil things.”

“You’re supposed to run a patrol tonight,” she said.

Byron could feel the emotional impact of that realization rolling over Tristan.

He felt his own, really.  Tristan wasn’t one to lose track of the team stuff.  On the usual day, at a snap of the fingers, Tristan could probably recite the next month’s schedule and then produce an essay on what it meant for team strategy.

A slight exaggeration.

“I’ll cover your shift,” Coiffure said.

“You’re sure?” Tristan asked.

“Yeah,” she said.  “Just… do what you’ve got to do.  We all have our bad days.”

“You’re the best hero I know,” he said.

“You’d better believe it,” she replied.

“A week ago,” he said.  “We crossed paths with some of the other local heroes.  The Wards, the guys from Haven.  There was talk of a thing.”

“A thing,” Coiffure said.  She glanced up at the security camera.  “I’ll text you from my personal phone.  To yours.  You’re not going to be doing anything in a Capricorn sense, right?”

“Right,” Tristan said.

The thing.  Byron connected the thought.

It was late.  Nearly twenty-four hours from their patrol last night.  In crossing paths with various teams, there had been talking about just how intense things had gotten, with teams breaking up, villains banding together, and crime spree following crime spree.  The various kid heroes had talked about needing a break, a chance to cut loose.

And Tristan, it seemed, needed to cut loose.

Tristan had dialed for a ride before he was the rest of the way out of the building, and he moved with the speed and assuredness of someone with an enhanced physique.

The message appeared on his personal phone.  An address, and a note.  Kay was already there.

The ride showed up, and Tristan climbed into the back.  He provided an address on the same street.

“Want to earn some extra cash?” Tristan asked.

“Maybe,” the driver said.

“Grab me a drink from the store,” Tristan said.  “I’ll make it worth it.”

“I dunno,” the driver said.

“I have a lot of cash,” Tristan said.  Leaning forward, he began putting bills down on the console between the driver’s and passenger’s seats.  Byron couldn’t track the amount because Tristan wasn’t bothering to.  “And I really want to get drunk.”

The plane with the erratic pilot spiraled.

Byron felt only the experience of suppressed panic akin to imminent suffocation, bleeding out into the void where his body and physical sensations should be.

No more than ten minutes later, with a paper bag tucked under one arm, Tristan was walking up the driveway of a house.  There were guys sitting on the porch.

“Got someone who can vouch for you?” a heavyset, twenty-something guy asked.

“Kay,” Tristan said.

The guy twisted around in his chair, opening the door and leaning in.  “Kay?”

There was a pause.  Then Kay appeared at the door, wearing skinny jeans and a top so small Byron suspected they’d have trouble breathing.

“Hi,” Kay said.  They held the door open.

Tristan stepped through.  Into his medium.  His world, of throbbing music and crowds of teenagers.  He put the paper bag onto the counter of the lake house’s kitchen, then removed the two bottles- tequila and whiskey.  People cheered, they jostled him, and his face stretched in a smile.

What followed was a roller coaster ride with no stopping or option to get off, a series of scenes that was soon blurred around the edges, as Tristan drank.

Kay danced with abandon, with boys and girls, and when nobody else was dancing, they continued on their own.

There were jokes, conversations, all loud, spoken over music.  Tristan watched but didn’t participate in a drinking game.

Byron saw faces and many were familiar, or on the bounds of familiarity, though the haze of drink didn’t help.  Capes he’d met.  Haven.  Wards.  Young protectorate members.  There were times, though, when he thought he might have pegged one or two, only to see what had to be a sibling or cousin.  This had been planned as a chance for the young capes to get out, to cut loose, but they’d brought enough others along that it was safely anonymous.

“Why do you look familiar?”

It was Tristan’s voice, but Tristan’s addled senses were Byron’s addled senses, and it took him a moment to realize the fact.  Another moment to recognize the look of alarm in the face of the person Tristan was talking to.  It was one person out of twenty or thirty Tristan had talked to in recent hours, and Byron was tuning much of it out, focusing on tolerating all of this.

But this- the look of alarm, it made this significant.

It’s a party of semi-anonymous heroes.  We aren’t supposed to bring up secret identities.

The guy Tristan had addressed was blond, wore glasses, and had a metal stud below his lower lip.  At the ‘v’ of his v-neck t-shirt, the top of a cross was visible.  Tattooed on, not worn.  A skinny nerd type more than anything.  He glanced over his shoulder.

“I think we met briefly, a few months ago,” Tristan said.  “At the… airport?”

“Ahh,” the guy said, before smiling.  “All hands on deck?”

“All hands on deck,” Tristan said.

“Had a, uh, sports injury,” the guy said, leaning in close enough to speak into Tristan’s ear.  “Been a while since I’ve been out there.”

“Understandable,” Tristan spoke in the loud, overly clear voice of someone trying to be heard in a cacophony.  “I didn’t figure you guys for the partying type.”

“Feast and famine.  Some of us are as pure as the driven snow.  The rest of us need regular breaks from those guys and girls.”

“The girls too, huh?” Tristan asked.  “Your girlfriend here?  I don’t want to keep you.”

“No girlfriend,” the guy said.  He paused.  “You can keep me.”

The lingering eye contact made the meaning of that clear.

“You saying that just made my month,” Tristan said.

Subtle, brother.

I can deal with this.  I can deal.

Fair’s fair.

It didn’t help shake that feeling, of being a passenger in an out-of-control plane.

“Tristan.”

“Nate.  Want to step out?”

Tristan got a refill of his drink.  As a pair, he and Nate stepped outside onto the expansive back porch.  A set of stairs with lockable gates led down to the beach, which was more pine needle than sand.  Byron could have interpreted Tristan turning his attention away from couples who were sitting in the shadows as being polite.  He felt trepidation, all the same.

“You’re… a fan of goats, I’m guessing?” Nate asked.

“Yeah.  Good guess.”

“Figured I had a one in two chance.  I know most of the other faces.”

“And you’re the… you’re Reconciliation.”

“Just Nate is good,” Nate said.  “The names are something you sort of learn to live with, working with those guys.”

“Hey, not judging,” Tristan said.

“You’re judging a little, I’m sure.”

“A little,” Tristan agreed.

“It’s fine.  It’s a cost of doing business.  We have to deal with the crummy names, you have to… I don’t even know.  Wear tight athletic shirts on social media?”

“You’re getting judgmental on me, now?”

“I’m not saying I don’t like it,” Nate said.  “I’m… well acquainted with those pictures.”

Byron was aware of every muscle firing, of the movement of Tristan’s arm, the contact, fingers running through the coarse hair of Nate’s forearm.  “Limiting it to just seeing it seems like it would be a shame.”

Nate was silent.  Tristan’s fingers made their way down to Nate’s hand, which he maneuvered to his stomach.  Nate’s hand ran up across muscle and skin, to collarbone.

Tristan kissed him.  Byron felt the contact, felt lip brush against sandpapery skin where faint stubble was growing back in, find purchase on smoother lip.

He hadn’t wanted to see or experience this side of his brother.  He’d become too intimately acquainted with Tristan, with the physiology- that was unavoidable.  But this?

“Where have you been for the last four months?” Tristan asked.

“I spent a few of them in the hospital, after running into Paris.”

“Paris,” Tristan said.

“He’s a lunatic,” Nate said, his voice a whisper.  “Steer clear, you know?  He’s dangerous, and he came after me.  He came after Long John.  A little less successful then, but I think Long was spooked.  He was making noise about going after Furcate, toward the start of the year.  They ended up benched, waiting for Paris to get bored.”

“Asshole,” Tristan said.  Acting more drunk than before, like he was drunk on Nate, he kissed Nate’s neck.

“He’s kind of the reason I’m taking my time putting the costume back on again.  He could go after you, so be careful, okay?”

“Okay,” Tristan said.  “Thanks for the warning.  I’m sorry you had to deal with that.”

Nate ran his hand up and down Tristan’s upper body, exploring the muscles, finding the lines of the ribs.  This time, he kissed Tristan.  Tristan returned the favor, and pressed in.  The kiss became a makeout session.

Byron floated in the void.

He tried to turn his thoughts away.  To be happy for Tristan.  If he just had to endure this for an hour- if he had to accept that in the future, kissing Brianna might require the same tolerance from Tristan- then he would accept this.

That acceptance was gone the second he felt Tristan’s hands reach down, meeting at the buttons of Nate’s jeans.

Nate’s hands clasped Tristan’s firm.

“No,” Nate murmured, practically saying the words into Tristan’s mouth.

“No?” Tristan answered.

“I’m not that kind of guy.  I’m not even usually this kind of guy.  I’m really happy to meet you-”

“Oh, I can tell.”

“But I’m not… going to do that.  I want a husband, kids, a nice house, dogs.  I want those things and other things, and us doing this on the first night, or the third, or even in the first few months, it feels like it would put all of those things further away.”

Tristan pressed his forehead against Nate’s neck.  “You might not be this kind of guy, but I’m not sure I’m that kind of guy.”

“There aren’t many of us out in this neck of the woods, Tristan.  If you want to take some time, figure it out, I’ll probably still be here.”

Tristan nodded.

Byron could feel the guilt, the disappointment, surging through a body that wasn’t his.  He had little doubt the emotions had absolutely nothing to do with him and his own part in this.

With that, he felt anger.

“You’re two of my best capes,” Mr. Vaughn said.  “It was one mistake.  I don’t want this to be a problem.”

“It was not a mistake,” Byron said.  “No.  If cooler heads hadn’t prevailed, that would have been something much worse than a mistake.”

Mr. Vaughn gestured, fingers extended, moving in a tight circle.

Byron shook his head, pacing across the fancy office with its fancy colored tiles.  He switched, forcing himself to dive into the void, to displace Tristan and give Tristan a body.

“He’s making a big deal out of nothing,” Tristan said.  “He does this.  Gets unreasonable.”

“It doesn’t sound like it’s nothing to him.”

“Not many things are nothing to him.  The difference between him and me is that when I have a feeling, I feel it.  When he has a feeling, he bottles it up.  then the bottle cracks and it fires off steam in some random direction for some random excuse.  He hung out with a girl for hours and hours at a detriment to me.  I kissed someone.”

“What were you doing?  What was your mindset, Tristan?”

“For just a couple of hours, I wanted to get reasonably drunk, and forget… everything.  Forget that I had to worry about my brother, forget the power issue, that I’m living half a life.”

“And did this forgetting extend to forgetting about your brother as you pursued… potential relations with a partner?”

“No.”

Mr. Vaughn gestured.  Tristan switched.

Byron was free.  “Yes.

“You can’t know what Tristan thinks or plans, Byron.  I think you’re being a little bit unreasonable.”

“I live in his body and look out of his eyes more than a hundred and eighty days a year, Mr. Vaughn.  He doesn’t pay much attention to me, but I pay a ton of attention to him.  Because I have to.”

“We’ve enforced some loose rules that keep a balance between you.  These aren’t sufficient?”

“No!  No, not at all.  I want- I need something more.  That keeps things like last night from happening again.  Until this situation between us is fixed, there need to be restrictions.”

Mr. Vaughn gestured.  Byron stepped into the void once again.

“We talked to you, we established rules,” Tristan said.  “Now he wants to change the rules?  No.  I am not cool with that.”

Another gesture, another change.

“Is there no room for compromise?”

“Compromise?” Byron asked, incredulous.  “I don’t see how you compromise on that.  I thought I was being pretty cool with tolerating the extended touchy-feely make-out session.  What are you thinking the compromise is?”

“I don’t know,” Mr. Vaughn said.  “But my issue is that it seems very unreasonable to expect total abstinence for the indeterminate future.”

“That’s insane.  It’s not that.  It’s that he wants to go have sex or do whatever with randoms, and I have a front row seat.  I have to see it.  I have to feel it.  And that’s- you can’t change that.  You can’t make it not the case.  I know you’re not a stupid man, Mr. Vaughn.  You have to understand this.”

“I…” Mr. Vaughn said.  “Find myself in a difficult position.  On a certain level, I very much agree.  Where I’m leery is that we have had attention from the Youth Guard.  Gender freedom, freedom of expression, sexuality- they are touchy subjects.”

“So is me being subjected to that!”

“Byron,” Mr. Vaughn said, his voice firm.  “My concern is that if I take a stance or take a side, I am opening myself up to issues, no matter what I do.  I suspect you are right, though you may be acting unreasonable or operating on too many assumptions when it comes to your interpretation of your brother’s actions.”

“That-”

“I don’t know,” Mr. Vaughn said, less of an admission of ignorance and more of a statement of direction.  “Probably not.  You’re probably right.  But I don’t and can’t know.  I don’t want to abandon you either.  If I wash my hands of this and say it’s between the two of you, I think I know the outcome.”

“Oh yeah,” Byron said.  “I think so.”

“Before it comes to that, before I’m forced to make a choice that hurts my relationship with one of you, or before I make a choice based on things I can’t know, I would like for the two of you to talk.  Discuss.  Let me step out of the office.  I’m going to go to the cafeteria, I’m going to grab my dinner, I’ll come back, and if you have found a resolution, my respect for the two of you will redouble.”

“And if we don’t?” Byron asked.

“Then…” Mr. Vaughn said.  “We will discuss.  And we will make hard choices.”

Byron nodded.  Mr. Vaughn stood and left the room.  Byron tried to think of what to say, what argument he could make.  But before that, he had to know.

He had to confirm his suspicions.

He switched to Tristan.

“I can’t believe you brought it to him,” Tristan said.  Switch.

“No choice.  We needed a mediator.”

“He’s the boss, and he’s not stupid.  When you talk about me having a partner, he can connect the dots.”

“You did it first.”

“You’re so demented, By.  Seriously.  I was already having a shitty day, and… God.”

“Is this about Moonsong?”

“I really don’t give two shits about Moonsong, By.”

“Are you sure?  Because you went off rails and made a beeline to that party right after I talked with her.”

Byron switched out.  Tristan had the body, but Tristan didn’t respond.

His finger traced his leg, at the thigh.  “If she makes you happier, then whatever.  She can say whatever she wants about me if she keeps you in one piece.  I just- I really despise the fact that you’re not understanding that this is what I need to keep myself in one piece.”

“Tristan, he doesn’t want to sleep with you.  This isn’t the hill to die on.  Date him.  Kiss him, stick your tongue down his throat if that’s what you want, if you can do it while being aware your brother is there and watching and feeling it all.  If that’s what you want… I’ll deal with it.  But I have to draw the line at anything that goes under the underwear.”

“No,” Tristan said.  One word, curt, and then switching out.

No?

Byron switched.  Tristan switched back a moment later.

“You fucking child,” Byron snarled the words.  “You can’t even justify it.”

He switched.  Tristan switched a second later.

Byron was left standing in the office.  He knew Mr. Vaughn would arrive soon.

“You know he’ll back me.  I think that’s what kills you.  You know you’re wrong, and what you’re wanting here is unjustifiable and unreasonable.”

He switched.

There was a long pause.  Then Tristan switched back, not a word spoken.

“Tristan,” Byron said.  He hesitated.  “Tristan, I have to draw the line here.  Tap out.  Give.  Accept my terms.  Or I’m going to reach out to Nate, and I’m going to tell him everything.  That I was there, that I could see him- I’m pretty sure he didn’t even think that was possible, because he’s an actually decent human being and he would have stopped you well before, if he’d thought of it.  I will tell him, and he will think you are completely and utterly fucked up.  Which I’m pretty sure you are.”

Byron let those words hang.

Then he switched.

Tristan was very quiet and very still.  That motionless silence lasted the remaining three or four minutes before Mr. Vaughn returned.

“Did you make a decision?” mr. Vaughn asked.

Again, a pause.  Long, as if Tristan was having to rewrite his priorities, and find a way to act and form words when everything was reset to zero.

“I agree,” Tristan said, his voice soft.  “Nothing beyond kissing and holding hands.”

“I can’t tell you how much I respect you for coming to this compromise.”

“I just wanted hope,” Tristan said.  “I wanted to be a regular teenager for a couple of hours, and feel like there were silly, stupid, good things over the next horizon.  I didn’t- I wouldn’t have done anything.  I just wanted to be able to pretend it was possible.”

“I thought it might be something like that.  But you got close enough in your pretending that you spooked your brother,” Mr. Vaughn said.  “I admire you for agreeing to this, for his benefit.”

Tristan shook his head.

In a sea of doubt like watercolor bleeding out into endless darkness, Byron counted his first real victory against his brother.

There’d been no fixes.  The power labs had scratched their heads.

For half of his waking hours, portioned out in four hour chunks now, existence still resembled a kind of hell.

For the other half, however, things were good.  Moonsong sat beside him, her hand finding his, giving it a squeeze.  Off in the corner, Coiffure and Furcate were being silly.  Furcate had been weaned off of their shitty lemon candy and had now adopted strawberry flavored drops, still of the grandmother’s candy bowl variety, but without the lingering taste of armpit.  Their arm was in a sling, but they seemed to be doing okay.  Tribute and Figurehead were chatting about team rankings, and they seemed happy enough with where Reach stood.

But mostly it was Moonsong.  Mostly it was finally having an equilibrium.  Rules had been set, reaffirmed.

Figurehead’s phone rang.  The conversation was short.  Figurehead paused to think after hanging up.

The chatter of the team stopped.  Everyone looked, sensing the gravity of the moment.

“We found that asshole Paris,” Figurehead said.  “He went after Furcate once, after Long John twice, and he got Reconciliation from Haven a second time, just a week ago.  This is an all hands on deck thing.”

There was no discussion or thought really needed.  Byron reached out for Moonsong’s hand, and he gave it a squeeze.

This was Tristan’s fight.

He passed control.

Immediately, he was aware that something was wrong.  Aware, and unable to act on the fact.

“Whatever you need,” Moonsong murmured to Tristan.  “We’re with you.”

Tristan was silent, not responding.

When he stood, heads turned.  Something in his energy, in his expression.

When I get mad, I bottle it up, it releases explosively, indiscriminately if the person is a moron like my brother who can’t see how things add up.

But it was different for Tristan.

Tristan… when he got mad, he became unreasonably mad.  There was no upper limit, and the usual boundaries seemed to slip away, much in the way that led to him stabbing at Byron multiple times.  When he set his mind to something, he got it.

And when the two coincided?

Byron had a gut feeling it was worse than a vehicle with a reckless pilot at the helm.  This pilot knew what he was doing and he was on course; he just didn’t give a damn about the damage he’d end up doing.

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Gleaming – 9.7

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“I’m going to need fifty different explanations,” Natalie’s eyes were wide.  “Goddess?

“It’s complicated,” I said.  “And it’s not really a question of the law, exactly.  I-”

“I think Natalie should be heard,” Byron cut in, his voice firm.

Master-stranger.  If she was untainted… did she qualify as the next person in the chain, should Byron be occupied?  There was a possibility that we’d have to put him in a coma or something like it if we couldn’t get all of this handled by tonight.  Did that mean Natalie would be taking point, somehow?  What would that even look like?

“Natalie,” Sveta said.  “We owe you a lot for looking after Kenzie.”

“Mm hmm,” Kenzie made an affirmative sound.

“But Victoria’s right.  This is complicated.  Before Victoria and Byron left to check on the Majors, Byron attacked her.  We’re really only letting it slide because she has the strength to keep him in line, and I’m not that convinced it’s right to do that.”

“That’s not entirely accurate,” Byron said.

“Um,” Natalie said.  “I can mediate, then.  But I need more information.”

“No,” Sveta said.

Yes,” I countered.  It wasn’t easy to do, to go against every instinct and rational thought and put something forward.

Sveta turned, her expression hardening.  Harder still to see that.  My friend.

“We lose nothing by doing it,” I said.

“We lose time.  Teacher is making his moves and we’re two steps behind.  The woman on the screen right there is preparing drugs for reasons we don’t know.  We can’t take time to catch someone up when they’re about to be distributed, and we definitely can’t fracture the team and let things go to pieces with infighting!”

“Kenzie’s work won’t be instantaneous.  It’s worth bringing more trusted people in, giving them information, and letting them have a voice.”

“I don’t trust them!” Sveta retorted.  “I’m sorry.  I’m really sorry, I’m grateful for what you two do, Byron, Natalie, for what you three do, if I include you, Victoria.  But I feel like conversations are happening in the background, like you guys talked a lot while I was stuck here, and I don’t like the direction things are going.  It feels wrong.”

“Yeah,” I said.  I glanced at Kenzie.  She was behind Sveta, hugging one knee against her chest, the other dangling, a small smile on her face.

“I was trying to figure it out,” Sveta said.  “And the only thing that makes sense to me is if Byron drugged you while you were dealing with him.”

“Drugs don’t work that way,” I said.  “Kenzie would have video of him applying the drugs.”

“I would, I do.”

“Something in the water?” Sveta tried, almost plaintive.  “His power has changed before, and with things this warped… it’s not impossible that it’s not pure water, now.”

“It’s a bit of a reach,” Kenzie said.  “I think simpler drugs are more likely.  I can check my video.”

“I would really like to see that video,” Natalie said.

“I can show you,” Kenzie said, spinning around.

“Careful,” I said.

Natalie stopped in her tracks.  Sveta’s expression didn’t change an inch, but the tendrils I could see moved with more energy now.  She seemed to notice that I’d noticed, and broke eye contact.

“We don’t know if it would work across recorded video.”

“The Lady in Blue has the ability to influence parahumans,” Byron said.  “Natalie isn’t one.”

“That’s our line of thinking,” I said.  “But I don’t think anyone in this room is going to say that they’re super happy with the way things have gone in the last couple of hours…”

“I’m not super happy, but I’m happy we’re hanging out and doing something together,” Kenzie said.

“…And it started because she surprised us with what she’s capable of.  However major, minor, or insignificant the influence might be, let’s avoid future surprises.  Capes keep tricks in their back pockets.  Especially ones as effective and powerful as she is.”

“Noted,” Natalie said.

“If she could affect regular people, she would have,” Sveta said.  “She would have a population under her thumb.  From what we’ve heard reported about her and her world, that’s not the case.  It’s something she has to struggle against.  That’s our reality: people don’t like parahumans, even when the parahumans didn’t do anything to deserve that dislike.  I think all of us here have seen that in some form.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Very probable, but yes, while there are powers that discriminate to be parahuman only, there are rare cases where people with the potential to get powers can be included in that group.”

“If I could have triggered, I think I might have last night.”  Natalie’s voice was quiet.  She touched her shoulder.  “I think I’m safe, but thank you, Victoria.”

I opened my mouth to say something about how triggers didn’t necessarily work that way- that the popular thinking was that the reason they were so hard to provoke was that the trigger event needed to match the power that the person was primed to get.  That someone could have a trigger of abject loss and heartbreak and not get a power, only to get one a few days later because they were threatened with bodily harm, or because their agent was waiting for a trigger event involving fire.

But I was grasping at straws, clinging to the science and the chances of danger.  Was the risk really that great, that Goddess’ power included those with potential, that Natalie had that potential but mercifully hadn’t realized it, and that Goddess’ influence would also work through a recorded video?

“What’s going on with you, Victoria?” Sveta asked.  Her face showed something closer to pity or disappointment.

My eyes dropped to the ground.  “I don’t like this.”

“I don’t like this either.  I wish we could be on the same page about why we didn’t like this.”

I nodded.

“Sveta,” Byron said.

“Hey,” Sveta said, still in that small, sad voice, as she looked at him.  “I don’t want you as an enemy either, Byron.  I feel like I haven’t even gotten to know you.”

He pulled off his helmet, clasping it in front of his stomach with both hands.  Droplets of moisture from the rain still beaded some of his cheekbone, nose, and chin, and he had a spot of redness around one eyelid that had white edges in its midst, like skin peeling from a slight burn.

“I’m not totally on board with this, but Victoria and Chris were right.  There are things we can all agree on, and being careful is one.  That Teacher is dangerous and dangerous to our teammates is another.”

Tension didn’t show in Sveta’s body, but it showed in the details that wriggled around the edges and gaps, at her prosthetic neck that her head was perched on, and around her wig, almost indistinguishable from the locks of hair.  It showed in the lines of her face, in features I would have called Eastern European.

Byron seemed to take Sveta’s silence as reluctant agreement.  “Kenzie, when you’re done with showing Natalie the video, can you talk us through what you’re doing?  In the interest of being careful, I’d like to make sure we’re not making any missteps when it comes to this… what is it we’re doing, Victoria?  Shutting the door so Teacher can’t?”

“Something like that,” I said.

“I’ll show you in a sec,” Kenzie said.

“Let’s make sure we have a good game plan,” he said.  “And… Sveta, you and I stand at different sides on this, but we can balance each other out.  We each justify where we’re coming from, that keeps us level.”

She remained silent.

“I get where you’re coming from,” he said.  “Your past experiences-”

She shook her head.

“But that was heated, irrational, driven by anger and emotion.”

“Communication is better,” I added.

“Speaking of staying level, or of balance,” Sveta said the words slowly, almost dangerously, in a way that made me unsure if the words themselves were dangerous, or if she was implying threat.  “Are you going to release Tristan?”

“No,” Byron said.  “Not like this.”

Sveta pursed her lips.

“We took measures to ensure neither of us could go too far.  Tristan isn’t a stupid guy, Sveta.  Trust in that.”

“Let’s focus on helping Ashley and Rain,” I jumped in, before an argument could start.

“Okay!” Kenzie said, clapping her hands together.  “My time to shine.”

Sveta walked over, her gait less even than usual, before stiffly placing a hand on Kenzie’s shoulder.

“So, based on what my scanner is picking up -I built one into my phone’s camera to read any computer’s data on the sly- these gates cross dimensions, and they have to see where they’re going.  That’s where I come in.  Because machines see with… anyone?”

“Cameras,” Byron said.  His eyes weren’t on Kenzie, but on the video footage of the fight.  Natalie crouched by the table, watching.  She glanced at me over one shoulder.

“Cameras!  Well, there are other ways for machines to see, and this is closer to feeling than to seeing, but I won’t get bogged down.  It’s close enough, and it’s not that different from what I was experimenting with, when I was making a camera that might see Byron when Tristan is out, or vice-versus.”

“Versa.”

“Versa!  Yes.  So!  A couple of ways I can do this.  To use an analogy, I could take the camera’s flash and crank it to always-on.  Other gates trying to look in would see an overexposed image and they wouldn’t have a clear picture.”

