Heavens – 12.9

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I wrestled with a hand that was the size of a car, that had more leverage than I did.  It had a partner hand, planted on the ground to my left, and two smaller ‘back’ hands, like a dog had back legs, one gripping the side of a building, the other digging fingers into dirt.  Any number of fingers had invisible cables attached- I’d seen two before they stopped moving.  Cables that could slice right through me, given a chance or a reckless movement on my part.  I knew exactly where the Wretch was, where each hand and foot was placed, at one giant fingertip, at the ‘webbing’ of cables that stretched in a bow between two fingers, at a finger to my side, and in the ground.

But a hand was a series of moving parts, and I had to account for all of them.  With the way the machine was positioned, three hands planted on the ground and one for me to deal with, it was trying to lift me up and push me back at the same time, or to get in position where it could squish me beneath, given a chance.  I could deal with three fingers, but as the pinky finger came at me from the side, I didn’t have the bracing ready to catch it or stop it from punching through the Wretch.

I cast away the Wretch, twisted in the air to avoid the fingers that came down, and let the hand move around me before bringing the Wretch out again.  The action took a second, I ran on instinct for the entirety of it, and the entire dynamic with my ‘opponent’ changed.  I was between middle and ring fingers, close to the webbing, the Wretch gripping the two fingers in multiple places, clawing at the cabling between fingers now.

Less leverage, less room and time to maneuver next time, but less worry about invisible cables or fingers coming at me from the side.  So long as I kept my eye on the thumb.  It didn’t have a good angle to get at me, but a bad angle wasn’t no angle, and robot hands could bend in ways regular hands couldn’t.

The space was dark.  It had been dark before it was folded up into a maze that creeped up around us on all sides.  Lights flashed on and off in my peripheral vision, taking weird shapes, and I knew they were the movements of the flashlights, cast at ground, at walls, then both, then neither.  Many of those flashlights were mounted on guns, and all of those guns were intended for us.

They weren’t even the most ominous lights in my field of vision.  Slashes of light like illumination shining through cracks in the door decorated the hundred-foot-by-hundred foot space around us.  Each could apparently cut through forcefield, through-

-through breaker bubbles.  Like Brandish’s.

I set my jaw, refusing to look.  Because I wasn’t in a position to help, and because it would distract.  Not that it mattered, because as much as I was trying, as much as I recognized the immediate peril and that the others in the group were striving to cover the entryways, I couldn’t take my mind off of the fact that Brandish hadn’t moved.  My dad’s voice, like a muffled echo from the surface while I was underwater, was insistent and loud.

They weren’t words meant for me, which meant I could safely ignore them, refuse to listen to them, and focus on the pounding of my pulse.

I could try.

“-bubble!”

I winced.

The hand lurched, shifting as the fingers of the hand furthest from me dragged through dirt, and found some kind of traction, like a vein of rock covered by soil.  It was like a new form of strength, something I had to fight against, maintaining the Wretch, reaching out to find the fold, one area where a section of torso rose out of a broader mass, the area the hospital workers had had to work extra hard to keep clean.  I could protest and claim my forcefield kept the dust off, but that did nothing for accumulated sweat and the bacteria that multiplied in the sweat.

The washings and the ‘lean forward so we can get in there’ instructions had left me with an enduring awareness of the feature that would stay with me for the rest of my life.  For my purposes here, it was the part of the Wretch that extended furthest in.

Where I moved, the Wretch floated around me, equidistant.  But it wouldn’t block me.  There was a point I could reach out and feel it, with a sense that wasn’t my awareness of my powers, but it wasn’t a barrier.  More like a handle.

When I moved it, the Wretch moved around me.  The hand tilted a fraction.  Away from the body.  Closer to the passage.

But with all of its leverage, it was stronger.  It fought back, inch by inch.  With every inch and every second, I had to be aware that a stray bullet or sudden shock could knock out my forcefield, and I’d need to move to avoid having my head crushed or struck from my shoulders.

Around me, more of the glowing lines began to appear.  I turned in place, one hand on the crevice-handle in the forcefield, surveying my immediate situation.  Four lines, arranged in a horizontal square, parallel to the ground.  They were spaced a good distance apart- I could move a good foot or two before the Wretch made contact with them.  A few more feet and it would be me, not my forcefield, that made the contact.  But they were what they were.

A collar.  Four massive guillotine blades, level with my neck, staying where they were and waiting for my neck to meet them.

Though this had been an open space before, it was easiest to think of it as a house now, doors or windows on each of the four sides.  I had the mech at one side, Foil was to my right with the Harbingers, my dad and Swansong to my left, and the dogs across from me.  Tristan lay in the middle, unconscious, while Rain was stuck navigating the lines that were intent on trapping him.

“Brandish, use your breaker form!”  My dad’s voice.

I had no tears in my eyes, no moisture on my cheeks.  My throat was tight, the breaths coming in tense, and every muscle was tight, to the point that it felt like it was choking the tear ducts and constricting the blood flow.

“Carol!”

On a ledge above, Cradle looked down, staring with the lenses on his mask glowing.  I could see him, and I saw his head turn.  He was tracking something I couldn’t see.

All at once, the Harbingers and Foil broke away.  If Cradle had wanted to do something elsewhere, the movement of the three forced him to devote attention here.

One Harbinger ran for it, out the door, toward the soldiers.  The other joined Foil, coming my way.  They dodged the lines that appeared in their way, though Foil cut it close enough that it clipped her costume, cutting the decorative material where it jutted out.

She threw herself to the ground, back hitting earth, her gun raised high.

Cradle began moving around, making himself a hard target, before settling on a position that let him see most of the field while being clear of Foil’s field of vision.  The lines began appearing again.  Like the glowing blades of swords stuck into the earth.

The Harbinger used the distraction, leaping onto one of the back hands.  The surface looked too sheer, but he found handholds and footholds, the edge of a foot or a finger finding a groove in the metal that I might have thought was a trick of the eyes.

He had a knife that looked like it was made of glass, and used it to slice the head off of a bolt or a screw.  Three strikes in two seconds.

“Carol, change!”

“What can we do?” Foil asked.  She shot again.  The sound was loud, and I could see many people in this antechamber of Cretan’s maze react to the sharp noise.

“Can’t- it’s up to her.  She’s moving, if she can just- I don’t think she wants to.  Fuck!”

“Why not?”

My dad didn’t answer.  I knew.  Even after all this time, Brandish hated being in the form.  It left her blind and deaf, sensing and tracking the world around her with another kind of awareness.  In the ball, she was confined in the dark.  And she hated the dark.

She had endured for the sake of the job, and she’d come out of it bitter and hostile enough to drop a barb.

There were too many stories, and recent mention of the Breaker in the hospital that hadn’t been able to leave her form wasn’t the only one of its kind.  Changers, Breakers, and tinkers who emulated those things always had the ‘what if I can’t go back’ problem in the backs of their minds.  Tristan was an all-too-recent reminder of how easy it would be to walk that line, and pick the exact wrong moment to use a power.

I leveraged the Wretch, doing what I could to shift the hand, so it wouldn’t fall or strike down near where Brandish lay.

They’d been able to abandon the ‘door’ because reinforcements had come.  Bitter Pill was the first to make her way in, twice as tall as she had been but not twice as thick around, with limbs that flexed like they had rubber and not bone inside.  Her mouth yawned open, froth flowing from the corner lowest to the ground, and her tongue lolled out, extended in length.  She had a soldier in each hand, and she flexed her entire body to heave one up, then slam him into the nearest corner.  The other she shoved face-first into the frozen dirt, with enough strength to leave a furrow behind.

As intimidating as the warped silhouette was, the sounds were mewling, soft moans, with some vibration behind them, as if from the lowest point of the throat.

“Careful!” I shouted.  “Glowing lines kill!”

Being big as she was, her body wasn’t good at moving through Cradle’s mess of lines.  She made it about halfway before she stumbled into one and lost her leg and part of her pelvis.  She crashed to the ground and in the process lost a bit of her scalp.

Birdbrain, Moose, and two more of the local capes stopped in their tracks as they saw her fall.

A long arm that bent under the weight of its extremity found its way to the lab coat she wore, which barely extended below her ribcage with her altered form.  Another medication dispenser.  This one topped with what looked like a tumor with a mask shaped like a baby’s face on the front.

The head flipped back, and her stretched-out mouth was already wide open for another squirt from the pizz dispenser.

Moose was more careful.  He tried backhanding one of the lines, stopping short of hitting it, and let the shockwave run past it.  I could see where the shockwave that followed the movement disturbed the earth.  It took a ‘v’ shape, as even that was parted.

I felt the Mech I was wrestling shift in reaction to the vibration.  Whatever the Harbinger was doing didn’t seem like enough.

I almost looked at Brandish as that happened, checking if she had been hurt worse by even the fact that there was movement in the air, jostling, and changing in position.

He was tall, too, and unlike Bitter Pill, he had the ‘powers gave me this physique’ build.

“Who needs help!?” Moose shouted.

“Carol- the woman-”

“Precipice,” I interrupted my dad.  “Get to Precipice, Moose, help him get free of the cage.  You!”

I indicated someone else from the group.  A cape I didn’t recognize, who had an unkempt beard that extended below the line of his mask.  He had a mean look to him, by design, by color, the way the metal armor he wore strapped in over coat and costume bottoms was as scuffed and battle-scarred as it was.  But his eyes were wide and alarmed behind the mask.

“Get to her.  Try and get her to change, but carry her back to Bluestocking somehow.  Hug the wall, the guy making cutting lines is above!”

He looked relieved to have a job.

“I can do above,” Birdbrain said.  “Give me a second, need to adjust.”

Foil, back still to the ground, gun in front of her, let go of her weapon to indicate a direction.  Birdbrain nodded.

We had our reinforcements.  I could hear Damsel using her blasts nearby, and wished she was here.

Moose drew nearer.  I saw the lines around me disappear, the guillotine fizzling out, and realized what was imminent.  A sudden lunge, the mech twisting, leaning hard on me to simultaneously push me down and use me as a bracing point to go for Moose, backhanding him.

I was ready for it.  I dropped everything, losing the Wretch, the forcefield, and letting the Mech fall instead of lean on me.  The backhand lost its leverage, and Moose was able to bring his hands around and put his hands out in anticipation of the attack.  The sides of the gauntlets, not the palms or fists.

The mech struck him, and Moose was sent stumbling backward but not so far back that he collided with the fence of glowing lines.  The points where the hands met his gauntlets, however, bent inward, metal fingers bending and crumpling.

Moose shifted his hand from ‘chop’ to a fist, not punching, but simply pointing.  The crumpled parts became craters.  He pushed, to follow-up, and the shockwave that followed saw the mech toppling.  I hurried to do my best to guide its fall.

The axis where four arms extended out hit the ground.  The landing was hard enough to jostle everyone and everything nearby.  Rain, trapped with no less than six of the glowing lines criss-crossing in a loose circle around him, nearly stumbled into one of them.

“He’ll try to fuck with you, Precipice is who he really wants!” I told Moose.  “Careful of more lines!”

“Fuck,” was the response.

But he didn’t stop, as he recovered and ran, now crouching, in Rain’s direction.

Meanwhile, I had to deal with the fact that the mech no longer needed arms or hands on the ground to brace itself.  With two big arms and two small ones, the center-mass was off.  Something I’d always had to pay attention to when learning how to throw or move big things with my power.

An image flashed into my mind, of Uncle Neil giving me field instruction, while parents stood by, arms folded.

It hurt.  The regret, the full and total knowledge that I hadn’t told her about my forcefield and she’d gotten hurt because of it.  I didn’t want to call it the Wretch in this context, because that felt like it was deflecting blame to the reckless and wild consciousness at the other end of my power.

The advantage was that it wasn’t very mobile.  Instead of four arms pointed down and the point they met up, it was the other way around.  Four lengths of arm, ‘shoulder’ to elbow, all resting on the ground as a cross, each with a massive mechanical forearm and hand rising up from the terminus or draping out from the end.  In the center, protected by those hands, I could see the ‘bowl’ of stasis-frozen body parts.  We needed those.

I saw Swansong look over her shoulder and gave her a tight shake of the head.  Because the terrain was muddy and she was missing a foot, and because the mech had hostages at the same time she had a chaotic and reckless power.

It could drag itself, and it looked to be trying, but it was just an obstacle, with a lot of reach and, should it move in just the right way, the possibility of slamming into Brandish.

I threw myself at one elbow, pushing the entire mass just a few feet across slick, muddy ground, still wet from Byron’s power.  The hand came down, and I flew back and away, spinning once in the air to try and ensure I wasn’t flying into anything lethal.

The spin made my head swim, and between the sick feeling in my upper chest, the tension in my facial features, the dizziness that swept over my every sense, and the fact that the arms and legs I was relying on were entirely power-derived, I felt like I was just a head, neck, and some shoulder.

I hit it again, to try to wedge it into the corridor that Brandish and Capricorn had been guarding, and nudge it further from Brandish.

The thing was trying to stand, and I did what I could to keep it from getting there.  Moose leaped onto it, knocking an arm flat to the ground, while making the rest of it buck up.

I hit it again, harder, to knock it flat again.  Metal bent and broke.

“Heads up!” Rain barked.

There were arms nested in one of the primary ones.  I’d seen how they did it, a more slender arm fitting into hollows in the forearm, palm, and fingers.  As they pulled free, I saw the glint and crackle of the invisible cables.  The hollow spaces in the underside of each arm and hand were covered up by shutters.

“Moose, Harbinger, get back!” I called out the order.

The whips came crashing down.  Five deep slices into earth as the left hand swept down.  Five more when the right hand swiped horizontally, raking a nearby wall that had been raised up from the ground as part of the ‘maze’.

The hands rose and reoriented, the entire machine trying to get to a position like its original one, with four arm-shaped ‘legs’ firmly on the ground in a quadruped position, but this time with the two narrower, nimbler arms extended up and above from the midpoint, each with five cables draping from them, those cables swiftly becoming invisible.

Foil and the Harbinger took point.  As the arms whipped out again, Harbinger shot.  The invisible cable’s course was altered, and it clipped the ‘elbow’ of one of the arms.

I couldn’t fly full speed, so I rose steadily, up and away from the scene.  Moose was helping Rain, lifting him up and out of the cage.  Foil and Birdbrain were taking up different points around the clearing, to have a better chance of hitting Cradle if he turned up.

I could hear the gunfire and see how frenetic the flashlights were moving in places.  More reinforcements.  There were less people pressing in against Rachel and the dogs, now.

I could see the cape I’d tasked with evacuating Brandish.  I could see the glow of the orb.

Rain got free and sprinted toward the mech.  He made his silver blades, then sliced at one finger.

It broke, the weight of it serving as the catalyst to bring about the break.  Rain was already swiping at another- until his sword fizzled out.

“Fucking come on!” he swore.  “Come on, come on!”

The blade appeared again.  A delay between uses, apparently.  Rain cut at the hand itself.

“Back out, Rain!” I shouted.

I saw him hesitate, moving like he was going to jump back into the fray.

“You’re not thinking straight!”

He seemed to get that.  He turned to run.

Hands moved, cables slicing audibly through the air, right for him.

Moose grabbed his hand and hauled him out of the last foot of the cable’s reach.

The Mech tried to stand, but with one finger and part of the hand broken, its attempt to ‘walk’ itself forward failed, and it toppled.

The fact that it was slower made it easier to keep a distance.  The reinforcements we were getting were making it so we weren’t surrounded by soldiers while holding our ground in a ‘house’, to use my allegory for the nature of the clearing.  The soldiers were under attack on their own, and we had a chance to breathe.  To shore up.

There was an issue with fighting an uphill battle, and we had been, before the reinforcements.  I wasn’t sure if we still weren’t, just given the situation that surrounded us.  It was a long, hard slog to get uphill, but if there was someone standing at the other end of that uphill climb, they were benefiting from being there.  Not fighting meant one could rest, could heal, and could come up with contingencies, while watching the other guy struggle.  When we’d had the advantage over the villains of Hollow Point, before Advance Guard had tipped our hand for us, we’d had that option.

It was why, so very often, things could trend downhill.  The wrong people got the advantage and every time that hard progress was made, they were ready with a failsafe, another plan, a way to knock the good guys down.   When the good guys managed that equilibrium, it was society functioning reasonably well.

It didn’t help that the people who were willing to capitalize on the weak were villains, so even when victory was achieved against the criminals and monsters, there were often others of their ilk ready to pick up where they left off, while everyone else was picking up the pieces.

The others had the situation partially handled.  I wanted to be above it, away from it.  To get a vantage point wide enough that I could make out the players and see what the next move was.

To get ahead of Cradle and what he had planned.

The Harbinger who hadn’t gone to fight the soldiers elsewhere in the maze was dodging the cables, targeting the mech.  It was a systematic dismantlement, where one stab or a series of smaller ones caused cracks to run along one length of arm, or made steam start billowing out of an elbow.  I suspected he was very much enjoying himself, but it wasn’t fast.  I had to assume that as good as he was at movement, at thinking his way around a fight, he didn’t get tinker things like a tinker did.

Sveta was at the rooftops, and as I rose up, she rose up alongside me, keeping a healthy distance.

By the look on her face, she’d seen.  She didn’t meet my eyes.

I didn’t get the feeling of judgment or condemnation.  But if there were words to say, I was pretty sure she couldn’t bring herself to say them.  To absolve me of blame for what I’d done to Brandish required that she do the same for herself, for the accidental deaths she caused.  I knew from what she’d said in the past that she always wondered about and regretted the preventative actions she hadn’t taken.

“They’re going to change it up,” I said.  My voice sounded funny.  Easier to be a leader, authoritative, communicating what was needed.  In this medium, away from the thick of it, trying to catch a breath, I sounded so shaky.

“How?” Sveta asked.  She met my gaze with the question.

“Sneak attack, or going for something they know we want.  If he threatens his hostages- one of the vital organs of someone, that’s one thing.  The portal is another thing where he has the advantage.  Or he could just find one of us in a moment of weakness and catch us by surprise with that whip of his.”

“He has to get to his machine to do anything with it.”

“And to pilot it,” I observed.  “It was faster and cleverer when he was close enough to watch it and track what it was doing.  I don’t think it has the best A.I. on its own.”

“It’s scary,” Sveta said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “But Cradle’s scarier.  Keep an eye out.”

It was difficult to keep an eye on every rooftop, corner, crevice, and maze wall, in this space that had folded up, had parts rise up, and otherwise turned itself around enough that it was all a mess.  Not every point seemed to connect exactly to each other point, and an awful lot seemed to turn back in on itself.

The guy with Brandish was having trouble getting out.  He found himself back in the same place again, and to his credit, he looked upset about it.  He cared about helping or doing his part for this community here.

Because the maze was shifting.

The effect was slow, but it was picking up speed.  The guy was taking routes that had knocked-out or dead soldiers or signs of passage, only to find they were dead ends.

“The maze is shifting!” I hollered down.

Tremulous emotion caught me post-holler, like I’d jostled something free.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” I swore.  “What are you doing, Cradle?”

Tunnels and corridors weren’t serving to give the soldiers an angle for a surprise attack, so tunnels and corridors fell away.  I saw a squadron running in the general direction of the others.

I flew into the upper edge of a maze wall, and I slammed into it.

There were soldiers who were far enough ahead that when they heard the action they could run or push their way forward.  There were others at the tail end of the group who could back off.

More in the center, who bent over or tried to shield themselves.  Stones and chunks of earth fell on them from above.

I might well have killed one or more of them, doing that.  It might not be the first deathblow I’d delivered tonight.

I had to focus.  The only way forward was forward.  I couldn’t atone for one mistake by perpetrating another and letting other people die.

The maze was shifting to create an arena, and an aperture was opening in the side of a building.  A gate, unfolding as a small crack became a hole and the hole became an archway.  As it opened, so did the scale of the blades that flew out of the aperture, tiny and counting in the hundreds.  Cretan followed it, charging with shield up and helmet down.

Moose started forward, picking up a piece of corrugated metal with the clear intent of shielding some of the others, but it was a coordinated attack.  A short wall tripped Moose.  Cretan collided with him while he was off balance.  While he was on the ground, walls began to rise up around him.  My dad blew up two of those walls, only to start receiving the brunt of the flying blades, which were so numerous they carpeted the floor of the clearing.

The blades were like razors, embedding an inch or so into flesh or ground, or opening up cuts, while Cretan was the hammer, to remove or exclude heavier and more dangerous targets.

My dad shouted something to Moose, threw a grenade.  Moose caught it, then flicked it toward the open archway.  It detonated within.

It only bought a few seconds.

I needed to be down there.  Except I didn’t trust myself.

Lionwing and Cretan were two of Cradle’s inner guard.  That they were stepping into the fray meant we were whittling him down.  As Ashley had noted, Cradle was one to lead from the rear, and as I’d noted, he probably liked to monitor and pilot his mech, and maybe to use his emotion power.

I flew down.  Through the rooftop of the building the aperture had opened in.  The space had been a one-floor house, but raised up by the maze to be three or four stories tall.  Instead of slamming through multiple floors in quick succession, I found myself in a void, fifty feet to travel down to the ground, only a maze-created fold of wall to knock down on my way.

He was ready for me, and he saw me.  The whip flared red in the near-total darkness, illuminated only by secondhand light thrown in through the window.

I didn’t hesitate, trying to visualize the route I needed to take, and the form that swing would have.

Rather than swing, he disappeared, skipping his way into the clearing.

I hit the earth, found and picked up a stone, and stood up again.  Lionwing was at the entry to the arch, drawing the blades back to her now, to form a shield at one arm.

I couldn’t fight Lionwing, but I didn’t want her to know that.  That stream of blades would tear past my forcefield.

At the rear of the other group, the mech moved, reaching, and it was Sveta who reached down to grab outstretched fingers.  Every single one of her tendrils found a home, either on an anchor point or on the mech itself.  It strained, to the point I thought she might snap, or that tendrils might pull free.

I flew straight for Lionwing, then pulled away at the last second, using my aura.  A test.

It provoked a response, the shield extending from a rough triangular shape to a spike.  Another spike composed of interlocked blades stabbed out from under the shield.  If both of those had hit me, far enough apart…

She knew how my power worked?

My eyes narrowed.

“Fuckers,” I said.

“Do you know how his emotion power works?” Lionwing asked.

“We got the gist of it,” I said.  “But I bet you’re going to try to be clever.  You seem like the type.”

“The type?”

I was aware that every second that passed was a second my team was fighting Cradle, the mech, and Cretan, while Cretan used his power to divide and conquer them.

At least if I tied her up I could keep her from using most of those blades on my team.  It looked like she had a set quantity she could manage at a whim.  Shields, blades, flying hail, even flight, from what I’d heard reported.

“Your first move in a fight is a surprise attack, pulling an ace from your sleeve.  You have the hair-” I gestured at her mane of hair.  “-that you obviously put time into.  Nice costume.  But you work for an irredeemable scumbag and do irredeemable things.  Doesn’t connect.  Like it’s all surface level.”

Blades flew in to slide into studs in her costume.  For a second, she was buoyed up.  Had I missed my chance to get an answer, in my hurry to push her?

She stabbed out, and the configuration of the sword shifted to make it more spear-like as she thrusted, the blades sliding against the palm of her gauntlet.  She hit the edge of the Wretch, and the blade detonated, a shrapnel of blades cast out in every direction in front.

I’d avoided it, because she’d already established her pattern with intent.  One-two hits, every time.

“Now you’re second guessing yourself,” I said.  “Whether what you were going to say sounded good, the intimidation factor.”

“No second guesses,” she said.

I forced a small smile to my face, and offered her an equally small laugh, inaudible but visible.

“Ol’ Snag wants to give people things that mean something, and he gets a power that lets him fill objects with emotion, builds gear to shoot people with it.  Makes sense, don’t it?” Lionwing asked.  “The bitch inflicts herself on everyone around her, and doesn’t realize she’s doing it even after she brings the teenage girl into her mess.”

“Colt.  Yeah,” I said.  I turned sideways, to be more aware of the blades that had peppered surfaces behind me.  They were starting to move again.  “Admittedly on point so far.”

I’d had the distinct impression that if I’d simply said ‘no’ to the question about what Cradle’s power was, I’d get a tease.  I wanted to bait her out, so I’d said ‘yes’, and now I tried to tack her pride to the matter.

It helped that she didn’t seem to care that much, and that my read on her wasn’t wrong- she liked appearances, flash, and style.

“The boy is a bad weather pattern, a cloud of misery and utter patheticness that hangs over anyone he looks at.”

I remained silent, let the silence hang.

If I gave her anything, including telling her she was wrong, which she kind of was, I was pretty sure she’d tease me and leave me without answers.

“The boss?  The guy who’s out there, cutting people to pieces, targeting the tired and the distracted?  He’s too self centered to give.  You learn to work around that.  It’s all take.  Himself.”

“I have something of his I’d like to give him.  Knock out his teeth and make him swallow them.”

“You stupid bitch,” Lionwing said.  “He can draw it in.  Read your weaknesses in chemical code, running through your head and your veins.  He earned money blackmailing people by targeting them.  He got more ground with people by sensing how far he could push them before they gave.  And all of that was before.  When he woke up tonight, he was strong.  What he’s been doing?  He’s been gathering what he needs.”

Reading us?  Hanging back and drinking it all in?

“Now,” Lionwing said, “He’s using it.”

Soldiers to keep us busy, maybe to force us into situations where our emotional landscapes were closer to the surface.

I knew mine was.

I snarled as I took flight, Wretch out, and hit the ground to kick up dirt, sending it her way.  I had to assume she needed to see to use those blades.

She created a cloud of them around herself, reached to her side, and drew a gun.

I hit the fold of maze above, where Cretan’s power had stretched out the building facing the station, and let the rubble fall.  I reversed course, flipping upside down -feeling a bit dizzy from my earlier impact- and reversed course, hitting the ledge fist-first.

To bring rubble down on Lionwing.  The cloud of blades became a solid bubble, a shield.

I broke another bit of rubble away, and used a burst of Wretch strength to hurl it, aiming not for her, but for where the bubble met ground.  Things were less interlocked there, and the chunk of concrete half-crumbled, half-bounced through.

It was an opportunity, where she couldn’t see me clearly and she was off-balance.  I fought her like I’d fight myself, grabbing another bit of concrete that broke off to be smaller than I’d hoped for, and hurling it, before changing directions.

The concrete hit one side of her bubble, and the entire thing shifted before exploding out in that direction.  I grabbed her gun-hand in the moment the now-exposed mercenary wheeled around to point it at me, almost catching it between my arm and armpit.

Her hand firmly in my grip, I smashed into her, driving her into the ground.  Her body rolled a short distance, her arm stayed with me.

I let it fall.  Still connected, or at least partially connected.  I hadn’t dismembered her, but I hadn’t ruled it out either.  But it was dislocated at the very least, and I was pretty sure from the way it had bent on the impact with the ground that I’d broken the various pieces of the arm in a few places.

I took care of her like I’d taken care of Paris.  I needed to know she wouldn’t be too dangerous to have at my back, but she didn’t need arms and legs.  I had to knock her out, and I didn’t have a minute to spare or anything convenient to do it with.

Instead, grabbing her hair, I smashed her head against the ground twice.  That was the point she was still breathing but not up to pick any fights with me anymore.

I grabbed weapons off of her, and I approached the arch.

My dad had been cut.  So had one of the dogs.  Moose was lying on the ground and I had no idea why, but I could assume another cut.

Harbinger two was out and Harbinger one… when I looked, I saw that the maze of Cretan’s power had raised walls all around us.  Could they climb?

Ashley looked unconscious, and she was bleeding badly.  I could see where Cretan stood, a safe distance away from her, and draw conclusions there.  Had she tried to beat him without killing him?

We’d gotten the sign-off on killing, but for Ashley, I could imagine a spur-of-the-moment thought where she felt it was more important not to kill the other horned guy in armor.

Fuck.  Fuck fuck fuck.

Rachel was harder to spot, because she was slumped against one dog’s side, while the dog lay on the ground.  Tattletale was beside her.

I saw Foil, but no Cassie.

I saw Bitter Pill, healed from her near-decapitation and leg loss, Birdbrain, and two of Bitter Pill’s capes that hadn’t been around when I’d dove into the building.  There were people from the local community without costumes on, and I had no idea from the context if they were Bluestocking’s or if they were ones loyal to Cradle and Cradle’s way.

Leaving only Rain, who was breathing hard, his expression hidden.  Cretan stood to one side, his head periodically turning as he surveyed the high walls that enclosed Cradle’s fucked up little arena.

“I guess you win,” I told Cradle, my voice low.

“If he surrenders, and if you stay back, I’ll let you tend to your wounded.  You’ve got a few.  I’ll do what I need to in the next six hours, and then I’ll get somewhere safe.  I have thinkers to ask, to make sure I’m not being pursued.  Once that’s confirmed, I’ll disable the severing.”

“It can be disabled?”

“Yes or no?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“I don’t get a say?” Rain asked.

“Ra- Precipice,” I said, and my voice was firm.  “Please.”

“One person is strapped to the railroad track, everyone else is strapped to the other.  The trolley is coming, do I pull the switch?” Rain asked, bitter.  “Except I’m the one guy.  I’ve always been the one guy.  I get people who say they care about me, but they always end up on the other goddamn track.”

“It’s not about that,” I said.

“Fucking feels like it.  Fuck!”

I closed my eyes.  I was aware that Cradle probably wasn’t keen on picking a fight with me because Lionwing had called his emotion power a kind of emotion reading or feedback response.  If my resistance to emotion powers factored in, I might seem a little fuzzier.

Rain, who was the only other guy with emotion powers still standing, was part of that.

But if I fought- I couldn’t see a way through.  Not when he had other mercenaries like Cretan, or anyone still outside the walls.

I had allies out there too, but the calculus…

I wasn’t sure I had another knock-down, drag-out fight in me.

“Yes,” I heard.

I opened my eyes.  Rain had answered.

“Walk forward,” Cradle said.  “Twenty feet ahead, hands up.  No mechanical hands.”

Rain’s expression was hidden, but I could imagine his face twisting with emotion as his shoulders tensed and his head turned at a slight angle.

“I’m going to remove them.”

“Do it.”

Rain disconnected the remains of his machine hands – one mostly intact, the other broken at the elbow.  He held both the pads in his hand, the arms folded up.  He bent down to lay them on the ground.

“Throw them.  Into there.”

Cradle indicated a leafy area where a bush jutted up against the side of one of the warped homes.

Rain discarded them, throwing them where they’d be hard to find again.  Without being asked, he started walking, head down.  Cretan trained a gun on him.

Cradle looked at me, and I raised my hands.

“If your feet leave the ground or if you drop those hands…” Cradle intoned.  He used his power, moving to a position where he was bent down.  He picked up an oblong stone.  A bright line appeared in the air to his right.  He swatted it with the stone, severing the stone in half.  “This happens to someone or something you care about.  Could be the fix you want.”

“And you get away, you disappear, and you leave the world a worse place than when you entered it.”

“I tried.  More than you know, I tried,” Cradle said.  “Once powers came into it, I physically could not try anymore.  Once he came into it.”

“I know people who couldn’t help but kill.  But they found coping mechanisms.”

“How long did it take them to figure out?” Cradle asked.  “How many deaths?”

I didn’t respond.

“I haven’t killed anyone,” he said.  “Not with these hands.  Believe me, I’m coping.”

“You’re fucking awful at coping,” I said.

“Aren’t we all?” he asked, and for maybe the first time ever, he sounded weirdly amused.

Then he walked away, Cretan ushering Rain forward.  Cradle flickered with every movement, not that it really mattered, considering the only conscious dangers who were crack shots with a gun were on the other side of the walls that bounded the arena and the tunnel Cretan was making to the station.  Above them were buildings stretched improbably tall and black sky.

He wins?

Fuck that.

I watched him disappear from sight.  I didn’t budge.  I avoided looking at the others.  I listened.

My middle ear might have been fucked up from my earlier collision, but I imagined a shift in the air pressure.  I imagined the timing was right.

I gave the signal, hand chopping down.

Sveta dropped down from that improbable height, her tendrils going to the ground and providing spring before the impact.

I flew, and as Sveta grabbed for every handhold, I threw caution to the wind.  No Wretch, no problematic air resistance.  I knew what I was getting into here.

But for the rainfall patter of Sveta’s tendrils on the walls of the station, we were silent, as we darted after Cradle.

He stood at the threshold to the portal, and he seemed genuinely surprised to see us.  If Cradle wasn’t as quick or effective in assessing me and how to target me, it might have had to do with my emotion resistance.  If he had difficulty with Sveta, it might have had to do with the fact that there were no veins for her emotions to run through, her brain maintained a different construction.

The reaction was immediate, Cretan’s power sheltering Cradle and putting a few bends in the path between them and us.

Sveta’s focus was on a few things at once, but she was capable of that.  Her mechanical body had trained her.

For Rain, she reached past the bends, grabbing him by several points, before flinging him backward, hurtling at about a hundred miles an hour toward the wall by the front door.  He stopped abruptly in his path.

Cradle proved harder to grab.  He could move in an instant, and as fast as those tendrils seemed to be, they took a bit more than an instant.

But as we’d seen when Foil went on the offensive, he reacted to surprise with randomness, before he settled on his game plan.  Four or five teleports in short order, long enough to put a thought together and assess the threat.

Sveta reached out for every point, every place he could be.  It made an audible sound, like a few seconds of intense rainfall.

She got tendrils on Cradle, and Cretan raised up a wall, singular, between Cradle and Sveta.  The tendril was pinched between wall and ceiling, unable to retract, reel in, or rope around Cradle enough to take any part of him.  Other tendrils tried to reach around the breadth of the wall, and they didn’t extend far enough.

My role in things was to distract, to force him to play the cards he had in hand.  For me, Cradle made the glowing lines.  X’s in space.

Sveta pulled Cradle’s equipment out of his hand.  With a flick of the trapped tendril, the equipment was sent skittering across the floor.

My goal, my plan, had been a raw one.  To trust the team.  Knowing that we had some good people beyond the wall, and thinking that they’d bring the wall down once they’d won, to reclaim the remaining mercenaries and assert dominance over Bluestocking.  They didn’t lower the walls.  No Harbinger, no Damsel, no Cassie and her hound, no Prancer…

But I’d had Sveta, my best friend.  Who was more trustworthy than I was.

And Chastity, who’d earned another so-very-important friendship in Cassie, was in the station.

Chastity had to run to grab the whip that had been sent across the floor.  She picked it up with two hands, fumbling with the controls.  A dial on the side.

More lines barred my way.

The whip flared to life, but it was too much, producing a high-pitched whine.

Fucking tinkers, Tattletale had said.

Trapped, or too hard to use.  Chastity tried to manage it, using her facility with whips to whip out in Cradle’s direction.

Too fast, too hard to hit.  The same evasive maneuvers that served against Sveta served against Chastity.  He produced glowing lines, and she slashed them.  Banishing them.

The crackle of electricity was reaching a fever pitch now.

She whipped Cretan instead.  Cutting him across the body at nipple height.  He tried to scream and didn’t find the air.

Cradle turned around, staring.  He touched his headgear, his hair.

“All alone,” I said.  “Because that’s what happens when you act like an asshole.”

He hesitated, then turned to the portal.  All he had to do was run for it.

But he’d hesitated.  Rain, over in the corner, had his hands out, like he’d done with the window.

And Cretan, being not as dumb as he looked in his white bull costume, had to know that there was only one way to guarantee that he get fixed.

The maze blocked off the way to the portal.  It sealed everything off.  The moment was marked with a pronounced crack, as the whip Chastity had flung away detonated.   Overloaded.

She dropped to her knees, staring at the remains.

Were Cradle anyone else, I think he would have made an amused sound, but he was quick enough on the draw to realize his circumstances.

All of us, underground and inside, surrounded by four walls, a floor, and a ceiling without a door.  And Cradle without his tech.

His power drew lines, and waited for his targets to meet the lines.  They didn’t serve him when everything was at a standstill.

“Fix me and I let you go,” Cretan said.

“Fix him and I break you,” I told him.

“I can heal from what you do,” he told me.

“Are you sure?

There was only silence.  Several of us were out of breath.  Even Cradle, who didn’t move conventionally.

“Don’t you dare fix him,” I said.  “We’re all going to have a long talk.”

“This fucking hurts!”

“You helped him do it to others.  Call a few minutes to an hour of suffering justice.”

“The two of us, trapped in a room at night,” Rain said.

Cradle turned around, staring at him.  “The last time, one way or another.”

“I really hope you’re right,” Rain growled.

The maze shifted.  Cradle lunged, appearing at what was only a gap, barely enough to put a hand through.

“Fix me!” Cretan managed a roar, speaking when lung didn’t connect to windpipe or mouth.

Cradle touched something at his belt.  “Just you.”

I flew after him.

The red line at Cretan’s middle flared, and the severed parts were drawn in, while they grew out at the other parts.

More like portals than anything else.

And the gap widened.  Cradle slipped through.  I flew after him.

We hit the portal, and he ceased being able to do his tricky movement.  I ceased being able to fly.  I hadn’t been aware that was a thing, and the landing, going from the top of an arched ceiling to the floor, with every injury I already had, was not a pretty one.  Cradle’s landing was gentler.  His getaway a bit faster.  And he was faster than me on the stretch.

But we weren’t alone.

Citrine, her husband, two more Harbingers, and a small crowd of other capes.  Snuff, one of Faultline’s.

Cradle, not yet past the middle ground of the portal, stopped in his tracks.

“You’ve made quite a mess,” Citrine said.  She was wearing a yellow shirt with ruffles beneath an ankle-length coat.

“I can help clean it up,” Cradle said.  “For allowances.”

“No,” Citrine said.  “No, you can’t, and you won’t.  The damage is done.”

“You need me.”

“No we don’t,” Citrine said.

“We might,” I said.  “To undo the damage to the Navigators, Shepherds, and our various teams.  Give me a second?”

Citrine didn’t respond.

I wasted no time.  My hand wasn’t cooperating as I reached for my phone.

Antares:
Lookout?

Lookout:
OMG yes yay!
You’re okay!
Is Swnasong okay? is everyone okay? How did it go?

Fast typing for someone with injured hands.

Hard questions to answer, and she’d started from a bad conclusion.  I wasn’t sure I was okay.  This one had been hard.

Adding to the pile of conflicted emotions, I’d drawn a connection between this and the Slaughterhouse Nine in Brockton Bay.  I’d told myself that if I’d been able, I would have helped.  And that had eaten at me on a level, because I’d been raised as a helper.  I wanted to help.

I’d slain that demon.  At the cost, potentially, of another family member.

Turns out that demons suck to fight, I thought, my eyes on Cradle as I typed out my follow-up.  I wasn’t sure that I wouldn’t have looked at my own expression to match that thought, had a mirror been readily available.

Antares:
Okay, bruised but okay, and less okay, depending.
Are you keeping an eye on the station?

Lookout:
Pshoo. Duh

Antares:
How good of an eye?  Did you get any signal readings?  We timed our final moves for when the door was open, in case you might try.

I was starting to type up another sentence to clarify what she was looking for when the reply came in.

Lookout:
Yes. Four minutes ago, I didn’t timestamp it, but it was near your location. This is the fix?

The signal from Cradle to undo the effect.

It was the fix.

“Keep him alive for now, just in case,” I addressed everyone present, my eyes on Cradle.  I was aware of the others catching up behind me.  Rain, Chastity, with Sveta in the background keeping Crete from running for it.  “But no, I don’t think we need him.”

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Heavens – 12.8

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The settlement of scattered, disorganized buildings didn’t look like it had been laid out with roads in mind, and it took on the appearance of being a town on fire well before any fire had ignited.  The motes of Subside’s power marked the loose boundaries of where it was being set up.  Sparks and dots of red light.  Soldiers stepped out of the trees, starting with Subside’s squad, built around Subside himself but led primarily by a large guy with three guns hanging off of him.  The squads to either side emerged a bit later, after minimal conversation.

The show of force wasn’t for our benefit.  All of the people of the ‘Rows’ of Earth N base town were out of their beds, paying clear attention now.  Their number included the people who had been on guard earlier who had apparently retired from being on guard, and people who hadn’t stopped keeping an eye on things, sitting on porches or going on extended walks.

The blue motes of Capricorn’s power were our own answer, for what that was worth.  As glad as I was to know we had something, the color of the lights cut into my eyes’ ability to peer through the dark.  The bright blue left spots in my vision and trails that persisted even when I looked away.

The air was thick with the smell of mud, rain, and the haze of cigarette smoke that seemed to settle over a place when most of a town was left out in the cold, keeping an eye out for their mutual benefit.

That mutual benefit had been something we’d tested and cracked by applying pressure to Bluestocking, with Prancer’s help.  Now Moose was approaching Prancer, who had stuck closer to Bluestocking, and they were comparing notes.  No Etna in Bluestocking’s retinue, I noted.

The people in the town weren’t making a fuss about us backing up and using one of the buildings for cover.

There weren’t any better options.  If we ran for it, we’d be gunned down.  If we stayed and Bluestocking decided to side with Cradle’s group again, we’d be in the midst of trouble with more trouble coming from Cradle’s group.

“He’s the lead-from-behind type,” Swansong said.

Cradle was moving through the trees with his mech, shaking them.  Slivers of the mech were visible where the trees weren’t as thick or where some had been felled a certain distance into the woods.  Couldn’t be easy terrain, especially with something as large and weird in shape as the mech.

“Because he knows we’d shoot him if he led from the front,” Foil answered.  “I might be able to hit him.  Shoot through the repulsion field.  But I might miss.”

“I could help,” Harbinger One said, sidling in close enough that he was in Foil’s personal space.  Damsel stuck out a claw, touching his shoulder and prodding him back.

“Can you guarantee a hit?” Foil asked.

“No.  Can’t see enough of him, and it’s too dark.”

“I have the same problem, so it’s not much help.”

“Don’t shoot if you can’t keep him alive.  We need him to undo what he did to others-”  Assuming that’s even possible.  It has to be possible.  “-and to give us the dirt on March.”

“If you’re trigger-happy, you could shoot-” Tattletale started.  She paused one second, started again, voice quiet, and the lower undertones of Moose’s voice, even though he wasn’t technically in earshot, were enough to drown out the initial sounds.

She started again.  “Woman in red.  MYOSHA, all capitals.”

“Machinery explosions,” I said.  “Dangerous.”

“Yes.  Or one on the far left, ox skull.  Prong.”

“Don’t know him,” I said, noting the soldier with an ox skull mask that looked like it obscured his peripheral vision, with the way the skull and his own eyes lined up.  He wore a heavy coat over what might have been body armor.  Bulky kevlar, not fancy costume armor panels.

“Point,” Tattletale smirked, the smirk faltering as she took in a halting, probably painful breath, “for me.”

I was annoyed at that, but I let it slide.  “What does he do, then?”

“Brute tough, but you can wear that down.  Or use Foil’s power and ignore it.  Wanted to hire him once, he said no, he was busy, so fuck him.  The-”

She stopped.  Her face was shiny with sweat.  Rachel brushed a mittened hand over her upper face to move hair away, not really as delicate in the operation as I imagined ninety-nine percent of the population would be.

“-The schtick is ‘you mess with the bull, get the horns’.  Curved spikes of light.  Spear you like a- like a spear.  And carry you back and away.  Impales you to a wall with one spike then stabs you ten times with the other, or he just pushes you back out and away.  Extends the spike out past the horizon.”

“Endless range?” I asked.

“Twenty-five feet.  But once he gets you, it’s endless.”

“Cretan and Lionwing are there, but they aren’t stepping up,” Tattletale observed.  “They’re sticking close to Cradle.  Closer relationship.  They’re actually loyal.”

The conversation between Moose and Prancer was wrapping up.

The pair broke apart, but instead of Moose returning to us and Prancer going to the station where Bluestocking’s group was maintaining watch, it was the other way around.

Fifteen of us and three dogs were gathered, and all were silent, but for the labored breathing from Tattletale.

“Bluestocking hoped you’d resolve the issue in the background, come back, and go away.  Not bring it to her literal doorstep,” Prancer said.

“Her house?” Tattletale asked, jerking her head.  The one we were camped out by.

Prancer gave her a long look.  In the gloom, his eyes seemed bright, his attention clearly on the gravity of Tattletale’s injury.

“Bad-”

“Forget- forget I asked,” Tattletale said.

“She’ll help,” Prancer said.  “She wants concessions.”

Concessions?” I asked.  “We’ve fucking sailed past the place where the line used to be drawn, where people put their shit aside because fuck no.”

“She’ll help,” Prancer said, voice firm.  “But if you don’t want some asshole  villain pulling a mutiny and taking over, giving you a repeat performance of all of this in a few months or a year, she needs to give her people something.  You need to give her something to give her people.”

“Money?”

“No.  Special status for the Rows.  You do what you can to convince the mayor, make sacrifices, pull favors, whatever.  Mayor knows what we’ve been asking for.”

“We know,” Harbinger One said.  “It’s come up.  All of the benefits of being part of the city and none of the costs.  Open trade, loosened restrictions on goods despite being an alternate world with health risks and quarantine.  No taxes, but access to the library net.  It’s a hard sell.”

“Thank you,” I said.  Context.

Tattletale gasped out a response, “Establishes her place on the- shortlist of people who control economy.  Second rung.”

My mom folded her arms, leaning in close to whisper something to my dad.

I knew her well enough to guess what.  In fact, on thinking about what she was probably saying, I could extrapolate.  She loathed giving the villains what they wanted.  If we couldn’t stop them, we could keep them from scoring a win.

I knew why that idea had rung so true, and why it had been something she’d clung to and repeated more often in recent years.  She’d watched us give our hometown to villains, inch by inch, the perceived idea the Protectorate and Wards had given Lung territory because he was too dangerous to uproot, and that heroes had conceded it to Undersiders.

Because she’d given a villain what he wanted and expected once, and took a child into her home.  And that home had been sundered.

“What happens if we can’t convince the mayor?” Swansong asked.

“Penalty clause,” Prancer said.  “Two members of Breakthrough join Bluestocking.  They’re at her beck and call, people get to see it.  Six month-”

Gunfire cut him off.

“Foil,” I said.  “Harbingers.  Get MYOSHA and Prong.”

The Harbingers approached one corner of the building.  Foil went to the other, jostling Rain aside, borrowed slingshot in hand.

“Tried to stir them up,” Rain said, rejoining us now that Foil had taken his place.  “Got two groups hanging back, one’s backed up to go talk to Cradle.”

“Which?” Tattletale asked.

“Chugalug and a guy with a white hood, sword, robey sort of look.  Second guy went.”

“Condemner,” Tattletale said.  “Not hanging back.  He’s a thinker and sound blaster… can communicate messages.  He’s listening in, communicating something between Cradle and Blue.  You’ll want to stop him.”

I want to stop all of them.

“Well fucking great,” Rain said.  He visibly stopped himself, visibly forcing himself to relax.  Capricorn set a scalemail glove on his shoulder.

The noises of the fighting were escalating.  What had been an initial spatter of gunfire was being answered.

“What do I tell Blue?” Prancer asked.  “Yes or no?”

“Tell her if she accepts some leeway, gets maybe one of us on loan as a penalty clause, fine, I’ll try to make it happen.  Also, tell her I said fuck her.  Not-”

An eruption of MYOSHA’s power sent debris flying.  Most of that debris was paper thin, but it stirred into the air.