“Would the prison notice?” I asked.

“Flickering cameras and lights, maybe.  Hair standing on end if you’re in the right place for long enough.”

“And would it be traceable to the source?  To us?”

“After a little while.  But Goddess only needs a little while to do her thing, right?  So we could turn ours off just long enough to let her in and let her out, while not letting the other ones start up.  That would leave the exit portal intact, which would be best for her.”

“I don’t like that it could draw attention.  What other options are there?”

“Um.  The way these gates work, they warm up and map out the surrounding area.  It’s a slow boil and it takes time, and I think they use multiple cameras to get a clearer picture.  Then they flash, pulsing, to make sure there isn’t anything new in the area, like a person walking through the space at that time.  Because that would skew the signal, I think.  That part of it is a kind of mapping program, but it’s instantaneous or spontaneous.”

“Can this camera be one of the multiple cameras?” I asked.  “Giving the other ones wrong info?”

“It could.  I think they could decipher that this one is the culprit and block it out, especially if they’re already warmed up with their mapping done.  And you asked about tracing the signal – I think that would be a pretty big red alert for them, with a huge ‘we are here’ sign above us.”

“That’s a no, then.”

“It’s good that you’re thinking along those lines, though!” Kenzie said, like an instructor applauding her student for trying.  “And I don’t blame you for not thinking of what I’m thinking of, because the answer is more abstract and it’s harder to make an analogy for.  The best analogy I can think of is… our camera flash is white light and white light is centered, but if we tint the light from one camera’s flash blue and green, which is up, then any other cameras are going to adjust more red because the image is skewed, which slants everything down.

“What does that mean?” Sveta asked.

“It means everything looks right for them until they try to make their electro-gate, it goes zap, and it tries to put a gate down, only it puts it in the ground.  And it’s subtle enough it won’t make people’s hair stand up or make cameras flicker.”

“And the regular portal that lets them walk in?” I asked.

“Well, that’s sort of the thing.  Because it’s not light, it’s dimensions, so it would still skew with the signal and block it off.  So that might tip people off if they try to use it.”

“Do they?” I asked.

“Um.  Not often.  From surveillance, it’s usually when work ends or when new prisoners come in, and nobody’s acting like they’re bringing anyone in.  No prep, no prepared apartments.  I think we’re clear.”

“Surprises happen,” I murmured.

Kenzie nodded, very enthusiastically.

“That’s good, though.  It’s a shame we can’t keep the front door open just to make sure that everything doesn’t go to hell the moment one employee tries to leave because they have an upset stomach, then close it later, if we have to.”

“Maybe we could?” Kenzie asked.  She made a bit of a face, scrunching everything up.

“You don’t sound sure,” Byron said.

“If I situated our blue-green light right, maybe we could put it far enough away that the, um, the front door wouldn’t close.  Except I’m making an educated guess at that point.”

“And if we need to close the front door, we take the blue-green dimensional light this gate is making and move it closer?”

“Turn it off, cool down for a few minutes, then turn it back on, situated closer.  Yeah.”

“Are those few minutes long enough for them to do something?”

She scrunched up her face again, shrugging slightly.

“We should contact Goddess,” Sveta said.  “Let her know what we’re doing.”

“And talk to the other teams?” I suggested.  “The Major Malfunctions wanted to know, and we could use help.”

“Chris wanted to keep things discrete,” Byron said.  “Each group as a cell.  We share info and maintain contact in a limited way.”

“She’s our network hub, she can lead,” Kenzie said.

“We don’t have a way of getting in touch with her.”

“We have a way of getting in touch with Chris, and Chris is with her,” Sveta said.

“I’ll call him!” Kenzie said.

“Don’t- just…” Byron started.  He trailed off, looking to me for help.

I wasn’t sure what to give him.  I was aware of Sveta’s stare.

“…I’m going to step outside,” he said.

“Can I talk to you?  I’d really appreciate your perspective on things,” Natalie said.

Sveta’s eyes bored into me.

But just as he couldn’t really argue for a reason to not call Goddess, we couldn’t give a reason for him not to step outside.  Not without fights breaking out, one way or another.

The phone rang.  Natalie hurried to get her coat on, flipping up her hood, before following Byron outside.

“Who is this?”a strange voice asked, voice amplified by the speakers.

“It’s Breakthrough,” Kenzie said.  “Is Chris there?”

“He is,” the voice came through.  It was male.  “He’s not human right now.  He gave me the phone.”

“Show us?” Kenzie asked.

“I’ll take a video?”

“Please.”

There was a pause.  Then Kenzie brought up a video on the wall.  It was an image taken from the ground, looking up.  A tall figure, feathered, looked like a vulture might look if it had been rolled over with a truck.  The neck twisted around and bent backward, the head lolling back and hanging with curved beak extending down, one yellow eye staring.  Along the inside of arms, black eyes that were nearly invisible in the black and gray plumage blinked.  It moved its head, raising one arm with taloned fingers at the end, and gestured in the affirmative, blinking slowly.

“He’s scratching something on the ground.  He… didn’t give you his number?”

Kenzie snorted.  “We’re in the middle of something big.  We wanted to talk strategy.  Can you get her on the line?”

“She’s close.  Let me get her, and I’ll put you guys on speaker.”

There was a moment’s pause, the only sounds in the room being the sound of the rain outside, a torrent of water flowing from a gutter that was ajar, and the noises on the other side.  As wrong as everything felt, my little betrayals of Sveta, my complicating things when they could be so simple, the idea of having Goddess decide on a course of action was awfully tempting.

I could hear the noise of Goddess arriving, with a rush of air, a rustling of the phone.

“Breakthrough.”

“We were raided by Teacher when we checked on one of his pawns.  She’s the prison pharmacist, and she has laced drugs or something like it.  She made it back to the prison.”

“Disappointing.  What happened?”

“It was what you described.  A whole army.  Not exactly marksmen, and not quite as coordinated as you described, but… it was a lot, very suddenly, and we had rookies to protect.  We did come away with some stuff we can use and a lot of thoughts.”

In the background, Natalie stepped back inside.

“There weren’t marksmen or coordinated strikes because his focus was and is on me.  Even now, those assholes move against us.  I’ve tapped other resources.  What thoughts or things that we can use do you have?”

“Antares thinks we should lock off the prison,” Kenzie volunteered.

Why?”

“Pre-emptively,” I answered Goddess.  “If we do it, then teacher can’t, and the people running the prison might not try to do it themselves.  Why try to seal the door shut if it’s already sealed?”

“And we could still get you in,” Kenzie said, all cheer and enthusiasm.

“This is good.”

I glanced back at Natalie.  She had a very serious look on her face.

“It goes a step further,” I said.  “Teacher’s a tricky guy because of his criminal history.  He went from being a near complete unknown to being a top-tier player to getting arrested.  It means that his records and the records I had in my files went from barren to high-tier confidential.”

“You looked at his files?”

“After he first came up in relation to Earth Cheit.  There wasn’t much.  But,” I stressed the word ‘but’.  “There was some stuff on his thralls.  Based on what we’re seeing and what the PRT noted about them just in case they had to worry about infiltration in their own ranks, I think we can come up with strategies.”

“This is good.  Explain for me.”

“His degree of control comes from his subjects having less volition.  Less ability to make their own decisions, react quickly, problem solve.  I was reminded when I saw some of them outside the pharmacist’s house.  They were practically zombies…”

Within the prison, a red-haired correctional officer with a receding hairline sat with his share of monitors in view.  The monitors showed several camera feeds each.

“Sending low-risk inmates to dinner in fifteen,” a man at the center of the room said.  “Kitchens will have meals going out to high-risk buildings in twenty-five, once the cafeteria doors are shut.  Start-shift ready?”

“Lagging in change.”

“Tell them to get a move on.  I want more bodies on the ground.  Exit-shift?”

“They’re at posts.”

“Meds?”

“Coming out of the pharmacy.  Betty and her escort.  They’ll make it to the caf and back with time to spare.”

“Red, remind us of any incidents today.”

“Johnny in building C, room four ate his own hands for bio-material.  He’s locked up and in quarantine.  Supposed low-risk inmate Screwdriver attacked her roommate this morning.  Screwdriver is off-site and staying that way for the day, her roommate Gosling is recovering from surgery.  Damsel One and Damsel Two are being quiet- mostly keeping to the internet.  No sign of agitation, but we’re watching closely after a Damsel Three allegedly appeared on television twenty-four hours ago.”

“If only we got television here,” one correctional officer said.

“If you did, you wouldn’t watch the screens,” the superior said.  “Stay the course, people.  I want tonight to be quiet.”

As the superior walked around the room, checking on things, including screens with low-res images of various icons moving across a map, the officer with the receding hairline saw words on his screen.

Radio silence from here on out.  Avoid phones.
Phones and computers are monitored.
-Teacher

He looked around, making sure the coast was clear.

Communicate all points to others.  Nod if understood.

The officer looked over his shoulder at the camera.  He nodded.

Bomb anklets must be deactivated ASAP.
Prisoner population must be preserved.

He glanced back, then nodded slightly once again.

The screen went clear.

My heart pounded in my chest as I watched him lean over to the correctional officer next to him, whispering in her ear.

Goddess had said that her danger sense wasn’t flaring from this, and it was apparently nuanced enough to tell her if this was a horribly bad idea.  We were good to go, at least in the initial stages of this juncture.

“…gotta run to the washroom,” the officer said.

Now?” the supervisor asked.  “Thirteen minutes until we serve them their third square.”

“I won’t be long.”

“Aaron, take the console from Nick.”

Someone else took over.  Our officer strode from the room, using his keycard to get through the door and to the hallway.

Teacher’s influence turned them more and more into zombies as he asserted more control, but there was no fine mind control.  They weren’t puppets, and they had to be told what to do.

The lack of volition and the weaker problem solving meant they were more gullible.

“Should I message someone else?” Kenzie asked.

“Let’s not test our luck,” I murmured.

The guard headed straight to a guard who was at one T-shaped intersection of hallways.  He leaned close to say something.  On Kenzie’s projected image, lines traced his lips and mouth movements.  A line of gibberish appeared, then was deleted.

“Couldn’t read his lips.  The program might work after a few tries with the right camera angles,” Kenzie said.

“Three factions have the power to win, lose, or decide the course of this game,” I said, to Sveta.  “Us, Teacher, and the prison.  There are others- the prisoners notably among them.”

“They can’t win or lose.  They’re just-”

“Part of this.  Except for a select few, like Precipice, Swansong, Monokeros, and Crystalclear.”

“Crystalclear is onboard,” Byron said.  he was at his laptop, hunched over it.  “Foresight just emailed me.  They’re ready when we are.”

“And the teams we put on people related to the prison and around the prison are on standby,” I said.  Kenzie’s arm pointed up and waved around, less focused on the specific target than it was indicating a series of overlapping maps.  The teams were represented by icons.  All of the ones who’d been planted in nearby areas of the Megalopolis were now stationed within a few blocks of the first of the two portals.

We’d identified our correctional officer because he knew the pharmacist well enough to be one of the first people she’d communicated with once through the portal.  Now, through him and the course he traveled, with information backed up from our series of ‘dominoes’, people we’d already noted as likely Teacher-compromised, because of their contact with those confirmed as compromised, we were able to confirm our suspicions on most counts.  Each person was marked with a ‘T’ in a silvery-blue circle over their heads.

“Phones?” I asked.

“Still blocked.  Only a few people have noticed but they’re treating it like it’s an ordinary thing,” Kenzie said.  “None of them are our targets.”

Byron fidgeted.  Natalie was beside him, and she looked even more nervous.

I was nervous, and I couldn’t even imagine how they felt.

Unspoken in this equation was Goddess.  We were working on the Teacher issue, and we were all on the same page with it.  When Goddess stepped in…

I wasn’t even sure.

“Things are going to get messy soon,” Kenzie said.

My head turned.

On the screen, it was Ashley on one side, and Rain on the other.  She was telling them, so they could be ready.

“We’ll do what little we can to keep the peace,” Rain said.

“Or if it comes to it, we take out the people who insist on taking advantage of any lack of peace,” Ashley said.

The officer was walking briskly toward a stairwell, taking them two at a time on his way up to the top floor of the admin building.

“Is Foresight ready?”

“I think so,” Byron said.

The prison had administration like any business did, though the ranks sounded like military ones, they were closer to being a business in reality.  The warden was like the C.E.O., the deputy warden like the vice president, and in this case, the assistant warden was their equivalent to their chief financial officer, with some added responsibilities.

Our red-haired correctional officer with the receding hairline and the worry lines across his forehead walked past the assistant warden’s office, where the man within was doing paperwork, glancing up for only a moment.  He went straight to the deputy warden’s office, knocking on her open door.

Stop there, come on.  Come on.

He held a finger to his mouth, then indicated the office next door.  Not the office of the assistant warden, but of the warden himself.

My heart sank a bit at that.  It couldn’t be easy.

The heavyset deputy and officer both headed into the warden’s office.

The officer said something we couldn’t make out, his face not at an angle where the camera could see his lips.

“That makes no sense at all,” the warden said.  “You left your post for this?”

“I’m doing as instructed.”

“Are you sure you saw this?  Your eyes or imagination weren’t playing tricks on you?”

“No.”

I’m letting Foresight know now,” Byron whispered, so as not to hamper our eavesdropping too much.  I gave him a nod of confirmation.

“What did it say, explicitly?”

“To not trust phones, to make sure the bombs were disabled.”

“We could abort,” the deputy murmured the words to the warden.  The camera did catch her lips, providing sharp text to clarify the muddy ‘could’ and ‘abort’, which the crummy microphone on the security camera didn’t pick up.

“The anklets?”

“Hold off,” the warden said.

Okay, not the biggest surprise in the world.  Both warden and deputy warden were Teacher’s.  Being Teacher’s, they were invested in what he was invested in.  And Teacher, as far as we could figure, had every interest in using Cheit, his thralls, and his manipulation of the prison to capture Goddess and turn the entire prison into a barrel of fish he could then repeatedly shoot.  A large number of high-priority targets with powers, with nobody able to interrupt or gainsay him.

There were situations where the ankle bombs factored in, ones where they eliminated target individuals or tried to get control of a failing situation with threats, but it made next to no sense for them to simply wipe prisoners out en masse, even now that things were sliding into chaos.  I’d observed that there were three critical teams here.  Two of them didn’t want to see prisoners blow up – Teacher’s and ours.

As for the third, on another camera, the assistant warden was picking up his phone.  Foresight was on the other end, and they would be explaining their situation.  They had two people in the prison.  If our alliance with them counted, they had four total.  Hopefully they would be convincing, because as the third person in the hierarchy of the prison, the assistant warden was number three- a man with a nice suit and tie, tousled hair, and eyelashes and eyebrows so thin that it looked like he had none at all.

Foresight would be outlining the situation and explaining priorities to him.

And Breakthrough would be dealing with the leaders of the thralls.

“This isn’t right,” the head warden said.  He turned to his computer, circling the desk to get to it.

Kenzie hit a key.

Nothing happened.

She smashed the keyboard with her fist.

Again, nothing happened.

“Umm.”

The lights went out in the building.  After a moment’s delay, red lights in the ceiling came on.

“Time delay,” Kenzie said.  “He didn’t make it past the login screen.  We’re clear.”

In his office, the assistant warden was on the phone.  Going by the script, Foresight should be telling him to pretend like the phone wasn’t working.  In the tension of the moment, he took it a step too far, banging the phone against his desk.  Everyone in the room winced.

On the cameras, a world of prison administration under stark red emergency lighting, we could see the deputy, head warden, and the correctional officer all leaving.  The officer broke from the group to check on the assistant warden, who was in his office, phone on his desk.

A shake of the head and of the phone confirmed suspicions.

“Stay, Toby,” the head warden instructed, leaning past the officer.  “Watch the office and be ready if we get power again.”

Toby the assistant warden hesitated.  Was he weighing his trust for Foresight against his trust for coworkers?

He stayed.  The moment his two seniors were gone with the officer, he had the phone to his ear, listening.

“If they get near a computer, black them out,” I said.  Needlessly, we’d already established the plan.  It made me feel better to spell it out.

“On it.”

It was a situation defined by chaos, and we had some modicum of control.  Teacher had an army at his disposal, it seemed, but that army had been paid for with his power, and that power had its price.

He would make his play, but we had our own.  It was a question of keeping an eye out and timing everything right.  I’d thought of Teacher like a tinker, his human resources simply parts of a broader system he’d designed.  Tinkers were most dangerous when they could anticipate their threats, and they were least dangerous when surprised.

We would strive to surprise.

“Assistant warden’s cleared by Foresight.  We can tell him everything?” Byron asked.

I nodded.

“So far so good,” Sveta whispered.

I didn’t want to jinx it by agreeing, but the two of us were on shaky ground.

“Yeah,” I responded.  “Except-”

“Except?” Byron asked.

Goddess.  She hadn’t made her move.  There was a point she was supposed to enter the prison and take her prisoners.  It was a big reason for why Byron, Natalie and I were so tense.

The moment that happened, everything else was up in the air.

My hope was that by having Goddess there, we could seal her in and scramble the signal.  We had people on the inside we could reach out to, but my real hope was that her power would be of the wide-reaching sort that didn’t reach through dimensions.  If we could cut off the flow and close the doors… maybe this alleged influence would slip away.  Breakthrough would be free.

Dinner was being canceled relatively quietly.  Relatively because the prisoners were complaining, balking.  They wanted their grub.  But Foresight had the assistant warden in their corner, and he’d made the calls necessary.

“Computer screens at one end of the prison are flickering,” Kenzie reported.  She hit buttons.  The super-low-res copies of the security screens in question were blown up large on one wall.  They showed what had to be at least third-hand video feeds.  Computer screens caught on one security camera above them, viewed through another daisy chain of security apparatuses, and then displayed on our wall.

Sure enough, one computer monitor blacked out, fritzed, and then went normal.  A moment later, an entire row flickered, one by one, left to right.

“He’s sending his army in.  They know something’s wrong,” Kenzie remarked.

“We don’t have eyes on them?”

She shook her head.  “I think… they’re out on the outskirts of the prison.”

“Alright,” I said.

We didn’t have Goddess in our net.  As wrong as that felt…

I glanced over at Byron.  He met my eyes.

“Shut the door,” I said.  “He’s got just enough of an army in there to lose all plausible deniability.”

“Shutting the door,  blue-green tint.  We’ll see how fast his hornet’s nest of underlings figure out what we did.”

Door shut.  Ankle-bombs disabled for now and with nobody really in a position to want to use them, provided things stayed peaceful.  Teacher’s forces were caught with their pants down and no communication or way back to their leadership.  Hero teams were on the periphery, with eyes on the suspicious, primed to join in if they needed to quell riots.

This didn’t feel over.

The door opened, and my first thought was Cryptid.  Our messenger.

It wasn’t him.  Everyone in the room stood up a little straighter.  Natalie backed up a step.

Goddess was as dry as a bone as she stepped into our headquarters.  Amy was a step behind her, looking less confident than I’d seen her yet, before or after everything.

“I’ve been told it’s done.  Everything’s ready for my arrival?”

“Yeah,” Byron said.  “I guess it is.”

“You’ll all come to the prison, then,” she said.  “You.  You have no powers?”

“N-no,” Natalie stuttered.

“You’ll come as well.  Witness.

“But-”

“It’s not a fucking request.  Don’t try my patience.”

“Okay,” Natalie said, not sounding happy about it.

“Why are we going?” I asked.  I met Amy’s eyes.  She looked away.

“Because I was told most of you were there to talk to me, and most isn’t good enough.  You’ll all stay with me until I’m sure I don’t need to be concerned about any of you.”

“I don’t think you need to worry anymore,” Byron said.  He sighed.

He switched to Tristan, without a second thought.

I could see Tristan’s expression change as he realized he was free.  It started somewhere in the neighborhood of anger, and it became something closer to fury.

It froze and became momentary confusion as Goddess set her hand on his shoulder.  Coming back to reality.

“Save that anger for our enemies,” she said.  “We have plenty of them waiting for us.”

There was no argument.

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Gleaming – 9.6

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“Reality is on fire,” Jester said it in a very matter of fact way, before adding,  “purple fire.”

“Is it spreading?” I asked.

He shook his head.  “Shrinking, but slowly, and it looks ominous.”

“It’s around the door thing?”

“Is that what that was?  A door?  Yeah, it’s mostly around some tech stuff at the base.”

“Then it’s fine.  Get people to stand back, in case it blows.”

“We already did,” Jester said.  He didn’t move from his spot underneath the shelter of the bus stop.

The street was now crowded with police cars that didn’t match each other, Jester’s patrol bus, and two ambulances.  My hand was bandaged, and the Malfunctions were being looked after.  The patrol had done its work, and Jester was keeping me company, under the guise of getting updates on the situation.  That had taken two minutes, really, he’d stepped away to report to others, and he’d just come back.

As for the rest- it was only in the wake of the event that I could really take stock of just how much of a battlefield this neighborhood had become in a very short span of time.  There were a lot of combatants, disabled or otherwise not putting up a fight, who were being put in the patrol bus.

“Are you okay?  Really okay?” Jester asked me.  “I know we’re not close, and that’s a very personal question, but…”

“We worked together.”

“For a bit over a year, and even this week, I was going into work and thinking I could bug you about some power classification thing or something I saw online.  I forget what.”

“You miss me?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.

He shrugged, shoulders straining against the straps of his vest- the stripped-down PRT armor with the identifying marks scraped off.  In the cold weather, he was wearing a jacket over the vest.  His tattoo wasn’t visible beneath the long sleeves.

“I kind of miss you guys too,” I said.

“That’s a very nice generic, ‘you guys’.  A deft deflection from saying you miss me in particular, Miss Dallon.”

I smiled.

“Is that your way of saying you’re not okay?  You miss when things were simpler?” he asked.  “Because holy shit, um, I told Gil to wake me up or pull me in if your team ever needs anything, and I keep getting brought in for really messed up shit.”

“You don’t have to,” I said.

“I like it!  Don’t get me wrong.  Not the messed up stuff-”

“You’re losing me.  You like it but you don’t like it?”

“I like you,” he said, before his eyes registered the words, and he gave a fraction-of-a-second-late, “-guys.”

“Deft.”

He spoke with more energy and verve, as if he could stampede all over that exchange, leaving it behind him.  “I did this whole Patrol thing because powers kick ass and I thought if I didn’t have powers, I could still be the guy in uniform that the big goddamn hero turns to and says, ‘Hey, guy with the cool callsign, are you going to have our backs?’ and I could say yes.”

“Cool callsign, huh?  That’s an integral part of this fantasy?”

“It’s not a fantasy.  It’s a mission.  I’m going to become an instructor and team leader one day, and it’ll be mandatory.  No gun until you have a decent nick.  Exceptions if you have a badass last name and you go by that name.”

“I feel sorry for your students.”

“Quiet, you,” he said.

Another patrol bus drove up.  Jester raised his hand, and behind the glare of the headlights and the windshield with ice at the edges, the driver raised  a hand in response.

I punched Jester in the arm.  “Thanks.  For backing us up.  You were there at the Fallen thing, you were there for Swansong.”

“You’re welcome,” Jester said.  “It’s nothing big.  Trying to help out when I can, help the people who are doing the big stuff… like tearing through seventy-five jerks with tinker guns.”

He indicated the neighborhood street.  The road was low quality beneath puddles and ice, already cracking less than a year after it had been laid down, and the wet surface reflected the flashing blue and red light of emergency vehicles.

“Fifty at most,” I said.

“How’s Swansong?” he asked.

I raised my eyebrows.

“I guarded her, kept watch, like you said.  Spent enough time doing it I’m invested, and she’s cool.”

I had no idea how she was.  The question was enough to get me to check my phone for any status updates.

“I’m going to see her shortly,” I spoke slowly as I scrolled.  “Last I heard, yeah, she was okay.  But with everything going on-”

I stopped myself.

“She’s in prison, though.  How would she be involved?”

Damn it, Jester, why did you catch on to that?

“Nah.  She feels like her hands are tied,” I covered.  “And that’s hard.”

Jester nodded.

Byron was at the periphery.  A cop had stopped him, but a moment later, was calling out to someone else.  Getting backup, since it was no doubt intimidating to have a guy in armor show up at the edge of the battlefield.

“I should go,” I said.  “Good luck with dealing with that patch of reality being on fire.”

“It’s really cool, if you haven’t seen.  It’s like if they froze lightning and then set it on fire.”

“I got a close-up taste of it,” I said, raising my hand, where I’d pulled my glove on over bandages, the bandages peeking out the end, and tapped the bandage.  “And you guys should keep your distance until it burns out, to be safe.”

“We will.”

I headed in Byron’s direction.  He was still held up with police, but they didn’t seem as bothered.  He indicated me, and I gave them a wave and thumbs-up.

The Major Malfunctions broke away from the paramedics, hurrying to my side.  I paused, letting them catch up, while keeping an eye on Byron to make sure he was alright.

“Are you going after the pharmacist?” Withdrawal asked.

“Not sure yet.  We’re rendezvousing with the rest of the team.  Once we know what we’re doing, we’ll be in touch with everyone.  You guys should rest, resupply, if you feel like you’re done, that’s perfectly okay.  If not, let us know that you’re game, and we’ll let you know as soon as we know more.”

“I’m out of accelerant,” Withdrawal said.  “And my exoskeleton took a beating.”

“It should be go-goo or speedslime or something,” Finale murmured.  “And if you’re going to call it that, your suit should be a go-suit.”

I had the impression this was a discussion they’d had before.

“You guys are battered, burned, and bruised.  You did more than your fair share- you did great.  I totally did not mean to get you involved in something that intense.  If you want to sit out, I will absolutely not think less of you for it.”

“I was gonna say,” Withdrawal said.  “Accelerant is gone, Finale is spent, and Caryatid got burned-”

“It’s not a big deal,” Caryatid said.  “Antares got burned too.”

“-and,” Withdrawal pressed on, voice muffled by mask, insistent as he fought against getting sidetracked, “I think I speak for everyone when I say we found out the pharmacist was up to something, we started this, and it would be satisfying to be involved when it wraps up.  I want to get her.”

“Yes,” Caryatid said.

I looked at Finale.

“I want what they want,” she mumbled, evading eye contact.

“Sit back, recover, reload your slime, heal.  We will be in touch,” I said.  “We have to step carefully when it involves the prison.  They’re wary of us, and they won’t believe us if we try convincing them that their staff member is a problem.”

“Alright,” Withdrawal said, his head turning, attention between Finale and me.  I saw him take a deep breath, halfway through which he seemed to notice something about the frame he was wearing, his hand going to one shoulder to touch the metal there.  It stayed there as he exhaled.  “We’ll hang back for now.  Thanks.”

I could see the tension release in Finale’s shoulders.

“Thank you,” I said.

Byron opened the car door as I approached.  He’d apparently fended off the police.  I waved for him to get back in, glancing at the cops to make sure he hadn’t complicated things by setting them against Goddess.

“Didn’t you get permission to take the box?” he asked.

“Yeah.  I’ll get it.”

“It’s heavy, and you’re injured,” he said.  “I’ll help.”

I wanted to protest.  I shut my mouth.  Master-stranger protocols.  They didn’t really apply here, since this had nothing to do with Goddess, but maybe it was better to get used to letting him give the orders.

The box was roughly the size of a coffin, and it did take the both of us to get it into the trunk, the back seats folded down.  Byron slammed the back closed.

“No injuries?” I asked.

“Benefit of being long-ranged.  I got zapped a few times, nothing too bad.  Weak guns.”

“Nonlethal,” I said, my voice quieter.  “Just about all of it, as far as I could tell.  Pharmacist excepted.  I think it might be part of how they get recruits, now.”

Byron’s breath fogged, a lingering aftermath of a sharp, sudden exhalation.  A swear expressed unspoken.

I didn’t miss the sideways look he gave me.  His train of thought was easy enough to follow.  Recruits.  Altered mental states.  ‘Quote-Brainwashing-unquote’.

The second patrol bus was picking up the wounded and disabled.  It had come stocked with blankets, tending to those who’d been splashed or left lying against cold ground.  The thralls didn’t fight or argue much.

“Thanks for having my back,” I said.

“I felt stuck, looking after the Majors, I saw you needed help, but getting there was tough.”

“It’s fine,” I said.  “He’s… he has an answer to anything, and I was the threat that stuck out.  They brought out the anti-air brute-binding measure, that’s on me.  I could have been more strategic.  We’ll figure something out.  We have other teams, we have Goddess…”

“And-” Byron started.  “Sit with me?  I won’t go fast.  We’re not rushing.”

I nodded.

We both climbed into the car, and I was glad for the warmth that was blowing in noisily from the fans.  Byron had to work a bit to get in, with the weight and less comfortable aspects of having armor on.  For me, it was just the breastplate, and I could use my unburned hand to loosen it.

“We have an issue,” Byron said, as he pulled the car around in a u-turn.  “It means things might not go that smoothly.”

“The changing powers?” I guessed.  “The ebb and flow between you two isn’t favoring you as much.”

“Not that,” Byron said.  We were approaching a turn, and he turned to look over one shoulder.  “Is my left side clear?  Wearing a helmet while driving is not good for the peripheral vision.”

I twisted around to look.  “Clear.”

He turned, moving more slowly than usual.  More emergency vehicles were coming in the opposite direction, heading to the site we’d just left.

“Tristan and I made arrangements.  I’m getting calls.  They’re impatient, and Tristan didn’t pick them because they were easygoing.”

I could hear the friction of Byron’s glove on the material of the steering wheel as he gripped it tighter.

“The people from Lord of Loss’ territory?”

“Ah, you caught that.”

When we’d gone to the other Earth to track down the Fallen sypmpathizers from Cheit, there had been a group of people who Tristan had paid attention to.  They were in Lord of Loss and Marquis’ orbit, which suggested things. Professional, off the grid.

“Hit men?” I asked.

“Is there a term for people worse than hit men?”

“How does that work?  Hit men are generally pretty bad, they’re professional, they’re about as criminal as you get.  How do you get more extreme than that?”

“They don’t kill,” Byron said.

I set my jaw.  Too many complicated thoughts were stirred up by that line of thinking.  My first, almost hopeful thought was that he meant they were worse as in less-effective.  The summary thoughts led me down a trail that made me think about my sister.

“An end worse than death,” Byron clarified, unhelpfully.

“I got it,” I said, my voice tense.

The car’s tires cut through the wet, icy roads.  It was far from being good hero transportation.  Only the fact that license plates didn’t mean anything kept it somewhat anonymous.  If anyone cared to pay attention, it’d be a problem.

Fates worse than death.  As an idea, it was too close, too fresh.

Fuck, my burned hand hurt.

“Why in the upside-down fuck would you pick people worse than hit men?” I asked.

“I didn’t,” Byron said.

“It was Tristan?”

“He decided on it and moved forward.  He does this thing where things get bad, and he sees a possible solution- he gets all gung-ho for it.”

“So he hires a fate-worse-than-death hitman?”

“He said it was extreme enough that he’d have to stay in line.  I was witness to it, as I am to all things Tristan.  Then it was done with.”

“And you’re okay with that?”

“I’m resigned to it,” Byron said.  “It happened, and by the time I wrapped my mind around it and did my own research, it was done.  Too hard to revoke, and things were better.  They were almost good for the first time in years.”

“Things go wrong, Byron.  This exact situation, it’s one of those things.”

“I know.”

“What the hell are the particulars, here?  Who are these guys?”

“Barcode.  Most of the time they deal in death.  But they have contacts, the sort of people who might be out in one of Marquis’ cabins in the middle of nowhere, not wanting to be bothered.  I don’t know for sure where those contacts are, though.”

“And?”

“And one of those is a striker.  A dealer in human parts.  They take people apart with physical blows as if they’re dolls.  Takes an arm and a leg, literally, takes kidneys, hearts, genitals, whatever people are willing or desperate to buy.”

“No,” I said.

“If one of us steps out of line or try to game the system, he makes being swapped in just as miserable or worse than being inside-”

“No, Byron.  Just- stop?  Please.  No details.”

“Mm.”

The car sped along a road, down a street that, even with the periodic streetlight, was mostly too dark to see.  The city wasn’t that bright around us, with lights in windows easily confused with the light catching on the edges of raindrops and flecks of frost.

“What’s the procedure?” I asked.  “Forget the consequence- it’s bad.  I get it.  How do you do it?”

“We meet up every few days.  We confirm we’re okay, we swap.  There are two or three people who show up, sometimes with backup, whoever they’re working with at the time.  One is usually a thinker.  They can read people.  Read us.”

My phone lit up, brighter in my lap than any light outside or on the dash.  It was Lookout.  They were close to our destination.

“They read people.  For altered mental states?”

“Yep.  Drugs.  Amnesia.  Brainwashing.”

He put emphasis on that last point.

“So you would go.  You’d swap over to Tristan-”

“And whether he cooperates or not, he’s under her influence.  They come after me.”

I closed my eyes.  “What if the thinker doesn’t show?”

“And Tristan doesn’t sound the alarm?  There’s no guarantee he switches back to me, for one thing.”

“And the deadline?”

“Last night,” Byron spoke in the kind of monotone reserved for those trying very hard to keep their voices level.  At my look of surprise, he elaborated, “We had the TV show.  They were willing to delay.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Tight time limit,” Byron said, and his voice was tense.  “I can maybe fend them off for tonight, we did say we were busy.  I’ve been thinking about other options since after you and I had our skirmish.”

It was hard to think of the skirmish and not find the doubts welling, my mind immediately going to the perspective of how Byron was a problem first.  The protocols didn’t jump immediately to mind.

“How did he even find these guys?”

“Ha,” Byron said the word, humorless.  The car swerved a bit on what looked like normal, not-icy ground, and he corrected.  “I saw it happen and I don’t even know.  I smile and it’s… it’s an expression.  He smiles and people like him.  He gets online and finds people we used to fight, people we threw in jail, asks how they’re doing, finds common ground in the world ending, fishes.  A couple weeks later, somehow he has these guys, with a clandestine system for getting in touch.  I didn’t even think it would happen, so I just let him do his thing, focused on my own things, and… surprise, it all came together, am I willing to shell out some of my own cash so it’s not one party paying the scary mercenaries?  I should know not to underestimate him when he sets his mind to something.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Then we have a time limit.  Goddess, prison, pharmacist, make sure Rain and Ashley are okay.  Tonight?”

“Tonight, yeah.  All of that tonight.  Then if we can’t fix it by then, you’re going to need to put me into a coma.  Say I was hurt in the field.”

“If they have that thinker, and if I’m actually brainwashed, then they’ll catch on.”

“A neutral third party then,” Byron said.

“And we lose our one unaffected person in the chain of command for the master-stranger protocol.”

“Yeah.”

I folded my arms, being careful with my burned hand, and stared out the window, thinking.  I had to anticipate what the others would say and do, I had to second-guess Byron while at the same time supporting him, and I needed to think about Teacher and his motives and goals.  Even simpler things were made that much more problematic by the things in their orbit, like Amy’s proximity to Goddess.

We drove in silence.  There was no radio, and our only soundtrack was the noise of the wheels through wet ice and the patter against the car roof.  I’d spent relatively little time in cars and vehicles for the past seven or so years, even during my stint with the patrol block, and my awareness of the individual noises was harder to block out.

Not that I minded.  White noise was a good grounding for contemplation, and the sounds were alien enough that I wasn’t reminded of anything particular.

I checked my phone and found it marked with the ‘no service’ icon.  No internet waypoints, no cell.

I wanted to have neat and tidy answers and excuses like I had with Kenzie before we’d left, where I’d been able to keep her from going off and doing her thing to try and be helpful.  Or so I was hoping.  I didn’t have much of anything.

That left the battle plan.  In twisting ideas around in my head, trying to think of how we might help Goddess in a way that Byron might approve of, or deal with a prison with a massive red button, where our enemy could run roughshod and we couldn’t…

It was all backward.

All backward.

The most un-superhero hatchback found its parking space at the desolate parking garage.  Natalie’s bug was already parked in a spot.  It was startling, on a level, to recognize how small that car was, that Natalie had to be the person driving it, and the rest of the team had fit in it.

The answer, of course, was that two of our members were in jail.  A third was in Goddess’ company, no doubt enjoying how very simple and clear life was.

We were seven, eight if we included our tertiary member Natalie.  Three were gone.  That left three for the car, Byron and myself.

Capricorn and I got out of the car.  The others were waiting.  Natalie was fidgeting, her eyes wide.

Was it a good thing or a bad thing that they hadn’t been able to keep her in the dark?

“Swansong and Precipice are sitting out.  No holograms for right now.  They’re more focused on immediate happenings in the prison,” Sveta said.

“Sounds good,” I said.

“Can I see the tech?” Lookout asked.

“Sure.  As soon as we unload it.  Can you give us a hand, Nat?” Capricorn asked, popping the trunk open.

I saw Natalie studying us, wary like she thought I’d suddenly grab her or something.  I saw Sveta studying Capricorn in particular, suspicious.  Still, Natalie helped, and we slid the box out of the back of the car and down to the floor of the parking garage.  Sveta snatched up a few things on the ground that we might have tripped on.

The lights of the garage were only half-illuminated, and the half that were illuminated were dim, the glows orange and diffuse.  There weren’t many cars, and the cars looked like they had been there for a while, with rust and dust creeping over their exteriors.  For a couple, it looked like people might have been living in them.

“So cool,” Lookout said.  “It’s not every day that I get to look at a tinker’s stuff.”

“There’s a time limit,” I said.  “If we move, we need to move tonight.”

“I remember you guys talking about not wanting to overwork K- Lookout,” Natalie said.

Still wary, even as she protested.

“I’m conserving my energy for the times and nights when it really matters and my talents are needed,” Lookout said, kneeling beside the now-open box.  “And everything’s intact!”

“I smashed one box,” I said.  “They unpacked and activated one.  This was one of two others.”

Natalie looked downright desperate to figure out what was going on, suppressed alarm clear on her face.  She couldn’t ask, though, not without signifying that something was wrong.

“We’re going forward with Chris’s disconnected cells idea,” Sveta said.

I approached her, reaching out.  She put her hand in mine, and I gave it a waggle.

Tension across her face seemed to ease slightly with that.  The smaller signs of anxiety like free tendrils finding their perch or the rustle of movement inside her shell of a body were muted in a similar way.

“Disconnected cells,” I echoed, confirming I’d heard.

“She has two other groups.  We’ll move in coordination once we know for sure what we’re doing.”

Natalie touched her phone, which was in her jacket pocket.  The layers she wore seemed overly warm for even this shitty weather, but I could see that she’d gone easy on the top beneath the sweatshirt and jacket.  No doubt choosing clothes that didn’t press on her cut.

She didn’t draw out the phone, though, or tamper with it in a way that made me think she’d opened a call to emergency services, holding a button too long or tapping one area of the screen while the phone was still in a pocket.

I let myself relax.

“What’s the verdict?” I asked.

“Still studying it, but…” Lookout pulled out her phone, held it out, and clicked a button.  A little square robot face with hearts for eyes pirouetted across the screen, providing the object of focus for a side-wipe screen transition.  What was left in its wake was gibberish data.  “Portal to another world, obviously.  You mentioned that already, over the phone.”

I nodded.  I was hyperaware of everyone’s state at this point.  Natalie’s anxiety was creeping up.  Capricorn was quiet, lost in thought.  Lookout was lost in her work, naturally.  And Sveta…

She didn’t look like she was wholly in control of herself.  More tendrils snaked out here and there, finding gaps and crevices, or old damage.  They weren’t the long tendrils- those were managed.  It was only the shortest, narrowest ones.

It sucked that she could accept the hand-waggle, but she gave me a look with doubt in her eyes when she didn’t think I was paying attention.

Lookout was humming.  “Hmm.  Okay.  Can you get my laptop?  Oh, and the projector disc.  I’ll image it.”

I got the computer.  Kenzie tinkered, plugging projector disc and phone into the laptop, while holding the phone out near the door in a box.

“I can’t get the teleporter working, I don’t think,” Lookout said.  The bun-encasement at the back of her head opened up, making eye contact with me, while she hunched over her work.  “But I know space and coordinates, and these things were made with coordinates built in.”

It took three tries before it worked- a three-dimensional map, incomplete, with some rooms and areas simply in blocked-out estimations of building dimensions, other areas hyperdetailed.  The route we’d traveled was as clear as day.

“There.”

Everything about the three-dimensional replication was cast aside as the image zoomed in on the pharmacist’s destination point.  The image was supplemented by more rectangles that had video feeds.

“This is pretty awful work,” Lookout said.

“It looks good,” I replied, but I was lost in my observations.  The pharmacist was in the room I had to assume was the pharmacy.  The black trash bag was emptied, pill bottles put on a shelf with other bottles.  I pointed at her.

“Can we get video of the area when she would have been leaving the scene?” Capricorn asked.

“Maybe.  I use the cell networks, and they’re hinky right now.  Some of this is old or out of sync.”

“Is that accident or intention?” Capricorn asked.  “The towers being down?”

“I don’t know,” Lookout replied, even though I suspected he hadn’t really been asking for her verdict.

What is the pharmacist doing, and how does it factor into Teacher’s agenda?

“Can you get eyes on security, while you’re at it?” I asked.  “I’m curious who was watching the monitors when a woman with punk hair and a purple metal shirt waltzed through a door made of lightning.”

“On it.”

Natalie shifted her weight from foot to foot.

Capricorn checked his phone, which was gripped in one gloved hand.  “Feeling the time limit.”

Another call from the guys?

“Working as fast as I can,” Lookout said.

There.  It hitched and glitched here and there, but the image split into two rectangular screens.  In one, the electrical door appeared.  The pharmacist came through with the latter portion of a leap.  In the other, we had a view of one of the security guards reach out and change the image on the screen away from the violently flickering image.

“We want to know who he is,” Capricorn said.

“Already on it.”

I got to watch the pharmacist get settled, torch the portal from her end of it, and then set to work, pulling things from the bag and organizing them in a painstaking way… then getting the baggie of orange- I presumed orange because the image wasn’t great enough quality to contrast the warm colors and it was close-powder.

That was the main attraction in our little theater here, enacted in a neutral location that put us closer to the portal.  On the sidelines, Lookout’s system was pulling out schedules and images.  We had one pharmacist and one security guard confirmed as Thralls – or whatever it was when they weren’t outright brainwashed.

It was like dominoes falling.  Security guard confirmed compromised.  Schedule came up, as did address.  Then there were the images, from prison video, from online, and from traffic lights that recorded those who passed through intersections.  On a map, routes he regularly traveled were highlighted.

From that guy, another guy, tracking destinations and more, the system clearly inferred other moles in the prison staff.  As portraits lined up, they became brighter or darker as new information came to light.

“Victoria?  Can I talk with you?” Natalie asked.

Right fucking now?  The dominoes are falling.  We’re getting a sense of what we’re fighting here.

“Can you give me a minute?” I asked.

“I’m kind of freaking out.”

“Okay.  As soon as we make sure everyone is contributing.  Tress, try to communicate to Precipice and Swansong that they should absolutely not take their medication of the day.  We still don’t know what that woman is doing.  Lookout, where are you at?”

“I don’t know.  I’m trying to figure out this door.  I might be able to open it, but it’s going to mean taking this stuff back to my workshop, where I was fiddling with the teleporter project.  I can kludge them together and give us a way to move to where the woman with the purple shirt went.”

“How long?” Capricorn asked.  Byron was concerned about the time.

“Four, five hours?  Closer to four if I have someone helping.”

I looked at Capricorn.  We couldn’t afford four or five hours.

“No.  We’ll go with another tack.  We do this backwards.”

“Backwards?” Sveta asked.

“Cryptid thinks Teacher’s plan is to get them to close off access to that world.  If Goddess is baited into going in there and they close the gate behind her, or worse, catch her between realities.”

“Why do you-?” Natalie started.  She stopped as Capricorn moved slightly.  A nudge or small wave, easily missed.

For all that he’d talked about his brother, he did okay when it came to convincing others.

I went on, “If he closes off that reality, especially with another person at the helm, then he can raid it continually, gathering thralls at his leisure.  So let’s get ahead of him, start from his win condition.”

“That sounds like a thing your mom would say,” Natalie murmured.  Her earlier insistence on talking to me was forgotten.  She had stars in her eyes as emotions that clearly mingled with the worried curiosity, the fixed stares, and the nervousness.

“It very much is,” I said, agreeing.  “If they’re running with cash in hand, take that cash.  At best, if we can do that, we force a draw.  Teacher wants to lock off the area and loot it?  We beat him to the punch and close it off first.”

I looked Lookout’s way as I finished saying that.

“Do you want me to rig that?” she asked.

“Can you?  Use the data you have from that door, and figure out a way to scramble coordinates so they don’t let people in, or so they don’t let people out?”

“I can make it so they can’t leave,” Lookout said.

“Perfect,” I said, smiling.  As an option, it fit with timeframes Byron had outlined, and it helped to sway an otherwise untenable situation to our favor.

It made a kind of sense that Lookout’s toolkit would point in that direction.  It was easier to destroy or distort than it was to create.  Here, in the midst of it all, when so many other things were tainted with doubts and small betrayals, it was good to know that we could potentially be the ones with the keys.

It made too much sense.  I wasn’t supposed to be following my instincts like this.  I had to stop myself, and look to Byron.

“Yes,” he said.  “Sealing him in there or sealing him away will be very good plays, if timed right.  For now, we should inform the other teams we were talking to, see if anyone can do something about the bombs that are strapped to our teammates’ ankles, and while we’re doing it, we should be very, very careful to keep the cells discrete.”

Keep them away from Goddess?

“What about the medication?” Sveta asked.  “I think they give those out around mealtimes, and as dark as it is outside-”

“It’s only the evening now,” I finished.  “Meals aren’t that far off.”

“Do we roll the dice?” Capricorn asked.  “We have some sense of who is compromised.  If we reach out to prison staff and get them to stall-”

It wasn’t so easy as that.  Too risky.

I shook my head, and he didn’t press for it.

“We tap other sources for help, we see what they have to say, and we see if they’re game for this,” I suggested.  “Bigger powers.  Maybe ones that can disable the bomb threat.”

“The Wardens?” Natalie asked.

“Goddess,” Sveta and I spoke in near-sync, with a distracted Lookout a syllable behind.

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Gleaming – 9.5

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Instinct: throw up my defenses to protect myself against this purple fire.  Charge in, and remove the threat.  Wrong move, putting myself in harm’s way.  If Caryatid could be hurt, then so could I, theoretically.  I had to hold myself back.

Plan?  Taking a second to think things through, remind myself of key points and moves, accounting for things, they took time.  It was time that she had to throw out some purple flame, setting the middle of the house’s living room on fire.  It bought her space, as she moved in the direction of the window.

I’d come in through the side door, Caryatid through the front.  The woman -pale and thin with thick-frame rectangular glasses, the sides of her head shaved and her hair tied into a messy bun at the back- had her trash bag of drugs in one hand and fire in the other.  Jeans, sneakers, and a purple t-shirt with some new metal band advertised on the front, their logo surrounded by flame.

Her head turned from the flames, where a motion of her hand made the swiftly dwindling fire grow, to the window.  She’d need hands free to haul it open.

In the heat of the moment, trying to consider my options, I turned to process, to follow the laws, and if that wasn’t possible, to do what was right-

I looked over in Caryatid’s direction.  She’d crumpled over, and she looked like she was alternately trying to stop, drop, and roll and be very still while the flames licked her costume and skin.  The skin I could see at her hand looked angry and red, her other hand gripping her arm at the elbow.

“Talk to me, Caryatid!”

“I can’t put it out!”

My heart broke at the composed, stylish young woman sounding so unlike she’d sounded.

I could circle the flame in the center of the room- it was swiftly dwindling.  Edging around, I could keep relatively the same distance from the woman with the purple flame-

She moved her hand, and the flame swelled violently, barring my path.

“Let me-”

She moved her hand again.  The flame billowed out in a slow moving explosion, though an explosion was the wrong word.  It was though a balloon was swiftly expanding in the center of the flame’s mass, and the existing flame was forced to ride the surface, moving out as a wall with nothing beneath it.

“-help her!”

I was left to retreat, and I flew in the direction of an armchair.  I hit it, Wretch-strength, and sent the chunks careening toward the woman.

But it wasn’t really possible to aim it, and I didn’t score any direct hits.  One chunk hit her bag.  Another rolled through the flame.  A dismissive move of her hand extinguished it.

My heart pounding, breath coming hard, frustration welling up inside me, I had to force my thoughts back on track.  Not instinct – plan, logic, law.  My train of thought from before.  My impulses still shaped my thought process.  The first place my thoughts went was to Goddess- she was a ruler, she had a system of laws, and she had some idea of what she was doing, because one didn’t rule a universe without knowing something.  She studied powers, too.

No use, though, because I didn’t have her on speed-dial, and I didn’t know what she would say or do.

The second place my thoughts kept getting caught on was the master-stranger protocols, because I’d been thinking about them so recently.  What was the law, the rule, the textbook way to do this?  Other protocols, other rules or by-the-books procedures.

This, for all intents and purposes, was a trump power, because it affected or involved other powers.  Penetrating supposed invulnerability?

S.O.P. for trumps was to get the hell out of dodge, reassess, and step carefully.

I heard a pained noise from Caryatid.  The flames were re-igniting at her sleeve and shoulder, perilously close to her face.

“Put out the flames, I’ll let you go!” I called out.

Bag still in hand, back to the window, she tried to lift it.  Ignoring me.

“Listen to me!” I screamed the words.  Then, in anger, lashing out in much the same way I might have struck her across the face with the back of my hand, I used my aura.

This time the fire exploded.

Purple flames became purple-white and blindingly bright, filling my vision in the course of filling the room.  I threw up my forcefield on reflex alone, and my thoughts followed a moment later, with a stark awareness of why that was a bad idea.

The light that had washed over me became heat.  As the glare faded, the heat remained.  Even after being active for only a moment, I could see the vague profile of the Wretch, coming to pieces in dribbles akin to burning oil and scraps like flaming paper.

The woman across the room was busy extinguishing flames that had ignited curtains near her, not looking nearly as bothered by it as she should have been.

“Caryatid!  Are you okay!?”

“What happened!?” still a voice without confidence, tremulous, small and afraid, like it belonged to someone years younger.  Hearing it was almost enough to make me forget what I’d needed to say.

“Don’t use your power!  The fire ignites powers!”

I saw the woman at the other end of the room react to that.  That observation was blunted by the more pressing fact that I was on fire and I could feel the heat.  My costume had absorbed the worst of it.

Get away, I thought.  The rule for the powered dealing with trumps – especially the ones that screwed with powers.  I had to fight my instinct to get away faster by flying.

I ran, feeling like a coward, feeling worse because Caryatid was still on the ground.  Head low and face turned away from all hints of flame, my movements stumbling as I almost bounced off of a wall in my not-quite straight run down the hall.

Purple flames that licked me turned orange as I left the house.  I spotted a puddle where road met a dip at the edge of a lawn, and threw myself at it.  I chanced a use of my flight to get myself to the right angle, limiting the impact as I rolled into it.  The coldness of the water and the wet corner of my hood slapping my cheek was a shock to the system.

A high whine caught my attention.  I turned my head and saw a man in a white coveralls, a black jacket and black winter boots pointing a janky wires-and-kid’s-building-set gun at me.

I raised my defenses, and then remembered it had burned.  What did that mean?  I started to fly away, and he shot me.

The forcefield took the hit, sparks flying from the point of impact, visible flashes of light traveling between raindrops like lightning.  Before he could line up another shot, I changed direction, to one side, flipping around to be right-side up, a spark of light passing just to my left, and then, planting my toes on the ground to help arrest myself and give myself a physical point to orient myself around in space,  flew into his legs, rising once he started tipping over.

The result was that as his feet went up, his face went down with that much more emphasis.  He had the weapon in his hands, and he was unwilling enough to let go of it that he only used one hand to brace himself in the fall.

He failed utterly, and more or less met the ground face-first, landing with half of his body in the puddle.

The gun fired in the moment of impact, or out of some reflexive action, the spark hitting the edge of the lawn, conducting through the water, and making his body convulse and jerk- which included a spasmodic pull of the trigger.  The spark hit the same spot, more or less, conducted into the puddle, conducting into him, which made his finger jerk-

I kicked the gun away before it could happen again.