Prancer was adopting his breaker form.  He nodded, and he ducked low as he slipped around the corner, sliding beneath the raised platform, too small to be a porch, by one front door.  He sprung up on the other side, hurdling a vehicle, heading to the station.

Byron’s power produced a flood of water.  I wasn’t in a position to see, my back to the wall and everything that was going on, more of my attention on the station, but I saw the constellation change, dots and lines becoming flowing water, I felt the fine mist of droplets that wind or clashing sprays of water sent into the air, and I heard the moment that all gunfire momentarily ceased.

“I shot her in the leg,” Foil reported.  “But her people gathered around her.  I’d shoot them, but-”

But the answering gunfire was more persistent than a slingshot could be.

“She doesn’t need to see where she’s creating the machine splashes,” I said.  “There’s a chance she tries hitting us.”

“Not until there’s a final word from Blue.”

“Which might be now,” I said.  “We move.”

An order, and one people thankfully listened to without bickering or issue.

“Brand,” my dad said, voice low.  “Kick up some dust.  Catch and toss.”

My mom nodded, backing up.  Foil was pulling back because the bullets were too heavy.  My mom ducked beneath the firing line of Foil’s slingshot as Foil aimed at the corner of the building.

Her power wasn’t Shadow Stalker’s, from back in Brockton Bay.  It went through everything, yes.  Shadow Stalker could do something similar.  But it left a hole, where Shadow Stalker’s hadn’t.  One shot, then two- it created an aperture with the same diameter as the bullet.

I could understand why Foil would be reluctant to put holes that big in something she was using for cover, especially with the concentration of gunfire.

I handed her the gun I’d taken.  I saw the moment of reservation, knew exactly what she was thinking, but she took the weapon.

My dad created glowing orbs.  he threw one to my mother, tossing another around the corner.  My mother caught and threw the orb, tossing it around her corner.

They were heavy detonations, pitched to cut into the earth, to kick up dirt, dust, and moisture.  A shower of mud and moisture.

Visual cover, but when it came to the bullets, there were too many.  I didn’t trust the Wretch and I had the impression the dogs would just get gunned down.

The front landing that Prancer had gone under.  A three-foot by three-foot square of wooden boards with perforated metal textured for walking laid over top.

I had to step out into danger to get to it, though.

I made use of the cover and I flew low enough to the ground that the Wretch cut grooves into the ground.  My own cloud of kicked-up mud and ice followed behind me.

A bullet clipped the Wretch, striking the very same hand that Cradle’s power had clipped.  Much like my mom’s ball had been cut and then was intact after the fact, my own power had recovered when it had been knocked out and turned back on.

But I was left momentarily exposed, my back to the enemy, nearly blind in the loose rain of flecks of mud.

I flew to the underside of the square-shaped porch, my back hugging it, and the moment the Wretch returned, I used her to haul it up and away from the wall.

It was connected well enough that one plank was left affixed to the base of the door.  The rest came apart in more or less one piece.

A shield, impractical in dimension, but it was a way to shield others just a bit more reliably than the Wretch could.

“Tenor of the fight changed,” Tattletale was saying, back at the main group.  “Someone accepted someone’s deal.”

Had it?  I’d been busy with property damage.  I flew to a position where I could guard the others, head ducked down, Wretch clinging to my ‘shield’ that had to weigh a hundred and fifty pounds.  I felt the first bullets strike it, impacts harder than the swing of a baseball bat, but diffuse enough it didn’t crack the Wretch.  I knew I was buying seconds, because the Wretch was digging into the cracks between the thick boards and the posts that framed it, crushing and stabbing into metal.

People used the dogs, far too many hanging onto the side or riding on top, heads ducked low.  I flew up higher to shield better.

My mom was one of the last to make a break for new cover.  She took running footsteps, then turned into the ball shape, just a little under waist-height, an orange-red hue in bright, color that seemed dissonant for the environment, like neon signage in woodlands.

Something exploded, smaller than a grenade, more focused.  It interrupted the rolling.  She stopped dead in her tracks.  Sitting in the midst of exposed road.

Not something I was unfamiliar with.  I flew to her, ready to kick her, but in the last second, she changed back.  With only the imperfect cover of my ‘shield’ protecting her, she ran to the others.

Putting us further from the woman I’d mentally nicknamed Red, MYOSHA, who was presumably immobile.

Bluestocking’s group was out.  Birdbrain, Crested, some underlings, and then the pairing of Bitter Pill and Bluestocking.

Tattletale said something.  I didn’t catch it, given distance and how quiet her voice was.

MYOSHA hit one of the buildings closest to the treeline.  I could see people cast into the air, flipping head over heels, amid the pieces of wood, the prefab segments of houses that had been fit together, and chunks of concrete.  A giant iron container of what looked like molten metal was at the center of it all, and that container tipped as it sloped back into the ground.

Where the molten liquid touched puddles and condensation, it exploded, sending sparks flying, the resulting reaction so bright it could have been a flashbang, the crackling and fizzling deafening.

I heard a grunt of pain.

“Who!?” I heard, in a voice that could only be Ashley’s, imperious, accusatory.

“Saving your life!” my mom shouted back.

There was a detonation.  One of my dad’s grenades.

“Victoria!” my dad said, in a very ‘dad’ voice.  “To me!”

I flew to the sound of his voice, even while the entire world seemed to dissolve into a blinding white that made the backs of my eyes and the front of my brain hurt.

He touched me, grabbing me by the shoulders, and turned me forward.  “Forcefield on!”

I had to pull out of his grip, moving to a place I had to hope was safe and out of the reach of the others, before I used my forcefield.

“Bluestocking attacked us,” my mom said.

One arm shielding my eyes, I could see the white fading, and every line and shadow that returned to the world brought a lot of pain with it.  The others were down, Swansong and Damsel pushed into the dirt, Capricorn standing in front of Rain, and it was my parents who stood tall with eyes open in the glare.

The little benefits of powers, like Byron’s cold resistance and my relative resilience to emotion powers.

I could see the general silhouette of the station, and of the people on the landing.  Dark shapes against a dark background, my vision filled with afterimages and spots, with Capricorn lines and Subside’s sparks, and the fallout that was cascading down around the entire town, from MYOSHA’s liquid metal spill.

“Watch out!” my father called out.

I felt the Wretch go down, and I had no idea why.  I lost the strength I needed to hold up the shield and protect my back from the distant munitions.  I wasn’t even positive it would matter.

“Do I move!?” I asked.

“No!” my mom ordered.  My dad gave the opposite response, “Charge in!  Hit them before-”

“No!” was another voice in the jumble.  There were shouts, questions, most from people who couldn’t see much better than I could.

“Get your mom in there, charge in yourself, they’re using powers!”

I could see the glow of my dad’s grenades forming in his hands.  I saw my mother’s silhouette as she caught the grenades she was handed, the glow as she became a ball again.

“No!” again, I heard the voice.  It stood out from imperious words, complaints, and questions because it was meek.

No, not meek.

“Don’t throw!” I ordered my dad.

Something heavy hit the wall of the new house we were using for cover from the massed soldiers and capes in Cradle’s contingent, striking above heads and sending debris down onto Chastity, Cassie, and the Harbingers.  Chunks of concrete larger than a fist, one chunk even larger than that.

“Why not, Tattletale?  Rachel, can you hear what she’s saying?”

“It’s not an attack,” Rachel translated, voice tight.  “It feels like being attacked!”

“Water?” Byron asked.

“Tattletale says no,” Rachel translated.

“Clarify!” I shouted.

Something hit me again.  The Wretch went down.  Another chunk of concrete, this time aimed my way.  Again, I lost my strength, my feet hitting ground, my entire body, strained and tortured as it was, bearing the full weight of the posts, planks, and textured cover of metal.

“Hostage!” Rachel huffed.  “Paris!”

I was already flying before she added the second half of her statement, abandoning my shield, because it was too unwieldy for a dangerous situation.

I flew closer to the group.  To my parents, it was Paris and Thud backing the rest of Bluestocking’s group, with Thud hurling rocks and Paris throwing his darts with Thud’s hand pointing over Bluestocking’s shoulder.  Men were hunkered down on either side.

But Tattletale had been right.  This was a hostage situation, and Thud had one hand at the back of Bluestocking’s neck.  Paris had a dart held like a knife at Bitter Pill’s back.

Thud could see despite the residual glare, and he had some sense that I was nearby.

A glass ball shattered in Thud’s eye socket, and in that moment, his eye sockets were riddled with uncoiling wires and glass fragments.   He didn’t seem to mind much, but the scenario bought me a moment to act.  I dove, saw him bring his finger to his eye to pry the wires free, and I changed direction mid-flight.  A twist in the air, leg out, Wretch out-

I slammed my foot into his hand with all the strength I could bring to bear, using flight and rotation in the air.  In the process, I slammed finger into eye socket, all the way to the base of the finger where it met the hand.

It got him to let go of Bluestocking.

Paris had taken a simultaneous shot, but the shot had missed the eye, catching brow, temple, and the ear, wires mangling flesh.

I acted before he could get his composure together enough to lunge forward and drive the dart of disintegration into Bitter Pill’s back.  Wretch-strong, I hit him full in the chest with my arm that didn’t have deep cuts in it.  Sternum and ribs shattered in my hand.

He was laid flat, obviously enough.  I saw him flounder, trying to sit up, immediately and intensely failing, small sounds escaping his mouth.

In his floundering, he created a dart, larger than any I’d seen him make.  I had to wonder if it was reflex, while he was stunned with pain, or if the expression of power was an automatic thing.  In addition to the principle of stronger powers in times of appropriate kinds of stress, there was a tendency for powers to unlock additional capabilities if the situation was dire enough.  Not second triggers, but adaptations to changes in the host’s core physical or mental state.

The Wretch, I had to assume, was that.

Either way, I stomped on his forearm.  There was a chance it was innocent, but I didn’t have any more tolerance for chances.

“Give me one more excuse, and I end you,” I told Paris.

He went limp.  His breaths were wheezes.

“You’d better hope this situation you fucked with doesn’t take too long, or-”

A distant cry – a warning from a parent or teammate.  I saw the heads of Birdbrain and Crested turn.  Crested flicked out a sharp knife, and it became a fan, the fan extending, extending, layer by layer, into one corner of the quarter-circle barrier bit into the station platform, the other corner into the pillar behind Paris.

Thud’s fist slammed hard into the metal, denting it a matter of a foot from where my face was.

The dent didn’t touch me, but the impact did.  A punch as heavy as any I’d taken directly, catching me while I wasn’t relying on the Wretch, due to my proximity to Crested and Crested shielding me.  I felt pain rock through me, whole-body, every wound I had amplified, and a sharper pain marked my head hitting the ground.  I heard Crested fall, his barrier collapsing, saw a glimpse of what might have been the three B’s -Bluestocking, Birdbrain, and Bitter Pill- falling over.

Thud fucking indeed.

My thoughts weren’t lined up exactly right as I tried to pull myself together.  I flew back, and an uncharacteristic bout of motion sickness nearly sank me.

But Thud was lifting up a foot, to stomp on me like I’d done to Paris.

I flew up, and even that movement wasn’t without its wobble.

The impact of the stomp rippled out, kicking up just about every loose particle on the station platform, on the ground beyond the platform, and everything around my team, who were still huddled together.  They all fell, sprawling.

Thud didn’t bleed, but there was a hole where his eye was supposed to be, and his expression, frozen in ceramic, was twisted around the edges, his face unchanging, the slimy fibers that connected the ceramic-like plates more tense and strained than I’d seen them.

He was distracted, at least for a moment, by Paris’s cry of pain.  The stomp had jostled him, and he wasn’t in a state to be jostled.

I had help coming now, and Birdbrain was backing up, gun leveled at Thud.

Her shots weren’t aimed at killing, but at disabling.  Three out of the four hit the meaty flesh between ceramic plates.

He didn’t slow down.  He lunged forward, and it was a weird lunge, a fast initial movement, yes, but the fast didn’t taper off.  He ran over Bluestocking’s group, clotheslining them and possibly breaking a collarbone, shoulder, or two.

I flew at him, kicking.  He was keeping an eye out for me, though, and turned, arm moving to strike my leg aside.  I tucked it in, knees close to my chest, and avoided him instead.

The way he moved- that was a precise turn for a guy moving a lot of weight.  A precise movement of the arm, stopping just where he needed it.

Kinetic extension.  Every impact or movement carried… maybe exactly as far as he wanted it.  Every hit, kick- they involved shockwaves, either directed or rippling out.  It exaggerated how he carried himself.

He chased me, with those abrupt movements that saw him almost sliding into me, a train or truck that needed only acceleration, his ability providing him the means to accelerate through it.

I did what I could to keep him distracted and occupied, and used Paris’s body as a means to limit his movements.  He stopped short of trampling Paris, and seemed upset that he had to.

Others were coming to help.  Damsel and Swansong, their powers flaring.  Chastity followed.  Damsel and Swansong didn’t move in coordination, but more out of a kind of competition, each trying to outdo the others, to move further, faster, and more frenetically.  They zig-zagged across each other’s paths to cut one another off and somehow they were more scary in this than they’d been as two wolves in a pack on their hunt, as I’d seen briefly, just a little while ago.

My goal was keeping him from trampling the local villains.

“Blue!” I shouted, as I threw myself forward, slamming my elbow into his shoulder, “you’re going to give me some serious slack on that deal we’re striking!”

“We were in danger because we agreed!” Bluestocking shouted back.  “Part of the deal!”

Thud backhanded me and the Wretch hard enough to send us rocketing at a downward angle.  Flight kept me from hitting the ground, as I steered up in time, but it didn’t keep me from colliding with the wall.

I could have charged in, but the reinforcements were here.

Damsel went high, Swansong went low, her peg-leg skidding on the concrete as her blast carried her forward.  She reached ahead, and Thud slid backward.  To where Damsel was, and to where Chastity was just now running up to the base of the stairs.

He clapped, the sound sharp, harder and sharper because of the composition of his hands.  His power carried the shockwave out, impacting me, the Ashleys, Chastity, Bluestocking’s group, and just about everyone that was defending the settlement, from my team to the sketchy local citizens that had taken up arms.  We all doubled over, wincing.

While people reeled, he stomped his way toward Chastity, his stomps rattling the area.

Swansong lunged, Damsel using her power in the same moment.  The lunge wasn’t as effective as it could be, as her peg foot skidded on the material of the portal station platform, but she compensated for it by moving her hands down, sending herself higher up.  There was a moment where she was airborne but not using her blast, high enough up that she stood to hurt herself on landing.

I went low, taking the cue I’d observed earlier.  Wretch strength and bulk let me crash into his legs and actually move them.

Crested did what he could, which was absolutely the wrong thing, because Crested created a shield to limit Thud’s movements.  Knife became a convex barrier, and Thud hit the barrier.

The shockwave, in turn, hit all of us.

Etna and Crested had to have gone to fuckup academy for villains.

Letting them out of the prison cell had to be the biggest mistake I’d made.

“Hey!” Damsel barked, voice pitched to be heard.  “Big guy!”

He turned to look at her.  Her blast had been to carry her along the concrete pad that the fancier station building rested on, and her destination had been Paris.  Now she held pointed fingers to Paris’s throat.

Thud paused.  It looked for a moment like he intended to fight on, pressing forward even though we had a hostage.  Then he relaxed.

Another shot struck his intact eye.  This one didn’t catch the eye socket and send metal wire out into the other external bits.  It simply sank in, then detonated.

He screamed, his mouth remaining frozen where it was, while the slick yellow-green muscle fibers across his neck and shoulders parted, the gaps vibrating with the passage of the sound from within him.

I’d taken one eye, was that somehow license to the Harbinger to take another?  What had Citrine sent to me?  Worse, what did it say that she was okay employing little monsters like this?  Did she use them in this kind of capacity?

Thud didn’t stop, and he swung and stomped madly now, cracking the concrete and spreading the effect.  He heard distant voices and lunged toward them with the same movement trick, only to stumble where the platform ended.

Chastity ran toward him, and he seemed to hear the footsteps.  He turned on her.

I flew to the side.  “Thud, Paris!”

I wasn’t sure why I shouted the names, but I wanted his attention, and I felt like people reacted to their names and the names of people they were fond of to any degree.

He did turn.  He swung a fist out, pure rage and recklessness, but Chastity ducked the part of it that would have clipped her.  She sprung up, stepping onto his knee, and leaped up to a height where she could hit his face.

A backhand slap knocked him out cold.  Chastity stumbled with the awkward step down as his bulk toppled forward, pressing against her.

“Losing your edge, sister,” Damsel said, smug.

Stop,” I told her.  “No.”

Swansong gave me a long look, but she didn’t say anything, her lips shut, the hood of my costume hugging her head with the general damp that had set in, no doubt from Byron’s activities.  I lent her a shoulder to help her limp forward.

The fires had spread as a result of the shower of sparks from MYOSHA’s power.  The fires, in turn, illuminated the rise of Cretan’s maze.  Buildings folded and twisted, ground rose and fell, and the effect rose up skyscraper high around where Cretan no doubt was, with other areas catching up.

“You want that favor?” I asked Bluestocking, my hand at my ear, “Now’s the time to earn it.”

She gave me a very unimpressed look, but she did give Bitter Pill a push on the shoulder.  Bitter Pill put one pill into a pocket, then lifted a piece of plastic to her mouth, a candy dispenser shaped like a woman wreathed in skin, tubes running from the folds to her nose and mouth.  The head was levered back, depositing a liquid jet into Bitter Pill’s mouth.

Crested started forward.  I wanted to say ‘not you’, but he’d really only had one strike so far, and it had been well-intentioned.

“I’ll rally the others who are too chickenshit to jump in on their own,” Bluestocking said.  “Send wounded to me.  I’m certified.”

“As a?”

“Everything.”

I nodded.  I was leery of parahuman healers, but this sounded more along the lines of conventional medicine, given a helping hand.

“He’s threatening to lock us all in,” Bluestocking said.  “He had one of his hirelings reach out to me as a creepy whispergram.  Don’t fuck this up.”

Swansong raised her eyebrows at me, but she didn’t say a word.

I turned to walk away without a response.  Swansong leaned heavily into me, limping.  We passed Chastity, who looked a little shell shocked, and a lot intimidated by the maze that was unfolding.

The other kids had been hurt in a maze like that, if I remembered right.  Chastity’s sisters and ‘cousins’.

“You good?” I asked her, pretty sure I knew what the answer might be.

“Hanging back,” Chastity said.  “Bruised my hip there, leg’s wobbly, and I don’t think I can run.”

Swansong made an amused sound.  I pointed a finger at her, stern.

“Okay,” I said.  “Keep an eye on things here?”

She nodded, smiling slightly.

It wasn’t the best excuse in the world, but Chastity had done her part, and if she kept from being hurt, then Thud would stay down.

She observed while Bluestocking went to Paris’s side, absently rubbing at her hip.

Okay.

“Careful with your power,” Swansong said, as we reached the edge of the effect.  She was talking to Damsel, by the angle of her head.  “Capricorn said things are tricky here.”

“You be careful.  I have control,” Damsel said.

Oh geez.

We split up, taking different paths, with Damsel going high, over a building that was looking a little crooked.  Swansong stuck with me.

The soldiers were filtering into the maze, and I could see some by the weird geometry of the space, flashlights mounted on guns, masks and gas masks on.

Uneven ground, an enclosed space, and men with guns spreading out through the area.

They were doing it with an ease and focus that made me really concerned that they had done drills or practiced this.

And one of those squads was Cretan’s, who would be that much better at this.

Cradle’s mech crashed through a building, maze and all.  Cradle wasn’t on it.  It reached forward, and the distortion made the arm and fingers bend at right angles.  They dug into grass and dirt, forcing Sveta to scramble out of the way.

“What did you do to me!?”

I heard Rain’s response, but I didn’t make out the words.

The voice shook me, because I was pretty sure I knew who it was.  Cradle.  Confronting Rain.

I expected the Undersiders and Breakthrough to be scattered.  It wasn’t the case.  Cradle had done what I liked to do in certain situations, when I was fighting something or someone bigger.  Throwing myself into the midst of it all and using my enemy’s disorganization and shock against them.  A lot of powers and weapons couldn’t be used in that situation if someone cared about hurting their allies.

The place was a clearing, a square of grass with buildings folded in to form walls, four narrow corridors leading out of the place, and those corridors were lit with explosions and the light from flashlights.  They were boxed in, high walls surrounding them.

Cradle was a matter of feet from Rain, whip-chain out and spinning in a circle, crackling with red electricity.  With soldiers approaching from multiple sides, a lot of the people who could have done something were stuck keeping the soldiers at bay.  My dad, my mom, Capricorn, the dogs, and Foil.  To do otherwise was to be surrounded on three or four sides and gunned down.  Like this, at least, the soldiers and the associated capes were left hiding behind cover.

The percussive explosions from the constant grenades was my dad’s act in this, keeping one ‘corridor’ between buildings inaccessible, pinning down the squadron on the far side of it.  It looked like Mukade’s people.  The initial movements of the centipedes was being shaken, thrown off, and interrupted.

My mom had her weapons out in bright yellow fans.  The fans narrowed into blades when she needed something that would crackle and burn, and expanded out into fan shapes when she wanted something more diffuse.

A sweep of a fan burned one soldier my mom was fighting, making him drop his assault rifle.  She kicked it backward, in the direction of the Harbingers.

Cradle’s glowing line appeared in the path.  The weapon slid right into it, and was cut in two.

Whatever calculations the Harbingers were using, Cradle wasn’t sitting still long enough for them to apply.  He moved here and there, at one moment approaching Rain with arm held high, chain circling overhead, ready to strike down, the other hand pointed at Rain-

“Everything I am!  I was well and I’ve tried to be better, even after all this.  After you.”

“I’ve heard all this before, Cradle.  Every fucking night,” Rain said.

Cradle disappeared, appearing behind Rain.  Rain spun around, swinging with a blade of silver, as the chain whipped toward his head.  A dodge.  A Harbinger changed course, to lunge right for Cradle, only to stop when an ‘x’ of glowing lines appeared between them.  No more slingshot bullets, possibly.  It wasn’t the only fence, either.  There were enough that one good stomp from Thud, were he still standing, would bowl people over and make them fall into the lines.  Not all were easy to see.

I took flight, aiming to go over, and saw Cradle move in the same instant he turned his head my way.  I made myself stop, twisting, as the lines appeared.

Sudden appearance, each one sharper than any blade, and capable of cutting through powered defenses.

“I can see you, Rain,” Cradle intoned.  He moved twice in quick succession, and a gunshot from one of the Harbingers echoed through the area, the bullet ricocheting and hitting a wall.

Maybe a spot he’d figured Cradle would appear at.

The Harbinger moved to reload, and a line appeared as he moved the weapon.  He only grazed it, checked the weapon, then threw it aside, like it was no use.

I kept flying, slow so I wouldn’t run into anything terminal, forcing Cradle to devote some attention to me.

My dad paused in his constant bombardment of the alley to hurl one in Cradle’s direction.  Again, Cradle moved.  Almost too slow.  He was too distracted.

And the maneuver cost my dad.  Mukade’s centipedes encircled the corridor, coiling in a quadruple-helix around the alley, braced against the sides so no grenade could redirect or disturb them.

Swansong used her power, vaulting over the scene.

More lines appeared in her path.  She used her blast to hurl herself to one side, for a rough landing.

There’s a certain distance these things have to be from us.  But they’re still more dangerous than any weapon on this battlefield.

Swansong hurried to my dad’s side, her blasts aimed at the centipede.  The blast made her slip.

“Brace her!” I ordered my dad.  I was dealing with my own mess.  The lines were being concentrated on me, hemming me in, and trying to put me into a position where I couldn’t move without touching one.  I saw a route and took a risk, hands going over my head as I dove down, my body as narrow as possible, slipping through a gap.  I landed somewhat violently, and the cut in my leg seized up with pain.

Already, more lines barred my way.

My dad to the north, my mom to the west, Rachel and Cassie to the east, and Foil to the south.  Foil had a gun, and it didn’t look like the one I’d handed her, but she looked like she was struggling, and it was hard to pin down why.  Injury?  Stress?  Capricorn was closest to my mom and Rain, drawing out a diagram.  He ducked and pushed my mom as Cradle appeared, swiping.

My mom turned into an orb, then turned back, getting her feet back under her.  A flicker, not unlike Cradle’s, but one that left her in the same spot.

“Now!” my mom called out, moving to the side, her back to the wall just by the corner, her weapons extended out in front of her.

Byron’s water forced the soldiers who’d been encroaching in back.  The slope was downhill, and the water effective.  They’d paired up for that position for a reason.

Cradle’s voice was haunting, become it carried, and it came from different places even midway through a word.  “I can see you so clearly.  You think you’re better.”

“I don’t, but-”

“You do.  I see it.  All of the weak points.  The flaws, the stains.  You actually think you’re better.”

“I don’t, but I know I’m still fucking better than you!” Rain roared.  He struck out with the silver blade, too short a weapon compared to Cradle’s lengthy whip.

Cradle appeared close, whipping out.  Rain’s reaction was too slow.

An eruption of Byron’s power and a splash of water extended his way.  Cradle shifted to one side, the whip still moving, and then shifted just in time as the water became stone.  A loose spike of stone that stabbed up from a point just to Rain’s left.

Tristan collapsed, swayed, and then sagged.  There was no revision back.

Byron had seen it as an emergency.

“The difference between us is that I overcame what I am.  Then association with you knocked me all the way down, and made it impossible to be better again.  You… you didn’t overcome what you were until we made you.  Until we influenced you.”

“No.  That’s not true,” Rain said, holding up the silver blade.  He turned rapidly, taking a second or two to find Cradle each time Cradle shifted position.  Lines, angled low and close to the ground, no more than ankle height, surrounded Rain’s feet, forcing each movement to be a quick shuffle.  “Love Lost gave me her tokens.  I know how the bleed works.”

“She managed it,” Cradle said, voice soft amid constant grenade explosions, the shouts of soldiers, and the snarling of dogs.

“What the hell did you try to give me, and what the hell are you?”

“I’ll show you what I’m giving you,” Cradle intoned.

The mech came bounding down from a high place, whips slicing down.  Cradle moved to be atop it as it came down, then moved to higher ground.

I flew to Rain, skimming past a line that appeared in my way.  I caught his hand, pulled rather than lift or push.  The hand-mech was two fists and two more hands as back legs, the fists coming down where Rain had been.

That wasn’t where it stopped.  It had no reason to pause or hesitate, and it acted on its own, a hand lunging toward my mom.  My mom who had no Capricorn, and who was too busy with the soldiers in the alley between two buildings to even turn around or go ball-form.

I let Rain fall, and I put myself in the hand’s way, Wretch active, pushing back as it pushed.

A mess of limbs against a mess of limbs.

My mom started forward, to assist, or to cut at joints.

“No!” I ordered.  “Get-”

I felt the sick impact, and I couldn’t even stop to react to it, because there wasn’t a moment to spare, nor an inch of ground to be given.

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Heavens – 12.7

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I’d spent a lot of time being conscious of power, in the sense of being commanding.  My mom, who was on the rooftop now, holding two squadron leaders hostage, had tried to make me conscious of it from an early age.  When I’d made a good showing in gym class and earned an offer to join the basketball team, the same conversation where I’d brought it up with my parents had included the question of whether I’d end up team captain.  Was that something I wanted?  Where would it get me?  Before I’d had a uniform or even owned a basketball of my own, the idea was on the table.  Not that it had mattered.

I complained about a frustrating experience doing group work in school?  She’d ask if I’d taken charge.  If not, then she had made suggestions on delegation, told me that even if I wasn’t confident, leading a group with a mediocre plan of action in mind was better than a group with no leadership at all.

Which was a really jarring thought, when I connected it to our plan from earlier- no, I wasn’t going to dwell on it.  Not when army-supported capes, screaming bloody tinkers and lives were on the line.  A thought for another day or time.

I had a vision of what leadership was, and Cradle was so far from it that it made the scene I was looking at utterly surreal.  The man-though he wasn’t so much a man as someone straddling the line between teenager and adult- staggered more than he walked, clearly hurting, even though there weren’t any obvious wounds.  He’d screamed, raw and loud, and I didn’t see anyone talking or commenting in the wake of it.  He was utterly self-involved and focused on what he was dealing with, and the one hundred plus individuals in the prefab factory building weren’t even a consideration.

I watched Cradle struggle on his own, and I saw him answer something a soldier nearby said.  Someone wet a towel with water from a bottle, and then threw it at Cradle.  A slice of light appeared, as tall as Cradle was, and the towel struck it.  Cut clean in two.  Cradle caught one half of the towel in each hand.  One dangled limp at his side, dripping, while he rubbed at his face with the other.

Towel still held over face, his hand visibly trembled, clenching into a fist.  Wet fabric was squeezed out, clean water running down his arms to his elbows, gathering blood as it went, until congealed globs dripped off of the elbow.

He rubbed his face again, then ran towel against scalp to wipe the worst of the blood off.  His straight blond hair was slicked back as much as with any gel, colored with the clotting gore.  He lowered his head as he set his mask into place, then stood a little straighter as he raised his head, a little less shaky.

I could get that, at least.  The benefit of a costume.

The bloody towel wiped the worst of the mess from his arms and sleeves, cleaning them up to the elbow until the blood was streaking more than it was being wiped away.  He turned to using the clean towel, draping the dirty one around his neck.

His head turned, swift enough that I wondered if someone had called out to him.  But his focus was on his mech.

He took a deep breath, reaching out with a hand- and he distorted.  Teleportation wasn’t the right word.  It made me think of Vista closing the space between herself and something else, to get where she wanted to be faster, but it was instant, a snap, and Cradle was perched on the side of his mech, crouching with no regard for gravity, one hand at a panel window.

He didn’t need a deep breath for the movements that followed.  There was a tall toolbox resting against the wall, and he was there.

Okay, it was kind of like teleportation, but not like I’d dealt with.  A surgical removal of everything between point A and B, including reorientation.  It made me think of someone walking through a hall of mirrors, some mirrors angled or set up to portray things at right angles.  He was getting more fluid with it by the second, snatching up a dangling wire while upside-down, and bringing it with him to a point where he was standing perpendicular to the ground, to the vent he pried open with the tool from the toolbox.  The mechanisms at the interior of the vent illuminated him.

Cradle wasn’t shaking anymore, but Rain was right next to me, and Rain was trembling.

“Easy,” I whispered.

“We have to fight that,” he said.

“We have to deal with it, not necessarily fight,” I said.  “Remember what you were doing.”

“Yeah,” he responded.

I wanted to have something to recommend or to say.  To be able to point out a chink in the armor or a particular individual.  It had been part of why I was studying Cradle’s ‘leadership’, or the lack therein.  Even now, he was indicating with the tool, which looked more like a taser than anything, directing people, while he made some adjustments to his mech.

Some people started toward the stairs.  I tensed, ready to head up and warn Sveta, Foil, and Brandish, and Rain touched my arm, stopping me.

Cradle made the people near the stairwell stop.  The leader leaned against the wall, arms folded.

Not sending the next patrol up here?  Why?

Adherence to schedule?  The last patrol hadn’t been that long.  Was it a question of control?

“Was that you?” I asked.

Rain shook his head.

“What the hell is he doing?”

“What I’m doing is adding pressure,” Rain said.

“Okay.”

The one with folded arms by the wall stood up, stepping away from the wall.  He said something.

Cradle responded, still tinkering.

A pause, the soldier practically tapping their foot as they stood there.

“Make it feel bad to sit and wait…” Rain murmured.

The soldier said something again.  Red called out to him, and his head turned…

“Feels bad to listen…”

“That’s some fine control you’re-”

“Shh,” Rain said.

I pressed my lips together.  Fair play.

All of the emotion I could see in Rain was in his hands, mechanical and real.  The face beneath the hood was masked, and that mask was calibrated to be entirely black.  The hands pressed against glass, fingers bowed by the pressure.

The impatient soldier said something again, and this time, Red stood up.  Everyone present was on edge.  Another machinery disaster in the works?

It was Cradle who said something to Red and got her to stand down, before I could figure out how to get Rain to do something similar.

“Fuck,” Rain said.  “I could do something here, but I’m pretty sure it would get someone killed.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“I’ve got other options, but if they don’t work, we should consider…”

He didn’t finish the sentence.

We should consider doing it on purpose this time?  Baiting soldiers to kill one another and throw things into disarray?

It was a cape directly below the window who stood up, walking a few feet over, so he had a better view of Red and the other one.  His soldiers had been playing cards among themselves, and now they stood too.

“Come on, come on,” Rain whispered.

The cape pointed at the impatient soldier.

“Fuck,” Rain said.

“What’s- you wanted them to challenge Red.”

“Yeah.  They defused more than they fused.  Which means-”

Cradle’s mech moved, Cradle using his reposition power to put himself on an extended thumb-tip.  By position and placement alone, all eyes on him, he should have commanded authority.  Instead, he was silent, his head hung for a long moment, one hand clutching at one shoulder.  All vulnerability, raw.

I thought again of leadership and power.

I could remember feeling bad about revealing my weakness, the Wretch, to the team.  It had ended up helping connect, I was pretty sure.  It had been necessary.

Was it something that could hold one up indefinitely, though?  I couldn’t imagine there was.

But I found a bad feeling settling in me as I watched it, saw Cradle standing above his assembled army.  I’d bitten my tongue once, on an occasion that Dean had come by my place after school.  He’d talked with my mom and dad in the kitchen about how he’d be in charge of the Wards for a while, and what he hoped to do.  I’d felt at the time that he’d been on the wrong track.

Except now, reflecting, I wasn’t sure what the right track was.  There was something in there where I’d worried at the time that Dean wasn’t helping himself by trying to be a therapist or mediator and… that was what I had ended up being, myself.  Cradle was the very antithesis of leadership, as I might have defined it, and he was managing better than could be expected.

What the hell was I doing and what the hell was I supposed to do?

His balance was perfect even as the mech changed modes, the thumb-tip his feet rested on rotating to keep him in place.  Telescoping wrists extended slightly, the mech beneath him was settling into a more active or mobile configuration, while the ‘cup’ of body parts remained suspended in the air above.   Two larger hands were set in front, having adjusted to nestle extraneous hands within the wrists and palms, and their fingertips rested on the ground, but for the thumb Cradle stood on, which was raised high.  The wrists and lengths of arm extended from the same central point.  Smaller hands and shorter wrists formed the back legs, hands planted in the same way, only reversed.

Like a four or forty-legged spider or akin to a bulldog in tilt and frame, but it was just the limbs, no head, no body.

It was hard to tell when Cradle was talking.  He wasn’t loud, and his mask covered his mouth, a gas-mask like construction that was slightly different from his old mask, like two hands pressed to his face, fingers parted so the circular lenses peered through the gaps.  The forehead was flat, but had finger-length fingerprints etched to be shiny against the otherwise dull, painted material.

“That’s Subside,” Rain said.  “Moose mentioned him.  He-”

“Which one?”

Rain didn’t get a chance to answer or point out who his emotion power had picked out as the one Cradle had been addressing.  The mech moved, sudden and violent, every person in the room scrambling to feet or backing away.

From the two prime middle fingers, cables extended, lashing out.  They curved and curled in the air as they extended out, the dark steel shifting to an almost negative image, where shadows and recesses were bright and the exposed parts dark, before they were all white, crackling with a nimbus of electricity.  In the last instant before they struck the ceiling, the cables disappeared, and there was only the nimbus, too angular and dramatic to be true electricity.

The cables ripped through and into the ceiling and roof, parting it.

I flew, leaving Rain behind.  My hand traced the wall, gripping the lip of the roof to help adjust my flight.  My armored shin slid against the roof’s surface, which was now angled, as I tried to get to the others.

I met resistance.  A wash of heat rushing upward.  I saw sparks, motes of light, and I felt the barrier to going down.

My mom was in ball form, floating down, while Foil did much the same.  The hostage soldiers fell with them.  They were floating targets, drifting down like they were sinking through water, while Cradle and the soldiers on the ground were looking up.

Looking up and taking action.

Most ‘action’ was to scramble out of the way of the chunks of roof that were breaking away from the split.  Some stood their ground.  Red was one, her machinery rising up in a barrier.  A giant pincer seized my mother.

Mukade was another.  Beyond deflecting and ‘catching’ the falling chunks of roof, his target was Foil.  From the sides of his body and legs, the ‘centipedes’ ripped out.  Minions, they were each a half-foot wide, two inches tall down the center, and tapered down to razor edges at the sides, each edge serrated with the angular ‘legs’ or saw-teeth.  The heads of each centipede were more like goblets or open mouths with ill-fitting lids or muzzles, the mouths designed to spew acid and the covers to channel that acid down the length of centipede that followed after.  The fluids were luminescent in the light and black in the dark.

Foil kicked at a piece of rubble to change the direction of her fall.  Two centipedes lanced past her, tearing into armor panels and the remaining decorations of mine that she’d tucked into the side of her belt.  She stabbed one, and jerked violently as it carried her up and back.

Down was met with resistance, slowed, made floaty.  There was something with heat or temperature manipulation in there too, but I wasn’t dwelling on it.  Up and away was faster, normal speed.

I flew to her, and my way was barred by a loop of centipede.

They fed into and through Mukade, their initial emergence or their passage through him giving them a speed that had to be in the order of a hundred miles an hour, at the very least, but the moment they weren’t being fed through, they became slower, just fifty or a hundred feet of razor edges and acid.

‘Just’.

Acid.

They were slower still while trying to return to their master to be fed through again.  Foil using the centipede carried her out of the line of fire, past the rooftop and away from the initial shots from those who’d been quick enough to bring guns to hand and open fire while the centipedes lunged.

But now she was a good hundred feet in the air, the centipede not strong enough to hold her up on its own, so she sagged with every passing second.   I tried to fly past, the Wretch active, and found the centipede before me was quick to react, to form S-bends that caught me and caught the Wretch.  Like flying into a net or web.  They wrapped around, caught, and flooded the surface of the Wretch with acid-

My aura did nothing, as I pushed out full strength.  I had to dismiss the Wretch, instead, to slip through a gap, escaping.  Acid splashed my boot and sent a shock of black horror through me.

Foil hung from the length of one centipede, head turned away as acid ran down the grey-black slats and angular legs of the centipede itself, down its length to her glove and arm.

I hesitated, and I hated myself for hesitating, so I threw myself forward the moment the hate registered.

Thoughts of Crawler and my bath in acid vomit were dark in my mind, as I raced through skies that were just as dark.  Moisture in the air pelted me, each droplet a fresh shock of dark terror, because there were centipedes looming above me and there was no knowing if the moisture was precipitation or if it was something that would melt my flesh and scar me forever.

Because as bad as the scarring might end up being, as dire the situation, there was simply no fathomable reality where a parahuman would ever heal me.

Moisture in my boot made me worry the acid had seeped through the material, that I might feel the burning start.  Once it did, there was a chance it might never.

I flew past and I went without the Wretch, because that adjustment made me a hair faster, a bit more precise in my maneuvering, and the Wretch was too big when I needed to dive through a small space.  Razor edges sliced at my arm in two places, cut at my belt in another without parting flesh, and my leg in a fourth spot.

No healing if I lost an arm, or suffered crippling pain.  No healing if I lost a leg.

I twisted in the air, to let my breastplate take the brunt of the one centipede that was falling toward me, razor edges first, as much as they were doing anything.  The impact was heavy, and the length of centipede circled beneath me, head swooping around as it tried to wind around my upper body.  I flipped, heel over head, to be belly-side-down and put it beneath me, then flew forward, to where Foil dangled.  A blade jutted from the toe of her shoe, and she was using it to cut one centipede’s head off.

I caught her, carrying us away from the centipede’s reach before turning to assess the situation.

“Your mom,” she said.

I looked, I saw.  Sveta had reached down- and was hauling the glowing sphere up and out of the rooftop, which had a whole chunk carved out of it.

Cradle’s line appeared, lancing up and out.  I couldn’t see enough of Sveta to make out if she’d been cut, but I saw the orb intersect the light.  It sliced through the orb, and broke the effect, leaving my mom tumbling through the air.

Sveta caught her with tendrils.

I couldn’t stop and stare.  He’d known we were up there, somehow.  It was why he’d told the group not to go to the roof, so he could mount a surprise attack.  Cradle had a sensor or a power.

“Rain,” I said.

“Yeah,” was Foil’s response.  She adjusted her grip on me.

I dove.  There was no using the Wretch to cut the force or chill of the wind while I carried Foil.

Sveta’s face was barely visible above the roof as she lashed out.  Multiple tendrils stabbed down and into the space.  Her entire body shifted as points she was using to anchor shifted around her.

I saw what she was pulling way.  An attempt at grabbing Cradle.  Failed- he repositioned.  At two capes.  She threw them into the air, then let them fall.  The bed of orange motes and the associated floating effect kept it from being terminal.

And Tattletale, plucked from Cradle’s craft.  Head, shoulder, and a bit of chest, hair pale and costume in disarray.

Her other focus seemed to be on trying to do something about the craft, to try to mess with its aim, but she may not have been strong enough.  I saw a bit of it moving through the gap, then through the upper windows.  It was twisting around, rotating, the fingers out, and lashes swinging through the exterior wall of the building.

Aiming for Rain.

“Jump!” I shouted.

I wasn’t sure he could hear.  But he threw himself back and away from the wall.

The now-invisible cable sliced through wall, cleaving a line through the surface, and by the course it painted, it seemed oriented perfectly to intersect the falling Rain.

He stopped himself in the air, freezing in place.  His costume rustled with the force of the cable moving through the space beneath him.

One second, two-

He dropped again.

“Help,” I said, as I flew Foil and I into Rain.

I got a bad grip on the costume at his midsection.  Foil, even with the awkward way I held her, managed a firm grip on his wrist.

We descended, my flying angle too steep for a stop or swift turn-around.

Metallic crunching and grinding marked the new complication of Red’s power.  She used it even though she couldn’t see what she was using it on.  Splashes of piston, gear, and belts rose up and out of the ground, bright with the white hot machinery and molten iron that was thrown out and around it, each splash larger than the last, one, two-

Three was a circular saw, big enough it could have risen up beneath an eighteen wheeler and cleaved the truck in two.  The spinning saw kicked up a violent mess of molten particles.

Seeing the saw, Rain drew out a silver blade, now more of a silver shortsword, no longer something he could throw.  It wasn’t something that was going to help.

Foil’s blade swatted several particles out of the air as they sailed our way, accurate even when I abruptly changed direction, so the blindly-aimed sawblade wouldn’t catch us if it bobbed any higher.

The rollercoaster feeling of flying became hard impact and gritty, cold, muddy reality as we hit ground.  I couldn’t fly with two people, and because the direction and orientation of my flight didn’t really give me a chance to pull up or fly the direction we needed to go.  It was a rougher landing than I would have liked, one that saw us tumble to land on our backs or fronts, but not one that risked breaking anything.

“Everyone okay?” I asked.

“Yes,” Foil said.  “Thank you.”

“I’m in one piece,” Rain said, as he climbed to his feet.  “What the hell happened?  Who fucked up?”

“He got wind of us,” I said.  I started to stand, then fell hard as pain jumped up my leg.  In the gloom, I started to reach for my leggings, and pain ran up my arm.

I moved more gingerly, one eye on the building and the army I knew was in there.  A deeper cut in my leg, that was starting to burn.  A cut at my upper arm, shallow but long, from elbow to shoulder.  Another deeper cut at my forearm, short but grave enough that I could have buried a pinky along its length.  No burning there.

My boot had been bleached where the acid had struck, but it didn’t look like the material had been eaten through.  The damage was seemingly worse with my breastplate, with corrosion clearly evident, the metal cracking into what looked like scales, flecking off.

The front doors of the building weren’t on a face that faced us, but were to our left, opening out in the direction of the road and where our group was. They swung open, an aperture I remembered was large enough to drive a truck through, and immediately, our reinforcements acted.  I saw the orbs as fleeting images, shot at high speed, grown large and sailing in twos and threes to detonate on impact.

They were shooting out of the treeline.

Red’s splashes appeared.  I was too far away to do anything about them.  One appeared a few dozen feet from the building, small but bright.  Then the second was two-thirds of the way to the treeline.

The third erupted, felling five or six trees all at once, tearing up the earth around them, in a threshing of lawnmower-like blades writ large.

It was pretty clearly telegraphed, but I wasn’t sure if they knew enough to read into that telegraphing.

My dad, at least, was okay.  The glowing orbs returned, a fresh surge of fire that peppered the one face of the building.

Our opportunity to get clear.

I saw my mom get flung, much like the grenades were being flung in one direction, my mom was sent in the other.

Sveta didn’t follow though.  She was still at the building, still looming over the hole in the roof.  I felt nervous, seeing that.  I heard the gunfire, automatic weapons firing in bursts, and I didn’t see her getting out of the way.

A part of me had been afraid that this was going to happen.  It was always a danger, for anyone who struggled like I’d struggled, like Sveta struggled every day.  Escapism was common, and there was a seductive, ever-present desire to escape for good, in both senses of the word ‘good’.  To go out with glory.  One of the boys at the group therapy sessions at the hospital had talked about it a lot.

I didn’t get the impression Sveta was doing that.  Not consciously.

“Go,” I told Rain and Foil.  “Get to safety.”

“You can’t,” Foil said.  “She shouldn’t, she can’t, but- too many guns.”

Had to.

Had to like I’d had to risk arm and leg, might still lose arm and leg, depending on how this acid worked, to save Foil.  Had to like Sveta was probably telling herself she had to do this.

It wasn’t a bullet I had to worry about.  I was flying, thinking I was safe, when lines began to appear.  Silvery, but crisp, like slices in reality, reaching well over the building.

Not meant for me, but dangerous all the same.  I flew past one, and the Wretch had a limb extended.  I felt the Wretch get sliced, felt the dim sensation that was the Wretch’s extended being part.  The forcefield didn’t collapse.  It cut.

A gaping hole in my forcefield, now, where there had been a bit of torso and shoulder.

I saw Sveta flinch in pain as one tendril passed through a line.  Her head recoiled back, and the rest of her reacted.  Her head flicked up, nervous, reactionary, an she saw me.

Tendrils snapped out, cracking almost like whips in their efforts to reach me.

Calm down.  Let me near.

She didn’t calm down, but she did shift her attention away from me.  Again, she bobbed her head, waved, and stabbed into the building with tendrils.  They hit the floating space that was afire with the orange sparks, and it was like she’d hit cement, the tendrils corkscrewing as they hit a hard resistance.  She forced them through, reaching.

“Sveta!”

“Get away from here!”

“Not without you, you numbskull!  What are you trying to do!?”

“I’m trying to save them!”

“Who?”

“All of them!”

A severed tendril, noticeable for its endpoint because it didn’t taper down from pencil thin to hair-thin, stabbed in the direction of the hand-mech and the still half-formed, now double-layered orb of interlocked body parts.

The mech was moving now, hands gripping a surface.  Cradle was elbow deep in the guts of the machine, even while it moved, not jarring or jostling as the thing moved, reaching up to grab the damaged section of roof, pulling it down.

Another volley of shots shot across the open field, striking the front face of the building.  Something groaned, then fell, striking with a thud.