I could hear more guns- there were enough people around and the light was bad enough that I couldn’t see who was aiming at what.  I could see the glows and crackles of guns as they reached the point of being charged enough to fire, the faint illumination giving me some sense of where guns were pointed, but that only gave me a moment to react to each.

The woman with the purple fire was either inside or leaving the other end of the house.  And as for Caryatid-

I flew up, and much like the woman with the purple fire had divided her attention between me and the window, I was left to divide my attention between laser beams flicking through the sky and a barrage of wildly aimed white spark-balls that were each surrounded by nimbuses of electricity, as they conducted to nearby rain.  A red flare jumped up from near a fence that one of Teacher’s goons was using for cover, and I gave it a wide berth.  It detonated like a firework.

I chanced a glance down, and I saw Caryatid outside, slumped over on the ground.  I had to help her.

At the same time, the others were being overwhelmed by sheer numbers.  Outnumbered ten to one, with the ten being armed.  Withdrawal leaped from one ancient tree to the roof of a house so prefabricated it looked like a dollhouse.  His stilt-feet skidded across the roof, cutting and dislodging shingles, followed a moment after by a raking of a thin blue laser beam and a few haphazard shots of brilliant white sparks, like the weapon of the guy I’d just taken down.

I used my aura, primarily to distract.  Heads turned, shots were altered last-second.

Those guns seemed to be firing at very steady intervals, roughly one shot every second and a half, and they didn’t run out of ammunition.  Where they hit a target, they crackled outward, arcs lancing out to the nearest conductive target.  It was one of these shots that hit the ground beneath Withdrawal’s stilt-legs, then arced up to shock the metal there.

Once I recognized that there was a pattern, I could adjust.  Earlier, I’d had to dismiss instinct.  Here, old sparring matches against my extended family came into play.  There had been brief skirmishes against thugs who were willing to pull a real gun on a teenage girl in costume, and even an intense skirmish against Fenja had its relevance.  As I’d moved in time with her giant-sized weapon’s swipes, I flew in general circles while I found the cadence here and they divided themselves by focus.  Three people who had turned my way had those guns.  Two of them were firing almost together, one firing out of sync with them, their spark-gun being bigger.  A fourth had a laser gun, like the one that had produced the blue laser.

Two shots, change direction by going to their flank, change direction again to account for the adjustment of the third man, going up.  The laser gun glowed blue as it charged up for the next shot.

Two shots, change direction, dropping down, account for the late shot from man number three by flying up and to the right.  The laser beam fired, and it hit the Wretch.  The Wretch was better at handling sustained damage than a single good hit.  The beam burned out before the Wretch did.

I closed the distance, grabbing one of them by their hair.  The movement of my arm reminded me that I’d been burned- my skin felt tight.

Fingers gripping hair and coverall-shoulder, the top of my foot hooking in between the man’s legs, I strained my entire body and used my flight to fly him into his buddy.

My aura was affecting others, as I was flying closer.  They turned, ready to complicate what I was doing.  Withdrawal bounded over their heads, moving as if in slow motion, while his fluid spurted out over them and their heads.  Guns fizzed and popped, and people fell, sprawling messily in the luminescent bubblegum pink stuff.  One or two people who fell in the thicker patches of the spurt spun in place by some invisible force, their legs failing to find traction.

Someone shot at the ground just below Withdrawal’s landing point.  Arcs jumped up to his legs and out to nearby puddles.  His suit failed to make the final movements that would secure his landing, and he landed hard, tumbling.

“Bam, blast, zap, bam, bam and fuck you!” I could hear Finale.

The peppering of shots saw the one who’d knocked Withdrawal out get knocked onto his own ass.

A brief appearance of blue motes and a splash of water that covered face and weapon saw the man convulse as his weapons’ energy discharged into his body.

“I have to go get Caryatid!” I called out, as I spotted Byron.  “You good!?”

“Go!”

“Don’t try to put out any purple flames with your power!” I called out.

He responded, but I was already too high up and far away to hear.

Moving across was dangerous.  Adding a healthy dose of up to my plane of movement let me see more of what was going on, kind of, and it let me complicate things for those wanting to shoot me.  People were not generally that good at hitting human-sized targets a hundred or two hundred feet away from them in the heat of the moment.  I had one bullet wound that told me that there were exceptions to the rule, but I also had years of experience telling me that being airborne, mobile, and far away made me pretty darn safe in a firefight.

I flew up, looked, and saw Caryatid still on the ground.  A few houses down the way, there were people in white standing around a contraption – they were setting up a tinker device.  The woman with the purple flame still glowing at one of her hands waited.

As fast as I’d flown up, I flew down and at an angle, moving in more of a gentle arc than a straight line, to confuse anyone trying to target me.

I’d been the one that had involved these guys.  If any ended up seriously hurt, permanently hurt?  I swallowed hard as I dropped to Caryatid’s side.

“Did you get her?” she asked.

Costume burned.  Her right hand and arm were charred black from fingertip to shoulder, the charred bits surrounded by red flesh-

No.  The black was scraps of costume.  I could see yellow where the voluminous inside of the sleeve had stuck behind.

She reached up with her burned arm and gave me a shake.  “Did you get her?”

“She’s out there.  They’re prepping a tinker thing.  Maybe evac.”

Can you get her?”

I glanced over.  “I can try.”

“The others are okay?”

“Withdrawal fell badly, but I think so.  Outnumbered badly.”

“Then go!  Get her!  Or help them!  Help me stand?”

I got her arm over my shoulder, then straightened to a standing position.  As we drew to a standing position, Caryatid was letting her breaker power creep over her.  I could see the pattern by which it took over her hand and costume and made the two extensions of each other- the same pattern that the burn had traced.  Residual heat had led to the more polyester-like fabrics clinging to skin.

Her body and arm remained utterly still, but her eyes urged me in the moment before her face dissolved into a morass of butterfly wing movements.  Then even those movements went still, finer details becoming harder ridged structures, collapsing into a telescope-shaped structure.

I turned toward the yard where the woman and the squad had been.  Caryatid’s head oriented, the ‘telescope’ narrowing to a cone, the point facing them, before almost immediately breaking apart.

“They’re making a door.”

Their exit.

There were others arriving.  Crackles of electricity, rectangular apertures framing silhouettes, and those silhouettes became people.  More in coveralls, moving in fours and fives.

Different guns this time.  These ones had bands of teal encircling them.

I took flight, using the same evasive maneuvers as before.  Around me, I could see the beams of the teal cannons, if they could be called beams.  They stabbed out, glowing and became rigid, transparent and luminescent, not unlike the hard light forcefields my family could create.

Each had spokes, or spurs, like thorns on vines or spikes on barbed wire.  Where the beams were close enough to one another, spokes extended, moving around to connect to nearby beams or spokes with a force and suddenness that I could feel in the air, with sounds like whipcracks.

As more beams filled the air- the space between me and my target in particular, I saw my paths steadily closing.  There were gaps I could have dropped an eighteen wheeler through broad-side out, but it was a huge unknown, made worse by the suspicion that this had been deployed as an anti-flyer method.

He’s a tinker, I thought.  The principles are the same.  The toolbox that evolves to answer problems, the need for resources.  The only thing that hold him back, like any tinker, are time and resources.  He’s had two years of time, and Goddess had enlightened us about his resource-acquisition.  Valefor, Mama Mathers.  Others.

Like most tinkers, he has them make resources that help them acquire or refine their resources.  And because one key factor in this network or engine of his are people… he gets the hypnotist to help him get more people.

I flew in a course that put me over the ‘side’ of the growing webwork of glowing teal beams and bars that seemed to stab off into the stratosphere.  I had to get to that door before they slipped away.  More beams appeared high above, beside, and below me.  The cross-bars that connected them slammed out, connecting them all into the solid mass.

Wasn’t doable.  There had to be twelve of those assholes down there, firing in batteries.

I didn’t have any routes to travel that weren’t to the sources of the beams- something I wasn’t sure would work, traveling in the opposite direction, far enough away that maybe the beams terminated or got far enough apart that there weren’t cross-beams, or fly for a gap.

The first and second options meant I wasn’t flying down, to get to the woman with the purple fire or the group that was building the door, and they had their own flaws- the fact I was flying into dense webwork and the sheer lack of guarantee, respectively.

I flew for one of the gaps I could have rolled an eighteen wheeler through.  Wretch out.

Teal webwork flared around me as I approached.  It shrank around me, breaking from the larger structure.  A lasso, securing itself around the Wretch with enough force that the Wretch broke.

I slipped the noose in the same way that someone could escape a pursuer by shedding the jacket the pursuer had grabbed.  Being smaller, freer, not caring about that which had broke.

But there were more gaps.  I was forced to judge distances and timing.  The Wretch took time to reappear, but it wasn’t too long.  So long as I timed it so I was moving through a gap as it came back up…

I disconnected my mask from my belt, and I hurled it ahead of me and down, toward the center mass of the device and the people clustered around it.  My hopes that the mask’s passage would activate the lasso-closures and clear my way were dashed.  It landed in the midst of the work they were doing, and heads turned my way.

The ‘dash’ became the sequence of movements through that webwork, as more lines and bars of forcefield-webbing filled the sky between me and my targets.  The Wretch was broken as soon as it re-emerged, and I had calls close enough that I nearly lost a boot as the webwork closed.

I was losing this battle, but I could get closer.

There had to be an opportunity.

The webwork steadily closed around me, and theoretically possible escape routes became impossibilities.  My focus remained on staying clear, sticking to more open areas, where no lasso could close around me.

Far below and behind, Byron climbed over a fence, making his way in my direction.  I pointed.

People on the ground seemed to report my action, or they’d sensed Byron through the use of a power.  The ones who weren’t actively setting up the door prepared to deal with him.

Too many for him to reasonably deal with.  Even if he drenched every single one of them now, if every single gun failed because of the thorough drenching with water, I wasn’t sure he’d win.  Thirty people, easily.

I saw the nervousness of the woman with the trash bag in her hand.  She backed up, putting some distance between Byron and herself, while her people lined up at the fence.  Blue motes began to collect in the air, which didn’t help matters.

Come on, come on, I thought.

Then I couldn’t watch.  More beams were flying in close, and I had to use the Wretch while throwing myself into the densest patch.   The rectangles and triangles of empty space closed, paused for only an instant as they seized the wretch, giving me only a second to figure out which direction I was flying in.

I was literally upside down as I saw it- a flash of purple.  Her hand drawn back, flame ready.  Byron’s arrangement of motes included the air above him.

The webwork snapped closed around my upper body and one of my ankles.

I pushed out with my aura, for maximum range.  I wasn’t sure the power mattered, but I gave that my all too.  I squeezed my eyes shut.

The aura reached the woman and reached the flame she held.  The aura ignited- the woman’s fire spread across powers like flame across oil, and I’d filled the space within a hundred feet of me with ambient power.  Gas. Aerosol.

Too much to hope for that it would hit this forcefield webbing and destroy it.  Too much to hope for that it would destroy the door.  It had staggered that group, and distracted a few by setting them on fire.

Two individuals were burning with purple fire and they didn’t move or react.  Their stares were vacant.

Byron looked up at me.

“Drench them!” I hollered.

“You said-!”

I moved my arm.  Another lasso was prompted to snap closed, seizing my arm in a position where it was over my head.

I hoped the gesture had worked.  I drew in a breath to shout again, but he was already using his power.

Blue motes became the shape of the water and the lines became the courses that water was to travel.  The water pressure was still lacking, but it was a lot of water, and the frozen ground didn’t want to absorb it.  It sloshed over and through the fence, across ankles, feet, and into the work area where a doorway was being constructed.  People were knocked over.  The tinker work was left awry.

He looked up at me, and there was something in his body language.  Defeat.  There was something imploring.

I knew what he would’ve asked, if he could’ve done it safely, with the distance between us, or if that wasn’t a consideration, what he would’ve asked if he’d been able to summon up the courage.

Right now, if he used his other power, and gave control to Tristan, that water would become stone.  It would impact the device and it would trap most of the people there, the woman with the purple fire included.  He wanted my permission, which was the opposite of the way this was supposed to work.

And then?  Tristan would help, we’d have the evidence, go back to Goddess, and work out a game plan that worked for both Gimel and Shin.  We’d screw over Teacher and we would organize against him.

Yes, it would be a win.

Yes, it was workable long-term.

Yes, in service of the law, fighting the lawless, in what felt right, and in turning to someone else for help if we were struggling as we were, yes.

In service to that kernel of warmth in my heart when I thought about Dean and the classifications, when I thought about the black text printed on white paper, that detailed the rules to be followed, the chain of command in times of crisis?

I shook my head, dramatically enough he could see.  No.

I was reeled in, ice sloughing off where it had formed on the beams.  In the course of my forced trip back, as I used flight to try to resist or change my course, more of the webbing snapped closed around me.  Byron peeked over fence at the collection of people around the door, then reversed direction, heading for the source of the beams that had me.

I had nothing besides the vantage point that let me see the tinkers return to the door-shaped aperture they’d constructed, with its generators, engines, and other tech built up around the base and the sides.  There were shouts from the woman, as she looked over her shoulder.

Switches were thrown.  Electricity crackled, and a shimmer appeared in the doorway, before promptly bleeding out to the surrounding area, through and into one of the generator-like machines at the base, causing it to detonate.

The electric portal energy bled out like watercolor, crackling loudly enough that I couldn’t hear the people on the ground.

I pushed out with my aura.  Nothing.

I couldn’t even summon the Wretch without it being canceled as my bindings continued to entrap me.  More of me was covered than not- only my head and neck were left clear.

There was a pause.  Then the woman ran, nearly slipping on wet ice that covered the backyard of the house, and she leaped for the center of the blurry mass, disappearing within.

A moment later, the energy of the electric portal ignited violently.  The fire traveled to the sub-systems and engines, and they began to explode.  The thralls that had been working on it scrambled to get away.  A few didn’t manage to, and were close as visible shockwaves rippled out, through and past them.

Discarded like they were nothing.

In the other direction, Byron was focusing on the guys with the teal web-beams.  His motes began to form.  Men and women backed up, holding their guns, with the almost flexible beams almost all together, stretching out toward me, forming a single line that drew me in.  Only four were positioned with their guns resting on the ground, pointed skyward.

And behind?  There were still people from the earlier confrontation, though Caryatid, Finale, and Withdrawal were facing them down.

Fifteen or so left able-bodied in the yard with the now-destroyed and burning portal, ten or twelve as part of the group the Malfunctions were dealing with, Finale and Withdrawal crouched behind a slow moving Caryatid, and then the team of six with the anti-aircraft force-webbing.

Not just anti-aircraft force webbing.  One of the guys on that team was reaching for another weapon at his ankle, one hand still propping up the larger weapon.

“Careful!” I shouted.  “Gun!”

Byron broke into a run, the crampons giving his feet bite on the icier patches of road.  Blue motes became water, washing over that squad.  A drenching of cold water, in the midst of freezing rain.

“Bam!” Finale shouted.  One of the men staggered, where he’d been finding his footing, and fell.

“Finale!” I shouted.  “If you’re building up to something, now’s the time!”

“I don’t want to if-”  she started.  Then she shrieked as a group that had been huddled behind cover burst out, opening fire.  Caryatid was slow to move, but Finale was quick to put Caryatid between herself and the attackers.

Behind her, another group was emerging, weapons ready.

“Behind!” I called out.

No place to take cover.  Withdrawal shielded her with his body, empty syringe-gun held out like a shield.  Both groups fired in concert, from opposite directions.

I used my aura, aiming to break up the rhythm.  It affected Caryatid’s group, but it affected the attackers too.  More, if I had to guess.

“What’s the catch!?” I called out.

“Do it,” I could hear Withdrawal’s voice, muffled around the edges.  I’d been reeled in enough that non-shouts were barely audible.

Byron, meanwhile, was dealing with the group.  He was taking cover by the back end of a car.  The group couldn’t move much, so they were continually drenched.  One of the guns had stopped working.

“If there are any more-” Finale said.  “I don’t want to use my power if there are more coming.”

“There aren’t!” I shouted.  “They got what they wanted!”

She looked at me, eyes wide beneath her brimmed cap and behind her mask.

Byron’s water took out the guy who was lassoing me.  The gun fell to the ground, the beam twisted into a thousand loops like a badly kinked hose, and then winked out with a sound like a titan clapping his hands together a single time.

And Finale was doing her thing, wheeling on one group.

A blue light shone at one of the thrall’s shoulders, then detonated with a musical intonation, like a gong being struck.  He was thrown to one side, as was everyone in his immediate proximity.  The movement was slower than it should have been, glittering particles surrounding them.

More lights shone, one after another, with a rhyme and reason that likely only made sense to Finale.

Another detonation, throwing people in another direction, toward the group that Byron was working on incapacitating.  One of those people was illuminated with an imminent explosion.  As the flying bodies drew into range, the detonation that was waiting for them came down, a higher sound, a faster roll-out, sending them the opposite way.

Juggling them.  Herding them together, so people crashed into each other, were thrown into waiting explosions.

Not perfect- people fell free of the cascading effect, of detonations synced out to sound like a drum solo writ out in gongs, bells, and cymbals, complete with a soft destructive effect.

I flew down to take out one of the guys who had fallen free of the chain reaction, who was fleeing for cover.  I kicked him to the ground and then landed on him with added force, before stepping on his hand and driving my weight down with my flight.  My eyes roved for other strays.

It seemed Byron and Withdrawal had them.

The explosions weren’t true heat, fire, shockwave-that-liquefies-organs kind of detonation.  They got sloppier toward the end, as more people fell free and some landed far enough away that their own detonations affected only them, making them flop once or twice like fish on dry land.

The metaphorical dust settled.

“Patrol block is on its way,” Byron said.  “Called them pretty early on.”

“Thanks, Capricorn,” I said.   That would complicate things with Goddess, but- I kept my mouth shut.

“I didn’t do that right,” Finale said.  “I took too long to set up and I didn’t finish it right.”

“You did good,” I said.

“I practiced on balls and sandbags, but humans fall in weird ways.”

“They absolutely do,” I said.  “You did good.”

She didn’t respond, to either agree or deny.  Her teeth simply chattered.  That would be adrenaline as much as the cold.

“They got away?” Byron asked.

I nodded.  “The one did.”

“Shit,” Withdrawal said.

On the ground, one of the people in white smiled.

I bent down over them, my eyes searching for anyone who was up to more fighting or attempted running.  There were too many here.

“Care to share with the class?” I asked him.

The thrall shook his head.

“Not worth it,” Byron told me.

“I know,” I said.  “Brainwashed.”

“These guys are scary,” Withdrawal said.  He was more unsteady on his stilt-like limbs than before.  One of his shoulders was venting a thin, steady stream of smoke.

“Teacher’s.  He’s a major player.  The fact we made it through this unscathed is… it’s going to have to be good enough.”

“I’m going to call the team,” Byron said.  “Is there anything I need to tell them?”

“We’ll have to figure out where the woman with the pills went.  Maybe if we get the destroyed tech to Lookout?”

“The woman from the house?  Our target?” Caryatid asked.  She was still gripping her arm with one hand.  Her skin looked red, even in the meager light.  “That’s what she had in the bag?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Can you remember who she was?  We gave you a list, and she was number-”

“Number two,” Caryatid said.

My brain was so tired.  I shook my head a bit.  “Can you remember her job?”

“The prison pharmacist,” Caryatid said.  “High risk because of her access and criminal history.”

The serious look that Byron and I shared communicated a hell of a lot, but for the benefit of our novice Malfunctions, it needed to be said.

“What if she wasn’t taking those drugs out of the prison?” I asked.  “It’s their overwhelming focus.”

“I’ll call,” Byron said, all seriousness.

Poisoned supply?  Something more sinister or obscure?  Whatever it was, it was serious enough that Teacher had been willing to sacrifice…

I looked around the neighborhood, still drenched in continuous freezing rain.  People were looking out of windows and standing in open doors, now that it had all gone quiet, all rounded off with an explosive musical solo.

Easily forty thralls that hadn’t slipped away or escaped by some other means.

The prison.  After this, whatever she was up to, whatever Teacher was up to, the pharmacist would be putting it into motion now.

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Gleaming – 9.4

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I let Byron be the one to step outside, with me following.  It gave me time to think about what I was going to say to the others, and it was symbolic of my course of action here- he would lead, and I’d support.

The freezing rain had already coated the fire escape.  The strength of the wind this close to the breached Norwalk portal made the icicles slanted, more sideways than down.

“Do you want a hood or covering?  We could probably cobble something up,” I told Byron.

“I’m fine,” he said, stepping down from the base of the door to the metal slats of the fire escape.  The rain pelted his armor and helmet, and he didn’t flinch.  I saw his shoulders rise, then fall very suddenly.  A deep breath, his breath fogging out from the mouth portion of the helmet.

He dropped a clump of metal and chain onto the fire escape, then bent down, slipping his feet into them.

“Strap-on cleats?” I asked.

“Yeah, crampons,” he said.  “I never thought I’d have reason to use these again.”

“It can’t be because of where you lived- you were… North Carolina?”

“Reach was Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.  We were Maryland originally.  No, you’re right, it was to work with powers.  I’m surprised you didn’t know what these are called, living more north.”

“Our winters weren’t too bad, in Brockton Bay, and I fly, remember?”

Another puff of breath, like a laugh.

“Power related?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said.  “For a little while, I was ice.”

“Do you know what made it change?”

“We have ideas.  If it was any of those ideas, it’s not worth trying to do it again.  Too costly, with a lot of bad memories.”

I could imagine.  Murder.  A team breaking up.

“I can relate, I suppose,” I said.

“Maybe, yeah,” he said, his head turning my way.  I’d read articles about helmets and how a given shape of opening or slit for the eyes could be heroic or villainous, or evoke a certain effect.  His was more open and ‘heroic’, tracing the general outline of the eye socket, just low enough at the brow to cover the eyebrows, but even though the lighting touched his armor and the rivulets of moisture that ran down it, it didn’t let me see more than a faint reflection in the natural moisture of his eye.

I was supposed to trust him, rather than my instincts and thought processes both.

His breath fogged, very alive in contrast to the stillness of the rest of him.  “It’s weird, having a normal conversation when there’s so much screwed up stuff going on.”

“Let’s not dwell on that stuff if we don’t have to.”

“Shouldn’t we?”

“I don’t think there’s any good answers, and it doesn’t change anything.  You take point, you make the final calls.”

He nodded slowly.

I indicated his feet.  “You having those is handy, but we’re not exactly walking.  Are you going to be okay driving in this?”

“No idea,” he said.  “I’m an okay driver, but I’ve never driven in weather like this.”

“If you want, I can fly alongside.  If there’s a problem, I could… do some exterior damage to the car, but maybe make it stop.”

“You can fly in this?” he asked.

I winced, stepping outside, the door still open behind me.  My hood was up, the icon at my forehead, and my hair was tied back.  The hood was pinned to my hair at either corner of my brow- it wouldn’t move naturally or flow right, but I doubted it mattered- I just wanted it to stay up when the rain was coming down.

I was wearing a tight-fitting waterproof jacket over the hooded portion of my outfit, waterproof, and the ornamentation that helped keep my hood in place kept the one hood nestled in the other.  I had better gloves, and I had tights on underneath the tight-fitting black pants.

I wasn’t sure I would be terrifically comfortable, even with those precautions, but we didn’t have a lot of choice.

“Yes.  We’ll both do our best,” I said.

“And- I know we said we wouldn’t discuss it, but-” he started.  He lowered his voice.  “I can trust you?  You won’t… help Goddess by dealing with me?”

Funny, to have the idea turned back on me, when I was the one making the leap of faith.

I thought about it.  It seemed like I could, if he was a real threat, if I was more willing to kill.  It would even make sense.

“You’re taking about two seconds too long to answer that,” he said.

“You can trust me, and I’m extending my trust to you because you’re right.  There are a lot of factors that could mean I’m compromised.  We’re both helping her, because we’re both dealing with the same threats.”

“Sure,” he said.

I imagined he was thinking about the same thing I was- the question of what happened if I had to choose between him and Goddess in a more explicit way.

Speckles of moisture were already beading my face.  My costume seemed to be keeping the worst of it off, but it made me aware of the time spent standing in the rain, making no headway.

I turned toward the door, paused to think for a second, double-check my thought processes, and then leaned partway inside.

“Kenzie.”

She was at her desk, helmet off, costume on.  She spun in a half circle, putting her hands out to either side and behind her to catch the desk and stop.  “Yes?”

“Don’t do anything.”

“I know.  You guys already decided we shouldn’t.”

“Really.  Don’t.  Talk to us first if you’re considering anything.”

“I won’t!  We’re good.  I am low-key-enzie right now,” she paused, glancing around the room.  “I miss Chris already.  He would’ve liked that.”

“I can guarantee he wouldn’t have,” Rain said.

“He likes snarking because it makes him feel clever, so if I set ’em up so he can knock ’em down, he gets to feel good, and I don’t mind because it’s just me being a dork.”

“I’m not sure about that, but okay,” Rain said.

Kenzie turned my way.  I stared at her, and I saw a slight smile on her face, uncertainty.

“Don’t take any actions, approach anyone, or give Goddess a line of communication to other teams until you’ve talked to us.  We’re going to be super close to the front, dealing with sensitive matters.  The wrong action at the wrong time could make our enemies unpredictable or change up the dynamic.”

I’d been trying to think of a convincing reason for her to stay put and stay away since before holding the door for Byron to step outside.  This was the best I could manage.

There was a pause.

Fiiiiine,” Kenzie said, like she was finally conceding the point in a long argument.

“I’ll watch her,” Sveta said.

I glanced at Ashley, who was still being quiet, lost in concentration.

“Victoria,” Sveta spoke up in a sudden way that suggested she’d had to push herself to say it.  “Is Byron close enough to hear?”

I turned my head.  “He headed down to the car to warm it up.”

“Byron was supposed to give Tristan control.  What’s going on?”

This was hard.  Hard like convincing myself to walk into traffic blindfolded.  I didn’t have a ready answer.

“I don’t like teammates fighting,” she said.  “And I don’t trust Byron like this.”

“I normally like Byron, but I agree with Sveta,” Rain said.

I tried to give an answer, “If we have them swapping back and forth, they’re going to fight each other, or Tristan’s going to keep control, and we’ll pay for that in spades later.”

“So you’re choosing Byron?  Taking sides is also the kind of thing we pay for,” Sveta said.

“I know.  But honestly, Byron’s more powerful in this situation.”

“His power is weaker right now,” Rain said.

“It might not have as much density or water pressure or… whatever it is that’s different, but it’s water.  It’s sprays of water when it’s as cold as tits outside.  I can beat him in a fight- I just proved that.  I don’t think the water pressure that he has right now would go through my forcefield.  Trust me on this?”

“Earlier, he asked if you’d be willing to kill someone,” Ashley said.  All eyes turned to her.  “You said yes.”

“I might,” I said.  “What does that have to do with Byron?”

“Would you be willing to kill him?” she asked.

I was aware of everyone’s gaze.  I was aware of every inch of me, of my already damp costume, and the sudden realization that when I’d said yes, it might have been Amy that was my exception.

Valefor, I could hurt him so badly that he might die without care, and I was okay with that.  I could go that far and if death happened, I believed I could make my peace with it.

Peace was also the idea at the root of my thought about Amy.  She was the person I might kill for reasons other than protecting others.  The circumstances would have to be pressing, I’d have to be worn down or otherwise not at my best and most clear-headed, but I could see myself doing it.

I could imagine myself being less miserable in the aftermath, somehow.  Wrestling with shame and self loathing in the aftermath of something like that was better than wrestling with oblique shame, self loathing, and the daily fear of either running into her or a repeat incident of her using her power on me.

I knew it wasn’t rational, that it wouldn’t bring me peace or an end to the worrying.  But my thoughts could go there.

I had to look troubled, thinking like this.  I looked at the others and I finally gave my response- a nod.  If I spoke, I felt like it would sound like a lie.

“Good luck, if it comes to that.  I really hope it doesn’t.”

“Thanks, Kenz.  Me too.”

“Be safe,” Sveta said.

I closed the door.  When I turned around, Byron was still there.  He wasn’t down at the car.  It had been important that he hear.

“Shit, that’s scary,” he said, his voice so quiet that the drum of rain on every surface nearly drowned him out.

“Let’s go.  Try not to make too much noise on the stairs,” I said.  He nodded.

I ended up giving him a hand, floating on the far side of the railing, my hand on his upper arm as he made his way down.

Doubts crept over me.  I couldn’t kill him – I wasn’t sure I had that in me.  That had been a lie.  I knew I could maim him, though, break him enough that it would take him a long time to heal, and that gave my troubled thoughts some peace- until I remembered I was supposed to be viewing my own thoughts through a lens, that this wasn’t a good thing.

He started up the car, while I floated above, the Wretch out and shielding me from the freezing rain and the wind.  I knew the rain was tracing its outline, but the alternative would be intolerable.

Travel advisories had been out regarding the rain.  Too many cars lacked the tires for dealing with weather like this, with supply being short, and there weren’t any trucks to salt the ice, no work trucks clearing the roads.  If last year was any indicator, the paralysis of winter would affect most people more than the lack of food supplies.

Tristan or Byron had at least looked after their tires.  Once he found his course, fishtailing a bit as he turned one corner, correcting for the swerve, it seemed we were good to go.

Master-stranger protocols.  PRT and the organization under its umbrella had it in handbooks, and it was one of the things people got quizzed on.  Some of the largest departments had scenarios and surprise drills.

Thinking about the paperwork helped.  Black text on white.  Strict rules to be followed.

With a strong master-stranger of this type, we were supposed to implement eyes-on protocols.  Once someone left our sight, they were to be assumed to be compromised.  Didn’t matter, it didn’t apply here, until Byron started talking to people and tried to get them on his side against Goddess.

Flying through the dark with the Wretch active and the rain coming down had my heart pounding.  When the streetlights illuminated the raindrops, the Wretch was made briefly visible, the direction they were facing made ambiguous by the fact that only the surface was being seen.  Hands reaching, faces neutral.

Black text on white, I thought, turning my attention away from the images in my peripheral vision and toward the car.  Byron was doing fine, but the roads were clear of vehicles.  What had I been thinking about?  I had to remind myself.  The eyes-on protocol shouldn’t matter in this case.

What did matter was the system for when people were compromised.  Being rushed, agitated or otherwise reckless when everything was fucked up was a good way to make mistakes, so the first step was to get to a position where decisions could be made with care and deliberation.  Not so different from my warrior monk approach.

Chain of command automatically passed down the chain as though people were dead or out of action.  If discussions of the chain of command took more than a set amount of time or if the affected individuals couldn’t be trusted or detained, it meant a mission abort to a safe location with self-isolation once there.  A good team with the right organization would see the leader step down the moment he might be compromised, the next person taking up the mantle.

The wind was more intense as we got closer to the Norwalk portal breach.  On the upside, the sky on the far side was clear and bright, a slice of blue at the horizon, and the weather that extended out around it was rain-free.  The precipitation wasn’t as bad, here.

Light blue.  It was the late afternoon, I had to remind myself.  Waking up early and the sky being so overcast it was black was throwing me.

I heard a rev.  Byron picked up speed as he reached road that wasn’t icy.

“Careful,” I murmured.

The mere mention of the protocols and this course of action was supposed to be cause for a leader to quickly step down.  If their second-in-command was the one to raise the issue, the third-in-command took over, to prevent the protocol from being weaponized by the compromised.

A really good team would default to the core approach for whatever the threat was.  Defer command to the most capable person believed to be uncompromised, or to HQ if comms still worked, then stick to the protocols for dealing with strangers, or the protocols for dealing with masters.

I was aware that in this case we were dealing with a master.  The protocol?  Take them the fuck out.  Second priority, right after the thinkers, who were ASAP-level.  Ninety-nine percent of the time, taking the master out of consideration also dealt with the control.

I felt nervous at the idea that Byron might be driving, his own mind going a mile a minute as he reminded himself of protocols and options, figuring out a game plan, with eliminating Goddess as his end-goal.

It was wind and a thin layer of moisture that saw Byron lose his traction, his vehicle sliding over the dotted yellow line that marked the division between lanes.  No ice here, but it didn’t matter.

I landed on the roof, ready to act if I had to- it meant having the wretch down, my hood flapping violently, the pins in my hair pulling at the roots until I ducked my head lower, droplets of moisture stabbing at my face- it wasn’t freezing rain, at least; it stabbed only because of the speeds involved.

There was no incoming traffic, the turn he made to get back in the right lane felt too drastic, forcing an overcorrection the other way.  He came perilously close to steering into one of the memorial posts- there weren’t many here, but someone had situated one near the corner of an intersection.

Before I could activate the wretch, grab the car, and try to force a correction, he got things back under control.  There wouldn’t be handprints in the car exterior.

We drove around the north of the portal.  A slice of sky revealing the barren world on the far side, the sky nonetheless blue, the weather relatively calm there.  To our south, buildings were illuminated, people trying to go about their days, waiting for the weather to clear.  To our north, some artificial lights and the headlights of vehicles illuminated the spaces where farmers were trying to save crops, and where people were hurrying to handle the weather in tent cities.

He’d slowed down, both because of the scare and because of the upsurge in traffic near here.  Which was good.   He slowed down more as the freezing rain resumed in its full intensity, the roads icy once again.

Past the breach in reality that was almost an oasis in this weather, into the thicker portions of the city.

It wasn’t far from here.  If we hadn’t had to pause to find our way in an area that was too dark, with no street signs or landmarks, it would have taken four or five minutes.

I let the Wretch fall away, the ice that had collected in the crevices dropping down to pelt the car, which had slowed.

Two pink circles gave away Withdrawal’s location.  The lenses of his mask glowed neon in the gloom, as did some of the oils of his costume.  I raised a hand, and he raised his.

He was quick and silent as he approached, moving on three limbs while holding his giant syringe with the fourth.  The syringe attachment looked more like a nozzle, today.

“I’ll let the others know you’re here,” he said, as I floated closer.  Byron got out of the car behind me.  His voice was muffled by his mask.  Ice had crusted around the places in his mask where his breath filtered out.

“Alright,” I said.

“Can ya go easy on Finale?” he asked.

“Easy?”

“She thinks we did this wrong, and we can’t convince her different.”

I nodded.  I was worried what ‘wrong’ constituted, when so much about tonight felt wrong, but I’d wait until I had information.  With a possibly altered mental state, moving slow and carefully was critical.  It was point one of the protocols.

Well, point one would have been to not attend, but sitting out was really not my thing.

The bright lenses of his mask left trails in my vision as he nodded back.  He didn’t cross the street directly, instead hopping over to where the shadows were deeper, a narrow band of dark extending across the road where the pools of light from streetlights didn’t quite meet.  He crossed that band, barely visible.

If he was being stealthier, I would be too.  I dropped to ground, stepping close to the car.

“What do I need to know about these guys?” Byron asked.  “I know the basics.”

“Inexperienced, but eager.  That was Withdrawal, the tinker.  Caryatid is their not-so-mobile breaker.  Finale is a blaster that lacks confidence.  Lots of potential across the team, but they never broke ground.  This is one of their first outings.  Too small a team to be on most people’s radars.”

Byron nodded.  “Not Goddess’ radar, then.”

“Shouldn’t be.”

He nodded.

Across the street, in the copse of old trees that were bounded in on four sides by the suburb-like neighborhood, a slice of nature that had been preserved as everything else was cleared away and a pre-fab neighborhood was dropped down, bubblegum pink lenses appeared out of the darkness.  I saw the syringe appear in a similar way, the fluid going from dark to pink, bubbling visibly, until it was as neon pink as anything else.  He moved it like a baton, waving us over.

I took a course that used the same shadows Withdrawal had.  Byron followed after me.

They were gathered in the trees, out of sight of the rest of the neighborhood.  Finale wore a blue poncho over her costume.  Caryatid wore something similar, but it was black and more voluminous.  Her arms were folded in the midst of it, so the bright yellow and orange of the sleeves were hidden.

Withdrawal had gone completely dark.  I saw him set his syringe down and lean against a tree.  With his elongated limbs, the stilt-like legs, he looked very tall as he peered down at us, his head difficult to see in the branches of a mature tree.

Caryatid was positioned where she could stand with her back to a tree, looking over one shoulder in the direction of a quaint house.  It was the prefab sort of home, a little more boxy than what would have passed for usual back on Bet, too similar to other houses on the block, but it was still nice enough.

“I’m sorry we didn’t listen,” Finale said.

“Did something happen?” I asked.

“No,” Caryatid said.

“We did stuff in the wrong order,” Finale said.

“We didn’t.  The order didn’t matter,” Withdrawal said.

“But… the names had numbers by them.”

“Can I explain?  They’ll tell us if it was wrong,” Withdrawal said.  His tone was patient, the rest of him exasperated.

“Yeah, sure,” Finale said, an accent creeping into her voice, a truncated ‘yeah’.  She sounded defeated.

“We were tracking target number one.  Staff medical.  He met with a coworker halfway through the work day.  That coworker was also on our list.  Staff medical number two.  She has shopping bags in her very nice car, and she paid for the lunch.”

“She had some nice clothes,” Caryatid said.  Her breaker form was stirring around her legs.  Partially but not completely entered into.  Slowly, it crept up her legs.  She didn’t have to make it slow, I knew.  A way of staying warm?

“Yeah,” Withdrawal said.  “We switched to following her, because whatever she’s doing, it seemed off.”

“Sounds right,” I said.  “Something came up?”

“You know when they have an officer do regular checkups?  Making you part of their patrol, because they’re all concerned-like?” Withdrawal asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“There are people doing that for her.  We don’t think they’re officers.”

“What do they look like?” Byron asked.

“This is Capricorn, by the way,” I said.

“Hi Capricorn.  Saw you on T.V. the other night,” Withdrawal replied.  “They were driving average looking cars, but they’d slow down as they drove by, attention on the house.”

“What makes you sure they’re not after her?” Byron asked.

“One got out of their car,” Withdrawal said.  “They talked, guy on the sidewalk, woman standing on her front stairs.  Friendly-like.”

“What did they look like?” I asked.

“Normal,” Withdrawal said.  “Regular clothes, jackets.  Cars were mostly the same, beaters from Bet or garbage from Gimel.  They dressed normal.  But normal doesn’t circle the same block five or six times, driving real slow as they pass a house.”

“This is good,” Byron said.  “Exactly the kind of thing we were hoping to get with the surveillance.”

“Agreed,” I added.

“Really?” Finale asked.

“Really,” I said, with conviction and extra emphasis.

“Finale was the one who saw the shopping bags,” Withdrawal said.  “Got us thinking about what was up with this woman.”

“Fantastic,” I said, meeting Finale’s eyes.

Even in the gloom, everything already dark, made darker by the trees around us, I could see Finale smile.

“What do we do?” Withdrawal asked.

I wanted to respond.  I glanced at Capricorn, instead.  If I was compromised, it was his voice that mattered.

“We call for help,” he said.  “This is bigger than us.”

“One of the major teams?” I asked.

“We’re not sure what’s going on with them,” he said.  “Protocols.  But I think it’s reasonable to assume that the most major team is clear.”

“If they’re available,” I said.

“Major?” Finale asked.

“Wardens,” I stated.  I saw her eyes go wider.  For her benefit, I added, “Dragon, Defiant, Narwhal, Chevalier-”

“Most are away,” Byron said.  “Give me a second.”

He pulled out his phone.

“How was your stakeout?” I murmured, while Byron stepped a bit away, plugging a jack into his phone.

“Cold, wet, strangely exciting for there being so little happening for hours.  We kept each other company.”  Withdrawal said.  “Listened to music when we weren’t watching out.”

“Withdrawal has recordings of a really funny radio musical,” Finale said, suddenly effuse, just over the mention of this thing she’d enjoyed.  I smiled a bit, seeing it.

Caryatid, meanwhile, was almost one with the trees.  She looked out in the direction of the house, but her face was one of butterfly wings overlapping, unfolding, flapping.

“Antares,” Byron said.  “Look.”

I looked.

It was his phone.  Red triangles cascaded down the screen, each with an old fashioned phone in the center.  Network down, no service, no tower available.

I checked my own phone.  Following my cue, the  others checked theirs.

Caryatid dropped out of her breaker form, the butterfly-winged face slipping back to reveal her normal one.  I saw her expression change.  “They’re on the phone.”

“Who?”

All of them.

I had to step closer to a tree to look.

At the end of the driveway, a man that wore a heavy raincoat was talking on the phone.

“They know.  They had safeguards in place,” I spoke my realization aloud.  “They’re onto us.”

‘Onto us’ meant that cars were already approaching.  One stopped in front of the house.  People got out, and they wore a hodgepodge assortment of gear over white, simple masks on their faces.

Teacher’s thralls.

More cars were arriving – they had to have been parked in nearby driveways or a side road.  They kept stopping and getting out, their lack of parking jobs meant not solely to hold them back, but to obstruct traffic.

Obstruct emergency services.

There were people in one car who were working as a team to get something big from one of the trunks.  When the group moved, this long case in their possession, they did it with at least twelve people protecting the case.

The destination: the same house the woman from the prison clinic lived in.

“I’ll try to help,” Withdrawal said.

A spray of laser shots flew through the trees.  Trunks splintered, and whole sheaths of brittle mark were cast off, sent flipping through the air.

I could see the alarm on the Malfunctions’ faces.

“They keep adding more,” Finale said.  “I can’t do anything if they just endlessly add more.”

“We’re okay,” I said.  “Run if you need to.  They should let you.  They don’t want the casualties it could involve.”

More laser shots now.  More damaged trees.  What a shame.

Goddess had outlined a way that her enemies would pin her and defeat her.  Coordinated groups, seemingly endless numbers, a sharp offense coordinated by thinkers.  There was no information that they didn’t potentially have, no problem we could pose that would fatigue this intelligent morass of humans.

“Is there any way to get a message across on the secure line?” I asked.  “The one we’re not supposed to have?”

“I’ll try,” Byron said.  “Figure out what they’re up to!  We stop and interfere, but the information is key.”

He was the one in charge, with the protocols.  I took off.  “Be safe, Malfunctions.  Be safe, Byron.”

The enemy numbers kept increasing.

Against thinkers, take them out ASAP.  Distract, stress, befuddle.  Mental and psychological strain, when it can be applied, should be used, as they have an ironic tendency to have their minds be their weak points.

I used my aura, hard, and probably disturbed some ordinary residents in the neighborhood in the process.  Someone fell, losing their bag, and I grabbed it.  I hurled the bag at the largest cluster of thralls.

There had to be thirty of them.  Three to five to a car- six cars.  What had been an orderly suburb was chaos, drowned in freezing rain, a thin film of ice crusting anything that was getting rained on.

They turned guns on me, and I flew up and away, trusting the darkness and the rain that fell in people’s eyes to give me cover.  The bright shots stabbed randomly up into the sky.  There were some that didn’t need eyes, instead having powers that Teacher had granted, but they were wretched, less people with added enhancements, and more slaves who had lost more than they’d gained in ability.

It was easier, like this.  No doubts, a clear enemy, no having to juggle my allegiances and compromise my thoughts to fit someone else’s goals.  I could put Amy out of mind, let the dust settle, mend and care for myself.

I hit the large group with the case they’d withdrawn from the trunk of the car, bowling into people with the wretch only momentarily active.  The incoming fire stopped- any miss would hit a friend of theirs, but they had other methods, including makeshift melee weapons.

I leveraged my fear aura, turned to outright shoves, flying knees to vital areas with no wind-up, and backhand strikes with my hand enclosed in a metal-braced glove.  I fought through the tide of thralls, and if they might have found their footing and hit me back, those opportunities diminished to almost nothing as the fear aura slowed them down and gave them second thoughts.

They were thinker-one, tinker-one.  Each gave up a lot to get access to that power.  They were enemies of the city and enemies of Goddess.  Were they here for us?  Had Goddess been right about them tracing the echoes or traces of her power to those affected?

I hit a man hard enough he might have lost teeth.  He might have been innocent, a regular man who’d been promised power and paid too high a debt, losing all independence.  I reached the box they had been carting.  The Wretch emerged to strike at it, shattering wood.

The contents, as far as I could tell, were a long flat rectangle broken up into fragments, a sheet of exposed metal mesh.  There were engines or generators, wires with exposed metal, and reams of extension cords- enough electrical stuff overall that the box had required four people to carry.

I checked nobody was close enough, brought out the Wretch, and I smashed it.  Whatever it was Teacher wanted to do here, I didn’t want to let him.

Smashing done, I turned away, flying to the nearest clearing, so I could survey the situation.  The Wretch was still active, and as I moved, it dragged things in the dirt behind me.

It had taken up weapons- spears and twists of metal.  It held them high, ready to stab and twist, bend and snap.

Worse, with people bowled over, there was nothing to deter people from shooting at me.  They were realizing it, turning on me.  This was too much offense, when I very much did not want to kill anyone Goddess didn’t want dead.

No, I needed defense.  I took evasive action, casting off the Wretch, then resuming motion, so the scraps and twists of tinker technology  were left behind.  Zig-zagging movements.  Movements that went up, then down, then between feet that were planted far enough apart.

I dropped low, breastplate touching knee, and flew along the road.

I’d done my part- and Byron was doing his.  Water came in broad sprays, showering people, catching them at angles that hit faces, went under hoods, or caught bare legs and tights beneath shorts or skirts.

His water was normally cold, and in this weather, it was unforgiving.

I’d destroyed one device, and Byron was apparently working to destroy another, repeatedly hitting a fallen box with torrents of water.

But the enemy- we’d bowled them over, bruised, abused, battered them.  They kept coming.

Goddess hit the point where she was frustrated with these guys.  In the broad abstract, she needed our help if she was going to break up Teacher’s growing hold on things.  In the more micro-abstract, we were struggling with this dynamic.

“They’ve got teleporters!  That’s how they’re getting people!”

“The door you destroyed!” I heard Withdrawal’s voice, his accent.  “It’s not the only one!”

Door.  It had been a door.

I had to fly up to get a proper view of the scene.  Up twenty feet, pausing, with only a few momentary movements, in case someone was trying to draw a bead on me.  I could see other boxes.

He could drop a teleportation gate into things, bring in an army, and win whatever fight he wanted.  Some of those boxes didn’t look like teleporters.

We needed a path to retreat, and that was harder for Byron than it was for me.  We needed to get the Malfunctions out of here.

The Malfunctions seemed to hear my thoughts, because I saw Withdrawal enter the fray.  He moved at high speeds, skidding on wet and icy road, and hefted his syringe that wasn’t a syringe anymore.

The contents of the syringe sprayed over a wall.  He skated to it, then skated up the slick of spray.  He bounded off of it, then landed smack-dab in the middle of a large group.

Bam.  Bam.  Bambam, zaap!

Finale.  She used her blaster power to less effect than even the tinker-one ray guns and rifles.  The air distorted in front of her hands every time she fired- with more distortion each time.  The ‘zap’ was characterized by a distant sound of a whipcrack or thunder.  Her mouth moved and she made sounds as she used her abilities, even though there should have been zero need.  It put me in mind of people who could read, but who moved their lips as they did.

Caryatid was protecting Finale and Byron.   She was a walking statue in black and amber, hands outstretched and pulled back, ready for a strike or grab if anyone got in range.  Few did.

Finale dropped as she took a shot.

“I’m okay!” she shouted, as she got back to her feet.  She swung her arm like she was throwing a fastball, then threw a sphere of distorted air.

I hit the other guys a little harder, my intent on getting to and into the house before they could unpack one of those boxes and get her away.

I hit a door, knocking it off its hinges, and strode inside.  The walls were the same as the exterior, in that they were prefabricated, too neat and tidy.  The woman who lived here had painted them crimson.

In the large room I entered, I saw the woman who had to be the lady-friend of the head of the prison’s medical.  She was sweeping prescription pill bottles and bags of orange-yellow powder into a black trash bag.  Multiple thralls jumped up from their seats to face my direction.

Drugs and some kind of ploy.  Prescription medications and… something foreign.

I took it in, trying to commit details to memory, who had been where.  I did that at the same time I advanced on the woman.

She was their prize, their target, that they were willing to lose ten to twenty thralls for.  Injuries or separation would cost Teacher.  My mother had always told me to take away their prizes.  If we couldn’t take them out and arrest them, we would leave them with no wins of their own.

The woman ran from me, and I flew after her, hands gripping corners to help me navigate the narrow spaces while airborne.  She reached the front door- facing off to the side of our impromptu battlefield, and found the statue-form Caryatid standing on the other side.

Purple flames erupted in the woman’s hands.  She hurled them at the elegant statue-cape, and the statue burned.  Caryatid’s voice rose in alarm, then a prolonged cry of pain.

“No!” I shouted.

Cornered, unable to get past Caryatid in the moment, the woman wheeled on me, one hand gripping a black trash bag of loot, the other bearing purple flame that could burn the invulnerable.

“I know your clairaudients can hear, Teacher.  I want my reinforcements now.

She’d had thirty, fifty people dropped in.  Some had been capable- minor thinker powers, shooting accurately in the gloom.  Others had been equipped.

People with powers.  They had the communication advantage, and they were about to up the ante.

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Gleaming – 9.3

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“Bianca.  This wasn’t what I agreed to,” Amy stated, a tightness in her voice.

“I told you the damn stakes.”

No, Bianca,” Amy said, firmer.  I watched the projected image on the wall, and saw the little creature crawl out of the space between duffel coat and body, perching on Amy’s shoulder.  She held what looked like a razor blade melted into the plastic end of a pen, but the nib of the pen was a spike- the resolution and angle weren’t good enough for me to see.  “This isn’t okay.  This is not how you win me over.”

I blinked a few times, my thoughts turning over.

“Amy,” Goddess said.  “I like you.  I like your father-”

“Then don’t mess with my family.”

“-But I can’t make concessions to win you over if I lose everything else.  You know the stakes, you know the situation, and if you want to change my mind, you’d better stop posturing and start thinking of some good fucking arguments or options.  I have no patience right now.”

“Okay,” Amy spoke with measured words, “I would appreciate it if you would free them to think coherently so they can also come up with arguments and options.”

“They’re clearheaded.  Or they will be.”

“They’re stunned.”

Were we?  I didn’t feel like I had my mental footing, after the realization of what Goddess had done.  I didn’t feel especially bothered by the realization either, but I couldn’t find a train of thought that went anywhere and that did bother me.  It wasn’t that they were stalling or being derailed, but that it was a complete and total paradigm shift to switch over to thinking of something that would work for both Breakthrough and Goddess.  My eyes darted over the room and looking at anything, everything, in my effort to find inspiration.  Everything except the image of Amy on the wall.

“Give them a moment.  Once they’re with us, this discussion will move more smoothly,” Goddess said.  She sounded calmer than before.

“I-” Amy started.

“It’s fine,” I said, authoritative.  If I’d had my aura, I might even have used it for punctuation, for all the good it would do against Amy.  I didn’t want to let her respond if it meant I had to hear her voice.  “Let’s do what we need to do, you can leave for some world where you get to be a queen, and I never have to see you again.”

“That’s-” Amy started.  She winced.  “That’s a gut punch, Vicky.  For what it’s worth-”

“It’s not worth anything.”

“She was going to come after you all anyway.  I convinced her to talk to you and your team-”

“We talked,” Goddess said.

“-but you didn’t talk enough before doing this.  Please believe me, Victoria, I didn’t want this.”

A refrain that I’d heard before, that played through my nightmares.  I shook my head, as if that could cast off words or whatever else.  “Just stop, please.  Stop talking.  Leave, get lost.  Please, you owe me that much,”  I talked over her, too impatient and angry  It was worse because I was experiencing a moment’s hesitation, a lurching feeling like I stood on a cliff’s edge and I was unable to fly.

“I do, but- there’s no point where I’ve done enough to make up for it?  I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do.”

Did she mean to let bygones be  bygones, as if that was even possible?  Was I misunderstanding?  ‘Done enough to make up for it?’

“I mean, I’m doing more harm if I let this happen,” she said, as if to clarify, her voice quiet.  She sounded lost, a little hollowed out.