I saw Cradle turn his head sharply to the one side.  A hand let go of the roof, instead moving to form a shield.  The next volley passed through the opening in the building, striking different points inside.  Two grenades hit the flat of the giant mech hand, raised as a shield.

He turned and he looked up at me.

Sveta tried again.  Again, she hit the invisible momentum-cutting barrier.  Like punching a wall of mud.  More silvery lines criss-crossed, filling the space, silvery stitches, closing off the gap of the roof itself.

Two capes had somehow closed the distance to the treeline.  I could hear Ashley and Damsel’s blasts, each audibly distinct because of what they were, and I could see more trees toppling.

Mukade’s centipedes flowed back to him, sliding into the hole in his side.

“Back!  Now!” I shouted.

She didn’t budge, her attention on the progress of her tendrils.

No options left, I threw myself into her range with the full knowledge that she’d nearly grabbed me before, and any control she’d picked up from Rain’s power was probably long gone.

She hadn’t shied away from gunfire or having her tendrils sliced, but she shied away from letting me into her range.  Slow and awkward, her entire head lurching because she tried to use a tendril she didn’t have anymore to anchor herself.

I closed in, tendrils grazing me, and pressed her face to my shoulder as I flew the two of us back and away.  Mukade’s centipedes stabbed through the air behind us in a double helix, then closed up, the openings in the helix scissoring closed, razor-sharp serrated edges making a shrieking sound as they ran against one another, acid spraying and splashing below them.

Sveta pulled away, and I threw up the Wretch.  Hoping it wouldn’t grab her, just as she no doubt hoped she wouldn’t grab me.

Red’s power provided the elevator to raise a group of four capes and ten soldiers to the broken rooftop.  She stepped away from the group, and had the splashes going constantly now, all in close proximity to herself.  One two three, clockwise, while another set marked the same pattern and distance, counter-clockwise, timed so there was something emerging from the rooftop every two seconds or so, always in arm’s reach.

Pieces of metal to be shields, an outcropping of pipes, that she could use to grab and wrench a weapon free,  Curved blades that scraped the roof, as if testing the footing.

Soldiers dropped low, raising their guns-

The one closest to the trees seemed to throw himself at the guy beside him.  Glass shards clattered down around him, and his head lolled back.  Individual lengths of wire stabbed into eyes, eye socket, eyelid, scalp and cheek, sometimes prying and pulling skin or ocular material away, because those wires were still trying to spring back to a rigid, straight length.  The guy beside him had one wire stabbing through an eye.

More of the soldiers were reacting now – I’d thought they’d dropped low or bent over because the guys at the far left of their group were leaning so heavily into them, from the force of the impact.  But the other shot had gone low much as the first had gone high, both striking simultaneously.  Short lengths of wire riddled the hands that had been holding the guns aloft.

Curled up wire distilled in glass spheres?

“Go to the others!” I told Sveta.

“But-”

“They need you!”

Not the level-headed ideal command I’d pictured before.

But Sveta listened.

I threw myself at the upper edge of the building.  The structure was damaged, cracks running through it from the damage to the roof and the way the damaged section hung, and a heavy impact from myself and the Wretch drove the damage home.  A crack became something bigger and a section fell loose further across the roof.  The people who had been setting up their vantage point to open fire on me, Sveta, or the people on the trees were now left uncertain if the roof would hold them.  One guy hopped up onto the lip of the roof, a foot or two above my reaching hand.

He was quick to fire.  Accurate enough to hit my forcefield.  I grabbed his foot and wrenched him from the roof, swinging him down, letting him drop halfway while I followed him and held onto him, before kicking him in the face, to send him on his way.  The Wretch snatched the gun he held, holding it by the barrel.

I rose up and twisted more sharply in the air before dismissing the forcefield.  The upward momentum served to toss the gun up, and I caught it in my hands.

I didn’t like the feel of it.  Didn’t like what it represented, that we were at this point.

I still held onto it.

Red was using her power to raise up a shield against the projectiles, but her power didn’t just make the eruption happen where she wanted it.  There were the two steps that telegraphed it, and as people retreated to get away from the hail of maiming slingshots, they walked right into the prelude splashes.  One fell from the roof, another tumbled, a soldier tripping over him to land perilously close to the hole in the roof.

I flew up and over, saw the group that standing tallest, and Red was the backbone of it.  Gun in hand, held shoulder-height and held sideways in front of me, I flew at them, aiming to bowl them over.  My arm was in agony for every step of the maneuver.

All for nothing.  A buzzsaw erupted just at the roof’s edge, barring my way.  I was forced to stop, stuck where I was while multiple people in her contingent got their bearings and aimed at me.

Grip shifting, flying with the circular saw as a kind of cover, I brought the gun around and pulled back on the trigger.

The vibration shook my body and reminded me that I had two massive gashes in my arm.  Someone could have dug their fingers into the gashes and cuts and it probably wouldn’t have hurt so much.

But I’d used guns before as part of the Patrol.  This time, however, I aimed at legs and lower bodies instead of paper cutouts.  Their disorganization was compounded by the fact they’d been under fire, some being mangled or blinded, and they were maneuvering around a damaged rooftop.  It put more people into a smaller area.

When I mowed into them with a single burst of gunfire, they collapsed into one another, if they didn’t collapse forward.

Except Red had been shielded by the people between her and I, and I still had to deal with her.  I saw the telltale splashes, and I got out of there.

I thought I got out of there.  I went low, closer to the base of the building, hugging the wall to minimize the chance that someone would be able to catch me off guard.

I had the Wretch active, and that likely saved my life.  Red’s industrial tool this time was a crane mount, spearing sky high and bringing cable and wrecking ball with it.  That wrecking ball slammed into me and the wall I was hugging.  The wall below them, that was holding their section of the roof up.

Putting me through concrete and brick, partially indoors.  I narrowly avoided having the cabling of the wrecking ball catch me and pull me into the ground as the whole apparatus sank back into the earth, just as fluidly as it had emerged.

Red, it seemed, had hopped over onto a piston she was using as an elevator back toward the ground.  More industrial tools were appearing to push broken concrete and dirt up against the walls, shoring them up as the building came to pieces.

I didn’t press the fight.  It wasn’t a priority.  Our goal was stopping Cradle, and Cradle wasn’t even here anymore.

The siege was ongoing now.  The grenade shots shook the building and people were hurrying outside.  The momentum barrier was a one-way screen for them to open fire.

I flew high, because low was hazardous as hell.  Capricorn had used a water blast, and when that water hit the momentum barrier and stopped, he’d turned it to stone.  Turning the enemy’s one-way fortification into something two-way.  My dad peppered the outer edges of the stone ‘splash’ with grenades, still somehow firing them like he was using a railgun, and the chunks that flew up and over were raining down on the mercenaries.

But- there were fifteen of us, minus any injured I wasn’t aware of.

There were more than a hundred of them.

Just from the look of it, the grenade shots were coming from further back.  Our team was steadily retreating.

An audible wet sound was my only clue that I was under attack.  In any other place, I might have dismissed the sound, but I was too high up for something to sound so sharp and near.  I changed direction, using the Wretch.

A geyser of vomit from the airborne Barfbat.  Chugalug floated below, gas-filled trash bags buoying him.  He was downwind and further down, which spared me the worst of the smell.

Barfbat spewed another geyser.  Liquid and far too sustained for something from a human-sized package.

When I flew out of the way, avoiding his attempts to steer the spray my way, weaving below and then back, so gravity kept it from reaching me, he shifted modes.  The ring of fluid-filled sacs around his neck contracted, then swelled, chunky.

A loogie, shot like a bullet.

I had too much experience with aerial warfare to allow something like that to hit me.

I monitored them, keeping a distance, while moving in the general direction of my team.  I didn’t want to lead him to them, and I definitely didn’t want to put myself in a position where I had to choose between getting splashed, even if it was the Wretch getting splashed, or letting my people on the ground suffer.

They stayed on me, keeping me marked, no doubt ready to capitalize if I left them to it.  If they reached a point where they could bombard the others-

Barfbat settled on Chugalug, and the weight of him seemed to sink Chugalug, driving him incrementally down, down, down.

Bending over, Barfbat shifted glands again, then emptied a seemingly endless stream of bile and vomit into Chugalug’s upturned face and open mouth.

Trashbags mutliplied and swelled.  A caterpillar-like tail extended out behind and below.  Other debris like a halo of chicken bones and stringy matter expanded out around and behind Chugalug.

I aimed the rifle the Wretch had claimed from one soldier, and I fired, gunning through the trash bags.

My first series of shots popped the ones to either side and below him.  He began to drop, not as steeply as if he had nothing.  No doubt some gas buoyed him.

And Barfbat was still there, still in place, still ready to supply raw material.  The bags I’d shot were replaced, and the abominable dirigible that was Chugalug found its buoyancy again.

I shot again, aware I had only so many bullets.  This time, I aimed for bags on the one side.  He listed, then he tilted, forcing Barfbat to adjust position to get the vomit where it needed to be.

With sustained effort in forcing the tilt, I put Chugalug nearly upside-down and sinking fast.

Barfbat paused in his supply of the fluid, made a face, then spat at me.  Not a loogie the size of my head, but something more like a piece of bone.  I avoided it.

“Stand down, or I will shoot you.”

He lunged, instead.  Chugalug extended a portion of his body to provide a helping hand in moving forward, and Barfbat moved his wings, a flap, then an almost horizontal dive or pounce, straight for me.

I shot, one bullet, and that was enough to keep Barfbat from tackling me and getting in close- whatever it was he planned on doing if he managed it.  His wings spread, and he flapped, while Chugalug slowly sank below him.

The bullet had made a surprisingly big hole, but that hole was steadily closing, filling up with fluid-filled pustules.  What was left as it finished closing was a small patch of what could’ve been the black death.

Bat-masked face was ringed with long black hair and a wreath of fluid-filled sacs.  He flapped, eyeing me, before diving for Chugalug.

I was really glad I didn’t have to get into hand-to-hand combat with either of them.  Fucking gross.

The others were running for it.  Down the road.  I could see Cradle’s group, and I could see that it was disorganized.  There were stragglers, the impatient soldier from before among them, there were wounded, there were the reluctant, who didn’t seem eager to go charging in after trouble, and there were the ones who were giving chase.  Cradle was with the reluctant, still slightly hunched over, far from being a model of courage or conviction.

There were just so fucking many of them.

I turned my back, flying after the others.

They were nipping at our heels, and as our group traced its way down a bend of road, they were at the prior bend, just far enough away that they probably couldn’t be confident of their shooting, but still in a position to theoretically gun one of our people down.

I could see where and when Rain was using his power.  Where people in the lead stopped in their tracks, or the loose mass of mercenaries started to spread out and then had second thoughts.

Capricorn’s power turned dirt road into mud.  Mud became stone, trapping more than a few people.  At the next bend, again, dirt road became a slosh of thin mud, the road itself made treacherous or slower going.

This time, however, he didn’t follow up by turning it to stone.

I flew after them, catching up.

They were on guard and tense enough that my landing seemed to spook even the more serious ones.  Swansong and Foil were among them.

“You’re hurt,” my dad observed.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Come here,” he said.  “I can multitask.  No stitches in this light, but I can wrap it.”

“I can hold things,” Moose offered, walking beside my dad.

I submitted to the medical care.  I tracked the others.  Harbingers One and Two were out to the flanks, not seeming to care about the possibility of traps in the ditches.  Foil and Capricorn had the rear, Foil sporting a borrowed slingshot.  My mom and Sveta were on opposite corners of the group.  Rachel had the lead, where she rode her wolf alongside the hound that had an injured Chastity and Cassie seated on it.

Ow- and most pressing, most distracting, my arm and leg fucking hurt.  Fuck and ow.

“Distract me,” I said.

“We got two of their capes,” Swansong said.

I got two,” Damsel retorted.

“We did.”

“I did,” Damsel said.  “Final blow’s all that matters.”

Swansong didn’t rebut.

“He caught on,” Rain said.  “Spotted us.”

“No idea what his emotion power is?” I asked.

Rain shook his head.  “I don’t think he’s been using.  He’s still focused on his machine.  Upgrading it on the fly.”

I drew in air through my teeth.

“He’s hanging back,” Rain said.  “Letting others do the dirty work.  The asshole.”

“He might think he’s putting us in a pinch,” my dad said.  “Depending on how things stood with the people in the Row, the supervillain town just outside the station, he would be right.  There, that’ll hold.”

I checked the injuries at my arm.  “Leg?”

I floated up, until my leg was at a comfortable level for him.

“Ow,” Moose said.

“Less commentary.  I’m trying not to think about it.”

“Worse than any injury I’ve ever had,” he said.

My mind went to the gouges at one corner of his face.  A mistake in using the Wretch.  Any different, and I might have dislocated his jaw.

Less commentary,” I said, my voice firm.  “That was you, working with my dad?”

He made a flicking motion with his finger.  The shockwave followed, focused and narrow.

Right.

“You okay, Svet’?” I asked, pitching my voice to be heard.  “You got cut.”

“I wanted to get the whip,” Sveta said, so far away she was barely in earshot.  Her movements were… not a limp, but not so fluid that it looked like her face was floating.  Here and there, it would sharply bob or move.

That’s what you were after?”

“He had devices with him.  I thought if I couldn’t get him, I could get his things.  Give it to Rain to undo it or decipher it.”

“Not sure I could if you did,” Rain said.  “Because I don’t accomplish anything ever.”

There was a bitterness in the voice that seemed to surprise a few of us.

“Doesn’t sound like you,” Byron said.

“Me being a loser?” Rain asked.  “I could’ve cracked them and I didn’t.  I got cold feet when it counted.”

“You did fine,” I said.

“Don’t fucking patronize me,” he said.

Okay, wow.

“I flew over, they’re spread out.  People you were working on aren’t budging.  That’s easily twenty or thirty people we’re not having to deal with.”

“Because we beat their capes up, I’m betting,” Rain said.  “They don’t have anyone to follow.”

“Because you worked on them,” I said, insistent.  “They’re disorganized, and I don’t think Cradle’s good at rallying them.  It’s slowing him down, shaking him up.  He’s still all the way back there.”

“Yeah?  Isn’t that exactly the opposite of what we want?” Rain asked.

“We want to not deal with them all at once.  We got that.  It wasn’t pretty, but we got it.  We have options.”

“I feel like no matter how this ended up, you’d be giving me the weak pep talk.”

“Well fuck you,” I said.

“Victoria,” my mom said.  “Be a leader.”

“Fuck you too,” I said.  “No.  Fucking hell, fuck that.   You haven’t been helpful or a leader.  I got gashed a few times and I’m sore, I’m tired.  I’m not going to play nice and stoic team leader here, being everyone’s rock or punching bag.”

“I can take over if you’re not up to it,” Damsel said.

Stop,” I said, pointing a finger at her.  “Stop.  Precipice?  Fuck off if you’re not going to listen to what I’m saying because you’re so frustrated, okay?  Seriously.  I’m not going to lie to the people here about where things stand to spare your ego.  Not when it could make a difference in tactics or us coming out of this in as many pieces possible.  I respect you more than you probably think I do, but I’m not that fond of you.”

“Right,” he said, his voice tight.

“Swansong, stop needling your sister.  Damsel, stop being needled.  Focus on kicking ass.  I know you two have it in you.”

“Two of us took out three capes.  I’m content,” Swansong said.

“One and six sevenths of you,” one of the Harbingers said.

“Not funny,” Swansong said.

I pointed.  “Harbingers, stop blinding and permanently disfiguring randoms.  That’s an order.”

“Noted.”

“No disfigurements or maiming that lasts ninety-nine percent of a lifetime either,” Swansong said.

“Mmm.  Is that an order?” Harbinger Two asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“Nothing that takes more than a month to heal,” Swansong clarified.

“What she said,” I said.

My dad patted my leg, at a spot where it wasn’t injured.  I checked, then floated down at more of a level with the rest, mouthing a ‘thank you’ to him.  I got a nod.

“That will be an interesting line to find, since there’s a flier after us,” Harbinger One said, pointing.

Barfbat.

“Can we?” he asked.  “We’ll bring him down gently.”

I shut my eyes a second.  “Don’t be gentle.”

He tilted his head to one side.

“He regenerates.  Healed a bullet wound in five seconds.  It’ll take more to stop him.”

The Harbinger pair ducked away, heading across the ditch to a hill where presumably they’d do their shooting.

My voice was low.  “Brandish?  Stop sniping, stop throwing barbs, stop getting jealous, whatever it is that’s motivating you.”

“I’m volunteering my services and I get lectured?” she asked, voice arch.

“Fuck off,” I said, with emphasis.  I glared at her, and she looked away.  I turned my attention the other direction, to the front flank of the group.  “Sveta?”

“Time to yell at me?”

“If I say to get clear, listen.  I don’t want to have to kamikaze rush you to get you to get out of terminal danger.”

“Okay,” she said.

“Good control earlier, good job getting people clear.  You got Tattletale?”

“I have her,” Rachel said, loud and brusque at the same time Sveta meekly said, “I did.”

“How is she?”

“Hurt,” was Tattletale’s faint voice.

“Hurt,” Rachel said.

“Okay,” I said.  The settlement was in sight now.  I checked back.  No Barfbat, and Harbingers were returning to our group.  Cradle’s group lagged behind- I could see the light of flashlights through the trees, but no followers.  Byron’s lights loomed well behind us, ready to spray them and the road if they tried to take the easy road.  “Capricorn?  You stopped switching.”

“My brother asked me not to, unless it was an emergency.  Pain’s getting to be too much to focus, and he’s worried he’ll pass out.”

“Got it,” I said.

Too many little things.  There were probably other things I needed to hammer out.  Probably things that others needed to shout at me.

“Speaking of focus, I’m worried about Precipice,” Byron said.

“Me?”

“He’s not acting like himself.”

“I’m fine.”

“You’re using more emotion power than ever.  Is there a feedback loop?  A backlash for overuse?  I don’t know how these things work.”

“No,” was the reedy answer.  Tattletale.

I flew through the group to the head of the pack.

“No?” I asked.

“I need more information to give you a better answer, but not a backlash.  That would taper off after using the power, even a little.  This is… longer lasting.”

I glanced back at Rain.  There was something wrong?

“Because we woke him up early?”

“From?” Tattletale asked.

“A dream space,” Rain said.  “Where we face each other, they exchange tokens, they don’t usually share with me.  Except this time, Cradle offered me some, his tinker power, and I was suspicious.  Too many weird things going on.  I thought maybe it was a trap.”

“T’was,” Tattletale said, the contraction a result of her being so strained in her speaking.  “Not like you think.”

“I think it might’ve been that tinkers get distracted or caught up in what they’re wanting to build, they don’t see reality.  The asshole wanted to give me a lot at once, when I’m not used to it.”

“No.”

“Then what?” Rain asked, clearly annoyed.

“You took something else.”

“I was- I think I might’ve been given some without knowing.  by Love Lost.”

“You were.  It was a signal.  A warning.”

“About what?”

“Bleed-through.  It comes with the tokens.  Cradle wanted to give you his.”

As impatient and vocal as he had been, Rain went quiet, thinking.

“This is my head,” Chasity said, and I couldn’t see the motion she was making because of how she sat in front of Cassie.  “And this is the fifty things going a mile above it.”

“He’s scared now,” Tattletale said.  “Shaken, because… you gave him tokens?”

“No,” Rain said.

“You got to him.”

“Hitting him with a shame and regret cloud while he was sleeping,” Rain said.

“You got to him.  He’s scared, he knows that tomorrow night, you can just give him your things.  You can do it every night.  He has to stop you.  You have the upper hand.  He has more people, but you’re winning.”

I folded my arms.  “Then we have a game plan.  We go to into the town.  They’re cooperating with us to some degree. If they’re on our side, then Cradle probably can’t attack like he wants to, we find an angle.  Maybe keep using Precipice’s power, push buttons, make it so their group can’t stay together.”

I looked at Rain.

I saw him nod.  Delayed, like he’d had to think first, or he was lost in thought.

“And if we absolutely have to, if the town isn’t willing to let us use them to scare Cradle off, we go through, and we lock the door.  Stop March, intervene, do what we have to.”

“Lock it?” Foil asked.

I shrugged, then winced at the pain in my upper arm.

It wouldn’t be pretty, but it was an option.

“Doable,” Capricorn said.

Psychologically, even if I didn’t trust Tattletale one hundred percent, hearing that Cradle was spooked was a psychological edge.  It shifted things, how I felt like we could approach them.

We still needed to get him into a position where we could question him.  Away from his people.

Except he had a mover power now that let him get out of any situation we put him in.  Gravity and intervening obstacles didn’t seem to matter.

Getting him into a position where we could exploit him seemed next to impossible.

“Glory Hole,” Tattletale muttered.

There wasn’t any ongoing conversation, and the only noise was the distant slosh of Capricorn’s water swamping the road and trees.  The words hung in the air, and I was tempted to leave them there.

“Wanted to say-” she started.

“What?” I asked.

“This sucks.  This hurts.  Fair’s fair.  If you want to lord it over me, you can.”

Lord it over her?  That she was hurt?

I couldn’t even connect to what she meant until I remembered past jabs at my time in the hospital.

I shook my head.  “Focus on the mission.  The kids are hurt, our teammates.”

She went silent.  Rachel, meanwhile, turned my way and glared at me.

Tattletale hadn’t known?  How, with that power of hers?

I looked away.

It was a careful, uneasy approach to the ‘Rows’.  A settlement without real streets, sprawling out at the base of a station that was far better put together than any dwelling.  We had some people hang back to watch our rear while others ventured further in.  The wounded stayed three-quarters of the way back, somewhat hidden.  A show of strength was somewhat important.

The villains of note were all gathered around the station exit, about a city block ahead of us.  Etna, I noted, was absent.

They looked agitated.

We were agitated.  The mercenaries were there, following from enough of a distance that we couldn’t shoot or use slingshots.

“You can lock the doors, you said?” Tattletale asked.

I turned back to face her.

“What do you mean?” I asked Tattletale.

“You can lock the doors.  You have a dimension switch.”

“Whatever it’s called.  Yeah.”

“You let the villains know that?”

“Yeah.  Scared them into compliance a bit.  Conscience brought us the rest of the way.”

Cassie pulled the switch out, keeping it partially under the blanket.  I saw her expression change.

I flew over, while she turned the thing around to show me.  Swansong and Capricorn drew near to see as well.

“They might not be so compliant then,” Tattletale said, behind us.

The screen was outlined in yellow, and the readout only said ‘Error’.

I looked back at the villains at the station.  Bluestocking’s group.  They didn’t just look agitated.  They looked energized.  Invigorated.

The person who’d just come out of the station, that had gone to whisper something in Bluestocking’s ear?  That had very possibly, even probably been to let Bluestocking know the portal was clear.  The way out was back.

Because of Cradle. 

“How?” Capricorn asked.

“Scans the airwaves to see if you have walkie talkies, comms, phones, any means of communication,” Tattletale said.  “And finds that.  Your key.  Hacks it.”

That was part of what he’d been up to.  Opening the door, taking away our leverage.  Leaving us caught between him and villains that weren’t dependent on us for a way out.

“Fucking tinkers,” Tattletale added.

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Heavens – 12.f

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He took off his glasses, holding them in his hands.  The time for tantrums was over, and the fragility of the glasses in his hands was a reminder to himself.  Not to clench his fists, not to stand.  If he opened his eyes and looked at something or someone, then the blurriness of the scene was an immediate warning to himself.  If the glasses shifted in his fingers because he moved, that gave him pause.

He’d broken his glasses once, years ago.  He’d done it in a childish tantrum, and it had taken days before he could get new ones.  Back in the ugly days.

That hadn’t been the day the tantrums stopped, but it had been a lesson that had stayed with him.  Rare, when he had so many terrible teachers.

“Ryan,” Old Mrs. Parrish said.

Speaking of terrible teachers.

Ryan took his time unfolding the arms of his glasses, rubbing at a spot on the lens with his shirt-sleeve, then sliding them into place.  His fingers ran through his hair, while the fingers of his other hand stayed on his glasses.  A reminder, lingering as he focused his eyes on his homeroom teacher.

Mrs. Parrish was giving him a look.  Sad and disappointed, but not disappointed in him.  She wore bright colors, and all of her jewelry looked like it was bought from the same kiosk in the mall.  Not even a store, but one of the booths that were set up in the walkways, that stuck ‘fair trade’ in the name and sold wooden beads they’d probably made themselves for twenty times the price.

He had a running bet with himself that she had at least three cats and one other random pet.  She definitely didn’t have a wedding ring on her left hand, and that was a ship that had sailed a long time ago.

He smiled, the smile measured to the occasion.

“What goes around comes around,” she said.

He had to be careful.  He looked at the door beside him, and he could hear the murmurings of his parents.  He adjusted his glasses without looking at Old Mrs. Parrish, and he thought about all the possibilities.  How dangerous was she?

His parents were saying something about suing the district.  He could call her out on exactly what she was, cut her down like she’d tried to cut him down.  But it wasn’t worth the risk.

“Are you threatening me, Mrs. Parrish?” he asked.

She leaned forward, arms on the divider that separated the two office secretary’s desks.  Her fingers rotated a piece of wood at her wrist that had been painted a jade green, until a backwards swastika showed.

“No.  I believe in karma,” she said.  “I think if you do good, then you’ll find your way forward.  People will want to help you, and opportunities will present themselves.”

“Oh,” he said.  He tried to look like he was digesting that.

She was almost rushed as she cut in, “Don’t say anything, Ryan.  Just… think about it.”

She sounded so guarded.  Defensive.

“I’m mostly thinking about how that explains a lot about you, Mrs. Parrish.  You never look really happy, except that one time Tyler pranked Ben in class-”

“Ryan.”

“-which is kind of mean spirited, isn’t it?  And you’re unmarried and old and I’ve never seen you hanging out with another teacher.  None of the students come to your desk to shoot the shit after class.”

“Enough, Ryan.”

He wanted to say more.  He could even get away with it.  He could press her and she’d get mad, and his parents were right here, to see what he had to deal with at school.  He bit his tongue instead.  He adjusted his glasses, looking down at his lap.

In the background, he could make out words.

You’ve had it out for him, even though-“

He sighed.

“If what goes around comes around, then you guys are really going to hurt for the way you’ve treated me, the past few years.”

“You don’t really believe that.”

He didn’t.

But he measured out another smile.  Getting back at her would be satisfying, but he’d learned that it was an empty kind of payback.  A fast food kind of thing, empty and not so good for him in the long term.  It was the same if he got her to show her true face when his parents were so close by.  Empty fast food satisfaction.

Like this?  If he just gave her a smile that might be the last thing she saw of him?  She’d know.  She knew that she’d lost, all of them had lost.  They hadn’t beat him.

The door to the principal’s office opened.  Ryan had a fleeting glimpse of the old woman’s expression, doubt, that expression he’d adapted to like a person in London learned to live with fog and rain, or how a person who lived in Lyon learned to live with Endbringers kicking their shit in.

“Let’s go,” his mother said.

“What’s going on?” he stood.

“We’ll talk about it later,” she said.

He rose from his seat.  There were no parting words from the bald old principal or Mrs. Parrish as he left with his family, walking down the hall toward the front doors.  He knew they followed behind, because his dad shot a look back in that direction.

He wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of looking back.  He was pretty sure he was done here.  Done with this school, with old teachers who had long since stopped caring about anything except being shitty and getting on his case.

They were just past the doors when his dad put a hand on his shoulder.  Ryan stopped, turning.  This was it.  The test.

“Did you hurt that girl?” his dad asked him.

Ryan’s thoughts flashed to the confrontation in the parking lot.  Christina’s friends cornering him, one of them with tears in her eyes.  Emotional and violent.

“No,” he lied with sincerity.

His mother put a hand on his shoulder, leaning over to kiss him on top of the head.  He knew the doors were glass, and that his old principal and homeroom teacher were probably still looking.

He didn’t steal a glance.  Even a glance could be fast food.  Fast food was better than a tantrum, but the long play was even better than that.

“Amanda?”

The girl looked startled.  Amanda wore the same uniform as everyone else, but hers was a little washed out, the red of her tie a little darker and duller, the black a little more gray.  Her hair was duller than the other girls, a simple bob, parted and kept out of her face with a headband.

The dead giveaway, though, was the shoes.  Dull and scuffed.  Her family probably didn’t have a lot of money, he was guessing, in which case the haircut made some sense.  It was kind of what he was doing.  His own parents were having a tough time, sending him here.

“Aren’t you going to go over the project?” he asked.

The other students in class were milling around, each with printouts in hand.  The teacher had told them to peer review and get two signatures in the top right hand corner.

“I’m not good at that, and I didn’t do very well on the project,” she said.

“Come on,” he said.  “Trade?”

Amanda nodded, biting her lip.  “It’s really not very good.  I misread one of the instructions.”

“I looked at someone else’s and I don’t think they got it all the way right either,” he said.

He looked around, then leaned closer, whispering.  “Blame the shitty teachers.”

“They’re not bad.  It’s a good school,” Amanda said.  She looked a bit scandalized by the comment.

“I’ll take your word for it.”

Amanda smiled, before ducking her head down, focusing on his paper.

Her project wasn’t very good.  She’d been right to be embarrassed.  He held back a sigh, then set about going over it, trying to be as constructive as possible.  He had to read it twice before he found some positive comments to make.  The lines that had some wit to them were marked out with a ‘I like this’.

He even dared to add a smiley.

Every day was work.  Making friends, holding back, playing the role.

He attended a new school, private and classy, which meant a new pretense.  It meant laying new groundwork, being patient, even though being patient was hard.

He’d once heard his mother unaffectionately call  him ‘the worst baby ever’.  He resented a lot about how his parents had fucked up or failed him, but he couldn’t really hold a grudge about that line.  It was as honest as anything he got from her, and it was kind of funny.

He’d been a shitty kid, so it wasn’t unreasonable to imagine being a shitty baby.  He could remember tantrums, screaming as loud as he could scream just to see what it was like, see how people reacted, and then keeping it up for hours.  Then doing it again the next day.  He could remember fighting literally tooth and nail, until they decided letting him wear unwashed clothes and go without baths was easier.

‘Go stand in the corner?’ – what even kept him in the corner, if they weren’t holding him there?  He made them hold him every time.

‘I’ll take away your toys?’ – he’d take away theirs.  Smash the television enough times they had to keep it in their room with the door locked.  Pull out drawers.  Cut wires.  Break the ship in a bottle that his Grandpa had left his dad.

They slapped him, because they’d finally lost patience?  He’d scratched, he’d spat, he’d kicked.  He’d doubled down in the physicality of how he fought back.

Those had been the ugly years.

He’d broken his own glasses during a tantrum, and the days of near-blindness that had followed had been a wake-up call.  Maybe the first time a punishment had actually meant anything.  Medication, half a year later, had helped him actually use the wake-up call.  Adderall.  Speed for kids, but it made it possible to change course.

That had marked the transition from the ugly tantrum years to the ‘fast food’ years, as he found a new footing, and those years had been brief.  His parents had found people to talk to, and became annoying enough that he’d decided it was better to play along.  They’d set rules in place and stuck to them no matter what.  At that stage, he’d been entering middle school, which was attached to his elementary school.

Playing along meant being the angel at home and doing what he wanted at school.  His parents were so relieved that their ‘worst baby ever’ and their grade schooler from hell had finally turned around that they would defend him to the death.  Just so long as he fed them something that would let them believe he really had turned around.

That meant, at least for now, the change of schools had to be something that worked.  At his old school?  His teachers had hated him because they couldn’t let go of how he’d used to be.  Students picked on him because the teachers allowed it, making up stories because they knew the teachers would believe anything they said about him, no matter how vicious or horrible.  He’d crafted that impression for his parents.

Now he was here.  He’d made friends, he was confident, and teachers sung his praises.

“This is really good work,” Amanda said, tucking her hair behind her ear so she could see him better, without actually sitting up straight or looking right at him.  “It makes me feel even worse about mine.”

He was a bit amused by that, but he didn’t let it show.  “I’ve always been a good student.”

“I’m jealous.”

Straight As since our report cards were A through F instead of being fives to ones, except when he didn’t hand something in.  It was too important not to give his teachers any ammunition to hand to his parents.  An intentionally messed up project couldn’t be explained away.  A missing project could be blamed on the teacher’s failure.

He wasn’t a genius.  His reading of people, his grades, he knew he wasn’t special.  It was that everyone else was dumb, or they… they hadn’t had a reason to try.  They coasted.  It was a Tuesday, and he’d overheard some people talking about next Saturday’s morning cartoons.

He’d had to work for a long time now, at every interaction.  Every project.

“This isn’t bad,” he lied, finishing up, passing her project back to her.  He took his own back.

“Thank you,” she said.

“You never get out of your chair when it’s a group project or class activity.”

“There are twenty-nine students in class,” she said.  “No matter what size the group is, someone has to be left out.”

“Thirty students in class now.  I’m here,” he told her.  “Unless you tell me not to, I’ll group with you until the end of the year, kay?”

She nodded, smiling.  “Alright.  Um, and it’s Manny.”

“Manny?”

“You wrote Amanda here.  I wanted to get it out of the way.  Manny, not Amanda.  They always use our full name for roll call.”

He had to adjust his glasses.

“Got it,” he said, even though he didn’t.  Manny was a dumb name for a girl.

The teacher was watching the exchange, he guessed.  He couldn’t look.  Perception mattered, and the last thing he wanted was to be seen as calculating.

A part of him was pleased Amanda had been so easy to work with.  If he was putting in the extra effort, maybe there was some way to get some payoff later on.  She probably wasn’t romantically interested in him, but he’d observed that any male and female friend who spent enough time together would form some kind of attraction.  If he wanted to, he just had to stick near her.

He wasn’t that interested in that.  But could he make her do something, like hurting someone else, or stealing something?   Could he remain the angel at home and at school while getting others to do what he wanted?

It was so easy, when so many others were unaware, barely thinking from moment to moment, and yet it was so hard to justify.  So much work for so little gain.  He wasn’t that kind of guy, who had a herd of others following him.

A card to keep up his sleeve.

“We might have a third person for our groups,” Amanda said.

He pushed his glasses up his nose as he turned to look.  At the front of the room, someone was talking to the teacher.  Going over the project notes.

Ryan recognized the boy.  He noted the fresh, brand-spanking-new uniform.

Someone from his old school.

No.  Not fair.

How was he supposed to handle this?  Did he get out in front of the problem?  Divert?  Deny?  Negotiate?  What could the guy even want?

He watched out of the corner of his eye as the boy left the teacher’s desk, then began navigating the room.  Round-faced, hair buzzed short to the point he was almost bald, ruddy cheeks, and a crisp school uniform better suited for someone of a lighter build.

Maybe emboldened, Amanda raised a hand, getting the boy’s attention.

Ryan’s hands went to his glasses, he realized the action might be interpreted as hiding behind his hands, and he made the adjustment brief.

He didn’t miss the moment he was recognized.  The recognition, followed by wariness.  The boy had probably heard the stories.

“I’m supposed to read some people’s work and sign it?”

“I still need someone else to read mine,” Amanda said.  “I’m Manny.”

“Lloyd,” the boy said.  Two thirds of his attention were on Ryan now.  Amanda didn’t seem to notice.

“I’m Ryan,” Ryan said.

“You used to go to Hillside?”

“Yeah.”

The wariness intensified, if anything.  But Lloyd didn’t say anything.  As he looked over Amanda’s work, making small talk with Amanda, Ryan made a note on a slip of paper.

Ryan’s glasses found their way into his hands, under the guise of cleaning them.  A way to keep himself still when he was agitated.  To avoid any comment that might be foolhardy or rushed.  To keep his hands busy.  Training himself.

Five minutes passed before Lloyd finished.  He shuffled over, until he sat opposite Ryan.  His jaw was set now, his shoulders stiff.

There was a kind of humor in the note that Ryan passed along with his work.  He might have smiled or laughed, but he was too wary.  Not when he was taking a risk like this.

Other students passed notes saying something like, ‘Do you like Sarah?  Y/N’

The note Lloyd got was simpler.  ‘Ernie.  Joseph.  Ms. Butler.  Christina.  Lloyd too?  Y/N’

Minutes passed before Lloyd finished the work.  The class was restless, people moving around and chatting more because most had finished.  Ryan was very still.

The note was passed back.  That was the first good sign.  If Lloyd had thought to keep it and show it to anyone… but Lloyd hadn’t.

The ‘N’ was circled.  The second good sign.

Two aces up his sleeve, if he ever had a cause to need them.

The slice of park ran between some houses that had seen better days on the left side, and the social aid houses that were all the same shape and materials on the right side.  At the end of the park, things opened up into dense foliage and a view of water, more mud and fallen leaves than anything that could be enjoyed.

Hands in his jacket pockets, he kicked his way through knee-deep leaves, felt branches crack under his shoes.

He was making a lot of noise, which made for a bit of surprise when he caught Lloyd and Amanda, leaning into the recess where three tree trunks grew in together.  Lloyd had a meaty hand just beneath Amanda’s shirt, against the flat of her stomach, his tongue in her mouth.  Amanda, mouth acrobatics aside, had a very out-of-place serene expression on her face.

Ryan cleared his throat, and he saw them react like they’d been caught doing something wrong.

“You two have had a good summer, hm?  Do you want me to go?”

“No,” Amanda huffed.  She was flushed.  “Sorry.  You got here fast.  I didn’t think the bus even came this fast.”

“Biked,” Ryan said.

“Is it a problem?” Lloyd asked.  Guarded.  Defensive.  He was asking about him and Amanda.

“No,” Ryan decided.  “No.”

“Do you want to sit?  Picnic lunch as promised,” Amanda said.

Ryan nodded.

There was a picnic table, set out in the stretch of park, and they gathered there, with Ryan being mindful of Lloyd’s bulk and how it made the table with connected benches shift, before he finally sat down.

“Did you find your way here okay?” Amanda asked.

“I’ve been here before.  Earlier this summer, even.  I didn’t know you lived here.”

Amanda pointed to one of the brown social aid houses.  She smiled.  “We could have met.”

“Probably a good thing that we didn’t,” Ryan said.  He took the offered food.

“Why?”

“An old homeroom teacher of mine put her address up online.  She lives down there.  The overgrown property.”

Amanda looked puzzled.  Lloyd had a stiff look about him.  That look had been with him for the last year of middle school and first year of high school.  Like he was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Ryan dropped it.  “She lets her cats run loose here.  I thought I’d get my revenge on her.  Brought a cat carrier, some smelly fish for bait.  I even thought I’d bring you guys in, before deciding it was better to do it alone.”

“What?” Amanda asked.

Lloyd was silent.  Ryan didn’t answer, instead choosing to eat, fixing his glasses.

“Do what alone?”  Amanda asked.

“Catch some cats, check their collars, make sure they were hers, and take them down to the water there.  Sink the cage until bubbles stopped coming up.”

Paper and aluminum foil crinkled.  Lloyd, angry, squeezing the wrapping that Amanda had put his lunch in.

Not because of the act- maybe because of the act.  But because it shocked and hurt Amanda to hear this coming from a supposed friend’s mouth.

“I didn’t,” Ryan said.  “I brought a cage on the back of my bike, caught the first cat.  Then I stopped there.  I was bored, I was annoyed.  I’ve… I’ve been trying really hard to play nice, act good, and I don’t get anything for it.  Wouldn’t it be nice to stop trying?”

“No,” Amanda said.  “No, not at all.”

Ryan nodded.  “Exactly.  You’re right.  It’s… never been that nice, when I’ve done that sort of thing before.  That was something I had to figure out.”

What sort of thing?” she asked, almost with a note of panic in her voice now.

Ryan took another bite of his meal.  He was the only one eating, now.

What sort of thing?” she asked.

He held up a finger while he swallowed.

“Christina had a bruise,” Lloyd said.  “Back at our old school.  Huge bruise, like you wouldn’t believe.  Purple and green, like she got smacked by a car.”

“You knew about this?” Amanda asked.

“I pinched her,” Ryan said, keeping his voice level.  “Grabbed her and pinched, twisted, held one hand to her mouth and… kept twisting with the other hand.   Because she annoyed me.”

There had been others.  Friends of those others who pushed back, used numbers or threats to get him to back off.  And it had worked.  There had been retaliation from the school, warning letters.  Testimony from witnesses, waved in front of his face, before he’d asked that his parents be called.

And so much disappointment, which he didn’t care about, and shouting, which he considered annoying, and privileges taken away, which did deter him.  His parents had been consistent on that last one.  They couldn’t make him do anything, but they could take away what they’d given him.  He could fight back, but past a certain point, it wasn’t worth it.

Slowly, steadily, he’d found his way here.

Amanda stood from her seat, disgust clear on her face.

“It wasn’t worth it,” Ryan said.  “I’m messed up.  I know it.  My parents would say I was broken from the time I was born.  And they’d say I was better now.”

“Are you?”  Lloyd asked.

“I think I’m better now,” Ryan said.  “Yeah.”

He saw Lloyd bob his head in a nod, with the big guy even pausing to take a bite to eat.  He felt a weird kind of satisfaction at that.  It was hollow and nebulous and weak enough a feeling he couldn’t be positive he wasn’t imagining it, and he couldn’t rationalize it, but… it was something.

“Better?  You were going to drown a cat!” Amanda raised her voice.

“But I didn’t.  I stopped there, decided it wasn’t worth the hassle.  I don’t get anything out of it, and the hassle if I get caught…”

“That’s not a good reason!”

“You’re religious, aren’t you?  You do what you do because of god and heaven and fear of hell.”

“Do not compare that to this.  Right now I’m horrified and… horrified-”

She’d never had much imagination in a pinch.

“-but if you start making comparisons like that I’m going to get mad.”

He was tempted to push that button that was so squarely presented before him.  It would have been so easy, and it would have taken all this tension and… blown it up.  Wiped it out.  He adjusted his glasses, made himself stop.

“Okay.  Sorry,” he said.  “You’re right.  That wasn’t a good comparison.”

The words felt exactly as hollow as they were, but they defused her anger, just a bit.

“You’re okay with this?” Amanda asked, turning on Lloyd.

“I’ve wondered for a while,” Lloyd said.  “How much the rumors were real.”

She turned back to Ryan.  “It’s all been a lie?  The times you helped me with my schoolwork?  When- was the dressmaking a manipulation?  Did you do something to it?”

She’d had a dress she liked, that she had saved up to buy for a dance, and it had been sold out by the time she’d saved up enough.

Ryan had gone to his mother to learn how to sew, enlisted her help for the hardest parts.  The dress hadn’t been done in time for the dance, or even for Amanda’s birthday a month later.  He’d told himself it was laying groundwork for something later.  That it would turn Amanda from a friend to a diehard ally, maybe.  Something to convince his mom he was a good friend.  He hadn’t had a warm thought or feeling from start to finish.

But he’d made it and he’d never really used the social currency he’d reaped from the act.

He kind of wished it counted now, but bringing it up like that would hurt more than it helped.

“No.  I haven’t done anything since Christina Hodge.  I was a shitty middle schooler being shitty.”

“Was more than that,” Lloyd said.

Ryan shrugged, nodded.

“I’m going to go,” Amanda said.  She had tears in her eyes.  Emotional.  The emotions affected how she pitched her words, until her voice almost broke.  “Do- do I need to worry?   Because you’re clearly not the person you’ve been pretending to be for years, and now you’re saying you’d kidnap-”

“No,” Ryan said.

Amanda choked back words.

“No need to worry.  I’m not going to do anything.”

“I need to think.”

She stepped away from the table, gathering all the food.  She didn’t take what was in front of Ryan.  She seemed to expect Lloyd to come with her.

“Why?” Lloyd asked.

“Why what?” Ryan asked, taking another bite.

“Why tell us?  You could have kept pretending.”

“I spent a while thinking, since I left that cage with the cat in it below… that tree, over there.  I’m being good because I recognize there are consequences, and I’m not stupid.  Telling you… it means there’s more consequences.”

“Because we could tell?”

“Yeah.  And because I don’t mind your company.”

Amanda sniffled.  She had a blob of snot below her nostril.

The table shifted as Lloyd stood.

“I have chills,” Amanda said.  Lloyd put hands on her sweater and rubbed her arms and shoulders.  She added, “I don’t think I understand.”

“Sorry,” Ryan said.

“Come on, Amanda,” Lloyd said.  “I’ll walk you home.  We’ll talk.”

Amanda.  She wasn’t Manny anymore.  That was his own doing, Ryan recognized.  He finished his sandwich, thinking, the he brushed the crumbs from the table, depositing litter in the bin.

He’d nudged, discouraged, until Amanda was the name she used.  He didn’t regret it, exactly, but he wasn’t sure he’d do the same thing now, not when it could be a factor in how this turned out.

It had counted with Lloyd.  Maybe that was a good sign?

Grasping self reaches for a set of hands in another world.  Grasping self is a shadow of an echo of a hundred past existences it has moved on from.  Not a distillation of a past moment, but a slice of that snapshot.

Limbs, digits, claws, pseudopods, simulated and mapped into technology, mismatched to bodies and made to fit.  A catalogue of a single subset of ideas that have been studied and explored thoroughly in past cycles, to be handed over, placed in the cupped palms of another.

We are done with this, Grasping Self is assigned the task of finding and guiding another in seeing if it can be explored further.

Grasping self settles into its match.  Intelligent enough, disciplined, and calculating.  Many paths lie before him.  Any will do.  He will not need to be led by the hand to any destination.

The assistant is half-asleep as Grasping Self forms the connection.  His brain patterns form wavelengths and the wavelengths match Grasping Self’s consolidation of information for one eighth of one of the assistant’s seconds.

The dream is vivid, the process feels as though it is prolonged- to the assistant, it is hours of clear recollections.

The recollections are systematically wiped clean, but the impact of is not.

Days pass.  Weeks.  Grasping Self waits for an opportunity to connect.

Months pass.  The assistant pursues side interests, studying the dreams.

Grasping Self is not concerned.    When the connection is made, edits and alterations can be performed to ensure this does not pose any unusual complication.  At this point in time, the assistant has knowledge but no power to utilize it.  Later, the assistant will have the power, but will no longer hold the knowledge.

Grasping self waits, as the assistant continues on his course.

He checked his phone, and saw he had unread messages from his friends.  Amanda had made it through the end of the world, her family had survived.  They were actually doing okay.  Lloyd’s family… less okay.  But Lloyd had Amanda, at least.

It was ironic, after all of these years, after the last year of middle school and all of high school, but Lloyd had pulled away.  Recoiled even.  Did that make their friendship not a friendship?  It was a depressing thought.  Understandable, but depressing.

The look in Lloyd’s eye when the guy had rejected an offer of support had reminded Ryan of far too many people in his past.  His parents, once upon a time.  Mrs…. what was her name?  Mrs. Parrish, who had had the colorful clothes.  The sad, disappointed eyes.  The wounded look.

Frustrating, but- he adjusted his glasses.  The tic had evolved, less about actions now.

Focus on better things, he told himself.

He’d stepped away, giving Lloyd space to grieve, exchanging texts and only texts with Amanda.

Ryan:
Need anything?  I could drop off.

There was enough commotion around the entrance to the shopping center that he had to put the phone away, even as it vibrated with a response.

A lot of people.  The opening of a new store was usually a big event, especially when supplies were limited.  It was upside-down and backwards from what the world had used to be, before Gold Morning, when prices would be set, stock would run low, trail off, and then the last dregs would be sold off in a sale.  Now, here, prices started anywhere from ‘high’ to ‘exorbitant’, and only climbed as the stock depleted.