I tried to ignore her, my skin crawling.  She sounded lost, hollowed out, and she communicated that same sensation or experience to me with her voice.  It wasn’t an unfamiliar voice, either.  I heard voices like that around the edges of my nightmares, images and scenes my brain couldn’t keep in my long-term memory.

There were other things to dwell on.  Goddess, for one.  This feeling- I could place the why of it.  I’d made assumptions.  I addressed Goddess.  “I said we’d part ways after this was done.  Was I right about that, or is the plan that we come with you after?”

Goddess answered me, “I’ll end my relationship with Breakthrough after I have what I need from the prison, a few of our mutual enemies’ underlings removed, then you can decide with clear heads if you want to come with me.  Agreeable?”

“No, it’s not agreeable to me,” Amy said.

“It’s perfect.  Stop talking, Amy,” I said.

“Victoria-”

Stop!” I raised my voice, taking a step forward.  It took Capricorn’s hand on my shoulder to remind me that she was more than sixty miles away.

I’d spooked Lookout by being so loud, by the looks of it.

I saw Amy drop her hands from the small raised ‘hands up’ position that had followed my shout.  It would have been comical if just about anything about this scene had been different.

I didn’t like feeling so off when it came to my mental footing, especially when I had to deal with the relative proximity of someone I’d really hoped I’d never have to see again.  I avoided looking at the screen- I didn’t want to make eye contact, to see if she was staring at me.

“Make her stop talking, I’ll stop, you can talk to the team,” I said.

“Breakthrough?” Goddess asked.

The others were voicing their agreement- most of the others.  My thoughts were chaotic enough that I was momentarily incapable of sifting through overlapping voices.

“…should work out,” Capricorn’s voice trailed after the others.

Even the projections of Swansong and Precipice nodded assent.  Good.  The satisfaction that we were all on the same page was disrupted by the sound of her voice.  Amy’s voice.  I grit my teeth.

“Vicky,” Amy said.  “I’m on your side here… and I don’t think you’re on your own side.”

“Are you working against me now?” Goddess asked.

“No,” Amy said.  “Because I think this is a bad move.  I’m helping you by saying no to this.”

“You don’t get it,” I said, and my voice went weak on ‘get’ in a way that made me think it would crack.  I didn’t want to be weak.  I wanted to be angry, so I spoke with more fervor, more harshness in my voice.  “The fact that you’re here, that you wanted to talk to me, it shows you don’t get it.  You invade my thoughts every few minutes.  You altered me as a person, on multiple levels.  Everything I do now, everything I touch, everything I eat, it’s stained with- with you.  You intruded that deeply, that thoroughly, and the very fact you think you can talk to me is screwed up.  It’s another intrusion, your words in my ears.  Whatever you think you’re doing- this isn’t helping.”

“After this is done with, I think you’d thank me.”

Heavy words.  I was pretty sure she’d said the same thing way back then.

Something in my expression seemed to communicate that.

Her expression was forlorn, lost.  Fuck her.  She asked, “What am I supposed to do?  If I let this happen then you’re never going to forgive me.”

“I was never, ever going to forgive you in the first place, even before this meeting,” I spat out the words, and the pent up emotions found some release in those words, anger etching the sounds more and more.  I was aware of my team in my peripheral vision, and my voice softened a bit.  The Warrior Monk.  What would Jessica want?  I didn’t have an answer, so I asked a question instead, with no anger in my voice.  Only the disappointment equivalent to an entire childhood of friendship, loyalty, trust and respect being dashed to the rocks, infusing quiet words as much as anger had infused the loud.  “How do you not get that?”

She didn’t have a response to that.  Her creature looked between her devastated expression and ‘me’- the projected image of me.

“I could ask you to,” Goddess told me.  “Forgive her.”

“No,” Amy said, as I shook my head.

The standing-on-a-ledge feeling lurched inside of me at the idea.

Goddess reached out to fix a lock of brown hair that the rain had pressed down to Amy’s ear.  I moved my shoulders, shifting my weight on my feet- I wanted to squirm free of skin and awareness to not be a part of this.

Goddess asked, “What am I going to do with you, Amy?”

I stared at Lookout’s workstations, at the other monitors, the email feeds, desperate for something that would give me an excuse to not be here, a distraction or a daydream.

“It might be better if I handle things from here on out,” Capricorn murmured in my ear.

“Yeah.  A lot better,” I murmured back.  “Thank you.”

Goddess was talking to Amy in the meantime.  I didn’t want to listen, but she wasn’t the kind of person who was ignored.

“…asked you what you wanted, you said you wanted to talk to her.   You wanted resolution before you left.  That was part of the deal.”

“I meant- I didn’t say to force her.”

I winced.

I heard Goddess talking to Amy, telling her, “You didn’t say it, but you wanted it.  Needed it, even.  Now you have it.”

There was only silence.  I imagined a head-shake, but I didn’t want to look.

A damning silence, I thought.

Something about Amy’s voice with an edge of desperation to it hit me to my core.  Silence was better.

“We’ll return to that if we have time.  Breakthrough,” Goddess said.  “Let’s talk strategy.”

There was a moment’s hesitation before Capricorn responded.  “Let’s.  What do you need?”

That hesitation was a factor- especially if the hounds were coming calling.  I knew Capricorn’s own thoughts were no doubt working on getting used to the new paradigm.  There were wrong answers and right answers, and nothing was explicitly saying we couldn’t choose the wrong answers, but… why choose the wrong answer?

“The last time I made a play, there was a twenty minute delay before they came.  This time, my danger sense suggests something closer to ten or twelve.”

“Good to know,” Precipice said.

“What does it mean?” Capricorn asked.  “When the hounds come?”

“They’ll come for me, at first.  Lesser tinkers and thinkers with guns, grenades, more tricks than sheer power.  I don’t get the feeling he’s willing to go for outright war.  Squads are led by people with enhanced coordination and special means of communication.  They strike in coordination, multiple squads with perfect timing between them.  I can fend them off, but not forever, not without my full complement of powers.  If I use my full powers, it draws hostile attention of other sorts.  Your Wardens, or what’s left of them.  Others.  If I run, I have to abandon my missions, they gain ground, and they will divine who I was working on and target them.”

“This is Teacher?” I asked.

“It is.”

We’d heard some of what was going on from Tattletale.  To hear about Teacher having this kind of clout was a little daunting, bringing home some of Tattletale’s anxieties.

Forget Goddess having a small influence over us- the notion that I was both facing down Amy and sympathizing with Tattletale threatened to break my brain in half.

No.  This wasn’t okay.  The wrongness of the situation crept through my bones and belly.  If I’d had to talk more or ask follow-up questions, I felt like I’d be stuck for what to say.

“You had a camera person?” Goddess asked.  “It came up on the television program.”

“Me,” Lookout said.

“And you’ve networked with other groups?”

“Yes,” Capricorn said.

“Connect me to those groups.  I want straight video feed, or multiple groups gathered in one place.  Internet is unreliable and phones are frequently down.  What can you do in ten minutes?”

“I have connections already,” Lookout said.  Eager to please, happy to have been proactive.  “Secure line, separate and distinct from what the city has.  It doesn’t connect directly to most of those guys, but I can leapfrog from a place very close to them.  I can do it in a minute, as fast as I can dial the numbers.”

No hesitation curve there, I noted.

“I’ll come to you.  Be ready.”

“No,” Cryptid said.  His voice nearly overlapped with Amy’s.

“Why not?”

“It doesn’t make sense.  We should be compartmentalizing more.”

“Compartmentalizing like having thirty-two online accounts?” Rain asked.

“Like that.  Break operations into cells.  You want to do something, Goddess?  Fine.  Hold off your small army and let us do what you need us to do.”

“Just you?  No.  I want others.”

“If you reach out to others, people are going to realize.  Thinkers watch out for this kind of thing.  Some teams have their precogs, others are scattered and wary.  We’ve told them to be careful, because multiple players in this game have stranger or master powers.”

“Cryptid is the paranoid type,” Capricorn explained.

“If you’re not super paranoid then you’re not paying enough attention to how fucked up things can be,” Cryptid said.  “There are people still trapped in time looped torture bubbles.  The kid who did it?  He was supposed to be dead.  There is no degree of ass-covering that’s too much.  This? You can’t show your hand.”

Amy had been murmuring with her creature- to Dot, she’d called it.  Trying to work out a course of action.  She’d paused to observe this part of the conversation, and that she was observing that keenly was something worth paying attention to, as much as I didn’t want to.

“I’m not convinced,” Goddess said.  “There’s no time for subtlety.”

Cryptid explained, “They put the prison behind two portals.  They have the means to close ways between universes- they used it to seal off Aleph entirely.  That’s the trap.  If you go there, they abandon ship and lock you in, or they’ll just blow up the prisoners that might end up compromised.”

“Let’s avoid that,” Precipice said.

“They’ll try to evacuate staff, they have ways to get them out fast, but they will lock them in if they have to.  If you try to take over teams and word gets out, they’ll take similar measures, blow up anyone who might be compromised, or they’ll lock off the prison, temporarily or permanently.”

“We could shut off communication,” Lookout said.  “Keep them from sending out an alert.”

“Sure.  Except are you sure that wouldn’t set off failsafes?”

“Uhh.”

“I think it might set off failsafes,” Cryptid said.

“Things were rushed,” I said.  “They can’t get universities up and running, groups are underfunded, we’re just getting a working government.  And you think they’ve built a perfect prison?”

“I think the stakes are high,” Cryptid replied.  “Swansong probably wants to keep her legs.  Precipice too, though he could probably do a prosthetic arm for a leg.  And I’m betting our Lady in Blue doesn’t want the other guy to win.  Screwing up would hand him that win.  We can be better than that.”

“A good-enough prison, maybe?” I asked.

“Let’s anticipate everything,” he said.

“It’s hard to imagine you were being so unreasonable a few hours ago, and you’re Mr. Rational now.”

“I was reasonable and rational all along,” Cryptid retorted.  To the screen, to Goddess, he said, “I’m confident I’m right here.  This isn’t the way to do this.  There are too many traps.”

Goddess didn’t respond.  The silence stretched.

Cryptid was staring at the screen, chin up, headphones and headgear on, but masked with the projection plate that dressed up his body in weird shapes and shades.  I could see his silhouette, slightly broken up, but I couldn’t see much of him.

Between Rain and Capricorn, Swansong was staring off into space.  Was it a consequence of being on the other side of a computer screen, two steps removed?  No- because Precipice was more or less normal.

She was fighting this- treading water.  The inverse of Lookout.

Amy approached Goddess, and she spoke in a very low voice, inaudible.

Lookout glanced over her shoulder at us, then typed something out.

The audio distorted, then settled at a point it was audible.  Nobody complained- I suspected because they all wanted to know.

Even my desire to know outweighed how little I wanted to hear Amy talk.

“-to do things better this time.  You wanted people who weren’t yes men.  I’m trying to be that, but I’m not good at it.  I’m not a debater, I’m not quick.  Cryptid’s team has information we don’t, and he says no.”

“We can hear you,” Cryptid said.

“Chri-ptid!” Lookout hissed.

“So don’t go talking about anything private,” he added.

“Is he trustworthy?” Goddess asked Amy.

“No,” Cryptid said.  “No I’m not.”

“He’s reliable,” Amy said.

“Cryptid.  You’ll come to me by the fastest means possible.  Head to Bridgeport, the downtown crossroads, wait five minutes, then head East from there.  Stop at landmarks.  I will find you.” Goddess said.  “We’ll compartmentalize, as you said.  Individual cells.  You’ll come with me and coordinate.  Breakthrough?  Work on the prison problem.  I will be in touch.  Acceptable?”

“If I’m understanding the way this works, you could tell me to level the entire city, and I’d think it was acceptable,” Capricorn said.  There was something in his voice that made me think he was smiling beneath his helmet.

It felt disconnected, weird.  The storm still raged outside, there was virtually no light out there, and the lights inside seemed artificially bright.  It was like we were in a box, and the world beyond wasn’t real.  This was just a story, a contained, ethereal scene.

A nightmare in a box.

“No,” Goddess said, approaching Capricorn’s projection.  She studied it- a head and face that perfectly matched our Capricorn’s in position and in every last detail.  “You’re not capable.  By asking if it was acceptable, I wanted to know if there were questions or concerns.”

“You’ll be in touch,” Capricorn said.  “We’ll ask then.”

“Then we’ll go, there’s not much time before the asshole’s mind-slaves are after us,” she told Amy, Dot, and Luis.  “I’ll be in touch, Breakthrough.  Next time, we meet in person.”

I glanced at the screen just in time to see Amy glancing back.  Momentary eye contact I hadn’t wanted.  She flipped up the hood of the white coat, with its red cross at the brow.  I watched her go, her squirrel-gremlin climbing up to her shoulder, to wave its toothbrush-razor in what might have been a wave or might have been menacing.  She put a hand up to catch it, pulling it down to the front of her coat, where she rummaged, presumably getting it settled there.

I didn’t know how to digest it all.  I had fear in my chest, anger running through me and a pit of something bleak in my gut.  I felt like I could burst into tears and I felt like I was too numb to move, let alone cry.

I suspected that if we’d been there in person, I would have hit her hard enough to kill her.  As part of that thought, I well and truly believed that had I hit her hard enough to kill her, I would have felt better.

Cryptid dropped his costume-projection, becoming Chris in the process.  stretched on his way to the door, taking only a short detour to grab his bag and coat, flipping his hood up to brave the rain.

“You’ll be okay?” Sveta asked him.

“I have a form prepared.”

The door slammed behind him.

Capricorn immediately began shucking off armor.  Sveta backed away from the consoles, while Swansong and Precipice exchanged looks- Precipice losing his mask to become regular Rain.  It was done.  That was the meeting.

“That could have gone worse,” Rain said.

“Yeah,” Capricorn said.  “Like Victoria said, the effect from her isn’t that bad.”

“Tolerable,” I said, again.

“Are you okay?” Sveta asked me.

I shrugged one shoulder and shook my head.

“Did it help to get things off your chest?”

“If it did, it was outweighed by how much that sucked in general,” I said.  “I don’t know if it helped.  Ask me again in a week, when I’ve replayed these conversations and those expressions over and over in my head a thousand times.”

“For what it’s worth,” Tristan said.  “Thanks for coming, Victoria.  I think someone as powerful as Bianca is used to getting her way.  If you hadn’t been here, the meeting wouldn’t have happened, and she would have plowed forward- probably triggering the trap.”

“They’d shut off the prison portals, cutting it off from everyone and everything,” Sveta said.  “Except maybe the man who can apparently travel between dimensions.”

“At least now we have Cryptid on the case, and he’s guiding the game plan,” Tristan said.

“That doesn’t make me super confident,” I told him.

“It’s better than what it looked like we were going to be doing with her,” Tristan said.  “We’ll find a way to help Goddess and we’ll do it while avoiding hurting the other teams.”

I walked over to Ashley and Rain, my arms folded.

Rain was walking over to Tristan, noting the gear, his attention on tables and tinkerings.  Lost in thought.  It had to be a tricky situation, to be so far away and so relatively helpless.  He’d be more helpless if they figured out he was spending hours a day in front of his computer and logging next to no hours online.

And then there was Swansong.  Ashley.  She stared at a point on the table like she wanted to kill it.

“You’ve been quiet,” I observed, to Ashley.

“I’m trying not to think, so I don’t fall into her way of thinking.  I think I’m slowly losing.”

“It’s fine, we’re fine,” Kenzie said.  She had removed her helmet.  “Chris is gone, which sucks, but we’re all mostly okay.”

“I don’t think we are,” Sveta said, her voice gentle.  “But we have a way forward.  We’ll have to rely on Chris to handle his end of things.  In the meantime, we do what we need to.”

Tristan was still pulling off his armor.  “We should touch base with the other teams.  If we’re going to get information, it should be soon.  Byron, I owe you time, but can you do me a favor, and let me swap back to pick up my gear before you leave to go anywhere.”

Tristan blurred.  In frame and the color of the clothes he wore, he changed.  The momentary blur faded.

I saw Byron with his eyes wide, like the deer in the headlights.  I knew, with the same certainty that I’d known she had us.  He was unarmored and unarmed, and wholly his usual self- which was also the self that would look most alarmed by the status quo.

She didn’t have him.

“Think very carefully about what you do next,” I said.

“I’ve had a pretty level head when it comes to sitting in the back seat and watching someone do something awful.  I’m careful, don’t worry,” Byron said.

His movements betrayed his words.  He backed up, moving toward the largest, most empty portion of the room.

“Byron,” I said.  “If you make this whole thing more complicated than it is, there’s a chance people get hurt.  A chance Rain and Ashley get hurt, their legs blown off or they’re stuck on a prison world with no way out.  There are bystanders.  Prison staff who could get hurt.”

“I can sympathize with your sister in this,” he said.

I winced.  “Bad choice of words.”

“In this.  Trying to deal with you, when you’re like this.”

“It’s not major,” Sveta said.

“Are you telling me that in your current state of mind, you wouldn’t hurt a bystander if it helped her?”

I paused, my thoughts working out the best possible answer, which took some doing, since it was pretty far from what I might have normally said.

“There’s always a chance I hurt someone,” Sveta said.  “And I lead the most selfish existence because I go through everyday life and I do the costumed thing despite that chance.”

“I know,” Byron said.  “But… would you willingly do it, instead of your body doing it?  If it helped her?”

Sveta didn’t answer.  I could see her eyes move.

“I might,” I said.

“Then you’re not you,” he said.

Kenzie was in the back, staring.  But she was on our side.

Rain was behind Byron, but Rain was limited in what he could do.  He was a ghost.

Ashley, too.  But Ashley stepped forward, talking.  “That’s not the way it works.  When your brother said something about leveling the city, she said it wasn’t something he was capable of.  It has to be something you’re capable of.”

“You think you’re capable?” Byron asked me.

“I came close with Valefor.  Raise the stakes, and-”

“You keep saying that.  You got that from the Lady in Blue.  You and Kenzie are the good ones.  The only ones besides me who haven’t killed.  You can’t be so casual about it.”

“It’s not being casual about that,” Ashley said.  “It’s about being serious about this.”

“I was thinking about what we could do.  She wanted the connection so she could get people right?” Lookout asked.  “If they see her on camera, she can take control over them.  If we do that enough times, we can get an army.”

“See, that?  That’s terrifying,” Byron said.  “That doesn’t sound like you, Kenz.”

“It’s a plan,” Sveta said.

The lighting in the room changed.  It was Byron’s motes- like fireflies that left lines drawn in the air as they traveled their lazy helixes and loops.  All around Kenzie’s workstation and tinkerings.

“No, no, no,” Kenzie said.

“You guys broke free of Valefor.  Can’t you break free of this?” he asked.  The water-to-be floated around the computers and things like a knife held to a person’s throat.  Kenzie’s work.

I shook my head slowly.  I wasn’t the only one.  Sveta did too, the logistics of her body obviously applying.

“Byron,” I said.  “Switch back with your brother.  Take a backseat role while we do the high-risk stuff.  I know you didn’t ask for this life, and there’s no reason you should be caught up in something bigger.”

“I don’t think I’m going to do that.  The problem with the powers thing is that it sweeps through everything and leaves ruin and devastation,” Byron told me.

“It does.”

“This is a lot of really big powers in one persons’ hands, and she’s catching you guys up in her wake.  She would have caught me too, if I was out and Tristan was in, like he was supposed to be.  We can’t let that be a thing- the devastation.  I don’t want that here, with you guys.”

“Two of us aren’t really here,” Rain observed.  “Whatever we’re made of, it’s cracked and broken.”

“No,” Kenzie said.  “I don’t believe that.  Because they’re still here.  They’re here in the way that counts.”

“Maybe,” Byron said.  “But I’m not sure that’s true.  That Woman in Blue is not equipped to lead.  As far as I can tell, that’s a woman who was younger than I am now when she took over her planet, and nobody was strong enough to stop her.  She didn’t know how to lead, she just… things work out because she keeps everyone united in fear, if they’re unpowered, or united under her banner if they’re powered.  She’s spoiled and unhinged.  I can’t see a good outcome from that.  If I don’t take a stand here, there’s going to be more ruin and devastation.  This whole thing needs to stop now if we’re going to keep this from ruining Breakthrough, hurting the other heroes, letting Teacher or Goddess win, or letting both win while everyone else loses…”

There was a pause.  I suspected nobody involved really wanted to pick a fight or force a move.  Too messy.

“Um, I’m sorry to interrupt,” Kenzie said.  There was nothing to interrupt, really.  “Your Malfunction Junction guys have an major update, Victoria.  Please don’t drench my workstation, Byron.”

“Noted.  Thank you, Kenzie,” I said.  My voice was empty of emotion.  My expression was unflinching, as I stared down Byron, one corner of my eye noting the blue motes.  The stalemate continued.

Ashley was stock still, watching.  Sveta circled the room, flanking him.

He rushed me.  I held up hands to either side, telling the others not to intervene.

With fear clutching my heart to alternately slow and hurry its beats, a sick weight in my stomach, and nervous energy running angry through my limbs, I caught Byron’s wrist as he reached for me, pulled it down, and used flight to help step into his stride, planting one foot such that it was right behind his, the length of my leg leaning against the side of his knee, keeping him from extending his leg.  It put him off balance, and he grabbed me to try and regain that balance.

I didn’t need to care about weight or balance.  I let flight carry me off the ground, got to the point my foot could touch down, and with a push forward, drove myself into him.  He tumbled to the ground, started to grab my breastplate with both hands- and ended up grabbing it by one hand, because he might have stabbed himself on decorative spikes if he’d used the other hand.

He tried to pull me down on top of him, and I used flight to help arrest my fall.  He was hanging off of my breastplate now.

“You have to realize there’s something wrong here!” he grunted.

Even being out of practice, after having my arm in a sling, followed by a move that saw my weights and bars packed up, and even with my injured arm not being at one hundred percent, I was stronger than him.  His build was the build of an average guy who ate and exercised an average amount, but who had also never developed his strength.

Because it would make him too similar to his brother, maybe.

I hit his sternum with the heel of my hand.  He let go, and he dropped to the floor.  All of the negative emotions were stronger, not better, after this exercise, and it pained me.  I didn’t want this to continue, I didn’t want to think about the situation with Goddess and Amy.

“Victoria!” Sveta called out.  “Above!”

Water hit me perhaps half of a bathtub’s worth, with no pressure beyond the fact it dropped from ten or so feet above me.  But the weight of it and the surprise made me sag, bringing me close enough for Byron to grab.

He’d had training.  He was rustier than I was, but something went into him gripping my armor and the cloth of my costume, and using that leverage to hurl himself from a lying-down position to a position where he was beside me, pushing me.  Blue motes swirled around us.

“Give me something!” he said.

There was desperation in his voice, like there had been desperation in Amy’s.  He gripped my throat, the whites of his eyes showing as he stared me in the face, and then he let go just as quickly.  My skin didn’t feel like my skin as his fingers slid off of it.  Slick with anxiety sweat, prickled with the goosebumps of cold, even though I was hot in this outfit, in a room with too many hot lights overhead, with muggy wet weather outside.

I got a grip on the shoulder of his v-neck shirt, and used flight to wing around him, twisting up his shirt and putting my arm part of the way around his neck.  I started to pull my arm into a proper headlock.  He knew how to break it.

Had I used my strength, the Wretch would have torn him to shreds.  This was the scenario Uncle Neil had been preparing me for when he’d sparred with me.

I’d sparred with Dean too.  Roughhousing and real sparring both.  The difference was that Byron kept trying to grab me, but Dean had been more of a striker.

“What do I say to convince you!?”

Byron brought his leg around, hard enough to bruise my side, and tried to use the momentum of the kick to drive me closer to the ground, where he could try to grab me again.  I wasn’t sure what he aimed to accomplish.

I knew what my goal was, though.  To grab him, subdue him, and if we couldn’t have him become Tristan again, we would keep him from calling the wrong people until Goddess could bring more people onto her team.

Again, I tried the head-lock.  I let my aura burn at ember-level heat, my cold breastplate pressed against his back, the icon at the pointed top near my clavicle pressing in between his shoulder blades.  As I’d used my flight to stress myself, I put weight on his shoulders, pressing him down with more than just my physical weight.  His legs buckled.

“Victoria,” he said, his voice strangled.

“You shouldn’t be able to talk that easily.”

“Apparently… perk of.. water-focused power.  Didn’t know,” he said, each couple or trio of words heaved out with a fresh breath.

I maintained the pressure.  It was having some effect.  I gave Sveta a look, a jerk of my head.  She’d help.  We’d bind him if I couldn’t make him pass out.

“Master stranger,” he said.  “Master stranger protocols.  You have to have studied them.”

Master stranger.  It put me in mind of my study sessions with Dean.

A second thought of Dean.  It was refreshing and bright when everything else felt so dark.

“You’ve been a hero since birth.  You studied this shit.  You have to know this.  They drilled us on it in Reach, you-” he huffed out a laugh.  “You probably enjoyed it.”

I nodded, unable to speak, as if I was the one being choked.

“Follow the protocols,” he said.

Sveta had reached us.  She had straps that had been used to bind boxes closed.

“Follow the protocols,” he said.  “You’re compromised.  You know you just interacted with a strong Master.  Your team’s at stake.  Master stranger protocols.”

It was such a subtle effect, wasn’t it?  I felt like I’d barely been influenced.

I released him.  Sveta grabbed my wrist, hard, like I was the danger, all of a sudden.

“It’s fine,” I said.  “Trust me.”

I wasn’t sure it was fine.  I wasn’t sure I trusted this.  This course of action felt wrong.

“It’s fine,” Byron said.  “I won’t cause trouble.”

Sveta bit her lip.  She released my wrist.

I didn’t feel quite as lousy as before.  Less fear, less bile, less anger.  A whole lot more doubt.

As if Goddess and my sister both were power so great that they had their own gravity.  As Byron had said, they left chaos in their wake.  Devastation, if we weren’t careful.

“The Major Malfunctions have something?” I asked, trying to change the subject away from Byron.

“They moved on to another prison employee.  He turned out to be shady.  They’re waiting for backup before they act on it.  It’s what we’re looking for, and it’s what Goddess wants.”

I closed my eyes for a moment.

“I’ll go with Byron,” I said.

“You’re sure,” Sveta’s tone made the question a non-question, more of an accusation.  I was crazy to do this.

“Have to be.  We can’t leave the kids alone with him.  He is interested in helping, right?”

“Yes,” Byron said.

“I can manage him.  Can you get the info from Kenz?” I asked.

She gave me a dubious look, but she went to do it.

When it was the two of us again, I lowered my eyes to the ground, and with words I scarcely believed in, lit by a glow of warm feeling. That feeling emanated from a scene in the back of my mind, of me studying classifications with my boyfriend.  I’d honor that memory by throwing myself into this morass of doubt, this wrong feeling, when the last thing I wanted was to feel the weight of more wrongs.

“You’re going to have to steer me away from the wrong kinds of actions,” my voice was a whisper, words in confidence to a person I didn’t know well enough to have confidence in.

“Okay.  Thank you,” Byron whispered back.

“We have to get ahead of this whole thing, fast, before Chris or the others do their things,” I said.

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Gleaming – 9.2

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I cast off the Wretch as I reached the fire escape.  Water didn’t stick to my forcefield, and a lot of it wicked off naturally, but there were enough crevices and folds that did hold water that the rainwater came down all at once.  It splattered against my hood and back, and against the slats of the fire escape.

The others retreated as I landed, some folding up umbrellas.  I knew it was to give me room to land, and to get back to where it was dry- no reason to stay in the wet outdoors.  I was aware, I knew the rationale, and I couldn’t shake the idea that they were getting out of the way of the Wretch.

I was no stranger to distorted thinking.  Even before… before everything, I’d been swept up in it.  As a child, wanting to belong to my family, being the odd one out, until I got my power.  I’d later realized how lonely powers were.

The flip side of the coin applied too.  Being the odd one in.

Amy had been the odd one in more than I had.  Purely average in appearance, quiet, she hadn’t been passionate about hobbies or about anything in particular.  She’d liked movies from Aleph and when she was twelve she’d break her usual reserved, quiet composure to get way too excited if she checked the change slot of a vending machine or pay phone and found a quarter.  And yet when we got to high school, she was automatically included in the group of popular students.  The group with Dean, who was supposed to take over his dad’s company, and with the star athletes and the star athletes’ boyfriends and girlfriends.

I’d eventually looked beyond my bubble of thinking my sister was great because she was my sister and I fucking loved her, wondering why she was included in the group of popular students when she wasn’t popular.  Then I’d had to draw the eventual, inevitable conclusion, and wonder if I belonged to that group.  Was I there just because my parents wore costumes and had flashy powers?

I’d settled in despite that.  Amy had settled out- hanging out to keep me company, but not going out of her way to stick with the group.  It had been easy for her to move in that direction, after I’d gotten powers.  I’d been grateful for my earlier realization about the nature of the group, because it kept me real and provided a starting point for realizing where Dean was coming from, having come from money.  I’d loathed it at the same time, because it cast doubt on every normal interaction.

My perspective had been distorted by anger, by the fact that I’d been young and I was being confronted with some of the uglier sides of my town.  A classmate had confided in me that she had trouble seeing her path to a happy future because every adult she knew seemed miserable, and I’d sat back, thinking that I couldn’t see a way for our whole city to have a happy future because my parents, aunt, and uncles had sacrificed nearly everything and there were still racists, addicts, murders, theft, corruption, and pain.

It had been around the point of that realization that I’d started hitting harder, as if I could hit the worst offenders hard enough that they would stay down.  Living up to the ‘brute’ part of the brute classification.  So stupid, deluded, short sighted.  Even now, I shuddered to think what I might have become if the combination of Dean and my sister hadn’t reined me in.  In that world of heroes and criminals, that very stark reality, I hadn’t had enough points of reference to think straight.

The truth didn’t always correct distorted perspectives- it could just as easily create them.  Comforting lies and illusions were important.

The group maintained its retreat, my instincts told me it was because of what I’d shown them, while my brain continued to protest in vain, telling me Kenzie was waging a war with a ‘hornet’s nest’ and the others were putting umbrellas away and getting situated.

I didn’t miss the fact that Byron switched to Tristan, even though it wasn’t Tristan’s turn.

It was Sveta who approached.  She still had the towel she’d tried to give me.

“Let’s try this again.  Get yourself dry,” she told me.  “Whatever you need, let me know.  I’ve got you.”

I put my hand over hers, and gave it a waggle.  Then I took the towel and dried my face of the moisture that had beaded it in the midst of stormy weather.  Lengths of my hair had been blown free and been soaked, and I wrapped the towel around each in turn, squeezing the fabric to leech out the moisture.  I didn’t look at anyone in particular, and in a way I was spared from having to, since Sveta was close.  She was wet, damp, but she loved the water.

I was on the third length of hair, which had wrapped around my shoulder, when I heard someone break the silence.

“That shape- that’s what you looked like in the hospital?  Your sister changed your power?”

Kenzie.  Wide eyed, innocent.

“How about I tell you after, Kenzie?” Sveta asked.  “I know most of it.  If that’s okay, Victoria?”

“Thanks,” I said.  I was worried about the silence, and I decided to confront it head-on.  “I needed to get that out of the way.  It’s hard to bring up or even explain.  My forcefield is wild.  It’s important that if we get into a fight, you have some sense of its reach.  I pay close attention, but stuff happens.  If I end up compromised… something which isn’t out of the question with people like Goddess in play, it’s important you know.”

I saw some nods.  Kenzie looked very serious.  Tristan too.  Chris looked disinterested.

“The forcefield is your strength?  It’s the car-crushing strong part of your power?” Rain asked.  “It’s hard to ask questions, because I don’t want to push, but I just want to make sure, get this out of the way.”

“Yeah.  It’s where my strength comes from.”

“It’s good to know,” Tristan said.  “Fuck those guys on television for getting into that.  They knew?”

“Seems like,” I said.

“That might be important,” Tristan said.  “It felt like they were angling to come after me, too.  They had sources.”

“Including whoever tipped them off about Kenzie’s parents,” Ashley said.  “I can’t imagine them watching that show or reaching out to those people first.”

“Gary Nieves first, probably,” Tristan said.  “He was supposed to be on point.  We threw him by getting onto the show and changing the topic of conversation to Gold Morning.”

“That’s not really a clue,” Rain said.

“It might be important.” Tristan’s voice was firm, his response almost an interruption.

“It might be, but… okay?  If the trail leads to Gary, are we going to confront him or expect him to have a casual talk with us?”

“No,” Sveta said.  “He’s a bigot.”

“Right,” Rain said.  “So let’s not get too stuck in that specific mud.  We can’t use that info, so let’s just keep in mind that people are getting info and using it to sling that mud at us, and move on.”

“At Mayday too,” Kenzie said.  “He was the focus of episode one.  It was why he was distracted when we were trying to coordinate everyone.”

Tristan sighed audibly.

“There are a lot of things to focus on,” Rain addressed Tristan.  “Let’s focus on what we can fix.”

“I like that,” Sveta said.

Tristan met my eyes.  I nodded.

Distorted perspectives aside, I did have the impression that Tristan had jumped in to change the subject, and that it had worked.  Based on my understanding of him, it seemed like his particular form of goodwill.  Ashley was a staunch defender of her favored few, with thorny words for anyone who stood against those few.  Sveta supported.  Tristan… he hurled himself into the fray.

“On the topic of immediate threats, any updates on Hookline and Kitchen Sink?” I asked.

“Herded to where we have surveillance teams waiting, surrounded and arrested.  Auzure got the actual arrests, actually.  They’re sitting in on the interrogation, and they’ll send us info when they have it.”

I winced.  Not my favorite team, but… it was good we got them.

“There was chatter,” Kenzie said, her back to us as she typed.  “Love Lost wasn’t happy they did that, apparently.  She might be covering her rear.”

“It fits her, to not want people going after kids,” Rain said.

“Okay,” Kenzie said.  “Also, I don’t know if this matters, but they noticed what we did when we went after Trial and Error, and people mentioned it in phone calls and whatever when Auzure got Hook and Sink.”

“Online too,” Chris added.  “People mentioned it in some villain sub-forums.  They aren’t doing anything about it yet.  Emails are still coming in about your stunt on the show, mostly negative.”

Our stunt on the show,” Ashley said.

“Sure,” Chris said.  “Still, randoms came after us once, and they might do it again, if the emails we’re getting are right.”

Tristan shook his head.  “Another one of those things we can’t do anything about.  The question is, was it worth it?”

“The other hero teams are getting a chance to shape the discourse?” I asked.

“Mayday put on a good show, a bit stilted,” Tristan said.  “Some ex-Wardens were also out there.  Chevalier’s back, Legend and Valkyrie are away doing something important.  Narwhal doesn’t do TV, and some of the ex-Guild like Stonewall and more stern, dark Protectorate types like Cinereal aren’t exactly TV types either.”

“Weld’s pretty good at it, but he’s still away,” Sveta said.

Crystal too.

It was sobering, that we had so much going on, and key figures and faces were gone.  People close to us.

“But they’re doing okay?” I asked.  “I was busy all morning, I’m behind on things.”

“In my expert opinion, they’re doing okay,” Tristan said.

“It’s looking like it might have been worth it,” Sveta added, her voice soft.  “Time will tell, but for now it looks like we’re mostly on course.”

I really hoped that was true.

“About your morning-” Tristan started.

I caught the uncharacteristic hesitation, and I heard the change in tone.  More serious.  Was I wrong that he was changing the topic?  Were we going back to it?

“You decided you needed to share stuff you’ve been keeping in your back pocket,” he said.

I nodded.

“It’s good for us to know in case it comes up in conversation.  It’s good if we know how we each operate on the battlefield.  I’ll match you, I’ve been stuck on something the past week…”

His power.

“…My and Byron’s power are in flux.”

“What does that mean?” I asked.  “Changing to a different creation?”

“Nothing that extreme.  Hopefully we don’t go that way.  It’s just that right now, I’m stronger, Byron is weaker.  Which might be to our advantage.”

“You’re stronger?” I asked.

“Right now?  Yeah.”

He created a swirl of orange motes.  They manifested into a rough cleaver shape, the edge narrow if not quite razor sharp.  Dark stone with veins of orange-red running through it.

“May I?” I asked.

“It’s heavy.”

I crossed the room, and I took the oversized cleaver.  Dense.

“Can I destroy it?”

“Sure,” he said.

I flew up a bit, so the floor wasn’t in the way of the Wretch.  My forcefield out, I let the Wretch grip it, my focus fixed on the cleaver, looking for a sudden jerky movement that might indicate the Wretch was flinging it at someone.

The narrowest edge cracked, then cracked more, but it took three or four seconds before it outright broke, a corner coming off.  Once that happened, the entire thing broke into chunks, raining down to the floor.  I let the Wretch go, and the stone dust that had built up in crevices fell down in narrow streams.

“During the Trial and Error fight, your creations weren’t this strong.  They were practically chalk.  Weak, no substance.”

“Yeah,” he said.  “In flux.  Sometimes it’s more stable.  Lately?  It’s very back and forth.”

“Powers do that,” I said.  “Some more than others.  Breakers especially, some Trumps, and powers with a lot of random chance.  They depend more on the alien intelligence to manage the power, or they’re closer to that intelligence, so those parahumans feel it more.  Powers are more generous or leave you hanging.”

“You think the random chance side of things isn’t random?” Rain asked.

“I find myself wondering,” I said.  “But I think if we’re dwelling on the sources of powers, it might be worth keeping in mind that it serves their purposes.  They have wants, and it makes more sense that when they’re choosing something random or giving us more or less raw power, they’ll favor us if we’re meeting those wants.”

“After I killed Snag, I got an edge, power-wise.”  Rain’s expression shifted at the admission, brows drawing together.

“I had good and bad days when it came to my misfires, before I had working hands,” Ashley added.

“Not technically you,” Chris pointed out.

“Me enough.”

Chris shrugged.  “Meh.  I don’t think this conversation is fair to some of us, for the record.”

“Making sure everyone knows what’s up with each other’s powers?” Tristan asked.

“Pressuring side members of the group to divulge by being all share-happy.”

“If you think there’s happy in this sharing, you’ve got it wrong,” Rain said.

“I think there are agendas,” Chris answered, his tone harsher, his eyes moving between people but fixing on me more than anyone.  “Maybe not the first thing in anyone’s mind, but I think it’s a thing in people’s minds.”

“Chris,” Sveta said.  “There’s no agenda.  If you wanted to share, then we’d be happy to get more information, but for right now-”

“You don’t have to tell us anything, but if you wanted to tell us stuff we’d like it?” Chris’s tone was sarcastic, almost mocking.

Distorted perspectives.  The day had barely started and I felt wrung-out.  Now he was attacking my friend?  It was enough to piss me off in a shockingly short span of time.  No rising temperature leading to a boil – it was one sentence in one voice that had me instantly off.

“You’re being ridiculous,” Tristan said.

“All I’m saying is that it seems kind of manipulative, the power-players in the group dish out their personal dirt, team mom Sveta plays nice and tries to rug-sweep-”

“Don’t call me the team mom,” Sveta said.

And it was at times like this that I couldn’t afford to act on feeling.  Fingers and fingernails digging into the fabric of the towel, I kept the idea of the warrior monk in my mind.

“Why don’t we pause this conversation and come back to it with cooler heads?” I asked.  “I know I’d be happier if we could.”

“Why don’t we just drop it entirely?  You said what you needed to say, fine, whatever.  But it doesn’t need to be a conversation.  If it’s a conversation then that means it’s going somewhere.  And that somewhere is just more pressure and expectations that we talk about shit.”

“You were the one who told me this team idea worked because we trust each other,” Ashley said.

“I think it’s painfully ironic that you take something I shared with you in a private conversation and bring it up to make a point about trusting one another.  Or do you want to get into that full conversation and why I brought that up?”

“Ease up, Chris,” Kenzie said.

“Stop.”  I used more emphasis and volume.

“That-” Chris started.

Tristan banged his hand on the table, hard.  There was silence in the seconds after, broken not by words, but by the mechanical shuffling of Sveta’s body as she walked over to Kenzie’s workstation.

“You’re way out of line, Chris.  This isn’t what we’re about,” Tristan said.  “Did you dose on double-strength paranoia recently?”

“Why don’t you ask one of the girls if they’re acting aggressive because they’re premenstrual?  It’s about as sensitive.”

“Stop,” I ordered.  I had to resist using my aura to punctuate the statement and get their attention.  “Enough.  Whatever you’ve got going on, deal with it, or ask for help if you can’t deal on your own.  But don’t do this.”

“May I go for a hike, ma’am?” All sarcasm.

“It sounds like a good idea.  Let’s clear our heads before we return to this topic.” I didn’t miss the change in his expression, like he was about to say something.  Before he could, I said, “If we return to it.”

Clearly pissed, inexplicable in mindset, he gathered his things.  His messenger bag had a flap over the top, protecting it from the rain.  Grabbing an umbrella, he headed for the door.  Out into the late-morning darkness and the torrential wet.  The wind that stirred in the room saw others standing back or catching papers before they could blow away and scatter.  The cool wind made me very aware of my soaked clothes.

“If you’re heading somewhere, call me.”

I patted at the damper spots with the towel.

“What the hell, Chris?” Rain asked.

With no apparent powers in the mix, Chris’ paranoia had somehow disconcerted the team more than me revealing the Wretch.  No warped perspective at play there- I understood it.  A destructive, invisible force with an alien or dark subconscious driving it wasn’t a threat to the team or the dynamic in the same way that a problematic thirteen year old was.

Kenzie offered her interpretation.  “Chris gets to a bad place now and again, and he doesn’t have anyone because he doesn’t want anyone.”

“That’s not an excuse,” Tristan said.

“No,” Kenzie said.  “But I think he’s great, he’s so fun when he’s cool, and I think he deserves a chance to work through whatever’s bothering him.”

Tristan sighed.  “This wasn’t okay, here.  Right?  I’m not out of my mind?”

“It wasn’t okay,” Sveta said.  “But we’re all going to have one bad day, sooner or later.  Days our powers screw us up, the past catches up to us, or life kicks us while we’re down and we can’t explain it to the group.”

“Do we need to go after him?” I asked.  “Is that an invasion?”

“Leave him be,” Sveta said.

“We need to figure out how we’re going to handle the meeting with the Lady in Blue,” Tristan said.  He drew in a deep breath and heaved out a sigh.  “You’re up for this, Vic?”

“I have to be.”

Eight out of ten of our computers and phones were refurbished salvage.  Old tech polished off with new software and new logos.  The new software included an emergency alert system, each phone and computer now with a warning front and center, or a warning in the top corner, the image depicting water droplets with snowflakes embedded in them, rows of icicles in the background to fill in the white space.

Because our phones and systems throughout the region were being leveraged to get the warning out there, all services were slow.  The alert was obnoxiously persistent, popping up with every one degree change in predicted temperature.  Not a good thing when we needed battle updates.

The Major Malfunctions, Fume Hood and one other cape in their area were responding to reports of suspicious activity near a power facility as a group.  A thinker on my mom and dad’s team was aware of potential riots stirring- or, more specifically, being stirred up, and the active members of that team were responding to that, ready to stave off any problems before they occurred.  The Patrol was out and patrolling, no training for serious events, because today was the serious event, just a bunch of painted school buses and young people in scavenged body armor trying to control the damage done.

And those were just the groups and organizations I was personally managing.  Tristan had his set, Sveta had hers, and Ashley had a couple of people she was emailing.

It was the first truly cold weather since spring; freezing rain that coated every surface in a thin sheet of ice.  Ice left people outright spooked.  Spooked people, in turn, did desperate things.  They banded together to attack even larger groups and institutions, and they robbed places to try and scrounge up resources that could help them get through the winter.  Even with the average Janes and Joes who were leaving work at four in the afternoon, there would be countless accidents, people needing saving.

I would have liked to be out there, helping.

I would have really, really liked it if they had focused on staying warm and stayed indoors.  Instead, this weather was a cover for the covert, the break in the city’s rhythm a chance for the criminal, and it was a whole lot of activity needing attention.

The cameras showed Goddess walking up stone stairs.  The stairs were built into a hill, not far from the apartments where laborers had been situated.  All around the peak of the hill, construction projects stood dark, still unfinished following the strike a month ago, the same event where a broken trigger had leveled a crowd and broken the backs of a laborer’s union.

She had an entourage of two.  Three if I counted the creature huddled in Amy’s jacket.  Goddess’ jacket was blue, with a white fur ruff, and she had black pants on, with boots worn over.  The coverage didn’t seem exceedingly necessary, as she wasn’t touched by the rain.  That rain came at an intensity that made it closer to darts being flung sideways than any water coming from above.

She was her own eye of the storm, and the storm wasn’t hers.  Sundancer had briefly stayed in my hometown, and her burning orb hadn’t touched anything within a few feet of her, but it had been hers, under her express will.  This storm was just nature, and where the rain bent away from her and ran along an invisible slope, I could see the distortions in the air.

A young man with brown skin and an umbrella that didn’t seem to budge in the wind walked beside her, the umbrella open despite the lack of necessity.

On the other side was a young woman with brown hair, freckles dense on her face, neck and arms, and tattoos visible on the backs of her hands, poking out of voluminous coat sleeves.  A white duffel coat, with red toggles.

The others kept glancing at me, double checking me, making sure I was  okay.

“The Attendant had a member who got hurt,” Capricorn reported, in Tristan’s natural confidence.  “Mission fail.”

“Damn,” I said.  “Can we follow it up?”

“Everyone is tied up or resting.  Nothing available, no.  It wasn’t a big mission either.”

“They still failed,” Swansong said.

The laborers had built these stairs to make getting from one side of the hills to the other easier.  The path was a touch convoluted, but it was better than hiking up steeper slopes.  At the halfway mark, a gazebo-style enclosure or lookout had been set up, with benches inside and out, plexiglass windows, and a fire pit in the center.

Buckets of sand and shovels were sitting at the ready beneath tables and in cabinets that had been built into benches.  At that fire pit, a fire burned, keeping its flames down as the wind seeped between plexiglass and stone column.

My heart was pounding.

We were all, Cryptid included, assembled.  We’d established a ‘v’ formation.  Capricorn was at the front, me at his right shoulder, Swansong at his left.  Beyond Swansong was Rain, while Sveta was by me.  Past Rain was Chris, while Sveta kept Kenzie close by.

She walked with audible, powerful footsteps that shouldn’t have echoed like they did, given the environment.  I could hear her.  And I could her the scuff of shoe on stone.  I knew those footsteps – she’d never picked her feet up enough when she walked places.

It became hard to breathe as they stepped into he enclosure.  This was it.  We’d taken precautions and we were making use of safety measures, but the wait was over.

“I would say thank you for coming, but what’s the use?” the Lady in Blue asked.  She reached out in the direction of the fire, and it swelled in size.

It was an oddly disconnected fragment.  The formality so brief I had to replay the question twice in my head, the question not directed at anyone in particular.

“We’re here and we’re open to talk,” Capricorn said.  “We’re a novice group but have information and we have connections.  Are introductions in order?”

“Bianca,” the Lady in Blue said.  “This is Luis, and I hope you know who she is.  I already know your names.”

“Hi,” was the addendum from- I couldn’t call her my sister because that familiarity combined with relative proximity upset me on a deeper level.  I couldn’t call her Amy for much the same reason.  From Amelia.  I felt my skin crawl.  “And this is Dot.”

I had to look to see, getting my first really good look at the little squirrel-like companion.  Big ears with longer hair drawing to a point at the tips, a long prehensile tail with a tuft at the end, and big eyes.

“Should we call you Amy, Amelia, or Panacea?” I asked.

“Amy, please.  Same as always.”

“And are you actually creating life from- from nothing?”

“No.  She’s her own being.  It’s really good to see you.  It’s nice to meet you, Breakthrough.  Tress, I’ve heard a lot about you, secondhand.  Swansong, we meet again.  Same, Cryptid, kind of.”

I’d known she and Swansong had crossed paths.  She had checked Bonesaw’s work on Amy’s hands.  Cryptid, though?

I swallowed and the swallowing made my throat hurt, it was so tight.

“Bianca,” Capricorn said.  “What can we do for you?  I’m guessing you saw us on television, and you decided to open discussions.”

Bianca didn’t reply right away.

“A power was taken from me,” Bianca said.  “Without it, I can’t return to my throne.  I’m being hunted and fucking hounded, and I get no peace.”

“We’ve been keeping an eye on you,” Capricorn said.  “We didn’t see any assassination attempts.”

“Not lately.  They’re active elsewhere, which freed me up enough to meet with Amy and her father.”

As she’d said ‘elsewhere’, she had turned her head.  Indicating the portals?

“Flashbang or Marquis?” I asked.

“Marquis,” Amy replied.

Her voice got to me more than anything.  Hesitant, quiet, perpetually apologetic.  I didn’t want apologies.  I just wanted to feel normal.

“An ally,” Bianca said.  “I like people with their rules.  Discipline.  It’s a good mindset to have.”

“Including Monokeros?” Swansong asked.

Bianca pressed two fingers to her lips, kissing the knuckles halfway down.

“That doesn’t tell me anything,” Swansong said.

“Silence is golden,” Amy translated.

Gold is a loaded wordIdioms or gestures from strange earths might work better than running away with this.

Gold.  The tattoos on Amy’s hands had traces of gold.  More black, more red.

“If you’ll help me get what you need, I’ll help you with our mutual enemies and I will reward you.  Help me take power, and I have a world’s worth of wealth and resources.  I can make you head of a state.  I can give you power and influence here.  I can tell you that people in my world were very interested in deciphering powers.  They helped make me what I am, unwittingly, but they were happy in the end.  The, ah, monsters who made you, painted Tress, that icon on your cheek-”

Sveta reached up, touching her cheek.  I was caught between observing her and paying attention to the gestures that punctuated certain words.  Monsters, index finger curled into a hook.  By the faint change in her expression, perhaps something obscene.

“-they would deposit the monsters and the unsolvable riddles in my world.  We solved most.  My understanding of powers helps, our labs help more.”

“I could help too,” Amy said.

My heart sank into my ankles, plunging through and leaving cold toxicity in its wake, curling through my midsection.

“All our heart’s desires, and we just have to bow and scrape for the rest of our lives?” Swansong asked.

“I’ll give you a heart’s desire each, if you’ll find this person with my power.  You have the means, the knowledge, and the talent.  No servitude required.  I would go home and conquer it fairly, again.”

“I’d go with her,” Amy said.  I winced a little at the sound of her voice.  “I would be gone forever, if you wanted.  Like I tried to do, way back then, except I’ve been thinking about this a lot, the last few weeks.”

I knew just what arguments had struck home for which people.  I worried some had been tailored to specific individuals.

But there was no way we could conscience handing her power or agreeing to this, when it meant potentially putting an entire Earth into servitude.  We’d say no, and-

“We’ll think about it,” Capricorn said.  “We need a bit of time to discuss.”

“Minutes?  Hours?”

“A day?” Capricorn asked.  He glanced at us.  “At a minimum?”

“Time is of the essence.  In a day, things might be too far gone.  Your Mama Mathers, Rain, is gone.  They’ll find out soon.  Your Valefor is healed and gone.  Warlords from your old Earth have been snatched up, and people don’t yet know.”

“Half a day,” Capricorn said.  “Maybe.  It’s-”

“Amy,” Bianca said, and her voice was low.

“I say yes.  Play fair with them, give them their time, agree to some of my dad’s stipulations for your next term of rule, I’ll come with you, be your lieutenant.”

I heard a whisper.

“And Dot too.”

“It’s easier and cleaner to gather my army.  Let the hounds come en fucking masse.  One fell stroke.”

I had a sense of her way of speaking now, as it belatedly clicked.  Like a girl from an overly formal private school or college, bucking at the confines.  Spoiled and dangerous.

“That’s not clean at all,” I said, as diplomatically as I could.

“If we run out of time, if we let them get too much of an upper hand, it will be the opposite of clean.  Ask your Amy.”

“It’s bad, Victoria.”

“Don’t-” I said.  “Don’t say my name, don’t address me, thanks.”

“Okay.”

“It’s bad.  Alright,” I said.  “But there are options.  Better ones.”

“If you attack the prison, you’ll be playing right into their hands,” Capricorn said.  “They’re ready for you.  It’s how we ended up here in the first place.”

“I’ll recruit my assistance, and I won’t be attacking alone,” Bianca said.  Then there was a moment, and it was like she’d said a word with monumental emphasis.