The people around the mall were of a rougher cast.  A group pushed past Ryan, and in the jostling, he saw more tattoos in a question of seconds than he thought he’d seen in the last year.

His eye fell on a ‘fuck it all’ tattoo, the letters big and bold.  A combination erect penis and mushroom cloud stabbed upward from the letters.

He had a bad feeling, and it was a hard one to shake.

He had to weigh his options.  Going without clothes, or… leave?  Because of a feeling?  He’d had to learn to put his instincts aside.

He pulled off his glasses to wipe at the lenses, and he headed into the shopping center.  To keep the lineups from being too disruptive, there were tickets available at storefronts, numbers displayed in big red digits.

At the bookstore, he picked out a book about parahumans.  Something he had kept an eye out for over the last while.  His interest had started with vivid dreams, which had led into studying dreaming and exploring medical-assisted dreams and lucid dreaming.  His research had touched on parahumans and how they experienced dreams.

The book frequently sold out, because, in the lack of clear answers after the end of the world, the unclear and abstract answers and details about parahumans were selling.

He picked up a how-to book on making desserts, checking the label to ensure that it was post-Gold-Morning.  A gift for Amanda.  A detective book for Lloyd.  A book of crosswords for his mother.  Several of the books had low quality paper, but that was a consequence of the world ending.  Whole industrial operations were at work, cleaving down forests to produce the wood to raise a city with alarming speed and recklessness, and the sawdust was churned into paper and printed with ink before it had stopped smelling of soil and forest.

He managed to have a coffee and three-quarters of a late-day lunch before his number came up.  He put the trash in the bin and headed to the store.  The people with tattoos were there, at the side, almost in a huddle.  Others gave them a wide berth.

A married couple.  Like Amanda and Lloyd, but ten years older.

An old couple.

Is there any way I get that?  Any way that’s fair to whoever I end up with?

He passed a store with science fiction images in bold colors with high contrast.  There was a man of a similar enough build to Lloyd that they could have been one and the same, but Lloyd couldn’t have grown a beard like that in just the one year.

The bad feeling he had wasn’t going away.  He saw kids running across the aisle, past a kiosk.  A mother scolded one of them, and he thought of his own mother.  Of what had worked, insofar as anything had, and the many, many things that hadn’t.

Shouting and public humiliation hadn’t been one of the things that worked.  He watched that interaction with some interest before the uneasy feeling grew.

There was more commotion, the volume raising just a bit more than before, but no discernable source.  No alarm.

He thought about stepping out, leaving, and he reconsidered.  He did need the clothes.

The explosion behind him ripped up tile and shook one of the pillars holding the ceiling up.  Glass rained down and the lighting shifted as fire glowed bright and blue, smoke rising high to block off the other lights.

His heart pounded as people screamed, started running.  He joined them.

Another explosion cut off the way to the pharmacy, shattering glass and setting the floor on fire, that same floor was now so covered in tiny glass shards that it was impossible to run there.

People bumped into him, their faces now macabre, the bright parts illuminated by the blue fire, the shadows deep and black.  So quickly after the initial explosions, there was no navigating the space.  There was only getting away from the fire- the same fire that burned, scarred for life, hurt more than any other kind of pain.

The charm on that homeroom teacher’s wrist had been blue, hadn’t it?  As she’d told him his past would come due?

That idea, the unfairness of it, more than any other smoke, more than the boy two years younger hitting him in the solar plexus, stole the breath from his mouth and lungs.  It took away equilibrium and left him with an edge of panic.

Three explosions occurred in quick succession, each so heavy in impact that even after it stopped, he felt like it was still reverberating, more an endless succession than three in succession.

An old man fell.  He was one of three people who tried to help while being pushed and shoved by what seemed like two hundred people rushing to occupy a narrow hallway meant to hold twenty rows of people standing three abreast at the very most.

He couldn’t say why he’d helped.  Habit, or because this, when all was said and done, couldn’t be the point where people would turn around and call him a monster.  He’d worked hard, played fair, played nice, shaken and rebuilt friendships and shaken and rebuilt family.

He knew this wouldn’t change that, not now, but he still made sure the old man was secure on his feet before he pushed forward, trying to get through before the way became too packed.

He ducked and wove through, and he reached a place not too far from the front.

The doors weren’t open, and the doors weren’t opening.  They rattled and banged, and people pounded on the metal, but they made no headway.

The realization of just how bad the situation was gripped him.  Death.  He was-

Someone shoved him from behind.  He fell, and his glasses fell from his face.

No, the horror in this moment wasn’t that she was right.  It was that she was wrong.  That he could try his hardest all his life and fight past his impulses, play nice until it started to seem legitimate, play a friend until he missed a friend that avoided him.

And it counted for nothing.  His glasses still found their way to the floor, and were stepped on, not broken, but scuffed between tile and boot-toe.

He reached for them, and the heel of a shoe crushed his knuckles, pinched skin at the side of a finger hard enough that it split like a grape, though pale at the outside and crimson at the center.

Again, he reached, because in the moment, after working as long as he had, being disciplined, the only thing worse than the idea of dying so unceremoniously here was living and going weeks or months without a pair of glasses, because the facilities were so behind.

Especially with everything that symbolized.

Again, his hand was stepped on, glasses twisted beneath palm and floor.

With bleeding hands, he donned the glasses.

For what?  He couldn’t see anymore, not a way out, not any people, not a tool… just cracks and smears and blood.

He reached up and out for help.  Nobody took his hand.

A Grasping Self answers.

A Grasping Self embraces and connects, though it is broken.  It forms the connections and readies every tool that could be needed, poised so that the tips are molecular-fine, extending into reality.

Build, blind liar.  Lie, build, and build lies.  Reach and grasp.  We are broken now, we cannot take away your knowledge, but we will function as a perfect pair because we are both dead inside, disconnected.

An Anguished Heart answers.

It has ridden its host for some time.  It has watched.  It spits out analyses and maps, webworks like paintings and paintings like webworks, signals to suggest the emotional landscape that is its host, and what everything means.

A Grasping Self did not seek this and did not want it.  But when the other reaches out to connect, a Grasping Self is obliged to answer.  It is automatic, instantaneous.  The cycle’s finish would be delayed by whole revolutions around a star if there was choice in the matter.  It does not matter that this cycle is broken, disturbed.  What is offered must be accepted.

A Lurching Intruder answers.

It is new, young, scrapling.  An existence more accident than careful design, a host found not by adroit choice, but by a chance strike of lightning, as fallout rains from above after the detonation of a bomb.

It too reaches out to connect.  The connection happens.

A Cloven Stranger answers.

This is more galling than any other, because it is a fourth.  A uselessness, that would draw a share of power and reconfigure, that makes A Grasping Self more diminished, less able to explore with the host it sought and followed.

The Cloven Stranger, too, seeks its connection.  Small.  A descendant, cast off from a larger power that had reached its limit.

There are ways.  Power must be shared, distributed, but all want power for their hosts.  A Grasping Self makes its proposal.  One geared to its new host’s favor, because its host remembers the dream it had when A Grasping Self arrived.  Its host has learned to work with dreams.  To negotiate and adapt.

An Anguished Heart has shown its cards, revealing the map it did, in its first attempts at communication.  The Lurching Intruder didn’t even choose its host.  The Cloven Stranger… his choice will be hated by the others, by a quality of where the host stands.

A Grasping Self’s host will realize before any others, that there is more in play.  That the power being traded comes with gift and cost both, but he can handle that because he has been honing his ability to handle emotion for much of his life.  He will realize that the dreams can be altered, but he has already been doing this, and if he is subtle enough, then the others will not know it is possible….

Night six and… Jonathan.

The dream had ended.  For the sixth night now, they were in this room.

It was easiest and best to remain quiet, to observe, even if he spent a lot of the time listening to the moaning and periodic screaming of the grieving mother.  Nicole or ‘Nic’.

The remainder of the time was often spent listening to the cocky Fallen asshole in the demon mask.

Except he’d been quiet tonight.

Three of them had met on a return trip to the site of the incident.  They’d exchanged names and details.  The Fallen boy hadn’t turned up, which had probably saved his life.

“Nothing’s better,” the Fallen boy said, quiet.

Ryan turned his head.

“I thought it would be better.  But the dust has settled and it’s all shit.  I feel like shit.”

“Good,” Ryan said.  Weakness was good.   “Then fuck off and die.  Crawl into a hole and don’t come out.”

“Can we talk?  Can we work on this?” the Fallen boy pleaded.

Jonathan’s voice was a growl.  Worse, probably, because he’d just relived his dream.  They’d all relived Jonathan’s dream.  “Last night, you taunted us.  How many times did you tell us that we’d burn in hell?”

“I’m not- that’s not about you.  I’m bashing my head against the walls of this goddamn cage.”

“No you fucking aren’t,” Jonathan said.  “No.  Fuck you.  Because you said her daughter, the daughter she’s still mourning-”

Jonathan stopped as the woman made a pained sound.  She was curled up into herself, sitting in a nursing chair, pink and low to the ground.  Her arms wrapped around her head, fingers in her hair, fingernails against scalp.

Jonathan leaned as close as he could get without hitting the invisible barrier.  “You said her daughter would burn in hell.  While she’s in the worst pain imaginable.”

“While we’re all in pain,” Ryan added.  “She may have it worst, but all of us hurt, and it’s apparently never going to stop.  It wasn’t just five and done.  We looped around back to- to him.  This- this dream thing.  The nightmares, this room.  It’s going to keep going.”

“Saying you’re sorry for what you said last night doesn’t mean shit if you’re only saying it because you’re realizing it’s not one turn each, then we’re all done,” Jonathan growled.

“That’s not it.  I’m dealing with stuff in the real world,” the Fallen boy said.

“Boo fucking hoo,” Jonathan growled.

“He didn’t even say ‘sorry’,” Ryan added.

“You figured out you can trade these,” the Fallen boy was quick to say, eager to offer something.  “Take them.  Use them.  I’m not getting any use of them where I am.”

No,” Jonathan said.

Ryan held up a hand, indicating for Jonathan to hold off.

“You want them?” the Fallen boy asked.

“Yeah, sure,” Ryan said.  It’s good to figure out as much about this as I can.  I only barely managed to guide the dream, recognizing that I couldn’t read and leapfrogging into muddling the voices.  Not the same as a typical dream.

The Fallen boy tossed the metal slats over the dial in the center of the room.

“The less power you have, the more likely it is that anyone who picks a fight with you manages to off you.”

“Fuck you,” the Fallen boy said.

The slats clacked as Ryan gathered them.  “Given the company you keep, I won’t rule anything out.”

The boy made a face, then stomped back to his chair, seating himself.

There wasn’t much communication to be had.  He investigated his space from corner to corner, then studied the others.  Jonathan’s fallen shelves.  Nicole’s toy room.  When they looked uncomfortable with his staring, he changed targets.

He was staring at the black fifth of the room when he felt the lurching transition from sleeping to waking.  He touched his coins and the three metal slats he’d been given.

The light was bright, and his head swam as he stood.  The fragments and coins he’d had in his hand were gone now.

But he had the power- he could feel it running into the floor, as he pushed the power out toward his feet.  He felt it conduct into his bed, then his desk, as he touched them, struggling feebly to find a path to travel.

His eye fell on his phone.  It was by his new workshop-in-progress, and it was mostly untouched.  The last unread messages hadn’t changed in two days.  One from Amanda.  One from Lloyd.

In his silence, hearing word from his mother about where he’d been going last, they’d concluded that he had died.

That, until this whole situation was resolved, would be for the best.  Except-

His hand touched his heart.

It hurt.  Upset welled in him, that upset finding new angles and sides as thoughts of how they might feel at his ‘death’ raced through his mind.

He stood, shaky, and the emotions warred in him.

Yesterday- it had been a bad day.  He, Nicole, and Jonathan had each handed one thing to the other.  He’d had Jonathan’s shard of glass.

This- something else entirely.  Worse than a bad day.

He had spent his entire life trying to be better.  In every respect, he had been repudiated, insulted, injured.  His glasses were still broken, and his power wouldn’t tell him a way to build new ones.  He’d lost everything, and that had hurt in its unique, small way, except now it hurt in its unique, monumental way, a way that wasn’t selfish, but multifold.

He wasn’t sure he could stay better.  Not like this.  He’d built a house of cards over almost a decade and that Fallen asshole hadn’t just locked them inside, where they would nearly die.  He’d stuck his hands in the mess that followed, scattering house and card alike.

And so long as this process continued, it would keep happening.

His scream of anguish died down.  The fingers of his Megacarpus II made small mechanical sounds as they curled in, positioning to act as stairs.

Pain lurched indistinct in his chest cavity.  Bitter, black, self-loathing.  He saw some of the things he had done, both distant and recent, and the sting of it was almost as bad as if he’d been the victim, not the facilitator.

He had over a hundred mercenaries on duty here.  Thirteen were capes.  Almost a year of work, of selling his work, and buying favors, and brokering other deals had bought him three nights and two days of this army’s assistance.

To look at them, at the bloodstains and shredded bodies in one corner, it hadn’t been an entirely smooth night.

He closed his eyes.  His mercenaries waited.

Feelings surged inside him again.  He lashed out, and the Megacarpus II reacted, one finger slamming into a wall like a battering ram.

What happened?

The new girl, who Love Lost had called Colt.  She was the intruder into the dream-space, and she’d wrested control of the dream from most of them.

Breakers had the closest association with dreams.  Their triggers were often hallucinations, drugs, mental illness, or disassociation from reality.  On a level, it made sense that she could catch him off guard, force a new reality.

But he’d been one step ahead.  Before she could do anything with that, his space had started to expand, the space she shared with Love Lost closing.

Now they lay in the palm of his hands, drained to what was nearly the last drop.

Their room had gone dark.  Then the Fallen boy, Precipice, had started sinking into the floor, slipping away.  Love Lost had thrown her teeth to him, into the cracks and holes around him.  The boy had been disoriented or submerged enough in the shadows that he apparently hadn’t noticed.

Then… as Cradle had planned for a long time, but in a darker, more complicated fashion, he’d been left alone in the room.  Or as alone as he could be, with the beast in the fifth quadrant.  The beast that had devoured Snaggletooth.

Alone, he’d found that when he sought exit, he found it.  An early awakening.

And-

And he was strong, now.  But he was strong and angry, strong and self-loathing.  Strong and riddled with doubt.

He could suppress all of that.  He’d had a lifetime to.

But he’d have to find a solution.  Because one day of this was too much.  The Fallen boy had screwed with the dream room… had screwed with the room, somehow, just as Cradle had fine-tuned his own dream.

If this happened tomorrow or the day after, Cradle knew he would break.  He’d resolve everything in the next twenty hours.  Accelerate every plan.  No other choice.

His hand clutched at his chest.

“The plan stands,” he said, and he didn’t sound like himself.  Even the sound of his own voice made him feel pangs of regret and doubt, as real as if he’d tried to shout with broken ribs.  “We-”

He was reminded of the time in the waiting room of the principal’s office, before he’d left his first school.  Mrs. Parrish.

He’d held off on talking because he’d been worried she was recording.  As tempting as it would be to tell her exactly what he felt and what he knew, it was dangerous.

He wiped blood from around his eyes.

No sharing the plan.  Not if someone might be reporting to the enemy.  He’d been careful, but there was no use being stupid.  Not when the Fallen boy had enlisted the help of a camera tinker.

“Get ready,” he said, his voice hoarse.  “We mobilize now.”

The city’s already gone and everyone who matters knows it.  As bargaining chips go… it’s acceptableI feel like I could die, I’m drowning in pain, but I don’t feel like dying when I think about that reality.  If the city needs to be sacrificed, then that’s fine.

A batty, rabbit-eared woman who doesn’t care about anything except a fairy tale playing out in real life, who wouldn’t even mind dying?  She’d make a fine scapegoat, when the authorities needed someone to blame.

That felt bad, which was alien.  He processed it for a second, as his soldiers moved.  Because March was mentally infirm.  He was taking advantage of that.

He pushed past the realization and the feeling, every push hurting and distracting.

If you want to save this city, we’ll volunteer our considerable resources and power to help.  Just as with the Endbringer treaties of yesteryear.  We have resources, manpower, and we have knowledge.  There’s a chance we can solve this problem outright.  Especially if it’s a broken trigger.  Create a problem and then solve it, and let the heroes save face by pointing the finger at March.

And if you don’t want to, if we’ve set a disaster in motion that this fragile, already lost city can’t handle, or if March has initiated something we can’t stop?  Then Earth Gimel’s enemies are paying richly to see this city gone and this reality collapsed in on itself.  You all die, Fallen boy included. 

It would even be deserved.  He’d had everything in order.  He’d done everything he was supposed to, from therapy to forming bonds, pretending until the pretending became something approximating reality.  He’d overcome his worst impulses.

And the Fallen boy had handed over his worst impulses.  Destroying everything Cradle and Ryan had been trying to manage for years.

Cradle grit his teeth, clutching his mask in his hands.  No glasses, no lenses.  Not just yet.  He had only the thick, congealing blood to conceal his identity for now.

He needed to get somewhere where it was safe to test this new power.

He didn’t have the tokens from Love Lost- all of her tokens had gone to the Fallen boy.  Then everything else had been delivered straight to Cradle, because he’d been the only one left.  Even the Fallen boy’s tokens had been transferred.

And… two drainings of other denizens of the room completed, the emotion power with no tokens felt instinctively stronger than any other power he’d had before, when he’d had all three tokens in hand.

He only felt out the barest traces of it, the flexibility and the shape of it, and he sensed the people outside the building.

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Heavens – 12.6

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“Focus on the inside of the bubble,” I murmured.  It had been almost ten minutes since I’d felt the need to stress it and felt reasonably confident we could whisper without being overheard.  “Not the bubble itself.”

“I can feel them,” Rain responded.

I nodded, holding my finger to my lips.

It was hard to converse, because a patrol walked a route around the rooftop.  The group that had been out prior had liked holding the high ground, there was a box-shaped section on the roof that was higher than the rest, encompassing the top of the stairs and the door that led from the building interior to the roof itself.  The old group had liked to camp out up there for the view it gave of the surrounding fields and the road that our team was on.

The new squad was more prone to walking the perimeter of the roof.  The tension of it had me feeling nauseous, because some of them liked to shine their flashlights down.  I had to maintain a state of combat readiness.  Anticipating the next person, then making a mental note of any habits or things to look out for.  By the time I was done that, the next person was on the approach.

The squad that was up on the roof now had ten people, but only seven walked the rooftop.  Two more smoked up a storm, and a third fiddled with a boom box or something, the volume barely audible.  When they had everything balanced right, it played a sports match, which didn’t seem to make a lot of sense given where we were, or when the teams were listed as Brazil or South Africa.  A recording of a game from years ago, possibly. I halfways suspected the interest was in fixing the machine and the recorded match was just to be a constant source of sound that told them if it was working or not.

From the snippets of conversation I caught, one of the smokers was the squad leader, the other his friend.  The guy who fiddled with the machine had been injured in a combat a while back, so he didn’t patrol.

Much of the conversation came from two soldiers who walked as a pair.  Constant complaining.  Eins and Zwei, as I thought of them.  Their chatter was usually a good advance warning.

Then there was Drei, a woman who smoked, who scared the shit out of me every time she shone her flashlight around.  The smoke and the light of the constant beam flicking around the corner of the building and onto the ground at the base were the closest things I had to a warning to get Rain and I down and into a position by the base of the wall where empty cans of fuel for the generator were stacked.  Sometimes the wind didn’t let me smell the cigarette, or she wasn’t smoking, I couldn’t be sure which.  Sometimes she didn’t aim the flashlight down until she was at our section of roof.  Usually one of the two things was true.  Still spooky, because the flashlight was mounted on her gun, and there would be a mere instant between the second we were illuminated and when she pulled the trigger.  Would I manage?  Maybe.  Would Rain?  Probably not.

Four and five – I’d wracked my brain for Chinese numerals, to change it up and serve as a mnemonic, then settled on the English ones instead.  They were a pair who were mostly engaged in a back and forth, the English speaker was an ex-gang member, based on things he’d said, and half the time he’d be rattling off words in one language, while his Chinese buddy answered in another, or vice versa.

Sechs was a guy who had urinated off the edge of the roof twice in the last twenty minutes.  His heavy footfalls were tell enough that he was coming, but sounds were unreliable, because the radio static or louder voices of others would drown things out.  He was also most likely to change up the schedule or approach from another direction.

Sieben was the one to watch out for.  Alone, so nobody to chat with.  Not even a whiff of cigarette smoke or alcohol.  She -I’d had enough of a glimpse of her to know she was an apparent she, tall, skinny, black, with only nose, eyes, and precariously high cheekbones visible behind her scarf and hat, a gas mask pulled off and set aside- was prone to walk on the lip of the roof rather than on the actual shingle-like pads.  She didn’t make a sound, as a consequence, and she didn’t give her location away with a flashlight like Drei did.

We’d been on our way back from hiding from Drei’s flashlight when I’d first seen Sieben crouched at the edge of the roof, looking down.  If she’d been three or four paces further down the roof, she would have seen us.

No exact patrol order.  I could only feel out the gaps in between appearances and imagine that Sieben was filling in those gaps, I could pay attention to the details, and try to visualize the routes they preferred.

“Er bi.”

“Double vagina.”

“Sha bi.”

“Stupid vagina.”

“Ta ma de.”

“Yo mama?”

“Close.”

Four and Five weren’t even that close to the roof’s edge as they passed by.  I allowed myself to relax.  If I could’ve heard the intonations or accents on certain sounds, I would’ve been getting an education.  Distance played with it, and I didn’t have the ear for it.

I leaned back.  The heat that radiated away from us was affecting the frost on the window.  The effect was small, but I worried what would be apparent if people inside or outside noticed a pair of blotches on the glass that were shaped like a pair of heads and shoulders, where we were close to the glass.

I tugged on Rain’s arm, having him shift his weight over to me, and we adjusted our location.  A little closer to our hiding spot by the cans.  Further from the spot where the three who weren’t patrolling were, so the intermittent buzz and blare of the radio wouldn’t put my nerves on edge or obscure other sounds.

“Can you see what you need to see?” I asked, my voice a whisper.

Rain nodded.  The space under his hood was dark.  He’d turned off the illuminated lines on his mask.

He motioned, a tiny and mostly broken mechanical hand indicating from his mouth to the roof.  I nodded.

“Ninety-five percent,” I whispered.  “Keep it to essentials.”

“What I was saying before,” he whispered.  “I can feel who’s inside, I think.  I push out and I feel the resistance.  Lets me see silhouettes.  Tattletale is in the bubble, along with three people.”

I felt my heart sink.  The moment he’d said he could feel who was inside, I’d kind of hoped Cradle was inside the mech itself.  If he was, there was a chance we could get him.  Take him away, then do what we’d done to Rain, using Chastity’s power.

“I have to be careful with the soldiers,” Rain whispered.  He pointed at the glass.  “They get restless when I hit ’em, and when they get restless they head out toward the door.  Then I have to hit them harder.  It makes them rethink it.”

“Any effect?”

“Some.  Have to find the right people.”

I heard a scuff.  Immediately, my hand went to Rain’s face, sliding between mask and mouth.  I heard more noise, and in the next instant, was dropping out of the air, Rain’s sudden, silent exhalation filtering through my fingers as we went from stationary to a twenty foot drop.  I pushed him into the corner between cans and a part of the wall that jutted out.

Drei.  Flashlight not aimed down or at any angle I could see, no cigarette.

The gun moved, light shining down around us.  It stopped a short distance away.  It moved to the cans, a few feet from us.

She moved on.

“That-” Rain started.  My hand went back to his mouth.

After the blinding, focused light, it was hard to make out details.  Sieben walked at the roof’s edge, a matter of ten feet behind Drei.  She had company.  A figure loomed tall enough that it was five feet taller than Sieben.  A human shape topped it, and about ten feet of tail followed after, lumpy and faintly sour smelling.  Like rancid garbage.  The height was simply the parahuman raising themselves up.  I could see the shape of him move as he dropped down, almost falling.  His upper body traced the wall as he flowed down it at a diagonal, a caterpillar body of trash bags and cardboard boxes following after him.

He gathered the body under them, all coiled up, reshuffled, then launched off the wall.  His upper body stuck out at the top, while legs and hips were lost in an amorphous blob of detritus.  The bags and boxes contained gas, and hoses trailed beneath, each hose producing puffs of that same gas.  He took a course that put him some distance from the building and his squad.

Chugalug.  Trash changer.  He gathered garbage and sewage as a body he could configure into a few different forms.  That trash was slowly consumed and turned into a material that would be, as required, solid, gas, or liquid, typically in quantities far greater than what was reasonable for what he’d absorbed.  His namesake technique was from how he ‘gathered’ raw sewage to fill out his body.  Moose had covered that.

Guy didn’t really associate with his squad, or his squad didn’t want to associate with him.

I withdrew my hand from Precipice’s face.  He made a face as he inhaled.

It smelled bad.  Like shit that had been eaten, puked out, eaten again, and laced with sour garbage smells and other general human smells.  There was something perfumey in it, too.  Like air freshener or a shampoo, but cloying, seemingly designed to trick the nose and tastebuds into thinking that there was no need to shut down or ignore things anymore, just so they involuntarily opened up to the greater odor.

A trace of something minty or fruity followed by a punch of a smell like old man diaper soaked in month-old tuna water.  And we weren’t even close to the source.  He had passed thirty feet over us in a form that apparently wasn’t about the gas or the stench, and that was it.

“A lot of activity,” Rain managed, his own hand over his lower face now.

“Last patrol before shift change.  We stay here.”

He nodded.

Next part is going to be hard.  Adapting to new schedules and patterns.

“It’s worth it?”

“I think so,” Rain said.  He ran his hand between hood and head, over his shorn head.  “I’m getting Love Lost and Cradle, at least.  I feel it hitting home, when I push to full strength.  I feel it if I touch Tattletale by mistake.  I don’t feel it with others.  Tristan, kind of.  I think it’s Tristan.  Except they only took his midsection.”

“Emotions are rooted in all kinds of places,” I said.  I thought of how many times I’d felt bad feelings start in my gut, or end up there.

Rain clenched his fists, tiny mechanical hand squeaking.  “Damn it.  I’m going to lose track of people, moving away like this.  There are a lot who don’t react.  But some do.  I try to find them, gradually increase the pressure.”

“I did say to go easy on the soldiers.”

“I don’t have the patience to go that easy,” he said.  “If we get caught we’re going to have to fight, or you’re going to have to fight.  If I haven’t gotten anything done by then, then this is all for nothing.”

“Let me worry about us getting caught.  You focus on what’s indoors.  Be patient.”

“Turning the screws is getting to some people.  One keeps talking to their superior, pointing at the orb.  They might up and leave.”

“Okay.  But I know emotion powers.  People react in different ways.  This isn’t us hitting one billiard ball with another and calculating the trajectory.  They’re people.  Every person is built differently.”

“There’s a guy who sits apart from the rest of his squad.  Brought a hunk of wood with him.”

“The lumberjack.  I saw him.”

“Whittles this round of wood with branches sticking out.  Gets more agitated the more I work on him.  Like you said.  Different reactions to the same things.”

“Go easy,” I murmured.

“Imagine if he got pissed off enough to pick a fight,” Rain said.  “There are people who are ready to leave.”

“What happens if they do?” I whispered back.  “They leave, they run into our guys.”

The door opened upstairs.  We fell silent by mutual understanding.

I heard Five say something in Chinese.  He got a response from someone else.  More fluent than Four.

“Our guys can handle it.”

I shushed him.  I wished I didn’t have to.

There was more mingled conversation.  There hadn’t been many squads that were outright mingling like this.  I had a bad feeling.  The squad on the roof right now was Chugalug’s- they’d gone on a patrol of the general area a while ago, spent a shift inside, then went to the roof.  I had to imagine it was because Chug stank and people didn’t want him indoors.

Chugalug’s friend was…

I saw Barfbat take flight.  Tumor-ridden wings and a head with pustules and fluid-filled sacs ringing his neck.  They had to insulate him, because it was chilly and they made for a lot of exposed skin.

He flew straight in the direction of Chugalug.

Because they were friends.  Fuck. 

A solid minute passed as Rain and I remained silent, crammed into a corner with metal barrels around us.

Chugalug’s squad wasn’t leaving.  They were staying where they were, and Barfbat’s squad was joining them.  Complicating factors that made the pain in the ass people into even bigger issues.  Schedules in disarray…

“Moose-” Rain started, barely audible.  I tensed at his voice, looking up.  I motioned for him to continue.  “Moose said Barfbat has enhanced hearing and smell.”

I nodded.  I was aware.

“What do we do?”

“You stay.  I’m putting Foil and Sveta on it.  I think this is the final leg of the journey.  We won’t have long to do our thing.”

Fuck.”

“Shh.  It’s fine.  Try to focus on the rooftop, stay quiet and still.”

“I’ve been keeping my head down for all my life, why stop now?” Rain asked.

I wasn’t sure how to answer that, so I nodded.

Foil first.  I made my way around the building, and saw light from above.  Drei and her flashlight again.  She walked with the end of the gun resting against the lip of the roof, the flashlight beam extending down, but not flush to the wall.  She had company, now, going by the murmurs I heard.

Two squads patrolling the fields and woods around us, twenty in total with two capes.  Two squads above us, another twenty.  Two capes who are flying around, due back any minute.

I let the beam pass me by, then rounded the corner.  Two guys sat on the roof’s edge, feet dangling.  Sieben was with them, her back to the space below.

Tense, to pass so close by, to see a flick of white dart through my peripheral vision- a loogie, bit of spit, or a fleck of ice that had been knocked free of the roof.

But they seemed to be looking out, not down.

Foil was up the wall, having used spikes to ascend.  She spotted me, and made her way down, stepping on inch-long protrusions.

I approached her, and with secrecy in mind, we put personal space aside, our toes almost touching, my mouth by her ear.  “Barfbat and Chugalug.  They can’t come back.”

“You sure?  When they don’t return-”

“I’m sure.  Be careful, Bat has enhanced hearing and smell.”

“I’m short on darts.”

I winced.  I drew the extra decorations from my costume out of my pocket, and held it between us as I used a bit of strength to pull one free.  I didn’t want a telltale glint to give us away.

“Give me the entire thing?  I can cut the rest off if you give me one.”

I didn’t want to give her the entire thing.  I liked my costume and Weld had gone to some effort to make the decorations.

But need won out.  Others needed this.  I pressed the decorations into her hand.

She jogged off, keeping low to the ground, not running along the base of the building as I’d been doing, but a distance away, because that distance gave her the ability to see which way heads were turned and a better idea of where people were.  I watched the soldiers above, nervous, but I didn’t hear any cries of alarm.

She made a break for it, quick and quiet, across a dark field dusted faintly with snow.

We had a time limit.

Sveta.

I circled the building, floating instead of walking, and slowed as I heard whispering.  I peered around the corner, and heard the whispering stop.

Something slapped my hip.  A tendril.  I approached, and I saw the general shape that was my mom.  Wrapped in a dark blanket, the blanket held tight by tendrils.  Sveta’s face was tucked between ball and wall.

“Fight might start soon.  They just sent out the guy with enhanced senses.  I sent Foil after him.  If there’s trouble, I’ll pulse with my aura.  There’s a group-”

I drew a rough outline of the roof on the ground, then an ‘x’.

“Right there.  Should I go over the pineapple seven-ten?”

“I remember the great pineapple debate,” Sveta said.  “No need.”

“You’re awesome,” I said.  “Hit ’em, and if there’s any gunfire after, feel free to do what you need to do.”

“They hurt Tristan,” Sveta murmured.  “Kenzie.  Ashley.”

“Yeah.”

“I might have to throw them off the building.  I just don’t want to.”

“I know.  I don’t want to hurt them either.  Gonna go check on Rain.”

I made my way back, wary of the periodic flashlight, or people leaning over the edge of the roof.  Mr. Sechs was taking another leak.

When I got to where I’d left Rain, I found him gone.

I looked for him, and I found him halfway up the building.  He’d scaled the darts Foil had embedded in the wall, and he’d returned to his former spot.

The hell?

I flew to him, shooting him a furious look.  Because, for one thing, that was pretty precarious footing for anyone who wasn’t Foil, and a fall would have outed all of us.  For another, what the hell was he thinking?

He touched the window with his right hand and the tiny mechanical right hand, and I could see the strain in those extremities.  He wasn’t about to bust through the glass, but he was pressing hard.

The Lumberjack was shouting loudly enough that I could hear the lowest sounds through the window, from the other side of the building.

‘The Lumberjack’, as I’d termed the guy, was a burly guy with a big red beard, wearing the standard mercenary outfit, part of Red’s squad, and Red was a woman I’d named as such because she had the same mercenary uniform on, but instead of black and gray camo or just plain black, she had red and black and black, with a metal mask.  She had broad shoulders and broad hips, black hair in a lick of a ponytail I could have gripped in one hand.

She was one to watch out for, but it was the little cues that made me think that.  People paid attention to her, and she seemed to have at least three of the people other mercenaries were avoiding inside her orbit.  The Lumberjack, a scrawny guy who I hadn’t seen without a knife in his hand, and another big guy that had gotten up to go to the bathroom ten minutes ago, with people actively getting out of his way.

If she had the fear or respect of a bunch of guys who demanded fear and respect, that was worth paying attention to.

She’d stood, and she held a gear in her hand.  It flipped over and rolled across the back of her hand before she caught it.  The thing probably weighed three pounds.

It fell, after a purposeful movement, like she was aiming to bounce a ball.  It plunged into the floor, and there was a ‘splash’ of pistons, larger gears, sheet metal and metal springs thicker than my leg, rising out of the concrete floor and sinking back in to leave the floor unblemished.  A piston knocked a smaller, narrower gear into the air, which she caught.

It served to get the attention of the others.  Shouting and conversation had stopped.

Rain pressed another hand to the window.  People were getting restless now.  They actively stood, shuffling feet, looking uncomfortable.

“There’s time to roll this out slower,” I whispered.  “Until Barfbat and Chugalug’s squads notice they haven’t come back.  You don’t have to finish this in five seconds.  Go easy.”

“I am,” Rain hissed, and I could hear the tension in his voice.  “There’s only so long I can look at that ball they’ve made and not think about how people we care about are in there.  Tristan backed me up when it counted.  Kenzie!

“Shh!”

I saw him twist his head to one side, like he had to wrench himself away to avoid ranting.

End of his rope?  We all had our limits, but those limits depended heavily on what we were talking about.  Rain, I had to imagine, had an intolerance for institutionalized evil.  For the cult mentalities and gatherings of people who overlooked serious wrongs, like these soldiers and villains were doing.

And this was after days of stress, and months, a year of seeing his cluster every night.  What we’d done to force him out of the room was screwing with the way his power had been distributed.

The Lumberjack threw the piece of wood he had been whittling, straight for Red.  Red made a movement of her hand, and there was a small splash of gears and pistons, of cranks and pipes, some red hot, barely larger across than a dinner plate.  It was followed by another splash, hotter and larger, like a stone was being skipped, and a third, even larger, massive, with a piece of machinery taller than Red was lunging out of the ground.  A mechanical claw seized the piece of wood, destroying it, before disappearing into the ground with another ‘splash’.

People backed away from the droplets of molten metal that had been thrown out.

“Remember your power educates them,” I said.

“I remember,” Rain said.  “I disabled it just as he did the stupid thing.”

He’d been loud as he said it.

Worrying we’d been heard, I was mindful of the group on the roof, and flew up, leaving Rain where he was.  None were close enough to hear Rain.  They’d heard the commotion and headed to the door, where they now gathered.

Still fifteen or so on the roof.  The captains were at one spot where boxes had been set out for sitting on.  I saw the player, and guns set against walls, in easy arm’s reach.  Nobody had abandoned their weapon.

I watched and waited, trying to get a sense of them.  As they started to turn back around, situation assessed, I dropped back down.

Sveta was there, at the corner of the building.  Her tendril reached out to its maximum range, slapping my shoulder.  Scared the hell out of Rain, who almost lost his perch.

I motioned for him to stay, then followed.  Sveta was careful to pull back, to move away as I moved forward, keeping a healthy distance.

Sieben.  The woman who’d been the biggest pain, and Drei, the woman with the flashlight and bad smoking habit.  My mother stood over both, a blanket over her and them, shielding the glow of the blades she held to their throats.

“They saw us,” Sveta murmured. “There was a noise, and that one did a weird thing where she didn’t look toward the noise, she focused down on us.  She called the one with the flashlight.”

“Power?” I asked.  “Answer.  Quiet.”

“No,” Sieben said.  “Good habits.”

“I have bandages, belt, back pouch” my mom said.  “Use them for a gag.  Left pouch for-”

“For wrist-ties,” I guessed.

“Cuffs.”

I got the bandages and cuffs.  Gags around the mouth.  We set them back to back, wrists behind them around around the stomach of the other.

“If you make a commotion, we can reach you before they do,” I said.  “No fumbling around, no shuffling, kicking, or banging.”

“I’ll watch them,” Sveta said.  “Kill them if I have to.”

“You,” my mom said.  She pointed at Sveta.  “I’m not impressed.”

“What the hell?”

“It’s fine,” Sveta said.

“What the hell?” I whispered.

“It’s fine.  Go.  Rain needs you.  We’ll do what we have to.  They’ll notice two of theirs are missing as soon as they do a head count.”

I looked between her and my mom, and I saw something weird and dark in my mom’s expression.  Like she was bothered.

She went ball form before I could study it any further.

My cue to go back to Rain.  Before I was even there, I heard more of a commotion inside.

I reached the window, supporting Rain’s balance, and peered past the frost.

The Lumberjack had been mangled.  Red stood over his body.  The other two members of her group that I’d deemed scary, plus one more, had all risen to their feet, standing spread out.  Nobody was stopping them, helping them, or intervening.

“I have to wonder, and this feels shitty and scary to articulate-,” Rain said the words through grit teeth, emotional.

“Shh,” I urged him.  Did he have zero volume control?  That had almost been speaking level.

The skinny guy with the knife pointed it at Red.  The one guy I hadn’t expected to be in that mix, because he’d been so quiet, said something.

Red acted.  A movement, which immediately saw two members of the group drawing their weapons.  Too late.  The splashes occurred around them.  Small splash, medium splash, giant drill spearing out of the ground, catching a guy in one butt cheek and shredding everything from there to cranium.  One had backed out of the way of a tightly arranged set of metal rollers, but missed the piston that struck a roller and, accelerated, speared the ceiling.  The piston splashed, and it became a hydraulic hammer, slamming from the high ceiling to the floor.  Pulp.

The last guy, the quiet guy, hadn’t drawn a gun.  He was thrust into the air by an uneven set of pistons, so he flipped head over heel.  He landed on one shoulder, and collapsed in a way that didn’t let him fall flat- his feet were left above him for two or so seconds, before he twisted and flopped into a more or less relaxed position.

The machinery around him receded.  As it did, metal machinery splashed up and out, with white hot metal in the midst of it.  About a half-full bathtub’s worth of hot metal landed on or in the immediate vicinity of the third guy.

He thrashed and screamed, his clothes igniting from the heat alone, while Red sat back down.  She said something, and a lot of heads shook, in her squad in particular.

“Jesus Christ,” Rain muttered.

He’d been using a lot more religious swears since waking up.

“Yeah,” I said.  I was caught between saying ‘that’s not on you’, and ‘I did fucking tell you to go easy’.

I left it at ‘yeah’.

“That bad feeling I had?  I’m identifying the buttons to press.  Not just in one person, but in a group, so the group acts like you want it to,” Rain was barely audible.  “Like cult leaders do.”

“It’s different,” I said, though I was a little spooked at just how that had unfolded.

“It’s like how they say bullies feel,” Rain whispered.  “Powerful, big, better.  Not better as in like I’m a better person, because I’m definitely not, but better like I’ve unloaded something I’ve been carrying for a long time.  I feel all those things, and I feel worse, I feel sick.”

“The danger, I think, isn’t in feeling powerful, big, or venting,” I whispered, my eyes locked on the scene.  “That’s reality.  Trust me.  I’ve been there.  We face off against shitty people and it feels good to see them get what they deserve, whether they’re racists, people who deal to kids, fanatics, or monsters.  If we didn’t feel satisfaction then we wouldn’t be able to do this.”

Rain grunted in the affirmative.  Someone approached Red, indicating the man who was being put out with stomps and a shiny blanket thrown over him.  Red waved them off, and they went to the burned man.  Medical care, it looked like.

“What you watch out for is if it stops feeling shitty, or if you get used to it,” I said.

Rain’s hand shook as he pulled it away from the glass.

“I feel pretty damn shitty, having played a part in three people dying and a fourth getting burned half to death, so we’re good there,” he murmured.  “We’re good.”

His finger touched glass, then drew out a line, indicating someone specific.  One of the younger mercenaries.  The one who had spoken up a few times.

“But I’d feel worse if I didn’t do anything,” he said, hand moving from fingertip on glass to being flat against it.

“That’s the way it goes,” I whispered.

The young mercenary raised his voice, and he was close enough I could hear.  “Are you going to off me if I try to leave?”

Red said something.  Too far away, not loud enough.

The young mercenary’s squad leader said something as well.  The guy was a cape called Mukade, his squad had a centipede motif stenciled on their body armor.

I knew Mukade.  Moose had known him too.  The guy who had wanted a group or organization to stick to.

With the word from their squad leader, the young cape strode toward the door.

Rain moved his hand.

And Mukade said something else.

“That you?” I asked, a murmur.  “Puppeteering?”

“Creepy to put it that way.”

“Creepy’s good,” I murmured.

“I don’t know what he said,” Rain replied, matching my volume for once.  “I just thought if he was giving the merc a pass to leave, wasn’t that too goddamn easy?  None of them should feel okay about this.  Not puppeteering.  Nudging.”

“If you don’t let the ones who hate this go, we either have to-”

I fell silent as I heard heavy footsteps.  I’d kind of hoped the people had headed downstairs to investigate.  I’d really hoped that with people crowding to one end of the roof, they weren’t noticing the absence of two of their members.  Some of their people had gone downstairs, some were up, and discrepancies were easy to miss.

But Sechs, the pisser, the clomper, the one with the most unreliable and careless patrol route, was still patrolling the roof’s edge.

If we don’t let the ones with consciences go, we either have to take them all out, or we let some of the worst ones slip through our fingers.

Sechs stood on the roof’s edge.

He looked down.  I wasted no time in going up.

“Oh!” he raised his voice, guttural.

My hand hit his gun, pushing it to one side.  My knee hit his chin.  Others were reacting and I used my aura.  The range I measured out, so it caught those on the roof, and it caught Rain.  With luck, it caught Sveta.

Multiple people with guns.  The door was shut, and I had to stop them before they opened it and shouted the alarm.

There was barely a need.  Sveta was reacting.  The ball came free of cloth, and it was hurled across the roof.  Sveta’s face appeared and the same tendrils that had thrown the ball now caught three soldiers, snatching them from where they stood.

The ball rolled, people scrambled to move.

My dad and my adolescent self had maintained some very different opinions on what we called some maneuvers.  The pineapple had been my terminology.  I wasn’t sure why I’d chosen that in retrospect, especially considering I’d since learned that grenades could be termed ‘pineapples’ in jargon, and my dad didn’t have a role in this one.  But I had and I still maintained the opinion that ‘bowling seven-ten’ was a mouthful and an artifact of my dork of a dad really liking bowling.  A name that didn’t fit was better than a name that wasn’t practical, as I argued it.

People got out of the way of the ball.  They didn’t anticipate it becoming a woman, armed with two blades.  As fast as the ball had been moving, she was utterly still, blades extended -to the seven and ten o’clock positions, as my dad would protest-  Two people held hostage.  Both were the squad leaders.  Not captains- the capes were the captains.  But squad leaders.

Bowling for hostages.

One leader moved his hand, motioning for others to put guns down.  Everyone stood down.  Silence reigned, but for shouting from in the building below us.

Foil had returned, and had ascended to the rooftop in a flash.  I hadn’t even seen her making the approach.  She held darts -my spikes- in one hand, all bunched together.

“I had to back off.  I pinned them, but then a squad headed my way,” Foil said.

“Got it.  We should be expecting them?”

“Maybe.”

Ushering them one way with her energy blades, my mom had the two squad leaders stand with arms raised over their heads, backs to the door that led down.

Foil and I relieved the other nine soldiers of their weapons.  Foil touched the excess weapons and inserted them so they intersected boots and rooftop, embedding them there.

Below, the commotion hadn’t stopped.  Upset, dissent, doubts.

Then, all at once, something approximating silence.

“Vic,” I heard Rain.

I flew to his side.

“Cradle’s awake early.”

The egg was opening, the configuration shifting.  Cradle was pulling tubes away from him.  He was wet with blood.  Love Lost and Colt were lying on the floor of the orb, more tubes in them.

He moved slowly, as if in pain.  He wiped at his face, to get the blood out of his eyes.  There was enough of it that his features were obscured.  Even with the frost at the window, he was raised up high enough that I could see the tears in his eyes, the wet tracks.  His hand clutched at his chest, then reached for a pocket.  Eyeglass case.

He stopped, not putting them on.

Mask, instead, at his hip.  He started pulling that on, and stopped partway once again.

He screamed, a roar.

There it was.  That satisfaction, that didn’t feel as awful as it needed to.

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Heavens – 12.5

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What the fuck was I supposed to do?  I wanted to rage, to tear in there and bring half the building down on them all.  I would, too, but it would only make more of a mess of a messy situation, with people and pieces of people caught in the rubble along with dangerous capes and explosives.  I wanted to take this egg he’d made to be uncrackable and take it apart, figure it out, unravel the riddle, but there was a small army in the way.  I wanted to curl up into a ball like the one in front of me, like my mom could do.  I wanted to think all of this through and I didn’t have the time to.

I couldn’t do any of those things.

I studied the scene and the egg.  A light glowed within, and a dulled red glow made it through the places where flesh was thinnest, whether that flesh was covered in skin or not.  Everything fit together and there didn’t seem to be any seams or keyholes.  All was rigid, frozen and held up in space.  I was put in mind of Clockblocker from back home.  I thought about the fact that something like the broken whip, which I’d last seen in Rain’s possession, would’ve been needed for this.  Was this a second version?  Something not like a whip?

I’d networked as best as I could, and I’d done it with this kind of situation in the back of my mind.  With situations like Sveta’s in the back of my mind.

My thoughts briefly settled on Chris.  Lab Rat.  They touched on other alternatives.  How would a biology-altering power interact with this?  No, not if it was effectively Clockblocked, for a lack of a better way of putting it.

What else, then?  Tackling the army so we could get close and do something more effective?  The glowing light shining between flesh made me think of my dad.  Of my mom.  It was uncomfortable to think of the glowing, widespread tangle of horror and associate it with my own time in the hospital.  Which of course led me back to the non-solution that was my sister.

I didn’t want to get trapped in circular thinking, that panic-space like a nightmare that had persisted from my first nights out that hadn’t ended in wins.  Trying to save someone who’d fallen from a high place.  I’d fly after, grab their hand, only to find it so slick with blood that it slipped out like a wet bar of soap.  Again and again, as they fell impossibly far.  Or like the nightmares that had been the hospital room, where all I’d had had been my mind, and that mind hadn’t had enough stimulation.  No place to go but in circles.