My heart skipped a beat.

Sixty-four miles away, we were still in the headquarters.  Cameras and projectors put images of us in the gazebo-like structure.  But she’d known that, she’d realized it right away, and been put off by it.

Sixty-four miles away, and she had me, without an action or a word spoken.

I looked at Sveta, ready to communicate something, and I saw it in her eyes.

She had us.  All of us.

“I took over a world with my power,” Goddess said.

“Bianca-” Amy said.

Goddess half-turned, hand raised.  Amy went silent.

Goddess finished, turning toward the projected images.  “That is not a takeover that happens if I need to be where I assert my power.  Let the hounds come baying.”

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Gleaming – 9.1

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I paced.  Simple footsteps felt insufficient to burn off the nervous energy, so I took to flying, only to quickly realize that it had the opposite effect- I would have had to fly at max speed against the wind to feel like the external effort was helping anything psychologically.

I landed, and instead of pacing back and forth across the room, I used my flight to push myself down.  Walking a few steps involved a whole-body strain.  I made it three steps and decided to focus on just standing instead, testing myself against that tension.

It took endurance to keep my knees from buckling or the trunk of my body from folding.  It took concentration to not automatically snap to using my forcefield, which would absorb the strain with zero effort.

It helped like pacing helped, and it was a little less conspicuous.

The sound of the elevator opening was my cue to stop.  I was more or less recovered and normal as Dr. Darnall emerged.  Doctors left the same elevator, one pair that walked together and one alone, apparently doing their rounds.

The hospital itself was inconsistently lit.  Areas were dim, where patients were asleep, and other areas were bright.  It was almost backwards, that there was so much lighting where there were no or very few people, and the places where the people were most densely congregated were dimly lit and quiet.  The white walls and bright fluorescent lighting made the difference from the dark, unlit pre-sunrise morning outside that much more intense, like there was nothing at all beyond the hospital.  Rain droplets on the window captured the light at an angle, forming crescents.

Darnall was dressed down from the prior times I’d seen him, wearing a sweatshirt over a t-shirt, jeans, and nice shoes.  He looked as tired as fuck, with lines in his face.

“Good morning, Victoria,” he greeted me.  He didn’t sound tired, at least.  “Thank you for coming out here.  It makes things easier.”

“It’s not a problem,” I said.  “Thank you for seeing me with no notice.”

“You’re welcome, I’m happy to address whatever it is this is.  Here, this way.  We can talk in the cafeteria.”

The building was the same hospital where I had visited Fume Hood, and the same one where I had done some rounds of crisis-point style visits, flying kids around.  The part that had been under construction weeks ago was built, and other parts were now in progress.  The hospital was set up with long-term care in mind, and the surrounding area was arranged to give the families of patients the ability to stay or live close to their loved ones.

Some of those people were up at this alien hour, in this fluorescent white space.  In a lunch room that could have fed two hundred, three or four pairs or groups of people sat talking.  There was a wide expanse of open seats and benches where the only person who might approach and overhear was a janitor.

“Do you have someone staying here?” I asked.  “Is that too personal a question?”

“No.  But I come here for some of my other patients.”

“Ah.”

“This is close to home, and it’s reasonably close to you, you said?” he asked.  When I nodded, he nodded as well.  “I don’t go to restaurants, so I don’t know what places we could meet at.  With most of my patients, they have places they prefer, or I’m going to them because they work high-pressure schedules.  Much as you do.  If you prefer anything different-”

“This is good,” I said.  “Just- anything except an office or actual hospital room.”

“Good.  If it’s alright, I’m going to grab a coffee.”

“I’ll grab something too,” I said.

It was kind of awkward to follow him through checkout and either make small talk or be silent, so I took a bit more time than necessary.

We sat.  The table was slightly damp, having been recently wiped down, and I used my jacket sleeve to wipe it dry before pulling the jacket off and draping it over my lap.  I wore a sweater-knit tube top over a button-up collared shirt- the fabric of the shirt was too thin on its own, because ninety percent of the shirts on the racks were, and the sweater part of it at least kept things modest while dressing things up in a similar-ish way to wearing a vest.  Jeans worn with the legs pulled down over boots kept things more casual.

“I’m sorry to have you wake up early,” I said.

“It’s not too bad, today.  It being this dark out makes it feel later than it is- I had a year where I had three patients I saw at five in the morning, because it was the only way to fit around their shifts.  Six-forty-five is nothing compared to that.  Is this an emergency, or something between an emergency and a regular appointment?”

I had to think on that for a second before deciding.  “The second one.”

“I had that feeling.  Is it okay if we structure this like an ordinary session?”

I shrugged.  “Sure.”

“Okay.  We’ve met for two sessions now, laying groundwork-”

His polite way of saying we hadn’t made much progress.

“-and as part of that groundwork, we set out goals and tasks for the week.  It hasn’t been a full week, but I’m interested to hear how this is going.”

“Uh, two components to the homework.  Tracking my mood over the course of the past few days, and tracking my outbursts.”

“Let’s start with the first.  Mood?”

“It’s… nervous right now.  Over this week… I wrote it down as a morning, noon, night thing.  There were days I was busy and I didn’t get to it until the evening, and it was really, really hard to remember how I felt earlier that day.”

“Even when you thought about the events of the day?”

“There were days where I was contacting hero groups, trying to get people on the same page, going after the same villain pair twice… and at the end of those days I couldn’t remember if things had happened that day or the day before, or sometimes the day before that.”

“I wonder if there’s a way to stabilize that, or structure things better.”

“I don’t know,” I said.  I had an iced tea with peach flavor in front of me, and I cracked it open.  I took a sip and then said, “Not at this stage.”

“Alright.  Were you able to work it out?  If there were blank spaces in the entries, I would be concerned that they would be the times you would most want to be aware of your state of mind.”

“When I’m most stressed and busy?  Yeah.  I used my phone, the music I listened to and the text messages I sent.  I was… surprised.  Having a focus helped.”

“Reaching out to the other groups?”

“And Lookout.  Yeah.  Except, I think I was surprised by the positive trend, and I let my guard down.  It led to outbursts.”

“Uncontrolled power use?  On television?”

“That was the big one, yeah,” I said.

“How’s your diet?”

“Skipping meals.  Eating stuff like this on the fly.”  I indicated my blueberry muffin.  I picked off a crispy edge, dismantling the cap.

“Your sleep?”

“I was up late and I’m up early, as you can see.  That’s pretty usual.”

“Are you functional?  Having difficulties focusing?”

“No.  But I think my body tricks me sometimes.  Fatigue sneaks up on me.”

“If you’re fine after staying up late and waking up early, then don’t worry too much about it.  But be mindful and take notes, try to track fatigue and times when you feel you’ve hit your limits, at the same times you’re tracking your feelings.  It can sneak up on you.”

“Okay.  I’m not sure it’s staying up late, exactly.  Last night, it was because a teammate was attacked.  Casualty from appearing on television is that the bit-rate villains will break ranks and try to mess with you.”

“Was that Lookout?” Darnall asked.  When I nodded, he said, “Is she okay?”

“She’s more or less fine, but she’s having to relocate from her home to an institution.  Anyway.  We’re still trying to track down the people who did it, but that cuts into time I’d spend sleeping.”

“It’s good to be aware of that.  Continue to keep track of those times when you do slip, either outbursts or disassociation, and do try to eat better.  Your body needs its fuel.”

Dr. Darnall sounded a lot like my mom, talking about the fuel of the body.

He told me, “See if the days of accidental or impulsive power use or especially bad disconnects from whatever is going on correlate to days you’re not sleeping enough or times you haven’t eaten recently.  I do want to talk about that involuntary power use in a minute.”

“So do I.”

“It’s a good first update.  I like how you’re already assessing your own data from tracking your emotional state.”

“That’s the plan, right?  Training me to be my own therapist.”

“Yes.  That’s a good quick assessment of the homework.  If you’re up for it, I’d like to keep our appointment for the one-week mark, you can keep taking notes and keeping track, and we’ll focus on it more then, with some deeper discussion.”

“Sure.  No complaints.”

“Any questions before we move on?  Thoughts from your last session?”

“No questions.  No thoughts.”

“Okay.  Then let’s talk about today.  Why did you call?”

“Well,” I said.  I removed my jacket from my lap, moving it onto the bench beside me, just so I could shift position to something more comfortable.  “One of the most powerful and dangerous people on Earth wants to meet to talk.  She was a villain and tyrant who took over a whole Earth.”

“You said you were nervous.  She’s why?”

“She has apparently recruited my sister,” I answered him.

Even just saying it, it was taking the respect I’d accumulated for this very powerful, very scary woman and tainting it.  It took a big feeling and made it also one of the most negative feelings possible.

“Someone toxic who was gone from your life is now back.”

“Somewhere nearby.  We may end up talking.  Um.  But the timing is godawful.”

“It absolutely is.”

“Some b-list nutjobs just came after a kid.  That would never fly, before Gold Morning.  They put our lawyer in the hospital.  We haven’t caught up with them yet, despite me spending a few hours last night on the hunt, but the consensus seems to be that it’s stupid, petty people seeing us putting our faces out there and wanting to ride the wave of attention.  I had a kind-of aunt who died for pretty similar feeling reasons, and remembering that’s really bothering me.  And then my sister gets thrown into the mix?  She’s the one thing I can’t handle.  I can’t deal with thinking about her on a good day.  Now I have to face her on a bad one?”

“Do you have to face her?  What happens if you sit this one out?”

“I don’t think anyone truly knows her.  Sveta knows her by association only.  If I sit this out, I think this ends in utter disaster.”

“You attended the taping of Hard Boil.  You lost control of your power and it almost ended in disaster.  Why is this different?  What guarantees that your intervention and presence makes this better?”

I drew in a deep breath.

“You look like you disagree.”

“I don’t blame you for taking that stance, when it comes to the show.  It’s an interpretation, and a fair one.”

“For what it’s worth, it didn’t end in disaster.  I’m still rooting for your team.”

“Thank you,” I said.  “That means a lot.  Look, Hard Boil was always going to be a disaster or something approximating one,” I said.  “I don’t think the show changed many minds among Hard Boil’s core audienece.  It did distract and let us pass the ball to people who can take the shot, and opened up the way for those who receive the shots.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“Okay.  Look, Mayday’s with Advance Guard.  The team was pretty fractured after the attack on the Fallen.  This morning he’s going to go on television and radio.  People have questions about powers, about Scion, the day we fought Scion.  They’ll have other questions and the teams we’re associating with are positioned to talk about it.  We’re coordinating this like we planned to coordinate information.  People want to know this stuff and they want to discuss it.  Hard Boil wants to demonize Lookout?  They’re going to be left behind while everyone else focuses on bigger things.”

I saw his eyebrows go up.

“It’s an excuse to let people reach out to media and put their best faces forward.  We sacrifice ourselves a bit to give everyone else a chance to elevate themselves.  Considering the problem came out of our camp to start with, it’s a kind of amends.”

“One that came back on you.  Not to diminish what you’re doing, but you talked about wanting to protect Lookout, and she was almost hurt, by your own words.”

“It did.  You could argue that once they chose to use Lookout as their example criminal for the show, she was going to be a target anyway.  We just didn’t think they would track her down that easily, or that they’d be willing to cross that line.”

“I hope you’ll forgive my saying so, Victoria, but there seems to be a common thread running through your statements and behavior here.  You seem to be fighting with all your might to get control over the situations you find yourself in.  You talked about wanting to get a handle on the situation with the people who attacked your teammate in her home.  You’re sacrificing sleep to hunt people down, and you stood up on stage and took an aggressive stance to regain the control you’d lost.  Then you left to keep it.”

“Well, I mean, obviously.”

“Explain this to me.”

“The Fallen?  Chaos and ignorance.  The community center attack?  Shortsightedness, more chaos with civilians caught in the fray.  Hollow Point?  Chaos and greed.  The invading soldiers from Cheit?  Secrecy and ignorance.  We combat the chaos with order and the ignorance with the sharing of information.  We combat greed by being selfless.”

“No mention of your sister and this Goddess?”

“I don’t… really think of my sister, if I can help it.”

“Sorry.  But you did ask me here to discuss her, didn’t you?”

I hesitated, then nodded, finding it momentarily too difficult to talk.  I drank some of my peach iced tea.

I tried to think of my sister as an agent of chaos.  Maybe way back then.  Goddess?  She would cause chaos, as soon as she decided to make a move.  But was she an embodiment of it?

If I’d thought she was one, I wouldn’t have been willing to consider the meeting.

Doctor Wayne Darnall wasn’t talking.  Waiting for me to finish sipping at my iced tea and round out my thought.

“I don’t know how to deal with her, and I worry I’m not strong enough to deal with Goddess.  I want help.  I need… whatever armor you can give me, psychologically.  I need tools or weapons, coping strategies, any mental tricks you have for not snapping.”

“It doesn’t work that way, Victoria.  My goal and my role is to equip you with tools that you learn to use over the long term.  The operative word is learn.  Nothing is instantaneous.”

I’d known that.  I just… a part of me had hoped he could give me some tricks.  Even for the placebo effect, just to give me a sense that I wasn’t completely defenseless while facing down giants like my sister and her new queen.

“Sorry,” I said.  “For wasting your time.”

“It’s not a waste.  I don’t think there are any one-hundred percent answers, but I do think we can take some baby steps in the right direction.  We can talk coping strategies, coping mechanisms, but only if you understand these aren’t fixes, and I’m not giving you the all-clear.”

“Please,” I said.

“For the record, I don’t think you should attend this meeting if your sister might be present.  There’s too little to gain, and too much to lose.”

“I’m the reason she wants the meeting.  Amy’s the reason that’s the case.  If I don’t facilitate this and attend, then there is no meeting, there is no communication, and there’s only chaos.  I don’t think the good guys come out ahead in that scenario.”

“All for the sake of getting a handle on this?”

“One hundred percent,” I answered him, with only a sick feeling in my gut.

“Then let’s change the subject for a moment.  I may have been misreading things as I watched the episode, correct me if I’m wrong, but your team looked surprised when the subject was raised.  My instincts were that it wasn’t because of how low the hosts stooped in trying to get to you.”

“It wasn’t.  You’re right.”

“Have you told them since?”

I shook my head.  “Only one of them.”

“I can’t armor you, Victoria, but I can point out a weak point you’ve been ignoring.  Let’s talk this through.”

I felt conspicuous, as people milled around me.  The hospital was waking up, and both the families who were staying at places nearby and the families who were really devoted were arriving for the start of visiting hours.  Eight thirty in the morning.

I didn’t feel great, as it happened.  I was less Victoria Dallon and more the arms, legs, body and head of Victoria Dallon, very aware of the clothes she wore and the movements of this body.  With the rain outside, people came in with wet hair, umbrellas and coats.  Slick wetness slid across bare hands and occasionally the face.  Lurching bodies periodically bumped and brushed up against the body of Victoria Dallon.

I hated this and I didn’t fight it either.

It was a state of mind that had kept me alive and sane when the body hadn’t been mine.  A way of framing thoughts and not letting the small discomforts and the awkwardness get to me.  In rehearsing conversations and facing the details I’d have to spell out for others, I found myself back there.  Not irrevocably so, I could have backed off or forced myself to the surface, but I wasn’t one hundred percent up to it.

Some people saw me and gave me second glances.  One or two smiled.  Ten glared or gave me dirty looks.  The looks only distorted the alignments and fits of body, skin, mind, and heart.  I could rationalize it- I’d been on television less than twenty-four hours ago, after all.  I couldn’t sell that rationalization to the feeling in my gut.

It went beyond just me, though.  It felt like people were more frazzled, more angry, more rumpled.  My mind was in a place where I was more able to dwell on the bad.

Natalie had family with her- a few young cousins or siblings, a few people of an age to be aunts and uncles, and a lone parent: a mom who was probably the complete inverse of my mom.  Her mom babied her, getting water that she didn’t reach for, fretting, moving aimlessly.  The main reason I thought the kids were Natalie’s siblings was that her mom looked very much like a mother of four that hadn’t slept, showered, and had pulled on whatever she’d had at hand.  Natalie just seemed to lie back on the hospital bed and let it happen, making regular comments to the cousin or sibling nearest to her in age.

A rain-slick umbrella licked its way along the length of my arm.  I pulled my arm away, gripping my wrist to help keep it out of the way, and took a step forward and a step the side.  Toward the door, putting myself in line of sight.  I rapped my knuckles on the frame.

“Oh, hi Victoria,” Natalie said.  To her family, she said, “This is someone I’m working with.  You’re up early.”

That got me a dubious look from her mom.

“I was in the area.”  Intentionally.  “How are you?”

“I’m ready to go home.  They kept me overnight after I fainted a second time, and I really shouldn’t have.  I’m discharged after lunch.”

“I’m still worried,” her mom fretted.

“I’m just really, really lame.”  Natalie’s head lolled back to her pillow as she said it, as if she was exasperated.

“You’re not lame,” I said.  “You went above and beyond last night.”

“That night feels like a dream now,” she said.  “The pain drugs are contributing to that feeling.”

“I’m sorry we put you in the line of fire,” I said.  “That kind of thing with going after people at home- that shouldn’t happen.  It’s unprecedented.”

“Don’t say that,” Natalie said, mock-stern.  “As the closest thing you have to legal counsel, you saying that is tantamount to admitting culpability.  If I wanted to sue you, you’d be digging your own grave with that.”

“Right,” I said.

“This wasn’t what I wanted for you,” her mom cut in.  “You would have been safer going into medical school.”

“If I worked in a hospital, I’d have belligerent drug-seeking patients to deal with or something, and I’d be miserable.  I’m working under some excellent lawyers and my prospects are good.  I’m only three-quarters miserable doing what I’m doing.  If I put up with the three-quarters I don’t like for a little while longer, I’ll be able to move to doing things I like.  And I get to do this stuff with the hero team too.  Scary moments aside, it’s really neat.”

“The hero team is too dangerous for what you’re getting.”

“You don’t even know how much I’m getting.”

“I know it’s too dangerous!”

“Thank you for coming, Victoria, you don’t have to feel obligated to stay for the family squabbling.  Can you keep me updated?  I may drop by at four or five.”

“You should rest,” her mom protested.

“I can do that,” I said.  “I’m glad you’re on the mend.”

“They warned me I’ll have a scar, but they said I’ll probably have no permanent damage.”

There was no sentence the mom didn’t react to, whether it was dramatic expressions, eyes widening, or posture shifts.

“Can I see?”

She had to adjust the hospital gown collar, pulling it down enough to show me the slash.  From sternum to shoulder, and some of the arm.  Only the arm had bandage taped over it – by the location, it might have nicked an artery.  The rest had the stitches alone.  It was even on both sides, stitches neat, skin not puckered or even that inflamed for this stage in the healing process.

“Looks tidy.  If you want, I brought a pack of different shades of camouflage concealer over from the old Earth, and I think I have one that would match your skin tone.  You’re a shade lighter than me.”

“You don’t have to do that.”

“It’s only enough in each tin for two or three applications, but maybe you’d want it for an event.  Minimize or downplay the scar while wearing something strapless.”

“Thank you,” she said.  “I don’t think I’ll wear anything strapless in my life, but it would be really nice to have the option.”

“Also brought this,” I said.  I held up a knit blanket, still in its packaging.  It was tartan, in bottle-glass green, white, and dark gray.

“Thank you,” she said.  I saw the worry line on her forehead, even as she smiled.

“The last time I visited this hospital, there were walls still incomplete.  I was imagining a draft.”

“It’s perfect.  Can you put it over my feet?”

The mom took it from me and arranged it over Natalie’s feet.

Natalie seemed inordinately pleased with the gift.  Meanwhile, I felt weirdly out of place in my own skin, and very aware of her family’s attention on me.

“Drink, Nat,” her mother urged.  Natalie drank her water.

“If you’re bored with nobody around, and if visiting hours are still open, there’s something I want to discuss,” I said.  “I can bring anything you need, too.  I’m fast and you’re not far.”

“If you think my mom is leaving while visiting hours are open, you’re just plain wrong,” Natalie said.

“Where is that doctor?” her mom asked.

“Don’t bother the doctor, mom.  Everything’s fine.”

“The more attention you get, the better.”

“I will get worse care if I’m obnoxious.”

“I’ll be the obnoxious one then if it means getting you the care you need.”

“Natalie, I’m going to get out of your hair,” I told her.  Then, spur of the moment, I winked and said, “Be sure to get in touch about that one-on-one conversation.  Team stuff.”

“Team stuff?  Legal?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “But it can wait until this afternoon, I think.”

That was excuse enough for Natalie to shoo her mom and the mini-Natalies out of the room- they weren’t even paying attention to us, mostly sitting in a row of three chairs in the corner, talking.  They went with the aunts and uncles.  Cousins.  The mom went a separate direction.

“Needed a moment to breathe?” I asked.

“Yes.  Thank you.”

“Believe me, I get it.”

“My mom is embarrassing.  I love her, but you can’t tell her anything.  Your mom, I know for a fact, is awesome.”

I drew in a breath and held back the big sigh I wanted to give.

“Are you okay?” Natalie asked.  “You didn’t stay up all night hunting those losers from Kenzie’s house, did you?”

“No.  We got the mooks and handed them off to the authorities.  Tipped off other teams, we’re collapsing on them like we did with Trial and Error.  If we pin them down, I might fly over and help.”

“Are you okay though?”

“I did want to talk with you about something one-on-one,” I told her.  “If you’re up for it.”

“Something legal?”

I shook my head.  “Not really.  But it came up last night, and it’s been pointed out to me that this stuff being kept private is kind of a weak point.  Maybe if the others had known, they would have known what to say when it came up on the show.  Extra heads-

“-extra arms,” I finished.  My voice was quieter with each word.

“That was a real thing?” Natalie asked, equally quiet.

“I was a puddle of body parts for two years and the one person who could change me back sent herself to the one place nobody was supposed to get out from.  She threatened bioplagues if they didn’t send her there…”

“Bioplagues?”

“So I heard.  She said if they put her in a jail cell, she’d make bacteria that ate through whatever materials they made it out of, and disperse the bioweapons through the holes.  It was stupid and shortsighted to send her to the Birdcage, but she forced their hands… and now she’s working with Goddess.”

Lips, a tongue, and a throat that didn’t feel quite like my own carried on with their explanations for our unofficial eighth member of Breakthrough.

Sveta’s first words on seeing me were, “You’re drenched!”

“Saw Natalie,” I said, stepping inside.  Most of the team was assembled in the headquarters.  No, it looked like it was everyone.  Chris was just napping under a table, waking up as Byron kicked the table leg.  “She seems alright, all things considered.”

“That’s so good to hear,” Sveta said.  Without moving from the center of the room, she snatched up a towel from a table and thrust it into my chest.  I grunted at the impact.

“I’m glad,” Ashley said.  Her projection was beside Kenzie.  It was static, like a power-saving mode, arms folded, legs crossed, rear end against the edge of the desk, but nothing below the neck moved.  “We owe her one.  Does she need books or something while she’s in the hospital?”

“She’d be out of the hospital before she could finish anything.  Is there any news on our targets?”

I found myself looking to Tristan for the answer, but it was Byron sitting next to Rain in that corner, instead.

“No reports from the teams that are helping us out,” Rain said.

“Nothing on Goddess, she’s sleeping in,” Kenzie said.  “But we did have some weirdness at the prison earlier.  I wasn’t here, and I couldn’t do much on my phone, but it’s like I kicked a sad, pathetic hornet’s nest.”

“Hornet’s nest?” I asked.

“An enclave of really shitty tinkers,” Chris said.

“Probably teacher,” Rain clarified.  “But we were thinking it might be the Speedrunner cluster.  The New Fallen.”

“Whoever it is, it’s fun!  It’s like playing whack-a-mole, except they’re bad at dodging and the guts get everywhere when you land a good hit.  Really satisfying.”

“But you don’t have the files you wanted,” Chris said.

“I’ll get them soon!”

“This is your specialty and they’re succeeding in stalling you.”

“I’ll get them soon, Chris!”

The flow was comforting, reassuring.  Stuff to do, enemies to target.  The banter, the easy companionship.  More a team than friends, maybe, or that was the immediate vibe.

“I need to get this out of the way,” I cut in, abrupt.  I was aware of the heads turning.  That ease and comfort fled, replaced with scrutiny.  Only Sveta looked concerned, not suspicious or surprised.  “Therapist’s orders.”

“Is this-?” Sveta asked.

I nodded.

“If I don’t do this now, I won’t get around to it.  It was a problem last night.  I don’t want it to be a problem again.  It’s too glaring a weak point, and if my sister’s out there, it might come up.  You need to know what she’s capable of.”

“She changed you,” Chris said.

So blunt, so crass.  I was annoyed and that annoyance could’ve made it so very easy for me to take all of the feelings that were stewing inside and lash out at him.

I glanced at Sveta.

“It’s more than that, Chris,” Sveta said.

“Easier to show than tell,” I said.  I indicated the door.

It took them time to get outside.  Raincoats, an umbrella.  It took more time because Rain and Ashley were locked into position for whatever reason.  Kenzie left last, one camera under each arm, while Byron held up one umbrella.  Sveta just let the rain soak her.

When they’d all found the fire escape, I was by the ground.  I walked by the trash, and snatched up three two-by-fours.  Planks too warped for use in construction or repair, weather-worn from being left beneath the fire escape.

I took to the air, holding out the two-by-fours.  I let the Wretch out.

Hands took the two-by-fours from me, holding them out and ready.  One creaked with the hold on it.  The other twisted as two different hands gripped it and threatened to snap it.

My hands no longer held the beams of wood, while they floated near me.

And as the rain came down, droplets ran down and wicked off, momentarily tracing the Wretch in its entirety.  The arms, the heads, the faces, the hair.  A tangled flowing of nude flesh, parts repeated over and over again, with me in the center of the mass.  I didn’t look at it, keeping my head down, my hood down where it covered most of my face.

“She can do this,” my voice didn’t sound like me.  “Change powers by changing the host’s physiology.  She made the Class-S threat that took control of everyone, bringing them to the battlefield.  That’s who’s going to be at the meeting today.”

I swiped my arm down and at an angle.  The Wretch threw the planks down toward the foot of the fire escape.

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