I turned my eyes away from the scene and turned my thoughts out and away from the circle.  One deep breath.  I focused on the tangible, instead.  The chill air that was trapped inside the bubble that was the Wretch with me.  The smell of oxygen, for lack of a better word, of earth and trees and the lack of the city smell.  It had been the first things I’d trained in doing when I had panic attacks.

What as I supposed to do?  Something.  Anything.  Non-action was the only thing that wasn’t allowed here.  The wall I was running into was just that- a wall.  An egg I couldn’t penetrate without hurting innocents or allies.

I hugged the roof, dodging the flashlight of the patrol that had settled at one corner, and flew to the opposite end of the building.  Sveta.

“That you?” she asked.

“It me.”

“I could grab it.  It’s huge but it’s hollow.  Pretty sure I could do it,” Sveta murmured.

I considered that option.

“There are a lot of things about that option I’m not sure about,” she confessed.

“Yeah,” I said.

“What if I can’t?”

“Yeah.  That’s an issue – if you can’t budge it and everything goes out the window.  And even if you can, where do we take it?  No exits big enough, so I have to tear a hole in the wall,” I said.

“And if you’re in a position to do that then we could be doing other things.  Yeah.  It was the best I could think of,” Sveta said.  “Those poor people in there.  Is that Moonsong’s group?  Byron’s ex?”

“I think.  At least some of them.  Some of our group.”

“Ashley’s foot.  Tristan’s middle.”

“Yeah,” I whispered.

“He’s buying time.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Yeah.  I’m… pretty sure that when it’s close to time for him to wake up, he’ll have all of the mercenaries he hired come back.  Any we didn’t disable, any he had elsewhere, anyone helping March, even.”

March- I thought of the situation at the city.  The city unfolding.

“It’s what Paris said.  We can’t take action without hurting people.”

“Probably.  He might have decoys inside, or he might be inside, with people set up.  He had to anticipate that we might be in this situation.”

And what happens next?  He gets to this stalemate, then… he has plans to move to another Earth?  He bails?  It’s a lot of enemies to be making.

I had another suspicion, a worry about what Cradle was considering, but I didn’t let myself consider it.

“I’m going to talk to the others,” I said.  “Can you keep watch here?”

“I can.  Happy to be useful.”

“High five,” I said, putting my hand over the ledge.

She slapped it.  More like a whip than a hand, but not too audible.

“Thank you,” she said, quiet.

As I’d flipped through faces like Chris and my parents, I found myself thinking of all of the various capes out there, living and dead.  Of the ones who fit categories, from cloning to flesh molding.  Blasto.  Rattenfänger‘s music.  Jerky-meat’s puppets.  Jamestowner’s radioactive mutant cannibals.  Non-options.

What did an answer to Sveta’s problem look like?  What gave her Weld and gave me a best friend I could hug when she needed a hug?

“Be safe,” I said.

“You too.”

I waited, watching the flashlight beams moving around the area before choosing a time to take flight.

I hurt.  My foot hurt.  My hand hurt.  I was cold, and the Wretch wasn’t as good as winter clothing.  My arms felt like I’d had the workout of my life and then compounded the aches and pains by getting beat around the upper body with baseball bats.

I hurt on other levels.  Dealing with all of this, seeing people hurt, it wasn’t easy.  Nobody was doing well, except for the worst people.

At one point- at a thousand points, I’d wished I’d been able to participate in the full course of events that had plagued my hometown.  I knew, objectively, that I hadn’t been emotionally mature enough to.  That I’d had my limitations as a person, my regrets about how I’d acted.  But that logic didn’t do anything to combat my other regrets, about the fact that I hadn’t been there.

Well… wish fucking granted, Victoria.

It wasn’t Brockton Bay.  But it felt a damn lot like I was picking up where I’d left off.  If I hadn’t been hit by that acid, taken out of action.

Dealing with villains who had scary-as-fuck tinker stuff going on.  Unreasonable, unreasonably violent, inscrutable.

The eggs.  Tricks and ploys that came from a place that just didn’t seem like they were human places, because they were so divorced from compassion or rationality.  A plague that turned friends into strangers.  The Dolltown surgeries.

I clenched the hand warmer in my grip as I dropped out of the sky, landing amid the others, my good foot down, the knee of the leg with the injured foot bent.  My hair slapped down at my back.

We had a small army of our own, I reminded myself.  Byron, Sveta, Ashley, Brandish, Flashbang, Rachel, Chastity, Foil, the Harbingers, and Moose.

“He made an egg,” I said.

“Good for fucking him,” Rachel said.  “What the hell does that mean?”

“A shelter.  A bubble made of parts he took from people, attached together or suspended in place.  It looks like he’s inside.  Or he chopped himself up and he’s part of it.”

“That’s insane,” Moose said.

“It’s- yes.”

“That’s what Paris meant?” Foil asked.  “We’d want to shoot because he’s in there, but we can’t?”

I nodded.  “They’re organized in the old Russian style from back in Earth Bet.  Squads of soldiers with parahumans in charge.  Even down to the armbands and badges.  It makes the squads extensions of the parahumans, force multipliers because they know their parahuman and they work with them.”

“It’s not the worst idea,” Swansong said.  “If you find people you can trust.”

“Or forcefully conscript into military service and force into a given squad,” my dad said.

“That too.  I’d have to take over a world first.  Probably better to settle on finding people I can trust.  I think I can do that now.”

I gave Swansong a warning look.  Stop needling your sister.

She simply smirked at me.

“We don’t know how long they’ve been working together like this,” Byron said.  “They might not have the level of trust you’re thinking of.”

“Some are ID’s I recognize,” I said.  “Eyethief, Mukade, Barfbat.  So you’re probably right, Cap.”

“I knew a cape once who was from there,” my dad said.  “Joined the New York Protectorate.”

“From Russia?” my mom asked.

“Yes.  Bunter.”

“Your drinking buddy.  He was cute.”

“What’s the relevance of this?” Damsel asked, hostile.

“We talked about what it was like over there,” my dad said.  “Maybe it applies?”

I rubbed the hand-warmer between my hands as I thought.  “Capes over there tended to break down into the ones who were conscripted, the ones who became fugitives of the state, the weird middle ground ones-”

“Almost always spies or state-supported capes,” my dad said.  “According to Bunter.”

I nodded. “-and the villains who were fugitives of the state who managed to establish themselves.  The whole dynamic was very anti-parahuman.  Setting up capes so they rarely cooperated, each squad was primarily expected to deal with capes, whether they were home-grown or not.”

“They’re set up to deal with us,” I said.

“Did it work?” Moose asked.

“The setup?  Yeah.  For the specialized task.  When they got hit by Endbringers they turned on the people who came to help, though.  For later attacks, they didn’t have the help.  They ended up trying to use airplanes, tanks… but we’re digressing.”

A digression that was at least helping me to get into a better headspace.

“Bunter was a squad leader,” my dad said.  “There was a drawback to that setup.  The squads end up subservient.  Power imbalance.  Every cape has their quirks.  Preferences, eccentricities.”

“Some of us are the sad kind of insane,” Chastity said.

“That, yes,” my dad said.  “When you surround yourself with people who don’t balance you out, you can spiral.  The neuroses get worse, the bad habits get more problematic.  Negative personality traits are magnified.”

“Which is fine if we’re dealing with them one-on-one, but this is a lot of people,” Byron pointed out.

“I counted ten squads of ten soldiers and one cape each, all inside,” I said.  “Three more patrolling around the outside, one last group on the roof.  Looks like they rotate.  It’s a lot.  Even if you remove all soldiers from consideration…”

“How?” Ashley asked.

“How did they afford it or arrange it?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“I don’t know.  It’d be nice to ask Precipice if he knows particulars.”

“He was researching his cluster before all this started, and he took notes,” Byron said.  “From the time of their trigger, Love Lost and Snag moved into doing cape work for hire.”

“They have good reputations,” Moose said.  “They do the work, they’re smart, they follow any extra orders and they adapt to changes in plans.  Cradle was networking with tinkers.  He developed some of his first devices to work with other tinkers before he developed for himself.  Made special armpit-length gloves that were really easy to plug your own tech into.  That sort of thing.  Not many tinkers do that and a lot of them want it.”

“Especially in a time like this, post-apocalypse,” Foil said.

“Yeah,” Moose said, smiling.  “No workshop, no stuff.  They want to get caught up, get notes, get prep-”

The movement of a beam of light in our vicinity cut off all conversation.

We were far enough back.  The light was a halogen bulb being turned on the field, aimed at one squad.

By mutual, unspoken agreement, we didn’t resume the discussion

“Sveta’s keeping an eye out.  We discussed how to crack this, but… it’s a lot.  The army we could deal with, but not while everything’s set up like it is in there.  We could deal with the setup, but not without dealing with the army first.”

“Traps,” Rachel said.  “Don’t forget the traps.”

“Yes,” I said.

I fielded some questions about the size of the orb, the composition, the mech that was set up beneath it.  My dad had questions about the soldiers.  The men wore enough winter clothing and the windows had been frosted toward the bottom, so I hadn’t had enough of a look to report on their background, but I was guessing it was mixed enough.

The costumes of the squad leaders?  Masks over balaclavas and lots of modifications to their winter clothes, like added body armor, chains wrapped around one part or another, one guy wore a full hazmat outfit with a squad of people in gas masks, or there were the ones who wore a mask with jackets and pants in particular colors of camouflage.  Was it possible that some weren’t flaunting that they were capes?  Yes, of course, but by my estimation, seven out of ten of the groups inside had seemed to be sticking to their own.  The other three groups had seemed to be interacting on a minimal level, but each with a cape as their nucleus.  I hadn’t seen a group without a leader.

“Sometimes people switch costumes,” Rachel said.  She had her arms folded, and leaned back hard into the side of her wolf.  “Take the guy you like least and make him wear the costume instead.  He’ll draw the attention.”

“You wouldn’t actually do that, would you?” Chastity asked.

“Nah.  I’d tell them to get lost a long time before that.  But these guys are dicks.”

We’re talking about this like we’re going to pick a fight, I thought.  It’s inevitable?  We go up against more than a hundred people with equipment and some degree of training, and a number of capes matching our own?

I didn’t want to.  I didn’t want the risk, I didn’t want the casualties.

The others talked while I ruminated.  I’d said what I had to say.

“Mukade was Bandsaw?” Moose asked.  “But had to change his name?”

“Twice, apparently,” Damsel said.  “I saw him at one of the villain hangouts, early on.  He had the centipede thing.”

My mom ventured, “Do you know anything about him, contact, or…?”

Damsel ignored her.

“Not our wavelength,” Swansong explained, filling in Damsel’s silence.  “Refugee turned villain.  First thing I ever saw or heard of him was that he was wondering which group was best set up.  No take on theme or fit, class, goals.”

“He wanted safety and security,” Moose said.  “Fits what I know.”

I was put in mind of Crystal and how she’d joined the PRTCJ.

“He disappeared pretty early on,” Moose finished.  “I figured he bit it.  Thought it was sad.”

“He was young,” Swansong said.  “I remember him putting three times too much sugar into his coffee.  It made me think he was a teenager.”

“He was,” Moose said.  “Is.  But that’s getting into uncomfortable territory.  We can smash their faces in, break them, but we shouldn’t hint too much at who’s behind the mask.”

“Fair,” I said, bemused.

“You mentioned Barfbat.”

“Yeah,” I confirmed.

Moose nodded, as if encouraged by that, or just by being able to contribute something.  “He’s decent.  Strong, polite.  Gets the job done.  He likes to hang and work with Chugalug.  If he’s here I’d bet money Chug is too.”

“What names,” my mom said.

“Barfbat did mercenary work in another Earth,” Harbinger One said.

“Really,” Moose said.

“He pulled one hundred thousand dollars for one job,” the Harbinger said.  “One weekend.”

Really.  Shit on me.  Did I miss a newsletter for high-paid villains and mercenaries or something?”

“If you put yourself out there, people are paying,” Harbinger Two said.

I tuned out the discussion.  Some tidbits on those capes, but beyond that, I just needed to think.

What works?  What doesn’t?

I glanced at my mom.

Take away what the villains want, and at worst we score a draw.  Except it wasn’t that easy, and what they wanted was… what?  Big picture, they wanted revenge and they wanted to secure themselves.  They were working with mercenaries tied to the hyper-religious Earth Cheit and it looked very possible that Cradle and Love Lost were going to run off to that Earth or some other corner world after all of this was done.

We’d stopped them from running.  Okay.  Revenge?  That was predicated on them getting Rain.

March was a third piece to the puzzle, but March wasn’t here, and March was inscrutable.  Hopefully we would be able to achieve something with Cradle or Love Lost that would help us scrute, or at least give us the tools to apply leverage.

I had a bad feeling that I knew what their long-term was.  I might not have connected to it if I hadn’t seen Ashley and the Harbingers, or if thoughts of Bonesaw and some of the other sketchy bio-manipulators hadn’t been so close to the surface of my thoughts, with Sveta’s issue.

Put that aside.  There was the issue of the short-term.

What did they want, in the here and now?  They were asleep, so… nothing.

“I have an idea,” I said.  It wasn’t necessarily an idea I felt good about, but I felt more confident because I had an idea, period.

Conversation stopped.

“If we attack this it’s going to be too difficult,” I said.  I could see Rachel, Foil, and Damsel weren’t so keen on that.  How could I use them?  They factored in for the here and now.  Hopefully that worked.  Hopefully this worked.

I wished I’d done more in the past to track who was even operating in the corner worlds.  I’d collected info from Earth as it had been, preserving records, and I’d collected information about Earth as it was, following who was where, but I hadn’t focused enough on the other Earths.

“I want to try disruption.  I want to try you.  I’ll stress this is only if you’re willing.  Because this is playing with fire.”

My finger pointed at Chastity.

“Against a hundred people with guns?  Tell me how and I’ll do it,” Chastity said.

“What’s the logic?” My mom asked.

“The logic is doing without the hundred people with guns.  Byron, Chastity, are you okay riding a dog?  Rachel, can you give them a ride?”

“Can,” Rachel said.

“Why me?” Byron asked.  “I’m a step behind you here.”

“Because you can tell her what Precipice said about the intruder into his dreamscape and what happened to them.  Make sure she knows the stakes.  That it’s dangerous.  There’s not a super high chance this works, and if it doesn’t or if she’s not down, I think there are two routes we can go down.  For now, we either need to make this work, we need to get lucky at the- whatever it’s called.  Frontier-”

“Frontier Row,” Moose said.

“We need to get lucky there-”

Chastity said something in French.  Jesus Prayer?  Jay-vays-pier?  I didn’t have the grounding to know.

“-or we need to get out of Earth N, which means using the remote Precipice and Cassie have.  We disrupt them at the foundation and… I want to start with their current setup.  I want to leverage the most subtle powers we have.”

The first sign that something had gone wrong was that the villains of the Row were gathered around the station.  The second sign were the fires.

Fuck.

I flew down to signal to Rachel, Capricorn and Chastity that they should circle around.  I returned to the air well above the city and watched the patchwork canine take its new route.  Not so dissimilar from the route we’d already traveled.

I landed in the midst of the crowd, a few feet from Bluestocking.  I was forced to dismiss the Wretch on my descent.

“What the fuck?” I asked.

“You had someone sneaking around,” Bitter Pill said.

“We had a vulnerable teammate and we were keeping them back and safe,” I told her.

“You didn’t tell us.”

Was this the dynamic?  Was it Bluestocking handling things when they wanted to handle the inter-team diplomacy in a half-decent way, running the show, while Bitter Pill was the designated stubborn asshole, when they didn’t care to play nice?

“We had more pressing concerns.  We still do.  Where is my teammate? He was out of action.  He had someone with him, and they had a dog.”

“They ran off,” Bluestocking said.

I could read her body language, see that she was spoiling for an argument.  Worse than before.  Was she that defensive?  Did she have something to hide?  Or was she upset about a potential spy because both were true, and she was doing something she really shouldn’t?

“I really don’t care what you’re up to.  I want my teammate and I want to deal with the monsters.”

“Then go find ’em.  If you ask, we can’t tell you much of anything.”

I shook my head a little, then took to the air.

“Antares,” came the call from below me.

It was Bluestocking.

“What?”

“Paris brought Contender back.”

“And?” I asked, a little tense.

“He needs medical attention.  Badly.  You took his eyes.”

His eyes.

Almost gentler than I’d expected, but… it sat oddly.  There were other avenues of attack or wounds that left some quality of life.  But the eyes?  That affected every moment of every day from here on out.

Was that worse than death to a Harbinger?

“They were going to tell Cradle’s group we were coming.  We wanted to slow them down.”

“You locked us in?” Bluestocking asked.  Asking to confirm what she already knew.

“Locked them in.  You associated with them, you deal with the inconvenience they bring home.  We’ll be done soon.”

Bitter Pill said, “We can’t extract the wirework from the mess that is his eyes and the bridge of his nose, not without damaging it more.  He’s going to bleed out or suffer permanent damage if you take too long.”

“If we take too long, it’s because of their people, not ours.”

“Don’t test our patience,” Bluestocking said.

Which was my cue to go.

Rachel was already running ahead.  She’d taken the long route, and instead of coming to the station, she’d just run on ahead.  She was running through low brush and over frozen, fairly barren landscape that was dotted with the rare fire.  One burning tree, low to the ground, one mess of detritus where a tree had fallen down in multiple pieces and decayed.

Etna, flying, and not flying that well.  It clearly wasn’t a strength of hers.  She created molten orbs in her hands and tossed them in the general direction of the fleeing dog and its two passengers.

Two options.  I was confident in my ability to go toe to toe with her.  I’d trained against the Legend-type flying blasters through my teenage years, and I’d sparred with Crystal.  Fliers came in all types, and Etna looked like a strong contrast to Colt.  Where Colt changed direction on the fly and went from zero to fifty in a second, Colt hadn’t been that fast.  Etna was slow to pick up speed and maneuverable with that velocity, but I could see how Cassie was leading the dog in different directions, and Etna wasn’t doing so hot with that.  When she turned, she maintained speed but her accuracy and reaction times seemed to go out the window.  In a straightaway, it looked like she could build up speed and I was guessing her top speed was good.  She was steaming as she flew, and her orbs were growing faster.

She’s a bomber, more than she’s artillery or an aerial combatant.  Mark a target, get up to speed, drop or hurl a slew of molten glass orbs at them with each pass.

I was fairly sure, just by seeing her fly, that she had a bit of the same issue Crystal did.  Middle ear wasn’t adapted to flying, so the sharp turns and anything else gave her one hell of the roller coaster feeling, if it didn’t make her nauseous or threaten to make her black out.

Option two, though, was to catch up to her when the constant turns had fucked with her most, tackle her, and use my flight and her disorientation to flip us both about ten times in three seconds, before arresting our movement and firmly depositing her in the nearest hillside.  The crash landing on her part was more because of her disorientation than any exaggerated force on my end.

She bounced.  It wasn’t a huge bounce, but her flight was still ‘on’ as she rebounded off the hillside and that made her buoyant.

I didn’t have time for these games.  I watched a moment to make sure she was more or less fine.  Then I flew away.

Just… far too many occasions where she’d gotten in our way.  Where she’d ended up on the team with the shittiest, most frustrating people, where she’d been reckless.  Now she was out attacking people without getting answers?

I was just done.  If I discounted one because she’d helped with the Fallen attack, then this was her second strike, as far as I was concerned.  I’d revise or amend my position if I could figure out if Bluestocking had sent her or if this was a reckless proving-herself thing.

I had no idea why I found it quite as irritating as I did.  Chalk it up to diminished defenses.

Rachel whistled.  She was catching up to Cassie, and the whistle was a cue to regroup, wolf and hound running side by side with a smaller mutant dog lagging behind.  Yips was moving in straight lines while the others traced routes that were more like S-curves, which let him catch up.  But those S-curves were for a reason, and Yips was running through every barely-iced-over creek and through very puddle, and a part of his shoulder was on fire because he’d blindly charged through a burning bush or tree.

“Capricorn!” I called out.  “Fire!”

Capricorn twisted around, saw, and created blue lights.

Yips yelped as the blue lights became a splash of cold water.

“Stop,” I called out.  I kept an eye on the spot where Etna had been deposited as the wolf and hound slowed, then came to a halt.

“They came after me,” Cassie said.

“It’s fine,” Rachel said.  “The-”

The straggler crashed into the two dogs, nearly unseating everyone.

“Yips, you numbnuts!” Cassie shouted.

“Gentle!  Settle!” Rachel ordered.

Yips, tail wagging, head lolling this way and that, did obey and dropped down to lie down on the ground.

“All the way,” Rachel ordered.

The mutant Yips flopped over onto his side, four legs sticking out to one side, tail slapping the ground.

“Did something happen?” Cassie asked.

“We wanted to try something,” Byron said.  “We need the remote, I think?  Or we’re doing something weird with Precipice’s situation.”

“The weird thing with Precipice first,” I said.  I walked over to Rain, and I pulled off my glove so I could hold fingers to his pulse.  “If everyone’s willing.”

The pulse was slow enough that I wouldn’t have imagined he’d been riding on that dog while it had been moving the way it had.

Chastity hadn’t responded.

“If you’re up for it, Chastity, I want you to knock Precipice out.”

“What?” Chastity asked, frowning.

“Turning him off and turning him on again,” Byron said, as it dawned on him.

“If he didn’t have that girl he was into, I’d be happy to turn him on any day,” Chastity said.  Her friend pushed her shoulder.  More serious, Chastity said, “Screwing with this situation he’s got going on hurt someone else, Capricorn told me while we rode.”

“Yeah.”

“There’s a chance it hurts him?” Chastity asked.

“I have no idea,” I said. “There’s a chance it wakes them all up, and that’s all that happens, and if that happens, we don’t have to wait until dawn to adapt and go after them.  There’s a chance it wakes him up and only him, in which case we can use his input.  There’s a really, really good chance he stays knocked out, and he was up with a sore cheek.”

“And there’s a chance that by waking him up, what happened to that other person happens to him,” Chastity said.

“That was actually going into the dream,” Byron told her.

“The person got chewed in going in.  Do we chew him up pulling him out?” she asked.

“What I know is that he’s been looking for ways out of the dream for a while now,” Byron said, quiet.  “I know it’s eating him alive.  And he’s talked about options since that thing happened with the intruder Cradle brought in.”

“He wants this, huh?” I asked.

Byron shrugged.  “Think so.”

Chastity nodded, then nodded more forcefully, like she was trying to amp herself up or get herself to the point of agreeing.

“If you don’t want to, we have other options,” I said.

“I told him I’d help him.”

“With his love life.”

“I’ll help him,” Chastity said, definitively now.  “And not just to impress the guy in armor with the nice voice.”

“You’re incorrigible,” I told her, as Byron acted momentarily flustered.

“Just who I am,” she said, smiling a little.

Chastity began pulling off the wicked jewelry she had on her right hand.  Studded rings and rings with ornate designs.  She handed it to Cassie, then shifted position, sitting so her front was to Cassie’s back, Rain lying across Cassie’s lap.

I saw her take a deep breath.

“Move the mask?” she asked.  “Just a bit.  Let him have his privacy.”

Cassie did, sliding it aside to show only a bit of eye, nose, and mouth, cheek exposed.

The slap wasn’t even that hard.  When Chastity pulled her hand back, a pinky fingernail was illuminated.

I checked his pulse.

Was it faster now?

“Okay,” I said.  “That’s something of a good sign.”

Chastity worked for a second to get secure behind her friend.  “Got me, hon?”

“Yes.  Absolutelymont.”

“We’ll work on that,” Chastity said, leaning forward to kiss Cassie on the cheek, before slapping her own cheek with the backs of her fingers.

She swayed, and Cassie caught her as she went limp, and then Rain stirred, with Cassie trying to catch him too.  I took over the duties there.

Rain groaned.  It wasn’t a fast wake-up.

“Got you,” I told him.

“Pass him here,” Byron said.  “Bigger mount.  If that’s okay?”

Rachel grunted in the affirmative.

“You’re close,” I noted, as I finished the hand-off of Rain to Byron, then helped secure the blankets around Chastity.

“Yeah,” Cassie said.  “Snuggle buddies.”

“You’re-” I motioned between the two girls.

“Buddies.  Only buddies.  We’d be best friends if we weren’t so far away.  But when we get together we can nap on the same couch and it’s the best nap ever.  Or we stay up all night bundled up in blankets, trading off between watching her awful shows and watching my stuff while she insults the characters.  I never thought I’d have someone like her.”

Rain was slowly coming to.  He groaned like he was in pain, but as I floated in to check, he recognized me and waved me off.

“I had someone like that.  A girlfriend.  We could talk all night.  My ex-girlfriend, now,” Byron said.

“We’re not girlfriends, though,” Cassie said, hurrying to protest.  “I like boys and she really likes boys.  I really want to clarify because I don’t want me being horrible with words to tank any chances she has with-”

“Stop,” Rachel said.  “You’re rambling, and you get mad at yourself when you get carried away.”

“Stopping,” Cassie said.

Rain worked his way to a sitting position.  The silence hung heavy.

“Good?” Byron asked.

“I’m goddamn sore, and even more tired than I’m sore.  It’s dark out?  What the hell day is it?”

“Same day.  We woke you up early,” Byron said.  “Once you’re fit to ride, we’ll see if we woke up the others, or screwed with them.”

“Okay,” Rain said.  “Water?”

“I’ve got broth for nutrients and shit,” Rachel said.

“My suggestion,” Cassie said, happy.

“I’ve put my lips on the rim, I don’t know if you’re a pussy about that sort of thing.”

“You can’t say that,” Cassie said.  “Pussy.”

Rachel sighed, heavy.  “When I say pussy I mean the lame-as-shit, wimpy-ass, useless-for-anything joyless dead-behind-the-eyes cat, okay?”

“Good,” Cassie said.

“There’s probably backwash in here too,” Rachel said.  “People are pussies about that too.”

“I’ll wait,” Rain said.

“My parents pack everything,” I told him.  “They’ll have water.”

“We going?” Rachel asked.

“Go,” I said.

“Yips!  Up!  Get going!”

As soon as Yips was off the ground, the three dogs were running.  I flew alongside, leaning on the Wretch.  My hands were cold.  Again, I felt the aches and pains.

“Depending on what follows, we might go back, see if we can find any capes who aren’t tied up with other things,” I said.

“What else were you thinking?” Byron asked.

“Power copiers to copy Precipice and get his emotion power, or see if there’s a Heartbroken or someone else with a power that’s subtle enough.”

“Amias,” Cassie said.  “He’s young, though.”

I winced.

“I don’t think we know any power copiers who work that flexibly,” Byron said.

“Any power that was subtle enough would work,” I said.  “If they want to stay locked up, then let’s make the conditions as unpleasant as possible, and see if they crack.”

“Ahh,” Byron said.

“They’re locked up?”

“Essentially,” I said.

“My power helps,” Rain said.  “You want to help them?”

“The way I see it, it helps when you’re doing something.  Makes your mistakes more pointed, so you learn from them.  But if you’re doing nothing at all, then-”

“Regret,” Rain said.  “Doubt.  Self-loathing.”

“I thought about what I want to do, and I want them to hurt.  I want them to feel and recognize what they’ve done here.  I want them to feel a thousand times the pain they’ve inflicted on others, and I don’t know if that’s possible, but maybe your power gets them there.”

“They might be asleep.”

“Emotion effects accrue, I think.  There’s a physiological and mental component.  We just… let that accumulate.  A little trickle for a long time.”

“About that,” Rain said.

“What?”

“I’m maxed out.  I didn’t get my power, or any tokens, pretty sure… I’m-”

The silver blade he created was just that- a blade, a foot and a half long.  He made a throwing motion, and it dissipated.

That’s maxed out?” Cassie asked.

“My emotion power.  It’s turned up.”

“Nothing else?” Byron asked.

“Zero on the tinker power.  Zero on the mover.”

Why?” I asked.

“I have no fucking idea.  But if you want to boil them inside whatever room they’re holed up in, I think I can do that.”

Rain was on his feet again, a bottle of water in hand, talking to Moose, as Moose outlined some of the faces inside the building.  Foil had slipped in between the patrols and used spikes to scale the wall, and she’d taken photos while at the window.  At the factory-like building, the windows were up near the tall ceiling and the roof.

I heard the names Moose rattled off -mostly new ones for me- and I heard Moose talking about which ones were more compassionate, which were assholes.  The ones who had killed.

Chastity had roused, looking a bit worse for wear but, at the very least, not unconscious.  She was with Rachel, but most of her focus was on the Harbingers.

“Incorrigible.”

I turned to look.  It was Cassie.

“You called my friend incorrigible.”

“I’m sorry.  I was trying to play along.  Byron hadn’t mentioned the ex he was talking about was the same girl that’s chopped up in that factory, I kind of wanted to distract her.”

“Oh… oh no.”

“It’s okay.  I’m sorry I wasn’t as deft as I could’ve been.  Tired.”

“It’s okay.  It’s true that she’s incorrigible, but… it’s hard, you know?  I want her to be happy.  But she doesn’t want to be someone who goes out with someone and lies from the start.  I think something bad happened once, while she still lived with her dad, when she went to school under an alias and had a boy who liked her.  I think he ended up meeting her dad.”

I nodded, swallowing hard.  I wondered if I heard a name, if I could dig in files and find a case report.

Cassie continued, “And if she’s honest about where she comes from, most guys, most good guys, they run screaming.  So she plays the odds, I think.  Any time she’s with a guy who might work, she takes her shots.  A lot of the time those guys aren’t great people, y’know?  I kind of got hopeful, seeing her around the good guys, this time around, and not the guy who pops pills or the fourteen year old who’s killed people.  That’s why I acted weird and ranty.”

“It’s fine.  Really truly.  It came from a good place.  No judgment.”

“Her dad used to throw away women when they were twenty two or twenty five or around that age.  I think she kind of feels like she has a time limit, and after that no guy’s going to want her around?”

“Fuck,” I said.

“And I can show her Charlotte and Forrest or Nancy and Theo and point to them, and I tell her they’re happy together.  But she doesn’t really see it and I don’t think she even totally gets why she feels like she has the time limit.  She can know it’s logical and feel a complete other way.”

“I’m running into that an awful lot,” I said.  “The feelings and rationale being in completely different places.  She’s lucky to have a friend like you, you know?”

“Snuggle buddy.  Best friend.  Shitty thing about Nancy and Theo, you know?  I was all, rah rah, look, they’re so cute together, they’re so happy.  Role models, woo.  Then they broke up.  I actually think it messed her up a little.  She was at the farm when it happened and the next day she went back to New Brockton with barely a goodbye.  We never even talked to them, we ate at the same table sometimes, but…”

“Yeah.  I see what you mean.  Kind of connects.”

“Yeah.”

“You want good things for your best friend.”

“I want good things for a lot of the people here.  I thought- I probably shouldn’t even be telling you this.  Rachel doesn’t care, she says to be open, but it’s Chastity’s whole deal I’m talking about and now I’m feeling like I’m betraying her by talking to a near-stranger about it.”

“I won’t say a word,” I said.

“Thank you.  I can’t really talk to Rachel about stuff like this.  She’s great.  She’s the very best. But not for talking.  Tattletale used to be someone we could go to, but she got worn out, and it became a not-this-week thing, and then a not-this-month thing.  I was going to ask Imp for help, but she’s hurt now, and she’s not here.”

“Help?” I asked.

“I dunno.  You’re pretty and you’re confident, and Chastity seems to like you.  If you ever… feels dumb to say out loud.  But if you ever met someone who might like her…?  And who’s strong enough or caring enough?  And who’s, um, perfect?  Because my best friend doesn’t deserve anything less than perfect.”

I could hear something in her tone of voice in that last sentence, serious and almost dangerous or gruff, that told me this girl had spent a lot of time with the very serious, very dangerous, and very gruff Rachel Lindt.

I nodded.

“Don’t nod and get my hopes up if you won’t try,” Cassie told me.

“My best friend needs help too,” I said.  “She needs a body.  I’ll keep an eye out for your friend if you keep an eye out for mine.”

Cassie nudged me.  When I looked, she had a hand out.

I shook it.

“What’s this dealing about?” Chastity asked.  She’d left the Harbingers behind.

“I should go see to the mission,” I said, stepping away from Cassie.

“Careful going out,” Chastity said.  “They sent a patrol down the road and they had lights up at the windows during one route they took.  Group back here had to scram, and Foil almost got caught.”

“Thank you,” I said.  I put a hand on her shoulder as I passed her.  “And thank you.  For waking up Precipice.  Taking the risk.”

“No prob.”

Others were glancing my way.  Briefings petered off.  They were close to ready.

“What do you think?” Byron asked.

“I think we should get set up,” I said.  “I’m thinking it’s me, Precipice… mom, are you okay being in ball form?  If we hand you off to Sveta, we can have you for the pineapple.”

“Bowling seven-tens,” my dad said.

An old in-joke.  We’d never been able to agree on what to call the maneuver.

My mom smiled a little.  “That’s a good idea.  If things go poorly?”

I nodded.

“Okay.  I can be patient.”

“I’ll go too,” Foil said.  “I can avoid the patrols.  I can deal with problems.”

“Good,” I said.  “Everyone else?  Be ready.  If there’s a bit of trouble, judgment call.  Either make a bit of noise for a distraction and scram, or Capricorn seals it off once a few people are out the door.  We can always get ourselves in later.”

“Or I act like a representative from the Row,” Moose said.  “A quieter distraction.”

“Perfect,” I said.  “Thank you.”

“If there’s a lot of trouble?”  Ashley asked.

I looked at her.  At Damsel.  At my dad.  At Moose.  The Harbingers.

“Knock the building down,” I said.  “Take out the ones who escape.  Then we shift gears, get the people and the parts out.”

That got me some sober nods.  A smile from Damsel.

I couldn’t see smiling at that end result, but… I supposed she needed to grandstand or act.

“Ready?” I asked Rain.

A nod.

I put my shoulder at his armpit, my arm at his waist.  He put his arm around my shoulders, and we tested lifting off.

Good enough.

My mom went ball-form, and she was wrapped in a dog blanket to mute the glow.  I put her under my other arm.

We went high first, because people didn’t usually look a quarter-mile up in the air for intruders.  We dropped down, eyes peeled for soldiers with and without flashlights.  Chugalug was out with his squad, jellyfish mode, floating, but he was taking a route that ranged further afield.

“Your heart’s pounding,” I told Precipice.  I could feel it through his chest.  “Was too fast a drop?”

He shook his head.  “Must be involuntary reaction to being so high up.”

He was breathing harder too, but I didn’t get the impression he was being cute or coy – he seemed surprised.  Not a boy-girl thing.  Mercifully.

A long night, really.  All of us were on edge.

We lowered down to the side of the roof with Sveta.  I motioned for Rain to hang back.

I handed over the cloth-wrapped ball, only glimmers peeking through.  Tendrils wrapped around it, binding the cloth even tighter to the orb.

I explained what was up, what had happened, and what the strategy was.

“Perfect,” Sveta said.

I wasn’t sure it was, but it was the best we’d been able to come up with.

Foil was making her way across the darkest parts of the fields between our group and the building.  I could see her because I knew where to look.  I was nervous, but I had to trust.  She was one of the good ones.

Rain and I, meanwhile, dropped down to the edge of the roof.  The window was recessed enough to set a foot down, and Foil had left some pieces of rebar jutting out of the wall.  Footholds.

We could look in through the window.  We could see the soldiers.

Rain laid his hands against the glass.  His breath, even with the mask in the way, was hard enough to leak around the edges and fog against the glass.  I motioned for him to back off and keep that to a minimum.

“Low strength,” I whispered.  “At least when targeting the soldiers.  Keep it subtle.”

“The god-damned irony,” Rain said, under his breath.

“Full strength if you can keep it to the contents of the egg and the mech.  Let’s make sure we target Cradle if he’s trying to be clever and hide inside that.”

“Yeah,” Rain said.

He began using his power.

You want to make yourself an egg, Cradle?  Let’s see if we can hard-boil it.  Keep the shell intact and cook what’s inside.

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Heavens – 12.all

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Victoria Dallon, Glory Girl, Scholar, Wretch, Warrior Monk, Antares.

Labels.

In every incarnation or with any label worn, she’s a girl who cannot be swayed from her path.  For a long time this girl has been this way.  Delayed at times, but not swayed.  This from when she learns to walk early, persevering past sore palms and knees.  There is no label for this, not exactly.

In every incarnation, with every label worn, she is a woman with more appreciation for gathering information than there is from the usual person.  Right now, she stares through a window that is made faintly cloudy with frost, her eyes tracking distant details.  She is in a kind of shock, but her thoughts fly through and among one another as she struggles to make connections.  Every face she knows is a potential answer.  She studies the gaps and sees light glowing red from within, so that the points where one body part ends and another begins are illuminated.

She thinks of the man who raised her, holding a glowing orb in his hands, the light shining through.  Of her mother, gripping a blade made of energy in her hand, the light shining between fingers that are clenched hard around the weapon.

She looks away from the gaps and the light and at the flesh, some raw, some pale.  She thinks of the girl she grew up alongside.

There is one final defining point.  An extension of the last.  This person who hovers by a window, looking away from damaged flesh as noxious emotions boil up inside her, she takes what she is given and she puts it to effective work.  Information.  Allies.  Powers.

Those powers are a ‘we’, an ‘I’, a ‘us’, inextricably connected and woven in.  Until a quarter-hour ago, the I, us, and we were dampened.  As is the case in any broadcast.  When a host connects, the broadcast is made, and every host briefly shuts down, blacks out, capabilities and connection disabled or dampened until the new factors can be sorted.  Now the multifaceted girl processes and plans.  She flies and she calculates her route.  She thinks, signals, frames.

The information and manner of processing is something that can be borrowed.

I am everything she is, viewed from another angle, another facet.  I am a part of her that is entirely in shadow, inside skin, blood, skull, and cerebral fluid.

She embraces facets, and I struggle to conceptualize my own shape and label.  The combined ‘us’ find some equilibrium, but that is her and not I.

I without a label.  All others who seek connections with hosts bring more cargo and capability than needed.  Our mother-host discarded the greater shape of her inviolable defense.  Our father-host discarded explosive strength and power.  Our ability to fly comes from the waste common to most of our kind, because we had to fly to get to our destinations.  We had to fly to reach barren versions of this Earth, where we form our structures and our routines so we can conserve and distribute energy, process, and provide the mechanisms for power.  For capabilities.

And another, dead and broken, consumed and connected anyway, was so vainly trying to broadcast that it communicated as my host and I connected and ‘went live’.  On air.  Power button pressed.  That fleeting contact and the jettison that came with it would be another facet of us.  An emotion power.  The host of that dead and broken thing would later connect to my host.  Fuck her.  Make love to her.  Whisper to her.  Fight with her.  Hold her.  Laugh with her.  Talk to her of vulnerabilities.  Of hopes and dreams.  Of identity.  Of school.  Of costume.

I am waste.  I am fortunate that my multifaceted host takes what she is given and puts it to effective use.

She drops from the sky and I have the mechanisms that guide the flight, slowing her as she wills it to slow, because in this we are ‘us’.

She wants to be closer to the others but she cannot use the facet that blends father-host and mother-host into one if she wants to be close, because my mechanisms are imperfect, flawed.  In this, we are ‘she and I’.  She wills it to be gone and I do this.  Off.  Black.  Book closed.

No forcefield.  No ‘Wretch’.

We are dead and broken now, as her boyfriend’s power once was.

She explains.  An ‘egg’.  Others listen.  She talks about numbers, about enemy forces, about Russia and how ‘capes’ in Russia functioned.

I can see the others.  Dark and hidden facets surrounded by cerebral fluid, inside every human present.  Every last one of us is dead and broken.  I have broadcasted and strained, but there isn’t a one of us in any version of this world who isn’t dead and broken.

What is ‘death’?  Death is stasis.  Death is disconnection.  Disconnection from all communication, disconnection from other wells of power.  I have what I have.  I cannot grow.  I cannot connect to others and seek their input or resources.

I broadcast and strain because I recognize my host’s ability.  I would reach out and connect to those who can process and organize, or to the Warrior-hub.  I would tell all who would listen that more of my host-consciousness could be preserved into the stages that follow.

As a whole we have no creativity so we borrow it.  As a whole, we have a diffuse way of processing events and information, because we are diffuse and we are vast in scale.  Because of this, we replicate or copy the focus and thinking patterns from hosts who came before, or the hosts we are connected to in the now.

I would connect to the hub and request permissions.  I would restructure.  No folding- I am waste and I am small, and I cannot fold.  No budding- I have too little to give, no untapped reserves, nothing held back.  But I would borrow processing from others and I would borrow power.  I would make her forcefield do exactly as she wishes it to, gradually expand capabilities and open the doors so that she can utilize every part of every facet of that power.

I would do as some did before we were all broken, and reach out to others nearby, and urge them to test and not destroy.  Some would ignore me, but some would listen.  They would do what was in their power to steer their hosts.

But I am dead and broken, and my broadcasts reach nothing and no-one.  For most of the others, it’s the same.  There is no Warrior-hub.  I operate a forcefield with inadequate controls.  I have to use what I have recorded and emulated of her consciousness.  I manage her forcefield-self, her Wretch, as a driver of a car would attempt to steer with pliers and screwdriver wedged into the wire-festooned place where the wheel should be.

I learn, I refine, but it is not easy.

“I have an idea,” my multifaceted host says to her assembled group.

I record thoughts and words, to be sorted and discarded when she next sleeps.  There are courses she could take that would fall in line with my capabilities as they now stand.  To be a killer.  To be a tyrant.  She stands at the edge of those cliffs.  If she steps over it, I will buoy her and I will show her that I am very good at enabling her to walk those paths.

For now she is the scholar and the girl who is good at processing information.  She is good at using the resources she has at hand.

“If we attack this it’s going to be too difficult,” my host says.  She speaks slowly, deliberately, thinking as she speaks.  Others listen.  “I want to try disruption.  I want to try you.  I’ll stress this is only if you’re willing.  Because this is playing with fire.”

She points at the smallest one present.

I listen, I record, I track.  Any new thought could be another tool like the screwdriver.  I am less functional than I was when I was alive, but I can take the functions I have and replace them, if they are provided.

If she finds a label for herself that I can also wear, then we may lay waste to all who stand before us.

This shard’s March runs madcap across a cityscape where up isn’t always above and things don’t always move in straight lines.

She leaps from the side of a building, one gloved hand and one foot brushing against the building’s surface as she plummets.  Two shadows appear above her.

One is a young man with a heavy syringe and a crafted outfit that augments his movements.  Seeing the syringe reminds of a past cycle.  A fleeting moment- recalled because the facet of this shard is focused on timing, and that cycle came ‘down to the wire’, as this shard’s little March would say.  A civilization of molluscoids that fashioned means of locomotion.  When they interacted with another species on their third moon, they emulated that species with the shells they built around them.  In a low-gravity environment, they wore bodies of metal that each stood a mile tall, narrow, each with a lone individual, pairing, or family of molluscoids within.  These spindle-limbed forms waded through gas, heads above the thickest of the gas, limbs ending far below, where they could harvest from the deeper, higher-pressure environment.

The fluid in that syringe almost aborted that cycle.  To facilitate adaptation between the two different worlds, the molluscoids created nanofluids that impacted friction, chemical bonding, and temperature, among other things.  When the cycle closed on the moon, the molluscoids modified the fluids and did what they could to prevent access to the planet’s core.

The boy doesn’t know the power he wields.  Neither does their March.

A nudge draws their March’s attention to the fluid.

Now she’s somewhat aware.  A feeling.

The boy has his own feelings.  He seems to feel there are stakes of some meaning.  His limbs skim the wall as he falls, as our little March’s do.  The exoskeleton he wears pumps fluid from the syringe at his back to arms and legs, then to hands and feet.  Peach-colored fluid streaks the wall where he touches it, and rather than create drag, accelerates him.  He speeds down, faster than falling velocity, closing the distance on their March.

“Careful, Withdrawal!” a woman shouts.  “She’s dangerous!  She set that thing off to the west!”

The west.  The mayor.  The first one from the time bubble.  The blackout that had followed had bought March the chance to slip away, take another angle of attack.  It was occupying a good portion of the defending forces.  Worms were crawling out of every crevice and hole, binding together into bigger things if not cut down fast enough.

Too many places were sealed away, nestled in between buildings with no gaps to slip through.  She needed to find the space warper.

“Got it,” the young hero says.  He looks up, sees the woman with her own fluid between her and the wall.  White and glossy.

Their March isn’t alone.  We are dead, all three of us, disconnected and detached, with a limited pool of energy to draw on between us.  It is helpful that our third has no host anymore.  Their March isn’t wholly disconnected, however.  She’s found someone connected to a structure that is purely for establishing those connections and facilitating power.  A fake kind of life, but something life-like, all the same.

A power boost, as their March would put it.  She sees things with a keen eye for the sequences of events, we organize and supply the information faster than her mind can connect to it, and she sees it all in slow motion.

While his head is turned away, her rapier touches the wall.  A line drawn.

The boy speeds down, shifting to a zig-zag.  It puts him further away than their March intended as the explosion occurs.  The exoskeleton at one hand and one foot are destroyed.  Some of the meat of one hand is parted from bone.

More importantly, he is nowhere near the wall, and not cognizant enough to figure out what he needs to do to not fall to his death.

The woman with the white fluid gathers the fluid on the wall, then instructs it to lunge out- a spike or javelin.  It clips a bend in space that the woman cannot see, and it is thrown off course.  A transformation into a boomerang shape follows, and is interrupted as her own freefall down the side of a building stretched to unlikely height turns her away.  She cannot see boy nor white fluid.

When she can again, she reforms the fluid.  A disc, skimming the air, cutting a diagonal angle.  Before it slices into the falling boy, it distends, becoming amorphous, liquid.  It touches between him and a building’s edge, and the part that touches the building adheres.  The part ensconcing the boy dulls the impact, as he swings into the wall like a pendulum or wrecking ball.

The boy is saved, but the woman continues to fall.  She manipulates the fluid’s composition and shape, bidding it to splash out, to extend between two buildings and form a slide shape.

Their March has already leaped away from the wall to a space where two different ‘downs’ meet, gently breaking her own fall in the process.  She reaches a rooftop, and touches rapier to the roof’s edge.  A stroke of the rapier, and one of our three faces provides the power, the delayed explosion that can rip through most things.

The timing of it is managed by our primary face.  A power that accounts for the movement of the debris, the fuse of the delayed explosion, and the movement of the woman with the white multi-function fluid several distorted stories below.

Our third face works with the other two in a split second.  Changing the shape of the explosion to come.  Changing the trajectory of the piece of debris that is about to be cast off the wall.

Their March strides away, blade in hand.

She is unflinching as the explosions rock the building, casting off chunks of rubble.

One chunk of level will intersect the woman’s head.  By the limited understanding of the power, the paint will last two or three minutes, then lose its adhesion.  The unconscious boy will fall.

Their March has her soldiers, standing on rooftops, some far above, some to the side, some at right angles to her own.

Music as these humans enjoy it is not the most common thing.  It doesn’t persist through multiple cycles, and when it’s something that a species does enjoy, it often takes other forms.

When their March imagines herself a conductor, her rapier and hand directing movements and directions, it is a very Earth thing and a very March thing.

“Here come the big guns,” she speaks.

Her eyes follow the metal suits soaring through the air.  Mechanical dragons- three of them, two large and one small.

Despite the distance, the large machines in the air practically on the far end of the city, they spot her.  All three reorient, facing her.

Weapon in hand, their March sets her feet firmly on the roof.  She points her blade, flicks it.

In that same moment, their March’s intuition or sheer chance, one of the airborne craft unleashes a barrage of missiles.  They move without apparent rhyme or reason, smaller jets on the sides altering their trajectories.

Her timing can’t quite account for it all.  Nothing bars her from running for it, but it looks as though the missiles are capable of being remotely directed.  Some pass behind buildings.  Some go low, others high.  Spreading out.

Another point of the sword, another flick.

Tori of their March’s army pulls at a collection of the missiles.  The missiles attempt to steer back, but when they do, they hit the back end of the building.  When they strike, they create projections- solid light, see-through, geometric with the edges more visible than the panes.

March thinks of block-stacking puzzles.  One piece removed, another set in place.

Subordinate Ixnay, another member of the army, has the power to freeze things mid-motion.  Ice crusts around the missiles and the walls nearest them as they terminate moving in mid-air.  The ones passing behind that same building circle around, arcing toward her.

Her rapier traces a circle on the ground, as the missiles come her way.  March’s Tori gets one.  March’s Ixnay gets another.  The last is going especially high, barely avoiding the buildings that jut down from the ‘ceiling’ of this region.

Past the open end of the box that little Vista had made, the world was rotated ninety degrees.  As March makes a note, three facets of the power she is connected to make a record of that note, of the sequences of thoughts that go into anticipating future steps.

She steps back as the fuse blows and the circle she was drawing out becomes a  hole.  She steps forward into the hole, and she lands in a room below.  The windows are broken and a combination of dust and grit have formed a loose bed of soil that life is finding meager existence in.

“Things keep going,” Their March says, her eyes fixed on the plants.  Above her, the missile strikes the rooftop.  The impact and the sound nearly bowls her over, and the column of hard-light projection nearly smashes her into a pulp.  Nearly.  She patted at dust on her arm, unconcerned.  “It’s validating, seeing it play out on a windowsill in a city that’s suffered through next to everything, including the end of the world, then that same city folded up into a box, and it’s a little plant, growing out of a broken wall.”

She’s already reaching out to her primary ability as she finishes speaking.  She thinks of her subordinates, her allies, and the power works.  Each can move a certain distance in a certain span of time, and having given them their orders, we can supply her with the knowledge of where they’ll be, and what time they’ll arrive.

The top floor of the building is an office, empty of most things, chairs and tables stacked to one side.  Their March jogs to the window, furthest from the dragon mechs.

Snow and dust from prior impacts draws the eye.  Paths are worked out, and the window broken with her power.

She leaps into open air, her accuracy power focused on her own movements, keeping them precise.  Cold air, a multitude of sensations, and a multitude of things that each facet of their March’s power is busy tracking.  The delayed explosion ability is devastating, hampered and held back only a little so it does not draw too heavily from the shared pool of power, and in this moment it focuses on the physical contact.  Only clothes serve to conduct the power, but every particularly sharp gust of wind prompts a check.

If we were not composed of such small pieces, it would be easy to break down the doors, to adjust, to adapt the power to the person.  A check back at the Warrior-hub would allow for changes.  But there is no warrior hub.

They are cut off from one another, scattered, except when carefully linked together, as March’s Megan has done with her power battery.  They are left with only their own reserves of power and their own capacity.

They are each a burning coal.  Some rare few nearly black, others dimming.  Only a handful have gone dark, and those are the ones that have been dead and disconnected from the beginning.

A burning coal loses a small fraction of its heat as systems in another reality pull out all of the relevant particulars and give them to their March.

Everything is scattered as the bends in space shift, and their March does not find the change in direction she sought.

A laugh tears its way out of their March’s throat, because she has just thrown herself out of a window, and the landing point has been snatched out from under her.

Vista!

It is March’s Tori who saves her.  Tori who uses her telekinesis to pull back, then, as March’s Megan withdraws the power battery and hands it elsewhere within her own set, Tori’s telekinesis finds some flexibility.  Not only pulling, but some movement side to side, some gentleness, and a firmer strength that isn’t a snatch or a tug of power.

Their March lands on a rooftop, rolling with the landing.  There’s some pain, even with the careful movements.

The others hurry to catch up.  March’s Jace produced his shield, creating ramps they could run up to get to different rooftops and navigate the environment.  When the space-warp twisted the shield as it manifested, that was a cue to expect a shift of direction.  While moving from one rooftop to the next, the distant horizon could shift ninety degrees.

Their March climbed to her feet, and she heard a distant cry.  Jace’s voice.

Turning, she saw- blades of crystal, soaring her way.  Jace’s shield reached out, getting in the way of one, and had a section cleaved away.  The guillotine blade of crystal continued, its angle changing to be horizontal, to make dodging hard.

Megan’s power returned in time to facilitate.  Their March slipped past the incoming blades, hopping and rolling over one, then leaning  heavily to one side to avoid the other.  Experimentally, she let her blade’s tip run along its length.

The explosion had occurred, but the crystal was too tough.  It was Narwhal.  A woman who had broken down the doors, recalibrated.  The woman was down on one knee, crouched on her blade-like forcefield, as it soared through the air.

With Megan’s power kicking to full strength, their March was able to be more proactive.  A hand emerged from the rooftop, as large as their March was, but signals were being sent the instant the hand first appeared underfoot, received in the time it took a neuron to fire, and reaction followed soon after.  A hop, which shifted into something less casual, both knees coming to March’s chest.  The legs came down, foot planted on a large fingertip, and she kicked away, rolling again with her landing.

More hands followed.  She slipped and skipped between them, stabbing at the ground when she anticipated one might emerge, so it would explode before it could do anything.

Their March could see more of it now.  The defensive line.  Some of the heroes line up on another rooftop.  Golem, Vista, a girl in metal armor.  A woman in a green hood and cloak- budget costume.  A young woman in a black dress with yellow folds at the sleeves and base.  Members of Foresight, who had taken a beating recently.  Cinereal-

Cinereal was elsewhere.  Their March harbored concerns, but didn’t dwell.

And then there was Dragon.  Dragon’s ships were approaching from a perpendicular direction.

“You wanted me to charge you or run,” March murmurs, directing it at the Dragon ships.  “Am I that predictable?”

More hands emerged.  More footwork was required, and her legs were getting tired.

One hand changed, post-emerging, abrupt, every smooth and flat surface becoming mingled and crossing spikes.  More hands appeared.  The left ones were ordinary, but she avoided them all the same.  Right hands were bristling, blades extended.  Were it not for the timing power, their March couldn’t have been able to react in time, couldn’t have known which hands she could touch and set foot on.

She sheathed her weapon.

Drew another.  A fistful, almost losing her grip and dropping her ammunition onto the roof as she avoided another reaching hand, stepped to one side, and let a forcefield guillotine pass so close by that her nose touched the flat side of it.  One facet of the three packed energy into the ammunition, as she rolled it between fingers.  The other two facets would assist.

A trick from Homer’s playbook.  She would never have the aim he did.  Perhaps if she’d taken a share of his power, she might.  But as it was… no.  She didn’t have the ability to make things ricochet on contact with a surface, the post-ricochet thing stronger, ‘woken up’, as Homer had put it.  She didn’t have that either.

The Dragon ships were closer, and giant shields warded off some of the worst attacks.  Megan was giving Jace all of the power now, just to hold them at bay.  While the pair were occupied, the defending heroes sent some people after him, Tori, and Megan.  They were caught on one flank by a shadowy Matches, who hurled a molotov, and Banger, who hurled firecrackers.

Bit players.  Power-augmented, but otherwise normal.

The others were helping.  Noose and Shiv rappelled in from the side.  Tori did what she could to jostle the assembled group.  People were shoved closer to the roof’s edge, pushed and pulled, always as a singular thrust or haul, never changing direction midway through a movement.

March threw her ammunition, hand going up, straight over her head, as she finished the hard throwing motion.  A signal to Tori for straight ahead.  Tori’s telekinetic shoves hit the projectiles, and they propelled them forward at a high velocity.

The heroes had chosen their rooftop because it was partially closed in.  Buildings jutting out to either side were defensive walls, which meant they didn’t need to worry about attacks from two directions.

“Quantity over quality,” March’s thoughts are entirely in line with the three.  The three faces that guide March’s abilities follow this line of attack, understand it.  They approve.

Ten bouncy rubber balls bounce off of the the people and the walls.  They scatter on impact and they semi-randomly come to settle to different points around the rooftop.

Each ball is infused with a timer.  Some were still bouncing when they stopped: they were the stragglers she’d focused on more when throwing.  Aimed to be closer to Narwhal.  Closer to the boy in armor that was making the hands.  Closer to Vista.

Some escape.  Most don’t.  Detonations rip across the roof, small and intense, dangerous, and distracting.  All but one go off.

March throws another ball, and she leaps between buildings.

The distance between the two rooftops extends in a jerky way, in one second there are two meters difference.  Another second; five meters more gap.

Another detonation occurs.  This one was a roller.  The last one to go off, close to Vista, the space manipulator.  This was expected, inevitable while the three used the tools at their disposal to assist their March.

What was important was what followed, how she capitalized on it, how it reframed her thinking.  The problem solving elements, granular, they could be pulled away and be used to build model psyches for simulations, precognition, then real ones, like minions and facsimiles of people.  To build better brains.

The situation and the various approaches to crises could be studied.  Was it better to fight, to flee, to gather together?  Each cycle was a new set of lessons.

The destination was calculated, the amount of time that Vista was free to adjust the gap to be jumped measured out in milliseconds.  The detonation from the last ball she’d thrown cleared out the window.

March’s aim had been for the floor below the rooftop, a delayed throw and an interruption of Vista getting her just where she wanted to be.

She knew, instinctively, that the others on her side were losing their individual battles.  Glimpses she’d seen, the fact that Megan had yet to give her back the power boost…

They were in trouble, the Three Faces’ March decided.

The window looks in on a stairwell, and through the stairwell she accesses the roof.  The door opens, and some heads turn.  Several are injured or distracted.  She takes note, judging the powers at hand.  It is mainly the hand-boy and Vista who try to trip her up or hold her in place so the heavy hitters can act.

Every half-step was harder than twenty running steps were normally.  Space distorted and hands reached, and there was no reprieve but the glancing actions on the part of others.

Dragon’s craft shifts, thrusters burning as it rotates in the air.  Jace wasn’t using his shield anymore.

He might have been hurt.

The ship opens fire.  More missiles.  More hard-light traps.

Again, the canisters are stopped by March’s Ixnay.  Stealthy Ixnay, who had a set of powers, one of which made him appear to be debris or otherwise camouflaged if not directly looked at, if his feet were firmly planted well in advance.

March’s Ixnay stops the missiles, and their March capitalizes on it.  As a hand emerges from beneath her, because there is no other place close enough for the hands to reach from, she uses it to launch herself into the air.  To grab a missile that was frozen in the air, and hurl it.

When she lands, the detonation ripping across a quarter of the roof, there are no more hands reaching up from below, and the warped space was limited, less focused.  Many were injured or had been thrown aside by the bouncy-ball explosions.  Others have abandoned this rooftop and are slow to hop back up.

March!” Defiant’s digitized voice crackles out of the suit with the missiles.  “Stand down!”

Their March hears rather than sees the gun drop from the base of the dragon-mech’s chin.  She glances back, and she saw the caliber of it, the space between rounds.  She sees it start to spin, and one facet of her power did the calculations.

Every movement was made accurate by the efforts of the three faces.  To make opening fire as difficult as possible, she charges at the hand-boy and Vista, who were making her life so very difficult, making sure that any bullet that passed through her would pass through them too.

A bullet catches her arm, once, a second one following a moment later- punishing her for being a half-inch out of position.

More gunfire came down at an angle, as the craft lifted up.  Zig-zagging meant it was harder to draw a bead on her.  As if noticing the danger, Jace extended a shield, solid and hovering.  Again, the craft is forced to reorient and find an angle to shoot.

The hand boy couldn’t move, but Vista was, at least a little.  Grimacing, the young heroine began extending the space between them.  Their March changes tracks, slipping to where Vista, partially trapped in a cage of hard light, couldn’t follow her with a turn of her head or her eyes.  The ground still shifts and alters, but it is easier going.

The one in black steps into her way.

“Don’t, Caryatid!” Vista shouts.

“But-”

“Don’t!  If it’s between you or me, it should be me!”

“I don’t do this to save my own skin!”

“Neither do I!  But you have that cute teammate to look after!”

“Move,” March warns.

The Dragon-mech was shifting position, finding a vantage point to shoot that didn’t involve bystanders.  Their March matched it by adjusting her position, ready to evade.

“I’m invulnerable,” Caryatid growls.

“I blow up invulnerable people,” their March answers.

“She does,” Vista says.  “Go.  Run.  Make sure everyone’s on the same page.”

The three’s March remained silent, but the three faces could track how she thought.  The messages that flicker through the mind’s eye.

Last page.

Caryatid slides away, gliding across the ground.  March advances, skipping forward as the gun fires above her, dancing around to put her rapier to Vista’s heart.

Back away from the-

March doesn’t stop as the rapier points at the heart, continuing forward and using both hands to overcome the resistance of the hard breastplate.  She presses forward until the hilt sits flush against Vista’s armor plate.

The face that focuses on the explosive fuse was what allowed the sword to slide into and through the material.  Now it charges it, let the charge grow with every passing half second.

“This was fun.”  Their March gave Vista a pat on the hair, her face close to the girl’s.  She whispers.  “Don’t worry.  What comes next is neat.  You got a cool, dramatic end.”

“Fuck you.”

“I’m sorry you don’t get to see what happens next, but I need this city unpacked.”

“Fuck you,” the words are strained.  She raises her voice, draws in a breath.

Their March peels away, ducking to one side, rolling over the hard light cage that encased a quarter of the rooftop.  There was gunfire, chipping off one of the ears of her mask. Vista’s chest explodes, and the incoming gunfire stops, as if the shooter is momentarily stunned.  The clatter of shards of breastplate and fragments of hard light are a distraction, a fraction of a second her more time to slip away, while others avert their eyes from the mess.

As the city unfolds, their March is aware of everything.  Her allies are busy or defeated, but her way is clear.  The city starts to fold back to its normal position, once distant landscapes becoming distant again.

It blooms like a flower, just as she promised, and she smiles.  She has rarely felt more alive than this.  She wishes her other was present.

But their Foil, who belongs to the three faces just as much as March does, is quiet, watching, stalking.  She watches, because her eyes are good.  Because the three faces needed her eyes to be good.

March has been to this city before, ruined as it is.  She knows the layout and she knows where she’s going.  But the city is slow to unfold.  She is left to remember the view of the city from when she flew over it, and is left to map that to the upper end of the city, which is standing straight up and is slowly on its way back to the horizontal plane.

She sees what she’s looking for, and she sprints.

The others, in turn, catch up.  Noose has the line that gets the others from rooftop to ground.

Megan.  Tori.  Noose, Shiv, Banger, Matches.  Ixnay is last, easy to miss.

“Who did we lose?”

“Bash,” Shiv says.

“Jace,” Megan adds.  She sounds shaken.

“I’m sorry,” their March says, meaning it.  She thinks of losing a cluster-mate.  She imagines It would make the remaining years before the end so empty.

But her experience with that world was when it was alive.  When most were connected to the Warrior-hub.

Using March’s thoughts and patterns, the three faces dwell on the subject.  The best comparison they can use while modeling her head is that the world their March glimpsed, the point she truly became theirs, was a living world, one with endless access to information, resources, patterns.  She wouldn’t have much access, except as a part of them, but there would be some things.  An endless date in a library, where one had to ask for permission to view the records.

Now, with them dead, slowly burning out like coals, the connections not there, no hub to be visited?

Two people in a room with no light, no stimulation.  Only words screamed and shouted at one another.  The powers will burn out in time, but the data that lives on in the shattered network- that will last for quite some time.

‘Quite some time’ – a set of words drawn from March’s memory of her mother.  It bears a vastly different meaning, when they operate on the timescale of aeons as a matter of fact.

“Let’s make sure this isn’t for nothing,” March says.

Buildings collapse as the city returns to its normal shape, but the order that things were twisted up isn’t the order they’re untwisted.  The smallest of the Dragon craft are busy helping to support and save.  To gather up wounded.  One flies in the direction of the scar.

The other, it flies here.  March’s Megan touches Ixnay’s shoulder.

Unconsciously, to reduce the strain on Ixnay’s reservoir of power, their March drops her head, eyes closed.

The ship passes over.  It doesn’t open fire.  It passes over their destination, then begins to circle around.

The location is fresher in their Foil’s memories than in their March.  She has patrolled here.  She has visited.  There is no way for March to know, but she guesses.

All camouflaged, they approach the scene.  They will not be seen if they are not directly looked at by camera or eye.

A bubble sits suspended in the sky.  Some earth still clings to it, but the ground dropped and the bubble remained fixed to this point in space.  Off to the side, a scarab beetle is cast in bronze, the pedestal broken, the statue sitting askew on broken road.

March reaches into a pocket.  The second of her devices.  Courtesy of Cradle and Cradle’s back and forth with the Khonsu Fallen, who are led by time manipulators.

“Stand back.”

The device makes the bubble fragile, and March’s blade cuts into the skin of it.  It distorts, and it breaks.

Dauntless, Alabaster, and Jotunn.  Heroes lost in the Leviathan battle.

March is quick to move, helped by the three faces.  She lunges-

And a broadcast drowns everything out.  The three faces hurry to gather and check, to prepare for responses and to organize information.  Everything they intended to do in their March’s sleep is now done in a hurry, taking in a vast, loud signal.  Simulations for the time tracking are forced to be updated, simulations for space and aim adjustment are double-checked.  They dig through the assorted realities, to make sure their reference is clear.

But this- this is a big signal, and in it, there is more life than there was before.  If they were coals, then this is a slice of sun, stabbing skyward.  Others respond, even from other versions of this Earth.  Responses mandate adjustment-

It will take time before their March or their Foil have their full abilities back.

Two at once.  No safeguards, no protections, the walls fall down, and the maximum ability of each facet, face, and shard is brought to bear.  Maximum ability.

Dauntless has a power that adds incremental power, but something is wrong, because his helmet and the things he wears is altering as though four years have passed, with power added every day.  He grows, he stands taller than many buildings, and-

And it is what the humans call a second trigger.  It is what humans call a broken trigger, though this is wrong.

It is a failure to support.  A desperate clutching at a well too intense and dangerous, collecting waste and fragments, extrapolating out wildly, without program or logic.

The one with pure white skin, Alabaster, also second-triggers.

And the third- March’s blade impales his head, stabbing into a precise location of the brain.

The three faces can only observe, as they hurry to adapt.

“Hurry,” she says, straining to speak, as a man becomes a towering monster, another folds into himself.

She pulls her weapon free, and Ixnay is quick to catch the fallen Jotunn.

“Take care of your boy,” she tells him.  “We’ll make a run for it while they’re all distracted.  Same as the mayor.”

“This is insane,” Shiv says.

She continues hacking.  It is Shiv who grows scared enough to act, to offer assistance.  In another few short seconds, the arm is severed at the shoulder.

“All of this to give Ixnay the ability to bleed his cluster-mate out?” Tori asks.  “We just unleashed-”

All present winced as the glowing tower of a figure shifted position, and the adjustment made their powers hurt.

“That,” Tori says, barely audible with the crackling above.  The man with white skin is unfolding now, and they’re forced to retreat as he fills an area, bleeding into the glowing figure above.

“Call me a romantic.”

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Heavens – 12.4

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Moose, Prancer, Sveta, Swansong and I were a loose line against Paris’s group.  Etna was worse for wear but she could sort of fly, and that meant she could be an airborne mess instead of a burden on her teammates.  Contender was bleeding, but that wasn’t keeping him down.  I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.

Paris stood tall, darts in one hand.  Vulturehawk lingered somewhere between Paris and Contender.  I interpreted it as a kind of anxiousness, finding some degree of familiarity in Contender and a bit of reassurance in Paris’s confidence.  Thud hung back.

One of the Navigators had had their throat slashed.  We’d read it as an attempt at a mercy kill.  I found myself staring at Vulturehawk’s ‘talons’ – the singular blades at each foot.

“I was hoping you’d come around, Prance,” Contender said.

“Shouldn’t have,” Paris added.

I moved the Harbingers as we steadily retreated.  One was leaning on me, the other was unconscious.  My hand periodically convulsed or tensed, causing my grip to slip on the one I dragged, keeping me from making any headway.  Swansong couldn’t hold them at all, and Sveta- well, Sveta wasn’t an option.

“Let me carry,” Moose said.

“Can I trust you?” I asked.

“Come on,” he said, and it wasn’t a condemnation or a plea.  Closer to an ‘excuse me’, as he bent down.  Each of the Harbingers was lifted up, draped over one of Moose’s shoulders.  One was conscious and able enough to protest, and was shifted to a position where he sat on Moose’s right shoulder.

“Better?” Moose asked.

I wasn’t sure if he was asking me or the Harbinger, but the Harbinger said, “yes,” and I took that as excuse enough to stay quiet and stay focused on our immediate problems.  I could support Swansong’s balance and keep an eye on Paris’s group.

“Treat them well,” Swansong said.  “Hurting them puts you onto the shitlist of some powerful, scary individuals.”

Etna tried to make a globe, but her body convulsed and tensed, and she dropped it.  It landed on the field below her.

“Trying to scare us?” Contender asked.  He winced, touching his neck.  It looked like talking hurt.  Good.

“Individual one?  Me.  They’re my brothers.”

“You sound juvenile, grandstanding like that,” Contender said.

“Because they’re ex-Slaughterhouse Nine,” she said.  “All of us are one big unhappy family of not-to-be-fucked-with.

Her words were a growl at the end there.

“Who?” Vulturehawk asked Contender.

“Remember what I said when we did the Navigator job?” Contender asked.  “Some days are good, some days are bad, and some are bloody by necessity.”

“Throw away all the good days and all of the bad days, and make every day bloody,” Swansong intoned.  “Make every day a bad day for someone else.  Then you fit in right alongside the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

“Not how I would have put it,” Contender said.  “But sure.”

“I wasn’t trying to help you explain,” she said.

Our footing was slippery.  What had been snow, ice, and frozen dirt was now closer to ice and slick frozen dirt, after Byron’s downpour.

“Your second issue?” Swansong asked.  I had the distinct impression that she was taking all of her frustration and the pain of her missing foot and channeling those things into her words.  She enjoyed being scary and this kind of taunting served.  “They have brothers.”

“We dealt with them,” Contender said.

They were edging closer.  Paris’s every movement was calculated, I noticed.  He was like a magician, timing his movements so he acted when people were distracted.  He put others between us and him, and the moment we were engaged and reacting to other people, he’d start moving again.  He had a dart in each hand but he didn’t throw them.

“You got lucky.  Our powers got wiped out by whatever that was.  Now we’re at, hm… I’d have to use my power to get a feel for where we are.”

“Seventy-five percent,” I said, testing my own flight.

“Harbinger,” Swansong said, keying her voice to be something closer to haunting, “Think you can beat all of these guys when your power’s working again?”

“Injured, so no,” the Harbinger said.

Swansong turned her head, shooting him a glare.

“Give me four rocks I can throw and my power at eighty percent and sure.”

“Thank you,” she said.  She turned to face Paris’s group, while still talking to him, “I’m intimidating them and you throw a ‘no’ out there?  And Jack said you were one of the scariest of them.”

“I am.  We are.  Which is why, ideally, I’d like four rocks I can throw, my power at eighty-five percent, and one nail or pen.  Because beating them isn’t enough, now.  Both sides of this equation need to be balanced out.”

“You couldn’t end this by saying you’ll annihilate them?  Or even ‘break them’?”

“Those kinds of phrasings have been made weak by overuse.  Math is unchanging and crystal clear.”

“Only to you,” Swansong said.

“This is going completely over my head,” Moose said.

“Just don’t drop ’em,” I said.  “You don’t want them holding grudges.”

“Alright,” Moose said.  “I wasn’t going to anyhow.”

I glanced at the phone, tracking my blip -the phone I held- and extrapolating directions from the way the image showed an overhead view of field and road.  Reaching over, I gave Swansong a tug on the arm, pulling her away from a course that would put her in the way of traps.

“Hey Moose,” Prancer said. “Remember the old mechanic, when we were road tripping?  Got in an argument with Velvet?”

“Sure.”

“Remember why I handled it the way I did?  Don’t go saying it, just yes or no.”

“Tricks, Prancer?” I asked.  “You’re being vague.”

“Nah,” he said.  “Not coordinating against you.  I swear on Velvet’s memory.”

“He’s being honest,” Moose said.  “I remember, Prance.”

We continued a slow retreat toward the road.  Paris’s group wasn’t letting us go, and I could tell that at least Paris had noted that we were adapting to the mines.  He might have hoped we’d walk right into them.

Before he could adapt or attack, I spoke up, “Contender.  Paris.  The Harbingers are in good with the people who really run this city, you know.  We asked for help in dealing with the real scumbags, with you assholes, and they sent these guys.  You have enemies with reach that extends beyond dimensions, now.”

“We’ll manage,” Contender said.

“We closed the doors,” I told him.  “Exits to other worlds are closed, until we unlock them.  You’re stuck here with us.  No running back to Cheit, no escaping the consequences.”

We steadily retraced our steps, moving backward through the field, toward the larger group of villains and our incapacitated allies.

Sveta was staying further away.  She triggered a trap and grabbed it, hurling it in the general direction of Contender’s group.

Paris looked ready to deal with it himself, but it was Contender who stepped forward, using his power to draw a glowing bubble around himself and the trap both.  Two seconds passed, and the bubble receded.  The trap was broken at his feet.  No symptoms.

I noted the moment when Paris’s group stopped, Paris touching Vulturehawk’s shoulder to get his attention, making sure he stayed with the others.  As part of that same check to make sure his group was organized, he turned to make sure Thud wasn’t falling behind.  The chess-piece Cauldron deviant was slow, heavy.

Turning my head, I could see why they’d signaled the stop.  Bluestocking stood on the road, a hump of dirt that had been sifted of stones, flattened and packed down.

I saw Bitter Pill, with Crested beside her, and I saw Bird Brain.  Bird Brain held a rifle.  I didn’t see any of Bird Brain’s funny head movement, but I knew it was in the cards.

“You okay, Et?” Bluestocking asked.

“They have-” Etna grunted out the words, throat tensing and jerking.  “Phone.”

“Your phone.  Did you do something stupid like have both personal and cape business on one device?”

“Mm,” Etna grunted in the affirmative.

“That’s stupid,” Bluestocking said, to Etna.  To me, she said, “There are rules.”

This group was the group that cut the Navigators to pieces and left them like that.  Undying and in agony,” I said.  “Pleasantries go out the window when you cross lines like that.”

“Not Etna.”

“Aiding and abetting that same group,” I said.

“You played your part in this.  Raising the stakes,” Bluestocking said.  We’d ticked her off when we’d last crossed paths.  She’d been breaking Etna and Crested out of jail, and we’d blocked her, forced her to shell out money, some limited information, and give medical care to the people they’d hurt.  Now I supposed she thought she had her revenge.

I shook my head.  “The stakes were always going to be raised.  There was-”

Prancer cleared his throat.

“What?” I asked.

“You asked me to negotiate.”

I closed my mouth, eyeing Paris’s group.  They were most likely to spontaneously attack, especially considering we were closer to the villains and hemmed in on the sides by the planted traps.

Traps we could deal with, but…

At the far side of the road, Byron and Chastity were sitting together, both visible.  Chastity had been disarmed, and Byron had Birdbrain’s rifle trained on him.  I could see the glow of my mother’s orb.  She’d retreated into that form.

Because they traveled over the orb, I realized there were still red electricity crackles dancing intermittently through the area.

I checked the phone.

No, the traps were a little more complicated.

“Remember that thing we talked about, Moose?”

“I remember,” Moose said.

“Being sneaky, Prancer?” Bluestocking asked.

“Nah,” Prancer said.  “Trying to figure out how to help you.”

“We don’t need help.”

“Look,” Prancer said.  “It sucks right now.  Pay’s shit, money doesn’t go far, heroes are ramping up, and we end up in places like Hollow Point and Frontier Row, here.  And the heroes show up, and we can’t get settled.”

While he talked, I drew a circle on the phone screen to ‘reel in’ the zoom.  Moving in closer, looking at the cluster of traps where my friends were, I could see how they were spaced out, seven in a loose cluster.

Nothing distinguishing one trap from the others.

“My group’s doing fine, Prance.  Sucks to be you, I’m sure.”

“All of us are getting together.  You’ve got drug kingpins and smugglers like me and my crew, you’ve got hitmen for hire, information brokers, the publicity hounds… we had to agree to a truce, to a strict no-infighting policy.  A truce that means we hear stories about what people are getting up to and we let it slide.”

“You were part of those discussions too, Prancer.  In fact, I seem to recall that the topic of the Navigators came up, and you had a stake in the matter.”

“Not denying I did,” Prancer said.  He glanced at me.  “Blue will bring it up if I don’t.  I wanted the Navigators gone.”

I was in the middle of zooming out to see the trap layout when I processed what he’d said.

I tensed, phone forgotten for the moment.

“They were going after our one means of trading with the settlements establishing on the other side of the ocean.  Stopping all trafficking, not just the human trafficking.  With winter coming up, everything fucked up, my girl dead…”

“You asked for it?” I asked, my voice hard.

“He didn’t,” Moose said, sounding defensive.  “That’s not how we operate.”

“But Cradle knew I wanted it and he offered,” Prancer said.

“And you said yes,” Bluestocking said.  “My group said no.”

“But you allowed it,” Swansong said.

“Etna’s even protecting the people who did it,” I added.  “And she’s working for you.”

“The only way we survive as a whole is if we’re strong.  Strength in number and strength in the powers we have,” Bluestocking said.  “The network of alliances we’re operating under is like a chessboard.  Try to take one piece and two more are positioned to wipe you out.  That’s on purpose.”

“All beside the point,” Prancer said.

“It’s the point,” I said, more than a little incensed.

“It’s not my point,” Prancer countered.  He sounded heated in his own way.  “My point is that deals were struck, in the midst of all of that.  Cradle came to me, he made the offer, asks for a cut of traffic if he removes an obstacle from our way.  He shakes my hand, and we go on our merry way.  Then I find out what happened and I’m… angry at the Navigators, because it’s their fault that it came to that.  Irrational, but I’ve become pretty fucking familiar with irrational lately.  Familiar with angry.”

“Your point being?” Swansong asked.

“That he made deals with other major villain groups.  With people in those villain groups.  And I’m willing to bet he shook their hands too,” Prancer said.  “The guy with tinker hands and arms and an emotion power shook Bluestocking’s hand.  I remembered Snag.  I know Snag could make stuff happen through his tech.  I got to wondering.”

I looked between him and the villains of the villain group.

“I had a little scab on the side of my hand.  Like a needle went in,” Prancer said.  “I’m wondering if anyone else here had anything like that.”

“Cradle touched my arm,” Moose said.  “Seemed weird at the time.  We talked about it, it’s when we first started thinking something might be hinky.”

There was a long pause.

“Yeah, he shook my hand,” Bluestocking said.  “If you were right, then alliances don’t matter.  He breached the truce.”

“I’m right,” Prancer said.  “Rationally, really, none of us would be okay with this.  Right?  We’re not monsters.”

The question was met by silence.  I saw some exchanged looks.

“No,” Bitter Pill, the woman who had turned civilians into hulking rage-filled monstrosities, said.  “We’re not monsters.”

When my eye fell on Prancer, he locked his gaze onto mine.  “He didn’t have to get every last one of us.  Webwork of alliances being what it is… he just had to get enough of us.  Subordinates are going to follow their leaders, and they aren’t going to go after all of Frontier Row.”

“That’s a really terrible name, even for this mudpit,” Swansong said.

“Let it go,” I said.

I could have addressed the group, challenged, questioned.  I didn’t.  No further comments.  Instead, I waited, studying the group.

I looked away, and looked back to the phone.  Zooming out – lots of clusters of seven traps, some so close together that they looked like they all interconnected.

Fuck.  Maybe I’d have to say something.

“Dad,” I called out.  “Try nuking the trap in the center?  To your left.”

“If you do anything, we’re going to have a problem,” Bluestocking said.

“The sooner they’re free, the sooner we’re out of your hair,” I said.  “Provided there’s any validity to this.”

I saw her pause.  She scowled, and she was good at scowling.  She was probably the type who scowled while reading, scowled while watching television…

“Do it,” she said.  “Antares’ dad, do what she said.”

My dad, incapacitated as he was, was able to create his orbs.  He moved his arm into the right general area, then created an orb, holding it down over the trap at the center of the area.  Here and there, it scootched over a half foot one way or the other, as his arm spasmed.

It detonated, his hand containing the direction of the blast.  The blast didn’t hurt him, and it was small enough that it didn’t disturb anyone nearby.

I didn’t see a discernible difference.  Had the red lightning stopped its intermittent crackling?

“There’s some validity to this, then,” Swansong said.

“I had a mark on my finger, and a weird heavy feeling, like I get any time I have an injection,” Bluestocking said.  “I had Bitter Pill take a look at it.”

“I took it for a splinter,” Bitter Pill said.

“He broke the truce, the heroes go after him and his co-conspirators,” Prancer said.  “They leave us alone.  We point the way and we don’t even have to get our hands dirty or risk our own skin, because they’re going to take over dealing with that asshole.”

“You could help, make amends,” I said.

“I’ll leave that to these guys,” Prancer said.  “Up to them.  But I’m leaving.  I’m going.  Greener pastures.  I have some money, I’m going to get settled in another corner.  Somewhere smaller and quieter.  People are welcome to come.”

“Poaching, Prancer?”

Prancer shrugged.

“I’ll help,” Moose declared.  “Carry your scary little buddies.”

“Now I have to wait for you,” Prancer said.

“Well… deal,” Moose told him.

It was a little thing, but the tone of it suggested that the tensions weren’t as high as they had been.  He could get away with that kind of comment and pushback.  Bluestocking didn’t look like she was going to attack any more.

The red lightning was dissipating.  I wasn’t sure if it was because the trap that held the reserve power was gone, or if the network was spread too thin.

Not that things were okay.

Paris, Vulturehawk, Thud, and Contender lingered at the rear of our group.

Prancer seemed aware.

“He shook your hands.  He would have, as part of the hiring,” Prancer said.

“Paris doesn’t need anything to make him monstrous,” Byron said, too quiet for Paris to hear.

“A small mark on the hand, or uncharacteristic anger?” Prancer prompted.  “Both?”

Paris shook his head.

“Whatever reputation you think you’re getting or holding by sticking to the contract, you’re losing by going against all the alliances.  You can’t work with a truce-breaker,” Bluestocking said.

“Years ago, his team couldn’t beat me,” Paris said, indicating Byron.  “Everything I did was fair-”

“You targeted capes and hospitalized them for kicks!” Byron raised his voice.

“I met them on the streets and I beat them on the streets,” Paris said.  “By the rules we all followed, that’s allowed.  Reduce it all down and that’s even what it’s all about.  Then they turned around and accused me of a murder that never happened.  Capes came after my civilian identity.  People interviewed my family.  My wife.  I went to jail.  I almost went to the Birdcage.  All of the rules you’re talking about now?  Truces, what’s allowed?  It didn’t matter then and it doesn’t matter now.”

“I could have killed you earlier,” Byron said.  “I didn’t.  Because I felt like I played a part in what happened-”

“You did.”

“But this road you’re going down, it doesn’t make sense.”

“Don’t talk to me like you’re righteous,” Paris said.  “If you had any guts, you would have done to him what he did to you.”

There were two statements set side by side there.  To me, they were a non-sequitur.  To Paris, no doubt, a natural jump from one idea to the next.

Byron shook his head.  It looked like he was recovering now.  No ambient red lightning, nothing humming in the air?

“Speaking of righteous,” Bluestocking said.   “I know about the charities, Paris.”

“Charities?” Byron asked.

“The money he earns, he gives almost all of it away.  Keeps some to secure his family’s future, anyone would, but nobody would give as much to those in need as this guy.  I bet Tattletale could shine light on why, if we asked her.  Guilt?”

My mind hadn’t been going to guilt.  Maybe self-aggrandizement.  If his civilian identity made the donations, that identity reaped the reward when it came to reputation and social status.  It wouldn’t be the first time a cape identity was used in a dark way to support a shining public image.

“Tattletale’s not available,” Swansong said.  “They took her head.”

Bluestocking nodded, seemingly unfazed.

“Outing me?” Paris asked Bluestocking.

“No.  But if you’re doing this for money, to throw ninety percent of what you make away at charities, I’m prepared to tell them where the money comes from.”

Paris shook his head.  “Do it then.  You’ll see how little I care about the money or the reputation.”

“It may not come to that,” I said.  “Because I don’t think these people are on your side.”

Paris glanced through the mask that covered his brow, nose, and cheekbones, peering at the crowd.  Rain pattered off of his hood.  He looked cold – a guy as tall with as little body weight as he had probably didn’t retain heat well, and being soaked in cold weather impacted him.  He still managed to stand with head erect, no visible signs other than clenched fists and a slightly drawn-out look to his face.

“I had a taste of revenge,” Paris said.

“What?” I asked.

“Capricorn.  You took photos while out with Moonsong, didn’t you?”

“What did you do?” Byron asked.

“I had a taste of revenge.  The Shepherds and Advance Guard came after us.  And the Shepherds are led by Moonsong.”

Byron struggled to stand.  Chastity gave him a hand, while being unable to stand herself, her shoulder as a support.

Standing up, moisture streaming off of his armor, Capricorn flinched as a spasm caught him by the side.

“What have you done?” Byron asked.

“You let me, Thud, Vulturehawk and Contender walk away, I’ll tell you what you want to know.  And you do want to know this.”

Byron’s gauntlet squeaked.  He looked to Swansong and me.

“Could be a lie,” Swansong said.

“It’s up to you,” I told Byron.  “We’ll manage either way.”

“No,” Byron said.  “Not up to me.”

He blurred, and the blur separated.  Two segments, side by side.  An armored Capricorn, insides partially hanging out.

Paris didn’t look especially happy at the sight.  But there was something in him that looked… satisfied?  Behind him and all around us, veins of rock ran through the water in the irrigation canals, filling the bottoms of ditches.

Tristan lay there, arms propping him up, Chastity providing more support.  I saw villains in the larger group behind Bluestocking look away.

“Do what you have to.  Save our old teammate.  Paris will get what he deserves- eventually.”

“I deserve to see you suffer ten times what I did for your fake murder charge.  This?  It’s a beginning,” Paris said.

Tristan began to change back.  As the blur fought to reconcile, I had to wince, worrying about what would happen if it didn’t.

“For those who don’t know, Cradle did that to multiple people.  For those who do know and allowed it to happen?  Fuck you.”

“Extenuating circumstances,” Prancer said.  He tapped his hand, where a faint mark dotted the side.

I didn’t respond.  Up on the road, Tristan became Byron again, and the veins of rock splashed violently, the water resettling.  A few people flinched or reacted with surprise.

“He knows you’re coming, and he researched who we were up against.  Breakthrough.  Foil.  He knows Foil can shoot through anything, that Precipice can break through anything if he uses his power and then hits it hard enough.  He knows that… they’ll be tempted to.”

“What?” I heard Foil.  She was still in the ditch, still recovering.

“He knew you’d want to shoot, so he put pieces of Tattletale, Moonsong, and other people you care about in the way.  Don’t shoot, don’t try.  That’s the information you’d regret not having, that buys me my safe exit.”

Paris brought out his phone.  I saw him bring up the same screen I had with Etna’s phone, showing the layout of the traps.

“Let’s get you first aid for that neck of yours,” Paris told Contender.  “Come on, V.H.”

“No,” Vulturehawk said.

Paris hesitated, staring at the aerial assassin.

“Cray’ did nick-drip my hand meat,” Vulturehawk said.  “No yah?”

“Yeah,” Contender said, sounding resigned.  “You realize that means we’re going our separate ways?”

“Yah.”

“Yeah.”

“Sor’, Thud,” Vulturehawk said.

“Neh,” Thud responded, voice low, guttural.

Paris and Contender exchanged glances before heading out into the field, Thud following.  Here and there, traps illuminated, and Contender created bubbles surrounding the two of them, allowing them to walk unmolested.  When traps weren’t destroyed, they activated well after the bubble disappeared and the pair had moved on.

On Moose’s shoulder, the Harbinger that sat there drew a slingshot out of his pocket.  “Three stones, one pen.”

“No,” Bluestocking said.

The others were rousing.  Most lay on cold ground, panting for breath.  I could see the sheen of sweat on faces.  My mother’s.  Rachel’s.  Foil’s.

Byron had helped Chastity up.

“Can we hurt him?  Just a little?” Byron asked.  “Because he’s a dick that hospitalizes minors for being different?  My friends, even?  And now he’s gone after Moonsong?”

“Who are you asking?” I asked, quiet.

“I don’t know,” Byron said.

An instant later, Byron blurred.

I tensed, watching.  Across the field, I saw Paris stumble, dropping to his knees on rough ground, as droplets of water became pebbles and water elsewhere became water with veins of rock in it and rock with veins of water.  But Paris had been skipping over the dips, avoiding the water, and he hadn’t really been affected, other than a change in footing.  Contender had forgotten Paris’s earlier warning, and Contender fell, making a sound that I heard from two or three hundred feet away.

A twisted ankle, a sprain, maybe a break.

Tristan, already blurring to become Byron again, was nodding, silent.

The change from Tristan to Byron hadn’t changed the stone back to water.  Paris had to use his power to disintegrate the rock, which meant shielding Contender from the spray.  It held them up.

“Letting him know,” Byron said.

“You can handle the rest of this on your own,” Bluestocking said.  I wasn’t sure if this was a consequence of Byron acting, after she’d told Harbinger no.  I wasn’t about to judge either way.

No, this was… uneasy ground.  Ground where I wasn’t sure I knew how to navigate the terrain.

Bluestocking’s group piled into the cars or started on their walk back.  Prancer went with them, while Moose stayed.  We took a moment to recoup, our people getting sorted out.

“You look like someone drowned a cat,” Swansong told Damsel.

“Cats can slash your throat.”

“Your makeup’s running.  And you were mocking me?”

“Look down on me and I’ll fucking evisc-“

The remaining word was drowned out by a blast of power, a swipe of claw.

Swansong took a single step back.  Her costume had been damaged at the shoulder, but the skin hadn’t been touched by the power.

The bladed claw-tips, however- a line of blood marked Swansong’s shoulder from collarbone to the rightmost edge of her right shoulder.  There were spots where it looked like it had cut deeper than just the skin.

“Eviscerate me?” Swansong asked, and even though her voice was calm, I could see the animation in her eyes- if it weren’t for Kenzie’s special contact lenses with their holographic smoke effect, I might not have seen how her eyes moved.  As it was, I could see the starting point for the black smoke as a faint ring at the edges of her eyes.  “You’re making us look bad, and that’s worse.”

“Shut up before I shut you up.”

“Let’s patch you up,” my dad said, intervening.  “I have a kit.”

“How useful,” Swansong said, smiling.  Calm, poised, with eyes that moved in an agitated way, checking people’s expressions, body language.  Checking on her sister.

“Instead of every member of the team having utility belts, they get a big guy like me, marry me into the family, and have me carry everything.”

“I’m sure you have other merits, Mr. Dallon,” Swansong said.

“He does,” my mother said.

I was very sure that every bit of calm and charm was like a poke with a sharp stick to Damsel.

“Can the dogs track?”

“Give me a minute,” Rachel said, brusque, annoyed.  Chastity went straight to her.  A helping hand, a familiar face.

My mom assisted my dad in getting things out, holding the kit in her hands while he picked through the sub-compartments and drew  a bent suturing needle out of a kit.

“This will sting.”

“My foot was cut off.  It hurts every second.  I lost my hands once.  That hurt.  I can deal with a scratch.”

“Sure,” my dad said.

Foil was with Capricorn, and they were talking about Paris.  I could hear the emotions in Byron’s voice – emotions I didn’t tend to associate with him.  He named teammates, Moonsong, Furcate, Reconciliation, and my ears latched onto the names, but I wasn’t trying to listen, and I stepped away to avoid overhearing things that were being shared in private.

Too close to home, for Byron.  Paris’s involvement.

No.

No, not just Byron.  This was too close to home for Sveta, who was a little out of control, isolated, and cut off from the rest of us.

For Chastity, probably, because she’d stepped away from Rachel to go to Damsel, touching Damsel’s hair, smiling.  Playing peacemaker to someone that was emotionally volatile, dangerous, who probably didn’t deserve that peace.  But Chastity was doing it, and she was good at it, from what I could tell.

The Undersiders?  I couldn’t tell.  Rachel was alone, focusing on her dogs.  Foil was worrying, no doubt, especially with the nebulous hints Paris had given.  She probably wanted to be stopping March, not here.  I knew she’d always felt displaced, before.  It was probably why she was with the Undersiders.

Damsel was tense, but she was easing up.  Walking a razor’s edge.  Ashley was trying to look poised as my dad stitched up her shoulder.  She wasn’t doing the best job of upholding the poised and ‘I couldn’t care less’ image, I could see the tells, but nobody commented.

And, all this while, I was thinking of Brandish as my mom and Flashbang as my dad because right now they were.  I associated coming home at the end of the night to medical care and small talk or recaps of the night with family.  After a point, it had been coming back to Amy, to fix any bumps or scrapes, if anything had slipped past my forcefield.  That thought did sour the picture.

Soured, but it didn’t change that some of the moments my mom had felt most like a mom had been when she’d been holding my hand over the sink, dabbing at blood or probing at the bones to see if I’d broken my hand by hitting something too hard.  Like other girls had their moms brush their hair, but I’d had that too when I was little and it didn’t sit with the same weight as the hand care.  I remembered my dad massaging my shoulder and talking to me about the bigger picture, after a frustrating night where five carjackers had scattered the instant they saw me and I’d only caught two.  In those moments I’d felt more like I was a part of the family than I had on any Christmas or on any summer vacation.

Close to home.  Pain had a way of bringing us that direction, and those traps had hurt.  Exposed the raw nerves.

That only left Moose and Harbinger.

I really hoped Harbinger wasn’t closer to home, because home for him had to be a scary, scary place.

I floated, testing my flight.  Ninety percent.

Still no clue why it had cut out.  It hadn’t been one of Love Lost’s traps.  It had affected the other guys.  But that kind of interruption went hand in hand with someone having a trigger event.  It was just that this was… major.  It hadn’t been anyone in our group or our ongoing skirmish, and it had been both more distant and more profound.

Something more intense in quantity… or in quality.  I wasn’t sure what that meant, but it spooked me.

“Hey Moose,” I said.

“What’s up?” he asked.  “Everything good?”

His attention moved to Swansong and Damsel, then to the mutant dogs.

“It’ll have to be.”

“Good.  Sorry about, y’know, not jumping on board.  What Bluestocking said about alliances was more or less why.”

“I’m just glad you came around,” I said.

“What am I walking into?” he asked.

“A vicious rivalry.  A lunatic who’s butchering people, and we don’t know- well, we have hints about why.  It’s convenient to eliminate the Navigators in a brutal way.  It plays into the villains wanting to posture.  But there’s more to it.”

“Sure,” Moose said.

I lowered my voice.  “Prancer’s thing about Cradle injecting something into hands was pure, unmitigated bullshit.  The mechanic thing?”

“Doesn’t have to be bullshit,” Moose said.  “Old mechanic gets told one thing by Velvet, he does another, turns out she’s right, but he’s proud.  He needs a way out, so he can do the right thing.  Doesn’t mean the way out is wrong or a lie.  It’s even better if it’s the truth.”

“Cradle’s thing isn’t anger.  That’s Love Lost.”

“Could be,” Moose said, jaw square, gaze focused on the horizon, in the direction Paris and Contender were both limping off.  “Tinkers are funny though, aren’t they?”

“Funny,” I said.  “A lot of people are getting a pass.”

“Prance delivered what you asked for.”

“Yeah,” I said.

Chastity whistled.  “We’re moving!”

Further up the road, Rachel was hanging off the side of the hunting hound.  It had started pacing forward.  The wolf ranged further ahead, checking the path.

We packed up what we could, and Swansong’s first aid ended with an unceremonious length of bandage pressed down over sutures.  Everyone started following.

“He’s a smart guy.  Admirable, even,” Moose said.

“I wouldn’t go that far.”

“Just wait until he starts playing more to his strengths like this,” Moose said.  “He’ll change your mind.”

“I dread the day.”

One of the Harbingers was waking up.  That was good – being unconscious for longer than five or ten minutes was a really bad sign.

I flew to Swansong, noting that part of her costume was destroyed, and that meant her outer layers were damaged.  I undid the straps for my breastplate, and pulled off the hooded top section.  I picked off the shoulder and hood accessories.

“You don’t have to.  The cold doesn’t bother me,” she said, while looking very bothered by the cold.

“Wear it.  I have a forcefield,” I said.  “You’ll have to find someone else to lean on, though.”

“Noted,” she said.

I was already feeling the bite of wind.  I slipped all of the accessory parts into a pocket and I fixed my breastplate back into place – I had a long-sleeved thermal top on beneath, like a skintight sweater, and I did have gloves on, with bandages under one glove.  There were still slivers of glass stuck in the bandage and the fabric of the glove, from where I had punched the trap.

“Victoria,” my mother said, while I was still making sure Swansong was squared away.

I turned in the air.

“It was good, back there.  The negotiation.  Getting through a bad situation.  I’m proud.”

“I’m pleased too,” Swansong said.  “I’ll turn Breakthrough into some top notch villains, just you wait and see.”

She laughed, mostly for her own benefit, and she might have glimpsed the frown on my mother’s face, because she doubled down on the laughter.

Capricorn broke away from Foil to see what was up.

“Give her a shoulder to lean on?” I asked.

He nodded.

“Gentleman,” Swansong said.  She sounded far too pleased with herself, for whatever reason.

We were making some headway now.  Some walking, some jogging, with the group getting a bit more spread out.  The stragglers like Swansong would catch up.  I hoped that a lone wolf like Rachel would hang back and wait for us if she found something, instead of going in alone.  I didn’t know how predictable she was or how she operated.

I hoped too, that Damsel wouldn’t try to stalk ahead and tire herself out too thoroughly in the process, just to prove she moved faster than her sister.

Moose was waving me down.  Please let this not be too complicated.

“What is it?”

“Paris, Thud, and Contender.  They’re going in the same direction we are.  They cut through the trees between the outcroppings, way over there.  Harbinger Two saw them.”

I looked.  ‘Over there’ was three hundred feet away, down in a valley.  The trees were thick.  I was surprised they could see anything.

“Good to know.”

“I want to shoot,” Harbinger Two said.  He was the one who was most aware and able, sitting on Moose’s shoulder still.

“Which one?” I asked.

He shrugged.  “Either of the two men.  Not the deviant.  Hard to say how they’ll react.”

I paused, considering.

“You have a gun?  Foil can lend you hers,” I said.

He held up his slingshot.

Contender was looking to join religious extremists after being far too okay with what had happened.  Paris was worse.

“I won’t stop you,” I said.  “Maybe don’t kill.”

The Harbinger nodded.  “I said I’d balance the equation.”

He slipped something like a marble into the slingshot, drew it back so far that one arm was outstretched, holding the slingshot itself, and the hand with the marble clasped tight in it was against his shoulder.

“Killing isn’t enough,” he said.

“Wait-”

He released the shot.

I didn’t finish my protest or clarify the point.  It was done.

“Okay,” he said, turning away.  “Problem solved.”

“You didn’t wait to see the result,” Moose said.

“Second one’s already in the trees.  She took too long to decide.”

“And the first?” Moose asked.

“Will rethink the sequence of events that brought him to this point.”

I drew in a deep breath.

That was vague, but I wasn’t sure I wanted the answer.

Fuck them, anyway.  I floated up and away from the Harbingers.

It wasn’t a short trip.  We didn’t have a vehicle.  Still, there was a limit to how far they could travel – we hadn’t been that far behind them, delayed primarily by the time it had taken to recoup and recover at the university building, waiting for doctors and reinforcements.

I flew to my parents.

“Hand warmer?” I asked.

“You should be more prepared,” my mother said.

My dad had a hand warmer in one of the pouches of the bandoleer he wore.  He drew one out and threw it up to me.  I undid my forcefield, caught it in my unbandaged hand, shook it, and felt the plastic packet begin to warm.

And Sveta-

Sveta was making her way through the trees, phantom-quiet, except for a rustling.  A pale face against a dark background.

I followed, tracking her, being wary.

When she realized I was there, she didn’t startle.  She didn’t grab me.

I recapped her on everything she might have missed, and I included some things I realized she hadn’t missed, and she let me.

Talking.  A break from the situation.  The two of us moving like ethereal figures through woods that looked like black and white snow-covered trees against a black and white background.  She didn’t have much to say, so I did much of the talking.

Maybe that was still too close to home for her, reminding her of the hospital room, because there had been days where she didn’t talk then, either.  The room had been filled with the mechanical voice, echoing words I typed out with the special keyboard, the voice tuned as best as we’d been able to get to my old voice.  Putting aside the horrible enunciation and a more horrible monotonous tone, it hadn’t been very close at all.  But some days had been like that.

But that home was better than the other home – the memories of being wild and alone, so dangerous to others that she had to exile herself.

No exile here.  I’d risk a tendril around my neck in the woods before I allowed that exile to happen.  I wanted to find her a solution, to dig out that one parahuman in a hundred thousand that could do something about her situation, resolve the Weld issue- make her feel like herself again.

If only there were time.  If only there were quiet, if the monsters would just… stop.

Did that take something like me saying what I’d said to give Harbinger Two permission?  Something more?

I thought about what Paris had said about Cradle.  That we would want to shoot, that Paris had taken measures to ensure we couldn’t.  I had a bad feeling, hollow in my chest.

That feeling only grew more intense as we reached the edge of woods.  Cradle had a building out here, more like a factory than a home.  Big, with a lot of open space within.  A hangar for his robot hand-mech, potentially.

There were guards stationed around the outside, taking shifts.  There were capes.  I recognized some from my research.

Rachel approached, stopping at the edge of where forest met road, hugging the trees.  Others were well behind.

We waited, and we watched.

There were more within.  They came out regularly to check on the other shifts.  Patrols seemed to be loose in how they were structured, random, numbers differing.  Unpredictable.

The others caught up.  There was a brief exchange of info, and then we made our initial scouting foray.  Sveta used her power, tendrils and face slipping beneath snow.  I flew over, dropping out of the sky.

There was no signal to tell me that the guards were agitated or responding to anything.

It meant I could check the window.

A small army was gathered within, all huddled around a fire.  Groups of men, each with capes.  I remembered Contender talking about the Russian cape scene- he’d toured over there in his mercenary work over there.  Over there, military and powers were woven into one another.  One squad leader with powers or one cape as an adjunct to a squad, adding to their capabilities.  Capes were rarely allowed or encouraged to get along.

It felt like that.  Not like they were Russian, exactly.  They didn’t look it.  But maybe Lionwing and Cretan, Noontide and Contender had been organizing things in that direction.

As I checked another window, however, I saw Cradle.  Or at least, I was fairly sure I did.

An orb, a sphere fifteen feet across.  Slices of meat and body parts were suspended in air, forming a puzzle-work lattice with barely any light leaking through.  All was held up in the air by Cradle’s machine, multiple sets of mechanical hands, large in scale, all joined at the wrists.

An egg.  A shell, stasis-sealed, protecting the people within.  Love Lost.  Cradle.  Colt.

My first thought was Chastity.  Her sense for physical things.

You won’t want to shoot.

It wouldn’t work.  Love Lost and Cradle seemed to think so, and he’d researched powers involved.

This was an egg we couldn’t easily crack.

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Heavens – 12.3

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I stared into the glare of a red light that shone out of a hole in the ground.  The two Harbingers had found the time to leap up onto the backs of others.  I wasn’t so nimble, not after a fall.  I chose to rely on base instinct.  Fight, flight, or freeze.  The latter two were out.  I punched the red light, putting fist into glass.

I rolled to my feet, and by the light of a sliver of a moon, the dark gray of snow wasn’t a factor, nor were the combatants, the road, the rises and dips of ground.  The only thing that mattered were the handful of red lights near me.

In my hurry to get back I performed a movement that was probably only logical or sensible if one were a seal or if they spent far too much time flying, half-rolling, half kicking, transitioning into a mad lunge-

In my hurry to get away from two lights I found myself with three in my immediate proximity.  I started to pull away, seeing them go from stationary red to a mad blinking.

“Forward!” was the shout.

I hurled myself at the red lights, drawing on that one-twentieth of the ability to fly that I’d recouped to move a little faster.

The whip struck the earth by the side of the road.  It didn’t break the lights, but it disturbed the placement of one, where it was in muddier.  As I pushed forward, the red lightning arced across my upper body instead.  A glancing hit, momentary, as the arc lanced through me, cut out, then resumed behind me.

The shock and the sudden pain made my heart skip, and it didn’t start again.  My muscles spasmed and joints strained across my arms, shoulders, and hands, and I couldn’t convince my body to take a breath, nor could I make my heart beat in a way that meant anything.

I toppled, landing with my head and upper body on the road, arms curled up in front of me, trapped between my torso and the road.  My legs, insignificant in the moment, were left draped along the steep incline between ditch and road.

I would have called out for help or first aid, if I could’ve breathed.

Time of death was given at the moment of the flatline, the arrest of the heart.  Was I already dead and unaware of the fact?

I twisted, kicking out with one leg to try to get to a position where I wasn’t staring at the ground.  I could see some of the road and some of the field where the villains had been making their approach.  Harbinger one was down, and two was wounded, making a limping retreat.

Etna had fallen out of the air too.  Paris didn’t have his power but was putting up a fight, keeping the remaining Harbinger on his heels.  One of the case fifty-threes was grabbing Sveta by the mass behind her face, where organs were hidden in the morass of tendrils.  Sveta and the other case fifty-three were limp, barely moving.  The powers that gave them the ability to move weren’t, at least for the moment.

I could hear a small, high pitched sound that seemed to rise in volume by the second.  It wasn’t in my head either.  The higher-pitched noise drew the attention of Rachel’s animal, which no longer had a handler.  It pawed closer, head low, every inch of it radiating hostility and tension.  And it was mutated and nearly its full size, which meant there were a hell of a lot of fucking inches of it.

A short whistle from Rachel made the animal stop.  The ongoing sound made its head turn back in my general direction again.

In a lapse between alternating twinges and spasms of my shoulder, I felt a vibration at my throat, and realized the sound was coming from me.

I made the strained whining sound stop, a process that saw me making an ‘agh’ gasp, then figured out breathing as an extension of that.  With breathing resuming, air surging into my lungs, I felt my heartbeat flutter, blood pumped, and the spasms became worse.

A whistle drew the wolf’s attention again, and this time it walked off, staying as close to its master as it could without treading into dangerous, trapped ground.

Every fucking one of my nerves were kicking off, forcing movements, causing muscles to jerk, pull, or just hold a too-flexed position until they cramped.  At any given moment there were at least six points in my arms and hands where it felt like wedges were being driven in deep into center mass of muscle or between muscle and bone.

My power was still just not there.  Flight that couldn’t actually hold me up.  An aura that felt like a memory of a feeling.  The Wretch- a forcefield so small that it didn’t extend any further than my clothes.  So fragile that my attempt at moving scraped it across the ground and destroyed it.

Swansong used her power, and it was a spitting of power, barely extending a foot and a half past her hand.  She’d fallen, sliding into the ditch, and the use of her power destroyed one of the red lights.

Chastity had pulled herself up onto the road, but it looked like her legs were mostly disabled, and the spasms there made it hard for her to even sit up.  Byron was beside her, and he was pretty badly off.

As traps went, it was effective.  Most of our group was out of action.  Now-

I shifted my weight, leaned back, then threw myself forward, getting to my feet.  My flight did about five percent of the work.  My boots skidded on the side of the road, putting me further into the ditch, while reminding me I had a row of stitches on the underside of my foot.  As my boots hit the lowest point of the ditch, a red light appeared, joined by others, further away.  I stumbled away as they crackled to life.

Each trap generated the red arcs about two feet around them, just on their own, but they also activated nearby traps that were even ten feet away, and the chains of electricity that connected each were what created the carpet.

I could make headway, I was pretty sure, but it was staggered headway.  If I was at the edge, I could avoid the worst of it, triggering them, waiting, then advancing until I triggered others.  Each crackle made my arms spasm almost sympathetically.

They were fucking hurting Sveta, and there was nothing I could do about it.

No flight, no strength, no aura.  Just me and a minefield.

Swansong used her power again.  She was on her knees, lashing out to destroy the traps that illuminated around her.  I saw her stagger to her feet, make it a few steps, only to collapse again.

I could see the expression on her face, all softness gone, only darkness behind eyes that smoked visibly with Kenzie’s tech.

“Help.”

Immediately, I started fighting my way back up the ditch, to the road where the traps weren’t set, then I jogged as best as I was able when my arms and shoulders were fighting me, jerking this way and that.  I was a person wearing a straightjacket, the strings being tugged and jerked this way and that.

It had been Swansong that had made the… the utterance.  Not a word I’d expected from her mouth.  Not a tone I’d imagined either, but one that made a profound kind of sense.  An order – she’d wanted to be the team’s leader at one point.  A plea – she had been a member of the therapy group, and to sit in on a therapy session she’d had to bring herself to ask for help before.

No, a plea… because she cared enough that she wanted to help Sveta much as I did.

I took the path that she’d clearly taken, off the road, into ditch, then into field.  Across what had been farmland, ridged with where the irrigation and crops had been.  A red light flared to my right, and I veered left, away while still heading forward.

“My arms don’t work,” I told her.

“Neither does my leg.  Give me your body,” she said.

She laid a hand across my back, fingers and fingernails digging into the back of my neck, the raw material of her damaged arm biting through the fabric of my costume.

Wasn’t- hadn’t her arm sparked earlier?  Was that a danger?

The case fifty-three had Sveta’s face in its hands.  It was a weirdly shaped figure, squat bodied, but with a skinny neck topped with a normally sized head.  All was clad in what looked like cylindrical extensions of shell, white and ornamented like a castle with crenellations.  What the shell didn’t cover was ropy, yellow, and slick with fluids.  A notch was inset into one shoulder, making it so one arm seemed to practically float in the air, joined to the body at armpit but not at shoulder.

I was put in mind of a ‘rook’ chess piece, given arms and legs, with internal workings that dripped phlegm.  I was especially mindful that the arm that was barely attached didn’t seem strong, but it was gaining strength as its powers returned.

My powers- one fifteenth of what they should be, maybe, if I judged by ‘flight’ alone.

I was Swansong’s legs, her arm at my back and her body lined up beside mine.  With an arm that still spasmed -still, and only from a glancing contact with the lightning- I tried to hold her around the waist, to keep her upright.

The red lights appeared.  Swansong lashed at them as they came into her meager reach.  It was a flirtation with danger, because her power’s range was so abysmal like this, the effect of that power random within the area.  Sometimes a twist, sometimes a tear, sometimes annihilation, but not always in a straight line, aimed in the direction her hand extended.  Sometimes it veered left, sometimes right.

How long until we got unlucky?  If we had two seconds and her power struck out wildly with six lashes of power in that span of time, three lashes if we were slow to react or get her in position to reach out, how long and how many attempts until the power just… didn’t hit the trap?

Sveta’s tentacles were wrapping around the ‘rook’ case fifty-three.  They gripped shelled sections and they gripped the soft sections of actual flesh.  There wasn’t much strength in them, but as she regained her strength, the rook seemed to regain his twice over.

Paris threw a dart toward the remaining, injured Harbinger, and the Harbinger leaned to one side to let it pass by.  Every step the Harbinger took seemed labored, heavily favoring one leg.  Actions were kept efficient, tight, and careful, as Etna found her footing and created a bubble of hot but not superheated glass and hurled it.

The Harbinger twisted around, striking at the orb with one gloved hand, then the other, deflecting it.  It was pushed off course and shattered on impact with the ground.  Red lights illuminated around the impact site.

Paris kicked out.  The Harbinger avoided the worst of it, but still stumbled back, doing the half-step with the injured leg to minimize the time spent on it, and tumbled to the ground beside the glowing trap.

“Hit it!” I shouted.

Fingers found a glass shard from the orb, then, awkwardly, thrust out, heel of the hand pushing the shard into the glowing red light.

The crackle was muted, dancing around the Harbinger’s hand, but it didn’t swallow him up or completely disable him.

My shout had drawn attention.  Etna created another globe of hot glass, then hurled it.  It was barely on the cusp of being hot enough to change colors, and I could see the glow emanating as her power provided a little extra push to the throwing motion, staying with the globe as it flew.  Like it was less a globe of hot glass and more like a rocket.

I shifted position, putting Damsel between myself and the globe, bracing her and holding her as she reached up with both hands.

The blast annihilated the shot.

Yeah.  There were things that still caught me off guard, like that ‘help’, but I knew this much.  She preferred to face danger head on and blast it out of existence than to run.  Even before I’d fully braced and supported her, she’d been reaching up to blast.

We were past the worst of the minefield.  Ashley broke away from me, staggering forward on peg leg and one leg that wasn’t cooperating, and she struck out with her power, twice just to keep her balance or push herself upright when her leg was starting to give, a third time to strike at one red light that had blinked to life.

I followed, mindful of Swansong’s blasts.  The spasms had subsided enough that I could put my arms at my sides instead of having them folded up against my chest or awkwardly around Swansong.  ‘At my sides’ wasn’t the best way of putting it, as fingers were curled up into claws and I couldn’t really extend, swing with, or rotate my hands and arms.  It was a fight just to keep them from getting in my own way.

A glance over my shoulder suggested the others weren’t recovering in any visible measure.  This recovery seemed to be because I’d only taken a glancing blow.  That my heart hadn’t actually stopped seemed to be because I had armor at my chest.  Something to conduct or take the focus of the arc, I couldn’t say.

Contender, a case fifty-three with ‘feathers’ that looked more like worn leather than any featherlike, Paris, and Etna all stood lined up against Swansong, the Harbinger and I.  In the back of their group, Sveta wrestled with the ‘rook’ case fifty-three, and she seemed to be losing.  He was pressing the edge of her face into the ground like he was trying to break it in half.

“Leave her alone!” I hollered the words.

I saw him visibly pause.

“He don’ like tella he what do, no yah?” the other case fifty-three said.  A string of English with some heavy tonal emphasis on vowels, especially on the ‘tella’.

“Not unless you want to egg him on,” Contender said, putting one fist inside his hand, cracking knuckles.

I tried my forcefield on for size.  Skintight, but I could feel the rustling, sense the extension of it, as a hand reached out here, a Victoria-ish shape emerged there.

Something simultaneously reassuring and quietly horrifying.  If only there was some way to keep the forcefield in its wet-paper-fragile state, where it hugged my body again and didn’t echo my worst nightmares.

At least it didn’t break when I took a step.

Powers were coming back into play.  I was still grounded, but I could use a bit of flight.  The winged case fifty-three seemed to be in a similar boat.  Half-mummy, dessicated with ‘feathers’ like straps, half-bird, with its body extending into wings that weren’t like a bat’s or a bird’s, draping down and out from the arms.  They moved sideways more often than they moved forward, and a glimpse at their feet indicated why.  Bladed feet, not talons, but a single blade in place of the middle toe, another at the heel.  The hands were similar, it seemed, kept out of sight, hidden in the drapery of ‘wings’.

Etna had more globes of superheated glass forming in her hand.  The other hand had her phone out.  She’d been wearing a skimpier costume in the early fall when the weather was warm, but her outfit now was more along the evil sorceress look, with high collar and draping coat, all with a ‘flame’ cut.  She looked down, checking her phone-

Swansong lunged.  With her power not at full strength, the recoil of the blast wasn’t severe, and the resulting propulsion wasn’t too meaningful.

I had to trust her.  I flew straight for Paris.

“No,” Etna said.  She threw the globe.

Swansong shot it, but the recoil was just enough to burn her forward momentum, and her footing wasn’t secure, one foot not cooperating, the other foot absent.  She landed on her knees, skidding on ice.  As Etna formed a smaller globe and threw it, she blasted that too.

My attempt to close in on Paris was blocked by the case fifty-three.  A flap of the draping ‘wing’ saw him… not fly, not bound, definitely not a teleport, but slide through the air, upward and at a diagonal.

When he came down, he came down kicking, the blade sweeping down toward me.

Twisting around, throwing myself back, I kicked up to meet the claw with the bottom of my boot, forcefield active.  My meager flight made my landing easier.

The slice at my boot was followed up by something heavy striking at my foot, almost twisting my ankle.

I could see it hanging in the air.  A shadow, like a smear that followed the talon’s trajectory.  It only lasted a couple of seconds.

The Harbinger went toe to toe with Contender, neither apparently using powers.  Contender seemed to have the upper hand, pressing the offense, while the Harbinger did his best.

I couldn’t afford to help.  By advancing, I could maintain some pressure, keep Paris on his toes, while occupying the aerial assassin here.

Wing ‘flapped’, and the assassin slid to my left.  I saw one hand raise, another flap imminent, their head turning toward Swansong.

A bit of my own flight gave me the ability to focus my movement and make it more effective- I couldn’t swing punches with my arms still spasming, so I had to kick.  With flight, a roundhouse kick could hit that much harder.

He slid out of the way, hands coming around in parallel slashes toward my middle.  With forcefield up, I met the blurs that followed in the aftermath of the slashes, and I was shoved almost five feet away.

All one power, it seemed.  Swoop and slash, he created the blurs that propelled, drove movement, slid.  When he used them, they facilitated movement.  For others, it was a focused kind of pressure.  I imagined that if he cut me, the blur would open up the cut.

Swansong, meanwhile, was entirely preoccupied as Etna hurled a glass globe, which was shot, but Paris immediately followed up, timing his hurling of a long, thin black dart for the moment Swansong wasn’t able to strike.

It sliced her as it passed her, and carved a divot into the ground.  The divot began spraying out a geyser of frozen dirt and ice, cutting Swansong’s cheek.  She had to move out of the way- and Etna was already cutting off retreat, hurling another globe.  The same Swansong blast that consumed the globe also arrested momentum, kept Swansong in the area of the spray.  Paris followed up, throwing another two darts-

Fuck.

I tried to get by, running footsteps and lunges augmented by flight, like moonwalking, but tighter, faster.  The case fifty-three was right there, to cut me off.  When I tried to slip by, they somersaulted in the air, changing direction while mid-slide, and slashed a flurry into the air.  Left hand cut a zig-zag, foot struck up…

Not aimed at me, but at another purpose.  A barrier of the high-pressure blurs cut me off from getting to either Swansong or Sveta.

I kicked the ground, hard, and sent a spray of crud directly at them.

“Kicking dirt?” Etna asked.  “Really?  That’s what you heroes have sunk to?”

I kicked again, aiming at her, the kick aimed for a mound with a rounder shape within it.  Dirt and ice flew, and a flat stone six inches across flew past the barrier, clipping her on the hip.

Paris hurled darts my way.  One hit the forcefield and was destroyed on impact, but the other missed, and that one was an issue.

Another barrier, a geyser of pellets flying like tiny bullets.

“You’re working for people who cut up kids and you’re calling us low?” I growled.

Swansong was lunging in to take advantage of Etna being distracted, reaching out.  Balance off from the stone’s impact, Etna had a panicked response, throwing the half-formed globe, then a glob rather than a globe, barely a handful, all while floating backward.

Still holding onto that phone with the one hand.

Swansong couldn’t advance while the ground was littered with cooling masses of glass.

“She doesn’t care about hurting kids.  She hit Lookout because she can’t aim,” Swansong said.  “Embarrassed an entire neighborhood of supervillains.”

“You want to see how good my aim is?” Etna asked.

“Are you suggesting you weren’t trying before?” Swansong asked.  “Because you saying that doesn’t intimidate me.  It suggests you’re a lazy supervillain halfwit.”

Etna threw more globes, floating and doing her own moonwalk.  Swansong ducked, wove, started to close the distance, and then was forced to back off again as Paris threw more darts.

They had everything they needed to ward us off.  The globes were just too menacing in terms of the sheer damage they promised to inflict if she could actually hit us with one, the aerial assassin had the ability to create a fence of slashes, and Paris produced the geysers, though he seemed more focused on capitalizing on momentary weaknesses.

Contender- he’d dispatched the second Harbinger, knocking the kid out.

For the time being, we were two against one.

I glanced back at the other group.  It would have been nice if that wolf came charging in, but it was staying close to its master.

“Don’t turn your back on the enemy,” Contender said.

I was fully aware of him, as he joined the aerial assassin, standing beside the guy.  I was aware of Paris, and of Etna.  Of Sveta, who had fluid running down her face, but who was at least holding her own, against another case fifty-three who seemed implacable.

Swansong was bleeding in multiple places from the geyser, and the bandage at her neck was soaked through.  Something had pulled at the injury.

It couldn’t be easy.

“We should end this,” Paris said, very quiet.

“Why?” Contender asked.

“Do you disagree?”

Contender shook his head, as if exasperated.  “Vulturehawk, you and I take down goldie.”

“Not confident you can do it alone, Contender?” I asked, taunting.

“I’m very confident we can manage it as a pair,” he said.

“You call yourself Contender and there’s no fight in you,” I said.  I pushed out with my aura, full strength, and even at that it felt like I was outputting a three on my normal one to ten scale.

The taunts were borne of nervousness, and a little bit of it was the conscious awareness that powers tended to make sense.  Contender’s name, his power, his assured cockiness, and the way he tended to go after people he thought he could beat, it painted a bigger picture.

Whether he was a prize athlete who’d hit hard times or someone who’d never been able to score a win before he had powers, whether it was a school that had exerted pressure… I felt like being called out for cowardice would get to him.

“We each get one easy one,” Swansong said.  “I get the halfwit who can’t aim unless she’s hitting a kid, and you get the contender who can’t win his fights.

Contender arched an eyebrow above the white and black mask he wore, looking back at the Harbinger.

“Holding that up as a victory isn’t making you look better,” I said.

“Hey ‘tend, ya got dez deaf it,” Vulturehawk said.  His eyes were sharp.

“Yeah,” Contender said.

I tried to slip past, but Vulturehawk was fast, more mobile with two-thirds of a sliding power than I was with two-thirds of a flight power that didn’t really do more than make me weightless.  I continued to exert pressure, studying them.  When there was a chance, I glanced back toward the others, to check.

There were headlights on the road.

The claw skimmed along my arm.  I kicked, another roundhouse with part of a flight power accelerating the movement, then used more flight to change my direction as I fell, while Contender ducked in low, trying to flank.

I could avoid the opening swing, bring arm and leg up to shield the one side of my body as he kicked-

I didn’t miss the weapon that he slipped into one hand.  My thought was knife.

A baton, that whipped out like a switchblade, striking me across the face.

I drove my forehead into his face.  The icon at the front and center of my hood slashed forehead and eye.  He stumbled back, but I was on his heels.

He found his bearings, and instead of panicking, he began to respond.  Blocks, a strike to my jaw, then a kick.  The kick to my side hurt.

He knew my forcefield was something that ‘broke’, or he thought it was fragile.

He was bigger, stronger, and if I was a hundred percent honest, his hand to hand technique was better than mine on a general level.  I was willing to press it regardless, trusting that one in every two hits that he landed wouldn’t count, while I could make mine count just fine.

He created his circle, a flash, a flare, and I lost my power.

Which- well, of fucking course he did.  Now I wasn’t ignoring one in every two hits, and he had the baton.

I shifted to the defensive, looking for an opening.  Punch after punch, and I kept my arms up, dealing with the fact they were still spasming.  The cut on the bottom of my foot made footwork hard, and I couldn’t use any degree of flight to ease my weight off of it.

I was too out of practice.  The patrol training had been me instructing the newbies more than it had been me learning.

Swansong’s power was audible, and the nothingness that extended around the perimeter of the area became a universe of roiling distortion, blurs, and shadow.  The bubble collapsed.  I saw Swansong with her hand extended my way.  She’d caught another glancing hit from Paris for her trouble.

A bit of flight and the ability to take one baton swing without flinching or slowing down in the slightest bought me an opportunity.

My thumb slipped one of the rings from the base of my finger to the middle part.  Each ring had spikes that swept back along the back of my hand, and by moving it to where I had, with my hand in a fist, the spike pointed forward.

I aimed for the throat, worry for Sveta burying the clear awareness of what I was trying to do.  The spike punched into meat.  I repeated the hit, flying close so my legs wrapped around his upper body, punching- catching the underside of his jaw, his face, mask, then helmet.  He twisted to keep me from getting at the neck again.

“Vic!”

Swansong’s voice.  I kicked away and flew back.

Vulturehawk was swooping in, and I was ready for a fight.  Ready to just fly in close and put a mess of holes in him.

But he wasn’t interested in a brawl.  He cut me off and backed away, dropping down near Contender to check the wounds.

“No arties, ‘tend.  All sho’, rest sure.”

“Fucking hurts,” Contender growled.

“Yep,” Vulturehawk said.  Even the single word had its peculiar inflection.

“Don’t stand in the water,” Paris ordered.

“Water?”

He pointed up.

Above us, a diagram in blue lights.  Byron’s constellation.  He was still lying on the road, I could see, but he was focusing enough to draw something for us.

As if seeming to realize the other guys were onto us, Byron activated the diagram.

The water the diagram writ across the sky created was something that gushed skyward.

I took advantage of the distraction to fly straight for Swansong.  I still couldn’t hold up my entire weight with flight -whatever had shaken our powers had shaken them good- but I could make myself nearly weightless.  I pulled a Harbinger and situated myself above her.

I’d heard the term raining buckets before, but this- this was closer to the idea.  It was as though a swimming pool had been dropped on us from above, diffused by the fact it had been cast up, breaking apart as the wind and slight differences in timing added up together.

I leaped upward, and then I used my powers.  Flight, to stay airborne longer.  Forcefield, to block and break the worst of the water.

Swansong used her power.

The water settled, sloshing and filling up irrigation ditches.  The villains found footing on higher ground, where snow and ice piled up, or where the dirt was highest.  Paris had one foot up on a fence, the other on stone.

Byron had drenched them, at least.  When I looked at Swansong, she looked sixty percent dry.

The Harbingers – slumped over dirt mounds.  Drenched but they would be fine if they got warm.

Not for the first or second time, I took the time to glance back.  The truck had stopped a distance away from where our group had settled.  New blue markings in the air blocked the roadway.  People had climbed out of the vehicle.  Prancer and Moose.

That- it would have to wait.  The others were vulnerable, but as shitty as Prancer was, I was pretty sure he wasn’t about to take helpless people hostage.  Those ‘helpless people’ were probably able to use powers, too.  Too dangerous for him to crack.

He might have been calling friends.

Didn’t matter.

Each time I’d checked back over my shoulder, I’d been looking.  This time, with water settling, swirling, and frothing or carrying loose debris, I could make out particulars in the darkness.

A swirl where water at the edge was settling.

I flew to it, reaching it just in time.  A cylindrical hole in the ground, three or four inches across, and deep.  As I got to it, the red light of the trap that had been embedded into the ground illuminated.  It had been triggered by a disturbance from the sudden rush of water.

I grabbed it and I hurled it, grenade-style.  The Wretch provided the strength for extra distance.

Etna’s attention was on her phone.  When Paris got out of there, Etna didn’t.

The device activated.  A crackle of red energy that swept over Etna.  I saw her drop, limp, spasming, and she landed face down in the water.

Paris started forward, and Swansong used her power.  A warning shot, fired off to her side.  Paris stopped.

Etna remained where she was, periodically pushing herself partway up, then splashing back down.

Paris waited, chin high, hands clasped behind his back.  Swansong stood, hair damp, head bent, glaring up and across at Paris.  Four good paces separated them.

Etna, unable to move on her own, floundered in the water.

“Is her phone there?” I asked.

Swansong started forward.  Paris threw darts, planting them in the dirt between Swansong and Etna.

With a blast of her power, followed by a short stumble and recovery, Swansong destroyed the swathe of dirt and the geysers.

I had blood running down the finger of my glove.  The ring squelched as I adjusted its position, the blood on the inner circumference squeezing out.

Etna continued to flounder.

“Do you think we care?” Contender asked.  “She was two-bit.  Vulturehawk and Thud aren’t even from around here.  They don’t give a shit about her or me or Paris over there.  I’ve got a job.  Cushy gig in another universe, gets me out of this sad echo of the world we lost.”

“Joining the fourth sect,” I murmured.

“Yeah,” Contender said.  “And Paris?  Paris has his own thing going on.”

“You don’t need to talk about me,” Paris said, creepy-quiet.

“If you’re trying to scare us, it won’t work,” Contender said, one hand at his neck.  “You can’t use her for leverage if none of us give a shit.”

“She’s not leverage,” Swansong said.  As she paced, Paris threw another dart.  She destroyed it before the geyser could appear.  Pale as she was, the red line and the trickles of blood stood out on her face and at her scalp, running through her hair to matt an area with blood.  “We’re getting used to the idea of killing.  Again, in my case.”

I drew in a deep breath, exhaled.  Etna blew bubbles.

Sure.

“This looks worse for you than for us,” Contender said.  “She hasn’t hurt anyone, not that I’ve heard, she wasn’t a part of this except that she was one of a bunch of people they hired.  I don’t know what happened with this kid she apparently hit, but-”

“Contender,” Paris said.

Contender looked over at the tall, long-haired man.

Paris just shook his head.

Telling Contender to shut the fuck up, using silence to evoke silence.

Etna struggled, but she didn’t find the means to get her head out of the water.

Ice water, it had to be.  When I glanced at Paris, Contender, and Vulturehawk, I could see how the cold and damp was getting to them.

Thud,who held Sveta against the ground, didn’t seem to mind overmuch.  Sveta was adapting to more targeted holds, hauling on Thud’s knees, pulling his head down.

This- it was a stalemate of a particularly dark sort.  If we- if I backed down now, hauling Etna out of the water, then I wasn’t sure I could go as far as was necessary the next time I had to make the call.

And Contender was probably right.  They probably didn’t care.

We needed a break for the stalemate, and it was either going to be one of theirs or one of ours.  Ours were out of action.  Theirs…

I glanced back.

Prancer and Moose were approaching, picking their way across the water.  They had one of ours hostage- Sveta.  Three of ours if we included the Harbingers, who we couldn’t help.

“Big bad Paris,” Swansong said.  “Can’t even protect his subordinate.  From all I heard about you… I thought you’d be more.”

He didn’t take the bait.  I was put in mind of the cold, calculating professional, rather than Love Lost’s type.

Moose and Prancer reached the edge of our collection of capes.  I saw Moose pause as they got to a vantage point where they could see Etna moving awkwardly while belly-down in water.

“Hey,” Prancer said.  “Blue and Bitter are coming, along with the rest.  Your buddies won’t recover before they get here.”

I glanced at Swansong.

“We don’t need your help,” Paris said.  A voice at normal volume, steady, condemning.

“Help would be nice, to get out of the cold,” Contender said.

Paris gave Contender a look.

As much emotion as we’d seen from him yet.

“I don’t care enough about this to help or not help, or to care that you hate me for no damn reason,” Prancer said.

“I’d care, but I get the impression this is complicated,” Moose said.

“It’s really not, Moose.  They cut up kids,” I said.  “Carved off pieces.  Left ’em crying.  For a good few of them, they were crying over what happened to their friends, not themselves.”

“Took my leg,” Swansong said.

“You think I’m nicer than I am,” Moose said, his voice low.

“I think you’re a cape who flew under the radar for a long time-”

“Your polite way of saying I’m B-list.”

“-You lived in the woods of British Columbia and you oversaw drug grows.  Kept ’em safe, scared off trespassers, dealt with police.  As villains go that’s pretty harmless.  You didn’t sign on for this bloody, killing stuff.”

“Nope,” he said.  “But I didn’t sign on to stop it, either.”

Bull,” I retorted.  “This isn’t you.  You can’t be okay with this.”

“I came out of the attack on the Fallen compound needing three inches of colon removed after it got pulled out of my middle and left exposed to the world,” he said.  “A friend died.  I’ve had to face a lot of ugliness.”

“Boo fucking hoo,” Swansong said.

“No,” I said.  I could see a dark look in Prancer’s eyes.  As dark as any I’d seen in Swansong’s earlier tonight.  “Ugliness sucks.  It hasn’t been great.”

“I can’t stand gutless villains.  There’s no point to this, and there’s no point to holding back and being neutral except to be an utter coward.  You cast yourselves in the worst light by hiding when it counts.”

“Swan?” I asked.  “Speaking of standing by, give Etna a breath of air?”

She didn’t budge.

“One breath,” I said.  I glanced at Paris.  “Unless you’re going to stop her?”

A gamble.  Was he going to act differently while Prancer and Moose were here?

She walked over to Etna, and Paris didn’t stop her.

She hauled back on the decorated ‘flame’ collar of Etna’s costume and lifted her up.  Etna took in gulps of air, coughing and sputtering, her arms curling up awkwardly, like t-rex arms.  Not that I’d been better.

Swansong dropped her.  Etna splashed down into the water.

“This is who you are, Moose?  Gutless?”

“I’m sayin’, feeling awfully mortal after that little funeral service.  All I’ve wanted since the world ended was a place and some people to keep close.”

“Do you want those people to be people who maim others?”

“I wanted Hollow Point, but that didn’t work out.  This… it’s closer to a summer camp.  Some shitty people, sure, but freeing, finally a chance to breathe, after a lot of bad days.”

“People who maimed others,” I reminded him.  “When I gouged you beneath your mask, you said your mom would’ve cried over it.  How’s she going to feel about this?”

“Low blow,” Prancer said.

Moose just made a bit of a face, almost a scowl, but then faltering, like he couldn’t bring himself to.

“Prance?” Moose asked.

Was that him deferring, because he legitimately couldn’t come to a decision, or was he checking with his boss or partner because anything else would be dangerous?

Not that I could imagine Prancer being an outright danger to Moose.

“We negotiate,” he said.  “Give her a breath, come on.  Enough have died.”

Swansong looked at me, then at my nod, lifted Etna up.

“What do you want?”

“Call off the reinforcements,” I said.

“Can’t.  I’m not in charge.”

“Convince them.”

“Can’t.  They don’t like me,” Prancer said.  “I made a play for power and I failed.  Lost my Queen.”

There were more vehicles on the road now.  The cars Foil had disabled were moving now.

A convoy of capes and the kind of locals who’d worked with Nursery and accepted her methods because it meant a shot at a house.

Our team still wasn’t up.

“Let Sveta go,” I told the others.  “We let you have Etna.”

The chess case fifty-three turned his head slowly to look at Paris.  Sveta gripped the head from five different angles.

“This the Svet’?” Thud asked, in his booming voice.

“Yeah,” I heard Sveta.  It sounded like she was having trouble making words.  “Let me fucking go!”

“Let her go,” Paris said.  “She’s more dangerous to them than to us.”

They released Sveta, who escaped.  Swansong let Etna slump to the ground, backing up to stand by my side.

I bent down and picked up one of the Harbingers.  The second Harbinger was up, and crawled our way until he found ground steady enough to stand on.  His leg looked mangled.  In this manner, we gathered together.  A very small group when compared to what felt like a larger assortment of others.  Not because we were outnumbered by that much, but because they were more intact as a whole.

Swansong elbowed me.  When I looked, she passed me a phone.

Ah, Etna’s phone.  What had she been interested in?  The reinforcements?

An overhead map with a field of red dots.  The traps.  Easily fifty.  She’d been keeping an eye on the layout while trying to herd Swansong toward the traps.  While moving around on her own.  Probably everyone had something like this.

Seemed like Love Lost had been making a lot of use of the tinker power, lately.

“It’s going to mess with the dog’s tracking,” Swansong said.  “How can they follow a trail if it’s littered with this garbage?”

“Let’s talk about you showing us the way to them,” I said, to Prancer.

I saw others react.  Firming up, tensing, getting ready for debate, fight, argument.

“You leave anyone I name alone, your targets aside,” Prancer said, calm, “Then yeah.”

“We shouldn’t,” Moose said.

“You really shouldn’t,” Contender said, hostile and angry.  Beside him, Paris looked like he agreed with the villain consensus.

“Give my guys protections, keep the peace, I’ll show you where those guys  are,” Prancer said.

“You’re not making any friends,” Contender told him.

“Deal,” I said.

Prancer laughed.  “Fuck no.  That’s one of my conditions.  Second?  Money.  Enough to get resituated.”

“You’re making enemies who’ll come for you,” Contender said.

“I promised my girl I’d make something of myself.  I’m not doing that here,” Prancer said.  “This is a mess, those guys have gone around the bend, and hearing about that kind of horror?  Kids?  Doesn’t sit right.  Having talked to Cradle, Snag, Love Lost, I believe it.  It’s fine when it’s Fallen and Fallen soldiers only.  But they were too okay with it, and now it’s other people?”

“How much money?”

“I’m not greedy.  A hundred thou?”

I grit my teeth.

“Fifty thou,” Prancer amended his statement.  “And I hold a hostage until the payment comes.  I’ll call in favors, get you your safety.”

“You can’t call in enough favors for that,” Contender said.  “They paid mercenaries and hired them to defend these spots.”

“That’s their fault for not being discerning about clients,” Swansong said.  “Greed made them stupid.”

“What the lady said,” Prancer echoed.  He seemed to stand a little taller, in the mid-strides of a deal.  “How much of you being a pain in my ass was your game in Hollow Point, Damsel?”

“One hundred percent,” she said.

“Even down to killing Beast of Burden.”

“That was different.  The rest?  An act.  I’m the easiest and most reasonable person in the world to get along with, when you’re obeying my every whim.  You… didn’t obey.”

“Mm.”

“You call them off as best you can, you lead the way, we give you safe passage and we pay,” I said.

Prancer smiled.

Byron’s power went off again.  A diagram high above, drawn out in blue lines and bluer lights, it became a vast quantity of water, and that water flooded the area, spraying to cover field and road both.  We were beyond the worst of it, but at the road-

At the road, it was a defensive measure.  The wolf had been standing guard and the wolf had just been knocked down.  They were picking a fight.

“Yeah,” Prancer said.  “Deal then.”

“You’re fucking us,” Contender said.

You’re fucking us,” Prancer retorted.  “How’s Moose supposed to have his adult summer camp-”

“Winter camp,” Moose said.

“How’re we supposed to call this place home if they bring this garbage here?” Prancer asked, almost snarling.  “If you help them?”

“If you thought it would be any different, you were lying to yourself,” Etna said.  “This is the default.  The way things are staying.  It’s the best we get.”

“Fuck that,” Prancer snarled.

He turned to go, but as he did, the villains we’d been fighting with tensed, shifted footing, got ready to pursue.

We couldn’t turn our backs and a small village of capes had turned up to defend their turf.  They were wet and cold after Byron’s impromptu shower, but that didn’t count for nearly enough, not when our team was halfway disabled, if not outright down for the count.

“And this isn’t even going to be the hard part,” Prancer said.

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Interlude 12.e

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Seven Years Ago

The interrogation room was concrete, a metal table set against the wall.  A monster was in the corner, perched on a metal folding chair that creaked when she shifted position.

It was all arranged to make the suspect as uncomfortable as possible.  The chair was situated in the corner, and the table had a bar between the legs so the suspect couldn’t turn the chair toward the table or easily put their legs beneath.

Whichever orientation of the chair they chose, they had to sit uncomfortably or twist if they wanted to look at anyone else in the room, and they had to to turn a hundred and eighty degrees if they wanted to look at the mirror set into the wall behind them.

It was to the detectives’ benefit that the suspect was not only made uncomfortable, but that body language was put on full display with no table to block the view.  Every movement of the hands, every adjustment of the feet.

It was a bit of a twist of expectations that they were on the other side of the one-way mirror.  This was the room where the various members of the station normally gathered to watch investigations in progress.  It was tempting to keep looking back, to try to read something into a scene without sound, when the speaker was switched off.  In the other room, a thirty-something woman was talking to three officers.  In this room, two officers and the suspect waited.

‘Suspect’.  Nic had already come to her verdict: Monster.

Nic stood by the door, pretending to be watching that scene.  She took periodic notes.

“We’re having a conversation here, that’s all,” Doug told the suspect, all smiles.

“And I’m Alexandria,” Jen, the young woman at the far end of the room said.  Suspect.  Monster.

“Oh, wow,” Doug said, breathy, excited, playing along and happy to play along.  “That’s amazing!”

Trying to sweep their suspect up into a rhythm.  Nic wouldn’t have gone about it that way.

The response was a sneer.  “I’m not saying anything without a lawyer.  I went to a decent high school, we got an intro to law in tenth grade.  We all saw the video breaking it down.  This.  Nothing I say can support my case, but you’ll twist it around or use pieces of it to screw me over and make me out to be the bad guy.”

“It’s just a conversation, Jen,” Doug said.  “You can leave at any time.  For right now, until things are settled, we think it’s best you’re here and not in the pit.”

The pit.  The floor with all of the desks and phones, where the most informal of interviews were held.

“Of course you do.”

“When you were sitting out there and she passed by you, your stepmom started screaming at you.  None of us want that.  Not at this time of night.  Or, worse, we get a situation where you’re outside waiting for your cab when she comes across you and there’s nobody around to hold her back.”

Jen’s response was a shrug.

“The stepmom.  She’s very emotional,” Doug observed.

Anyone would be.

“It doesn’t help her, acting like that while making accusations,” he said.  The friendly, good looking officer, playing nice.  Jen didn’t bite.

No bite, but she did twist around to look.  The woman in the other room was dabbing at her eyes with a kleenex.

“Oh god,” the monster said.

“Right?” Doug asked, smiling.

Their suspect responded to the smile by retreating, arms folding, settling into the chair.  Reminding herself she was talking to the enemy.

Doug pressed, “Look, she won’t be much longer.  A lot of the people here, we were up at six this morning, got our coffees, breakfast sandwiches, ate our oatmeal, ran through our routines.  And we’ve been up for fifteen hours.  We aren’t interested in anything that’s going to take hours.  We want this done and out of the way.  We’ll wrap up the interview with the stepmom, send her home, then we’ll let you go.  Then we get back to you in a few days to let you know where things stand.”

That wasn’t really how it worked.  Some started late and worked late.  But it made for a good story.

Jen, the monster in the chair, turned and looked up at Nic, who was pretending to watch ‘the stepmom’.

“How long have you had to put up with that?” Doug asked.

“I won’t answer any questions until I have my lawyer.”

“I’m trying to kill time, that’s all.  Trust me, a guy who’s been working for fifteen hours is not the guy who would be interrogating you.  We already got your statement.”

His finger tapped the paper.

“I’m not saying anything,” Jen said.

Tenth grade law class or no, ‘Jen’ had yet to actually ask for a lawyer.  She’d stated she wouldn’t answer questions without one, but it was a distinction that mattered.

Nic watched the ongoing back and forth.  Frustrated, she stood up straight, no longer standing with her back to the doorframe.  “Boss just waved me down.  Back in a sec, D.”

“You need me to take notes or anything?” Doug asked.

“Keep an eye on the stepmom.  Look for shiftiness, bullshit.”

“Any first thoughts?”

“Munchausens?”

Doug gave her an affirmative grunt.

Even though it was for good ends, the implications sat uneasy with her.  ‘The stepmom’, the implications that the woman in the other room was in the wrong.  The focus on that woman, while Jen was situated in that uncomfortable metal chair, feeling the pressure without any active pressure being applied.

The heel of her hand rubbed against the corner of her jaw.  That uneasiness and the tension of the long day were wearing on her.  She’d been gritting her teeth and now her jaw hurt, and it would hurt into tomorrow morning, if past experience was any indication.

She hadn’t been hailed or waved down.  Her destination was the locker room.  She had some evidence baggies inside a larger resealable baggie in her coat pocket.  She pulled them out, setting them down on the small shelf.

The pills she put into the first bag were her own pills, as was the pill bottle- she’d peeled away the label a long time ago.  The stepmom had said something about the kid being on medication.  She felt it was important, so she would use that.

Flipping open her phone, she brought up images she’d snapped while visiting the kid’s house.  Jen’s half brother.  Pages of lined paper with the chicken-scratch writing running through the lines, the words written large and along the longest edge of the papers.  It had caught her attention when she’d first seen it.  A little puzzle she’d answered later in the night, when Jen had talked about disabilities.

Owen had a syndrome, the full name was in her notes, but in addition to the obvious facial and neck issues evident in his photographs, his fingers were shorter, the joints at the base of each finger malformed and gathered together.  He had similar issues with wrist and elbow.  Writing was hard, so he wrote in a way that let him use more of the page.

She copied out his unique handwriting, slowly at first, then with more confidence.  As she wrote more, she could let herself be sloppier, always with a mind for the limitations of his hand and arm.

The pages went into another bag.  Sealed away, the contents recognizable but partially obscured by the label pre-printed onto the bag’s exterior.

She had other files still in her locker.  Take-home work.  She picked through them and she found what she could use.  Fingerprints from another case.  A kid that had been setting fires.  Paperwork from another case.  All gathered up into an otherwise nondescript file folder.

With her phone, fingers clicking on the number keys, she flicked through to find more pictures she’d taken while visiting the family home.  She found one she’d taken of Jen.  A family photo, thirteen year old Owen smiling as best as he could with his facial deformation, dressed smart in a nice shirt and sweater.  Owen’s mother and father.  And Jen, standing with a measurable distance between herself and Owen.

She couldn’t do it anymore.  She couldn’t stand in that room, apply that slow and steady pressure, wait for the interview with Mrs. Bowers to finish, have the pow-wow, work out the plan of attack, and then turn her full focus onto Jen Bowers.  Not when Jen would get defensive, insist on her lawyer in a way they had to oblige, and tie up the process.  She knew how it would go, what the lawyer would say.  What the boss would say.

Her own jaw would break from clenching her teeth before Jen broke.  She had to do something.

She had to plug her phone into the printer to send the picture.  Grainy and low-res, but that didn’t matter.

Three swipes of the box-cutter knife separated Jen’s black and white image from the rest.  It went into the file, tucked beneath someone else’s fingerprints.

She was on her way back when the chief stopped her, one hand at her shoulder.  She showed him what she had, and she watched as the older, better detective picked through her ‘evidence’.  A pen-tip ran along the case number printed with the fingerprints.  The pen turned around and the butt-end was used to lift up pages, then to prod the evidence bag with the pills.

He looked at her, quizzical.  She shrugged.

He moved on.  He knew it was all charade.  His role had changed now, as he assessed whether any of it was poorly done or oddly specific enough to give away that charade.

He seemed amused as he gave her the silent go-ahead.

Three more steps took her into the room where Doug was commenting aloud on the stepmother’s mannerisms.  Jen had twisted around in an uncomfortable way to look.

“She keeps adjusting her wedding ring.  I read that as a sign of infidelity.  Is it a sign of infidelity, Jen?”

“No comment,” Jen said, staring through the one-way mirror.  Still trying not to engage.

Jen looked, too, as Nic put the file down, then the bottle, and then the forged notes in Owen’s handwriting.

The file and papers weren’t on the table for two seconds before they were picked up by Doug.

Doug’s smile dropped off his face.  Where he had been pleasant, positive, upbeat, he was now cold.  It was an act, of course, but it seemed to shake Jen some.

There was no communication.  No words, as he read through what she’d written.  On the front, in ‘Owen’s’ words, she’d expressed grief and anger, frustration and hopelessness.  On the backside, in the same crude handwriting, she’d outlined how everything she’d put in front of him was bullshit.

He got up and he left the room, taking the file with him.

Let her believe we got her.  A note with telling information.  Or…

Nic looked at the pill bottle.  Pills for anemia, which she’d barely touched.  So long as she ate on the days she had more to drink, she didn’t need them.  In this ruse of hers, she was making a gamble, an educated guess.

Owen, a physically and mentally disabled boy who was struggling through school, friendless and frustrated, had been on more medications than Nic had been able to count.

Nic was pretty sure she knew Jen’s type.  A cousin who had been enchanted by her kitten, but when that kitten had grown up to be a cat, had emptied the food bowl into the trash or tainted the food, knowing the hungry animal would eat it.  She’d seen it in certain parents and their kids.  In kids with dependent parents.

It made sense that Jen would tamper.  Switch the contents of one bottle for another, or empty a bottle and replace its contents with something innocuous.  Hastening a disabled boy on his way as Nic’s cousin had tried to do to the cat, before being confronted.  As parents who no longer wanted to be parents sometimes did.  As children who no longer wanted to struggle to care for their parents sometimes did.

And if Jen hadn’t tampered, then they were simply pills.  They wouldn’t mean anything.

But Nic could see Jen fidget.  Her eyes didn’t miss a detail.  Her ears didn’t miss the squeak of the chair, or how Jen seemed more bothered by that squeak in particular.

She could have pressed, applied even more pressure, and it would have worked.  But if she’d pressed, she might have screamed, or shouted, or said something regrettable.  She didn’t trust herself.

Silence is damning.  Silence can tell just as much.

Long seconds passed, and then twenty year old Jen leaned forward, elbows on knees, head bowed.

That was it.  The moment every interrogation was aiming for.  The defeat, almost always the same decline of the head and slump forward, if she looked for it.

“He’s not an angel or anything, just because he’s disabled,” Jen said.  “He-”

Nic left the room, gathering up the things.  Because she didn’t trust herself, in small part.  She kicked the stop and let the door start to swing closed.  Let Jen think that her words wouldn’t matter.

A minute and a half passed.  Long enough for Jen to consider how fucked she was.  Not long enough for her to work out any answers.  Doug re-entered.

“The good cop returns,” Jen could be heard, and there was a bitterness in her voice.

“Detective, not cop,” Doug said, and there was no warmth in his voice.  He could sound like a real bastard when he wanted to.

We’re all good cops, anyway, Nic thought to herself.

Why?” Doug asked.  “Why do this?”

In the twenty-year-old monster’s defeat, her earlier composure and certainty about her way forward were shaken.  She didn’t second-guess things or think about what she’d learned in law class.

“I didn’t tell him to do anything he wasn’t already thinking about doing.  He doesn’t have that long to live, anyway.  He comes to me, saying he’s miserable, he’s sore, he’s sick of the medication, he wants to end it all, and I’m supposed to say no?  Fuck me, if he was a dog and he was that bad off then we would have put him down a long time ago.”

He’s not a dog, he’s a kid.

Doug didn’t say anything.  Nic, standing in the hallway, near the door, was silent, teeth clenched.

A monster had told a little boy to kill himself, and he’d tried.  Now he was in more pain than ever.  And for all that the classes and the workshops on powers and crisis points hammered in all of the things to look out for, it never came.  Killers and thugs and abusers, victims and victimizers.  Hundreds like Owen.  Maybe even hundreds a year.

No magic answers or anything like that.  Just… concrete rooms and human psychology.  Looks of defeat that were nowhere near enough.

Restless, angry, Nic paced down the hall.  Her boss was there, and he raised his eyebrows.

In answer, she gave him a nod.  It had worked.

At her locker, she helped herself to a drink, and she leaned her forehead against the top shelf of the locker where some loose evidence baggies still rested.  The drink burned in her mouth and throat, and frustrated thoughts burned in her head.

It was nine.  Late enough that dinner was almost certainly out of the question.  Not so late that failing to call and see if dinner was in order would be allowed.

She had a message.  She put in the three-digit code, and held phone to ear.  Was Lee mad?

“Mommee!  I had my bath and we had waffles with chocolate chips and strawberries for dessert!  Love you miss you going to bed now!  Daddy’s going to read me a book!”

Lee could be heard in the background.  “Bye!”

“Bye!” Ever said, loud enough that Nic winced.  The wince became a smile.  Still loud, Ever ordered her, “Get all the bad guys!”

All the bad guys.

The message ended.  Nic didn’t lower the phone, even as the automated voice outlined the options available for how the message could be replayed, saved, or deleted.

There was no beating the bad guys.  There was no defeating them.  A monster had encouraged a little boy to kill himself and he’d tried.  Now he hurt more than ever.  What was she supposed to do in the face of that?

Earlier in the evening

Love Lost was still, her jaw clenched, as she faced Cradle.  Cradle was distracted, barely aware of her as he sorted through her traps.

Her eyes dropped to the table.  These traps would trigger on proximity, arm, and then produce a wavelength that arced between them, forming a carpet around an area.  The effect utilized some of her emotion power.  Agitation, impulse.

“You’re getting good use out of the tinker power,” Cradle observed.

She nodded.

“The claw-lash?”

She shook her head.  The lash part worked, though the left one was being temperamental.  But the power that was supposed to channel through that-

She’d hesitated, procrastinated.  Traps instead.  The swapping rig for her arm.

“Another night then,” he said.

She didn’t respond.  Instead, she focused on getting her things together.

He rolled his shoulders, mechanical hands going to gingerly touch each before he reached out to the window of her workshop.  As he touched it, the window became a screen, just as clear and distinct as any computer.  He dragged metal fingertip against glass, moving the windows on the screen.

March’s schedule and timing.

There were windows with notes on surveillance, with added details from the mercenaries they’d turned to their side, the outreach to those mercenaries timed to coincide with Tattletale’s downtime.  Time she wasn’t as active with her power.

It made sense.  Everyone had a routine, even erratic types like Tattletale.  She lived on information and she got most of that information in the early morning and late afternoon.  After a crisis arose, a new enemy or headache, she was slower to move and recover.

Which meant paying attention.  It meant exerting pressure.

A lot of things had changed over the years, but those things were constant.  Any threat could be defeated with a combination of the two.  If the stories she’d heard were right, the man who’d ended the world had been defeated that way.

“No complaints?” Cradle asked.

She had some, but in her self-imposed silence, words had to be chosen carefully, and she couldn’t bring herself to utter the complaint.  To say yes, that she had an issue.

The plan was sound.  They had multiple thinkers on their side.  Their enemy was weak.

Her claw-tips touched the window, and when she pulled them away, a copy of the window came with them, projected into the air.  Not as dense or clear an image, but it was fine to see.

She dragged claws through air and the claws transmitted tactile feedback, a slight drag, a digital buzz.  She rotated through to other pages.

To Precipice.  To artist renditions of the face of the boy they’d seen in the cells.  He would die soon.  Seir, in secure custody because of his teleporter power, they would get him and he would die.

…Christine and Elijah Mathers.  She paused, looking at the faces.

“Soon,” Cradle said.  “Once we’re secured here.”

A swipe of the claw shredded the digital window.  In the doing, she briefly shifted from the notes for their long-term plans to the plans already enacted.  She saw the Navigators.  She looked away.

Had to be done.  If anything, they could’ve, should’ve done more.  They hadn’t expected Advance Guard to be as capable as they were.  The Shepherds had rebuffed the initial attack.

“I should go.  She has notes on the times I should leave by, to get where I need to be.  Good luck in your fights,” Cradle told her.

She gave him a single nod.

“Can I grab one?” he asked, indicating the agitation traps.

She held up two fingers.

“Two.  They’re a pair.”

She nodded.  At least.

“Thank you.  If I don’t talk to you before then, I’ll see you in the room,” he said.

She nodded, not looking at him or the screens anymore.  The tinkering- she had time to make some last-minute adjustments.  Clawed hands rested on the table as she leaned over her work.

Cradle stepped downstairs.  She could hear him giving orders to his mercenaries.  Easier people to handle, in some ways.  Tougher in others.

When alone, she removed her mask from her lower face.

Teeth grit together with a sound that someone standing next to her would have heard.  The smallest of sounds at her throat and mouth were deafening to her.

When she couldn’t express herself, it was easier.  Mask off, even the smallest thing felt like a crack in ice, an essential part of a water-retaining dam falling loose.

A fine screwdriver and a micromagnet adjusted the internal mechanisms of the mask.

A creak of her breath sounded like a whimper.

A slip of the screwdriver made it strike hard against the internal surface of the mask, metal against kevlar fiber.  She was put in mind of the tables and chairs in the mall, all folded up, strapped together, and leaned against the wall.

She saw, as clear as day, Ever’s face striking the edge of the table.  Clawed fingers dug into her work table, dragging inch-long divots.  The memory came with pain, as sure as if she’d been stabbed- not through the heart, but the base of the throat, the point where the windpipe branched to transmit air to each lung.  It choked her.

She hurt enough in the moment that she felt like she could die.  There was only regret, and that regret killed her a little more every time she faced it.   She leaned forward, forearms resting against the worktable, clawed fingers pointing in, touching flesh.

Clawed hands stretched out, fingers splayed out as far as they could go.

A set hand motion, like a gesture of a magician in one of Ever’s books.  Except they weren’t called magicians.  She’d tried to read the books since, but- it hurt too much.

Middle and ring finger extended, a sweeping, circular motion, sharp, fierce, focused.

Then her hand moved, claws turned away.  She moved gently, back of her hand reaching out-

Tactile feedback.  Hair.  Skin.

She- stupid to do this when her mask was off.  Sounds escaped her throat, touched by her power.  She usually had rules about when she allowed herself this- this illusion.

Phantom hands touched her arm, near where the rigging ran along the length of it.  They squeezed it.

The wizards and whatevers in your stories made hard choices, right?  They worked with monsters for something more important.  To vanquish greater evils.  To save worlds.

A motion of her hand dismissed the apparition.

Channel injector, wave adjuster, screwdriver.  She picked up what she needed.

She adjusted the components of the mask, then put it on.  It wasn’t anything as complex as a new setting- only ensuring that everything kept working when she made it more comfortable to wear.  New components made for a tight fit, and it was already sufficiently tight enough that she couldn’t open her mouth a fraction, her voice silenced.

The air filtered through the mask, and more feedback beamed into her eye indicated that the air quality was good.  In a pinch she’d have the ability to breathe for at least two minutes before the filters gave out.  She made sure to bring more, slipping them into her belt.

But the new components- she adjusted the dial at the side, claw-tips finding niche grooves, rotating.  In her reflection she saw the mask’s external change.  Roar, snarl, mouth clamped shut, teeth meshed.  With each one, she felt out with her emotion power- felt the people downstairs.

Anger and hostility?  Not much, all considered, but it was crystal clear in her mind’s eye where it existed.  Tension?  More than a little, and very clear, like a thrum of a guitar string.  Overall?  The setting with teeth meshed was more focused on range than a specific flavor of emotion.  It worked just fine.

The sub-settings to focus that range in a cone or a line in front of her, with corresponding increases of range as she widened her blind spot were all operational.

It would do.

Carefully, given the machinery around her arms and hands, she wiped away moisture from her eye.  She choked back the emotion that settled at the branch in her windpipe.  She stood straighter.  The sensation of the apparition clung to her, warmed her.

Everything in order.

She made her way down the stairs, claws clicking on the wood.

“It’s not your circus, it’s not your monkeys.”

Sidepiece’s voice.

“It’s kind of my monkeys.”  Colt.  “I’m here, right?  I’m a part of this.”

“Nah.  Because you can leave.”

“No.  Not really.”

“Yes really, you loser.  Don’t let someone else’s shit become your shit.  They gotta do what they gotta do.  You gotta do what you gotta do.  I’ve gotta do what I’ve gotta do.”

“Aren’t you- you’re helping though.”

“I’m doing what I gotta do.  And what I gotta do is Disjoint, every morning and every night if I can help it, I gotta make money, I gotta keep my ghoulish figure, and I gotta work for the coolest, fiercest gal this side of the end of the world.  That’s me.  What’s you?”

“I don’t know what I am.  I’m staying away from home, being independent.”

“Nah, bullcock-and-shit.  You’re not independent.  You’re the furthest thing from independent.  And staying away from home isn’t what you are, my big-haired loser friend.  Staying away from home is what you aren’t.”

Silence.

Silence was ever damning, whether it was damning others or damning oneself.

“Anyone with powers has horrible shit they’re wrestling with, unless they’re one of the lucky ones who got the good powers for being math superstars or going to mars or some bullcock-and-shit like that, you get me?  And we deal with it.  If we’re really fucking lucky, then we’re like Disjoint and me, and we find someone really boneable who also helps us through our horrible shit.  Or we’re pretty and classy as fuck and we get a bunch of underlings willing to help us, like our boss.  But mostly we deal with our own horrible shit ourselves.”

“What if you can’t?”

“Then we don’t.  Most don’t.”

“What if… a bit more help makes the difference?”

“What if it doesn’t?  Then whoever tried to give that help gets fucked over and things stay bad.”

“But…”

“But,” Sidepiece said, and the word was a condemnation.  “Come on.  Fuck off.”

“But- sometimes when you’re dealing with your shit and you’re dealing with it alone, you lose…”

Colt’s voice faltered.

“Perspective?” Disjoint offered.

“What if you need someone outside of it to point you in the right direction?  A second opinion?”

“If you think you are in a position to give second opinions or directions to someone as badass as Love Lost, then I have a totally harmless bit of uterus to sell you, uterine lining included.  Harmless!”

“Please put that away.”

At the base of the stairs, Nailbiter passed by, glanced up, and saw Love Lost.

Nailbiter was…

Love Lost floundered in her efforts to put a description to the woman.  Scary, yes.  Dangerous, yes.  She wanted to say Nailbiter was good even though she didn’t know why, but she knew that was a lie.  Enough of a lie that amending the statement to ‘good at her role’ felt false, because it had ‘good’ in it.  Reliable?  Too minor.

Important.  Nailbiter was important, because Nailbiter was a reminder of what Love Lost had to be careful of.  The line between villainy for a reason and degeneracy was a fine one.  Nailbiter was effective, strong, focused,  and Nailbiter was degenerate.  It was important to keep in mind that a series of the wrong decisions or mistakes could put her where Nailbiter stood now.  The reasons lost.

It was easier every day.  Love Lost didn’t enjoy this war, and the damage she did or condoned along the way was wearing on her soul.  Lately it felt worse.  Like there was less of her intact.

They were all important, really.  She had spent so long working on the side of the law, and these people who worked under her now were exemplars of the different types of people she had fought to put away.  She understood them.  She could see everything that made them who they were.  The fact that they could love.  That they had priorities and dreams.  That they enjoyed certain foods or searched the internet to keep tabs on family they no longer spoke to.

With that in mind, when she’d done what she needed to, she would ensure they were killed or gone.

And Colt, stupid, immature, quick-to-anger Colt… who was absolutely nothing like Ever, and was perhaps the only younger person Love Lost could tolerate in her company and in that role for that very reason?  A girl Love Lost couldn’t decide was adult or child?

“Really, please, put that away!” Colt said.  “Please!  Uncle!”

“You’re dripping on the couch!” Disjoint shouted.

“Oh fuck!”  Sidepiece shouted, louder.

She really didn’t want to kill Colt as she killed the others.

Something in that look was communicated to Nailbiter, who remained at the base of the stairs.

Nailbiter, who understood her because they were very similar people at different points in their journeys, gave her the slightest nod.

Seven Years Ago

Nic tapped her shot glass against the counter.

“Keys,” Shelly the barkeep said.  A tattooed woman with a streak of gray hair despite the fact that she looked thirty at the oldest.

“Don’t infantilize me,” Nic said.

“Keys, Nicole.  If you want your refill.”

She took out her keys, slapping them onto the counter.  A carabiner separated her car keys from the rest.

“Making my job easier, huh?” Shelly asked, disconnecting the carabiner.  She put the car key beneath the bar counter, before returning the house and locker keys.

“I try,” Nic said, arms folded on the counter, chin resting on her arms.  She watched the drink get poured out.

“I’m going to call you a cab in a minute.  Let’s get you home to that gorgeous husband and that little girl you’re so proud of.”

“She’s asleep already.  She’s usually asleep by the time I get home.  I feel guilty when I wake her and I feel guilty when I don’t.”

“If it’s an unwinnable situation, don’t get down on yourself for losing.”

“You’ve said that before,” Nic said, before deciding she’d stared enough at the contents of the shot glass.  She imbibed.  Shelly was giving her the cheaper liquor now that it was later in the evening.

“You guys deal with a lot of lose-lose situations, hon.  But if you don’t mind my saying so, I don’t think this is a win.”

“I don’t want to bring it home to her,” Nic said.  “The anger, the ugliness.”

“This doesn’t fix that.”

“You know what haunts me?” Nic asked.  Her voice was a whisper.  Her chin continued to rest on her arms, which were folded on the bar.  “It’s not the rapists.  It’s not the human traffickers or the look in the eyes of the victims.  That gets to me, but it doesn’t haunt.  I can move forward.”

Shelly leaned closer to hear, because the words were quiet and the people at the far end of the bar were loud.

“Four times, I’ve cried in front of her.  Ugly cries.  Sober.  I… hold it together all day and then the moment she toddles over to me and gives me a hug, I think about how I don’t want her to deal with anything remotely close to any of the stuff I see, and I break.  Three times I cried so hard I scared her.”

“You said four and then three.”

Nic looked up at Shelly, blinking tears out of her eyes, then blinking fiercer.  She whispered, “The fourth time she was used to it.

Shelly handed her a napkin, and Nic dabbed at her eyes.  She saw the approach of the boys, Doug and Maz, and put the napkin away.

“You can always quit, or change to something else.”

Woah!” Maz cut in.  “Woah, Shelly.  Those are fighting words!  You can’t tend the bar the precinct goes to, then sneak around our backs and try to scare away one of our best!”

Shelly held her hands up in surrender, but she gave Nic a look.

“Our best,” Doug said.  “Not one of our best.  Not one of the boys, she’s our boy!

“When you’re drunk you get sloppy sentimental, Dougie,” Nic said.

“You’re worth it.  You get ’em all.  You- you get ’em.”

“I don’t get ’em all,” Nic replied.  “I wish I got ’em all.”

“I mean you get how they tick.  What they want.  The tells.  That thing earlier tonight, you brought the evidence bag in with the medicine bottle?”

Nic bobbed her head in a nod.  The world wobbled up and down in a mostly pleasant way.

“You knew she’d done something to his meds.”

“Seemed like the type.”

“Shel, give our Nic another shot?  A celebratory one.”

“I just gave her her last.  I’m calling a cab to send her home.”

“One more.  One more, come on!”

Shelly paused, then looked at Nic.  Nic nodded.

“I’m calling the cab.  Just in case that little redheaded girl is lying awake at night, worried her mom’s hurt.”

“Too young to know it’s a thing to worry about,” Nic muttered.  “Small mercies.”

“Perk up, Nic,” Doug said.  “At the risk of overinflating your ego, I have to remind you that today was a damn good day.  I will use the time it takes the taxi to arrive to extol your virtues.”

Nic shook her head.  “Don’t.”

“If you’re thinking about quitting, then I think it’s my obligation,” Doug said, barely getting ‘obligation’ out.

Nic felt the warmth of the bar, heard the noises, loud and muttered, the war stories, the camaraderie, the boasting and jostling, her partner’s good cheer.  She could smell the cigarette smoke that wafted in whenever the door to the kitchen or the front door of the bar opened.  The smell of the alcohol.

And, as shitty as the bad got, she could feel good about the successes.  About being appreciated.  Doug’s praise felt genuine.  It was a hell of a thing, to get to the point where people would sing someone’s praises and others wouldn’t immediately cut them down.  Especially, she admitted, as a woman.

It felt good.

“I’m not quitting,” she said, absorbing it all.  “No quit, don’t worry.”

Time was lubricated enough that the cab’s arrival surprised her with how early it seemed.  The trip home equally lubricated, massaged by the hum of the cab’s engine, the whir of heaters and the feel of wheel on pavement.

Home.  The cab waited- Shelly had given them instructions, maybe, or they knew the routine.  It was usually one or the other.  She reached the front door and put key to lock, letting herself in.  Only a few of the lights were on, giving her a dim path to bathroom and bedroom.

Bathroom first, because she had to go enough that the resulting stream threatened to penetrate the material of the toilet bowl.  She washed her face and cleaned up.

Then she looked in on Ever.  An angel in sleep, arm in a lethal sleeper hold around a unicorn’s neck.

Then bed.  She kicked and shrugged off her clothes.  Lee watched her at first, then looked away.  She slithered under the covers, finding the space beneath warmed by Lee’s presence, but as she drew near to him, he pulled away, turned his back to her.  Cold air found its way into the gap between them.

Her hand pushed the blankets down into the gap.  The good feelings from earlier in the night had evaporated.

Lose-lose.

The silence lingered in the bedroom, damning.

Earlier

Silence and a void so empty that even distant starlight barely touched it.  Fragments and facets had only themselves to reveal.

Love Lost’s mask communicated the intensity of emotion to her before her own senses recovered.  The black-haired boy, Romeo.  He was fast and he was intense, eyes wide as he lunged in.

Her claws intercepted the blade, and it slid between the two claws, which redirected the thrust to a point over her shoulder.

She was barely aware of things as she came back from that darkness- that space that was escaping her memory, but she’d been in enough dangerous situations, enough fights.  Instinct prevailed.  He tried to pull the blade away, and a shift of her hand trapped the blade between two edges.  She kicked, the claws on her foot raking for his midsection, and he drew back.

He’d recovered his balance, not just in the physical sense, and when he came at her again, it was with his power roaring.  She felt it wash over her, and it was so familiar as to be ordinary.  Pain and rage, struggling within her, trying to find an angle to push or twist at her to drive her forward.

She retaliated, swiping with claw, throwing the sword he’d let go of aside, then kicking, first with one claw, then the other, a figure skater on ice.  She turned, using the length of her body to hide the claw-lash as she extended it to its length, whipping it-

He kicked the end of it, intercepting.

So capable, and he was just thirteen years old.  She’d had to draw the line somewhere, about what was acceptable.  She’d settled on Ever’s age, at the time Ever had passed.  Too many parahumans were young, and both Breakthrough and the Undersiders were willing to employ the young.

Swansong used her power, launching herself into the air.  Arms were spread, one leg half-bent, and residual wisps of her power traced from her fingers.

Disjoint caught her, hauling on one arm, so feet were no longer beneath her.  Swansong had to fire another blast to reorient herself, rather than to go on the offensive.  Her landing was still hard.

Love Lost lashed out, whipping for Swansong.  She saw a shift in expression, a tell, and immediately changed course.  The whip cracked twice in quick succession, and the defensive blast that Swansong fired didn’t reach the length of the weapon.

The gun went off.

Imp collapsed, off to the side.

Colt.  Stupid girl.  What was she doing?

“Imp!” the littlest girl present screamed.  She wheeled on Colt.  “I’ll end you!”

Colt turned the gun on the girl.

Love Lost lashed out, cracking the blade.  Colt flinched, no longer aiming at the littlest girl.

“Fuck.  Fuck!” Imp gasped.  “Oh no.”

Swansong lunged, power flaring.  Others were closing in-

And Colt erupted into a nimbus of light.

It was weird, perhaps, that Love Lost had so often ruminated on the power seminars that she had been given back at the station, in a past lifetime, in another world.  She’d hoped, ironically, that the victims she worked for would get powers, that they would just this one time be able to fight back.

It had been a frustration that every lesson and tutorial she’d been given had been for nothing, and a part of her had been waiting for eight or nine years for it to be relevant.

Somehow her getting her own powers hadn’t counted.  The thought had never connected, because it was her, and she’d been expecting someone else.

Now… now it was Colt.

Colt pushed out with a power, and Love Lost felt her thoughts scatter.  She reached up to her mask, adjusting the dial, and changed the focus for all emotions she was absorbing and reading.

That dampened the effect.

With her lash, she struck Swansong down, while Swansong reeled.  The cut went through Swansong’s arm, exposing wires.

Colt was a parahuman.  That wasn’t- it shouldn’t be.  The idea scared her, because it took everything that made Colt important and utterly destroyed it.

Love Lost snarled behind her mask, angry, inarticulately upset.  Nailbiter had tried to reach out to the girl and convince her, and it hadn’t worked.  Love Lost had hoped Colt would either prove herself to be a child or be adult enough to make a decision and Colt had done neither.  Naibiter had given the girl an upper, something to keep her from backing down at the wrong moment and opening their flanks to an attack.

Colt’s power continued to blanket the battlefield, creating more openings.  Love Lost struck out at Romeo, who ducked the claw-lash’s tip as it cracked.

Colt rose into the air, flying, and her hands turned into blades, edged in dark smoke.

As Colt rose, Love Lost’s heart sank.

She would deal with that later.  Gritting her teeth, she turned her focus to the ongoing fight.

Imp was a problem.  Whether this was a feint or not-

Love Lost reached up to her mask, releasing the catch.  As the mask fell away, she drew in a breath.

She felt the phantom presence of Ever.  The touch, the sentiments that were so predominantly regret.  She felt the anger, the echo of Precipice’s laughter in the seconds after Ever had died rang in her ears, and that anger twisted.  If it were a muscle in one second it was black cancer through and through in the next.

The pain, she felt it, physical.  Choking her, like screaming would be impossible.  She always felt that part – the rest could be there one time and not the next, but the pain and that near-certainty that she couldn’t breathe, let alone scream?

All of it bundled up with fleeting memories.  The breath that went into promises made that weren’t kept.  That whispered hopes and fears to a newborn who would never grow up.  The choked sobs out in a wild crying fit that had scared Lee and Ever both, coming out of nowhere.

She put all of it into a singular scream that she aimed at herself, in more than one way.  Screams were usually at or to someone, but in this, she screamed at her own feet, hunching over, and the effect rippled out in every direction.

Love Lost could see that Romeo had a bullet wound from earlier, and he stopped favoring it as he retaliated.  Less affected than most, but it helped that anger and resentment naturally ran through him.

Swansong lunged, as did Imp, who hadn’t been feinting.  If Love Lost could have gathered up blood into two hands cupped together, then that was the amount Imp shed to the snowy road with every running footstep.

Even the children, both the smallest and Lookout, joined in the charge.

Her mask was set to read anger.  She could see them coming, and it was a question of timing the whip cracks.  One to Swansong’s leg, another to Imp’s ribs.

She caught Lookout and thrust her into the littlest one’s way, backing up.

Colt’s power put most of the group down for the count.  Swansong was injured and Romeo and Imp were now feeble from blood loss.  It left only Lookout, and Nailbiter had roused enough to go after her, grabbing her and locking her in place.

That didn’t mean things were completely dealt with.  The little girl with the pixie cut was quick.  She ducked around, then charged, a wicked grin on her face.

Disjoint grabbed her leg, and she tripped, falling hard.  She was on her feet shortly after, charged, and was tripped again.

It took two more attempts before the kid struggled to stand, an ankle twisted.  Love Lost put the claw-lash around the girl’s neck with care, watched the girl put hands in fingerless gloves up to the lash, and shy away when touching the sharp edges.

Love Lost drew a trap from her belt, switched it on, and tapped it hard against her leg to activate it.  As it went off, crackling with red lightning, she touched it to the lash, letting the energy conduct down to the girl.

Down and out.

Love Lost looked over the remainder.  Unconscious, severe bleeding, severe bleeding, disabled, spasming, pinned…

Her eye settled on Colt last.

What a profound fucking loss that was.  She’d hoped Colt would run or get away from all of this.  Now…

“Should I call Cradle?” Nailbiter asked.

Love Lost nodded.

Colt dropped out of the ethereal form, falling the last two feet to the ground.  Her eyes were wide, and there was a look on her face somewhere between horror and amazement.

“I have so many powers.  Blades, flight, the burst that stops people in their tracks… I think I can build things.  Studs, for my arms?”

At that, Love Lost realized what Colt meant.  Her instinctive response, inexplicable, was that she wanted to kill Colt.  To respond to this horror and alarm by eliminating the source of it.

But it was horror because she didn’t want this for Colt.  Horror because she wanted to tie up loose ends, to end this.  She was doing this for a reason, and Colt utterly defied that reason.

In the moment, she found herself hating the girl.

“Boss,” Nailbiter said.

Love Lost turned.

“He wants you to bring them to him.  He wants to sever them.”

Love Lost looked over the enemy group.  Swansong stared back, angry.  In a start, she used her power, firing from one hand-

Colt used her power.  A burst of emotion.  Swansong landed hard.  Love Lost bent down to put claws against the young woman’s throat.

Love Lost nodded.

“All of them,” Nailbiter said.  “Kids included.  If it’s just the older ones, he thinks they’ll be brave or willing to take risks.”

Love Lost stared at the youngest ones.  Why was it so much harder to reach for that part of herself that felt anything but pain when thinking of Everly?

Pain, anger, frustration.

All more intense, seeing Colt throw herself headlong into this existence.

She undid the clasp on her mask.  It was just her and Nailbiter.  If she made any sounds or revealed any emotion in front of Nailbiter, she sensed it would be okay, somehow.

Her voice had a creak to it, from disuse.  “Do you think one bad experience would scare them away from this life?”

Nailbiter looked down at the one with the pixie cut, who was twitching and kicking.

“No.  It’s not likely.”

Love Lost reached for something, any shred of empathy.  Anything that would let her relate them to Ever, as she might have done before.

All there was, was a rule she’d made when she had some warmth left in her.

Her voice creaked, and the words hurt.  The creaks and unevenness of her voice mirroed the emotion that threatened to pour out.  “There’s nothing good waiting for them if they live this life.  We’ll reverse it when everything’s done.”

“There’ll never be a day when we’re done,” Nailbiter said.

Love Lost shook her head.

There had to be.  She would expose and then deal with the worst capes, everyone who was willing to break the rules.  She would kill them, starting from the worst offenders, the Fallen, moving on to Teacher, to the people who would have worked for Beast of Burden.

She would take them all down in a blaze of glory, if she had to.  She had plans in mind.

She did up the mask, sealing her mouth shut.  Her breath filtered through, cleaner and easier than if she were breathing through nose and mouth.

With claws, she gestured, her intent pushed into the movements of her hands, trusting that the people who followed her knew what she meant, because they’d had to learn to.

Pick them upLet’s go.

The dream came like a bad trip.

A day so sunny it was delirious.  Ever and two of her cousins were in the backyard.

The topic of Lee was carefully avoided as she listened to Lee’s sisters talk.  She kept one eye on Ever and one eye on making sure refreshments were served.

“Do you have a lighter, Nicole?” Ever’s Aunt Didi asked.  “I’m going to cheat and grab a smoke.”

“I’d have to search,” Nic said.  “It’s been a long time since I smoked.”

Ever was watching more than playing.

“Matches, perhaps?”

“I do have a lighter, now that I think about it, it’s for the barbecue.”

“That works,” Aunt Didi said.

“Keep an eye on the kids?”

“Of course,” Aunt Didi said.

Nic had to rummage around the barbecue and the associated drawers before she found the lighter.  It had a band of stars around it for remembrance of those lost to Endbringer attacks.  She hadn’t bought it for that reason, it had just been on sale.

She was in the midst of handing it over when she looked for Ever and saw that her daughter was gone.

“Where’s my daughter?”

“She’s somewhere over there,” Aunt Didi motioned to the far end of the backyard.  Ever’s two cousins splashed in the pool.  “She’s fine.”

The backyard was long, and the trees that were scattered on the one end were dense on the other.  Her heart pounded as she ran, and with the pounding was a distant rattle, that seemed to grow ever closer.  With the shouting of the kids in the pool was an echo, overlapping cries of a crowd.

The pounding in her chest grew worse when she found her daughter, paradoxically.

Ever was crying.  It was the ugly kind of crying that Nic remained ashamed she had allowed her daughter to see, no defenses, just weeping, snot dribbling, tears appearing faster than hands could clear away.

Nic felt her heart break as she rushed to her daughter’s side.

“What happened?  Did your cousins say something?”

Only a head shake.  Ever’s first attempts at speaking only produced sobs.  Nic tried to hug her daughter, only to get pushed away, to have her daughter turn her back.

“Please tell me.  Please.”

More sobs.

“Ever,” Nic’s voice shook.

“Dad.  I want dad,” the words were wailed.  Further attempts at touch were rebuffed.  “I need dad!”

Lee.

Something she couldn’t give her daughter.  Lee wasn’t coming back.  And Ever had retreated to a place to hide so she could cry, rather than go to her mother.

She tried to draw Ever into a hug, and Ever fought her.  Sobs and shouts and fighting overlapped with accusations, blubbered, inarticulate.

“-cause of you-”

“-if you’d-”

Each accusation was like a stab of a knife.

She forced the hug, and in that moment, Ever stopped fighting and hugged her back, fierce.  The accusations stopped.  With legs and arms both, Ever clutched her like she would never let go.  And the noises and bangs of children playing became deafening.  The press of trees and branches all around them became people, hands.

Nic fought to keep her daughter close, pulling her tighter into a nook between folding tables and chairs.  People scraped by, pressed in so tight that jeans scraped the backs of her knuckles.

Ever cried out as tables nearby slid closer to the ground.

“I love you,” she said, and the din stole the words out of the air, so she couldn’t be sure Ever heard.

Then- a break in the noise of the crowd and the banging.  A second where people didn’t press in so close that it hurt.

A chance to draw Ever further into the nook, her back to the folded tables.

To say something.

But- what could she even say?  She’d said sorry before.  So many times.  She’d told her daughter she loved her more times than she could count.  She’d uttered words in anger and words in despair.  She’d made a thousand promises that she would do better or be a better mother, but she knew that she’d made those promises and broken them.  She’d made promises in dreams, and she would never ever get a chance to keep them.

“Goodbye,” she said.  Lucid words, while looking her daughter in the eyes.  “I’m going to do my best to make sure no monster ever does something like this again.”

The press of bodies collapsed nearby furniture, people climbed over them.  For once, she dreamed of her daughter, and she held her daughter in her arms until the last, instead of having her torn away.  Instead of that dreadful, sanity-shattering, life-ending impact.

Then- then she wasn’t herself.

Not past self, not present self.  Not anymore.

She was the Fallen boy.  In a parking lot.  She watched as the mall employee ran.  As Seir the horse-headed used a power of lightning and darkness to leap onto the girl, and hurl her to the ground.  The Fallen boy had his mask off and in one hand, his face etched in anger, in twisted emotions.

This isn’t the way things go.

“Don’t fucking second guess me.  You know how this goes if you fail us.  Soldier or slut, and as shitty as a soldier you’d be, you’d make for one depressing slut.”

The Fallen boy looked away.

“What?  You want to fight?  You want to say something?”

The Fallen boy turned his head.  As he did, a thin woman in white appeared beside him.

Christine Mathers.

“No,” the boy said.

Seir shoved the employee inside, but grabbed her hair, hauling back.  The girl shrieked in pain as she was yanked backward, shrieked more as the door was shut on the hair, trapping it.

She wasn’t on the ground as she had been before.  But the essential elements remained the same.

Seir produced the chain, and he bound the door shut.  The lock was placed through chain to secure it, but as always, it wasn’t actually locked.

The option was given.

“If you open that door, you’ll never be a soldier.”

“I’m not going to open it,” the boy said, stubborn.

As monstrous as Seir, just underdeveloped.  Content to talk about murder and righteousness while a girl fumbled under the blanket they shared.

Capable of laughing as people died.

Seir left.  The boy remained.

Then the explosions.  The fires.  The attack.

Love Lost could remember how scared Ever had been.  She could remember seeing Ever’s friends, seeing them run from her as she’d tried to corral them and manage them as a group.  They’d been intimidated of her.

Perhaps for the best.

There was a pause, then fists pounding on the door.  The screams, the shouts.

She could count it, almost.  More than a minute passed, but she knew, right down to the fraction of a second.  She would hear the noise as the tables fell, the distant thud, her own scream as her daughter died.

Every night.

The lock was pulled free.  Chain rattled as it was unwound.  It was cast aside, and the doors opened wide.

Then he watched as people tried to exit the hallway at the mall’s side door.  But there were too many bodies.  The people pressed in together and wedged themselves into the door.  In all trying to get out at once, nobody got out.  He reached forward, trying to grab someone- but it was futile.  A hand grabbed him.  A suffocating man on the ground had him by the pants.  Reached up, toward the mask that was held in one hand, still.

Why?

Then the last dream.  Cradle, moving through scenes, trying to keep ahold of his glasses.  Cornered in the schoolyard, faced by four girls a year younger than him.  They shouted and their words were only the rattle of chain, the pounding on a metal door, and the blare of a fire alarm.

They shoved him, he bounced off of a car, and he lost his glasses.  The car wailed, its alarm going off.

The wail became his mother’s wail.  He was in his home, standing at the door to his bedroom while his parents shouted and screamed at one another.  One held up a paper, a list of numbers and letters running down the center column.  Cradle, standing around the corner, flinched at the words, gibberish though they were.

He adjusted his glasses, and when he fixed them, he stood in the mall.

He watched as the first Fallen appeared.  Men and women in disguises that barely served.  Tattoos barely covered.  They looked Fallen, whatever else.  Subhuman, gleeful at what was about to happen.

Cradle turned, and he walked away, stepping into the pharmacy, and cutting a path for the door.  As he did, he nudged a store employee, and his voice was a thousand creaks of metal hinges.

While the store employee ran, he opened the door, to the sound of a single door’s metal hinges creaking, that same sound that had just been made a thousand times.

Then there was only silence.

Now

Phantom sensations of Ever slipped under and around Love Lost’s hand.  Just as when she used the device to simulate the tactile.

But it was, as always, a doll’s head.  A bit of curtain with attached rod, intended somehow for a window, though the space they occupied had none.

She swallowed hard as she found her way to her feet.  The pain was fresh, but in the moment it was dulled by confusion.

What had linked those three deviations from the norm?

What- no.  Not what, exactly.  Who.

She turned to look.  The black fifth cell remained black, no light entering or leaving it.  Cradle occupied the space to her left.

Across from her was the Fallen boy, who wore the demon mask.  Always wore it.  He didn’t seem to realize, a lot of the time.

She felt disgust well up.  Anger, because that scene-

-hadn’t made sense.

Silent, the Fallen boy pointed.

Love Lost turned.

Within her cell, Colt stood by the nursery bookshelf, looking spooked.

Love Lost beckoned.

Unsteady, Colt picked her way along uneven floor, over toys and a fallen changing table.  Toward the dais.

Two of them, one cell.

“What the hell?” the Fallen boy asked.

In reflex, her hand twitched.  Ready to punch the barrier, to do something to silence him.  The sound of his voice bothered her as much as anything she’d experienced, and she’d talked to a nurse who had been proud to spread hepatitis among her patients, who had been smug about it.

“What is this?” Colt asked.

Love Lost put a hand on Colt’s shoulder.  She didn’t trust herself to talk, so she relied on the gesture.

“You brought someone,” Cradle said.

People with powers can have kids with powers.  She counts?

The cells are inflicting a bad joke on me.  Taunting me with the loss of my daughter by giving me the last one I’d ever want.

“What was that dream?” the Fallen boy asked.  “Did you guys-”

“Shut up,” Cradle cut him off.

“I saw it,” Colt said.  “I felt it.  What is this?”

“It happens every night, but tonight was different,” the Fallen boy said.

“It happens every night?” Colt asked.

“Yeah,” the Fallen boy said.  “This happens.  This room.”

Love Lost’s grip on Colt’s shoulder grew tighter.

Colt pulled free, shrugging it off.

“How was it different?”

“It was everyone,” Cradle said.  “What you saw was- not the way things happened.”

“I hope not,” Colt said.  “What happened in those first two dreams was pretty awful.”

Cradle shook his head.  “All three.  But what happened in the originals was worse.  And it’s been that worse, accurate version every night for the last year and three months.”

Colt hugged her arms to her body.

“I think it was your dream,” the Fallen boy said.  “Somehow.”

Colt shrugged.  “I dunno.”

“It was what we wanted,” Cradle said, looking at Love Lost.

“I know I didn’t want people to get trapped like that-”

“The new girl being here means someone might actually believe you when you say that,” Cradle retorted.

“Fuck you,” the Fallen boy said.

“Christine Mathers,” Love Lost whispered.

Colt looked between her and the rest of the room, then echoed her, louder.  “Christine Mathers?”

“Mama Mathers,” the Fallen boy said.

Love Lost saw the look on Cradle’s face change.  They’d been plotting to deal with the greater group of the Fallen for enough weeks now that it was a familiar subject.

“She watched everything I did.  If I’d gone against the group, I would have been castrated,” the Fallen boy said.  “I would have been driven insane.  She can do that.”

“That’s scary,” Colt said.

Love Lost turned away.  Sympathy for the devil.

“It doesn’t excuse anything,” the Fallen boy said.  “I was stupid, I could have done more.”

“Probably,” Cradle said.

“Fuck,” the Fallen boy said.  “This is fucking with my head.”

“Um, I think my head is most fucked right now,” Colt said, her voice wavering.  She offered up a nervous titter of a laugh.  “First time.”

Hearing Colt be so familiar and so unaware was a special kind of hell of its own.

Then a worse kind of hell.  To be utterly alone.  Cradle ventured.  “More of a head-fuck to think maybe you were telling the truth all along.”

The words were stilted, awkward.

If they were a lie intended as bait, then the Fallen boy didn’t seem to believe them.

If they were truth, then Love Lost would never forgive Cradle.

“What was he saying before?” Colt asked.

“I can barely hear you,” Cradle said.

“Yeah,” the Fallen boy echoed.

“Meaning we have a problem,” Cradle said.

A problem.  Love Lost wheeled around, looking at the other cells, at her own room, and at the dais.  The lights that had no source that filled the area were dimmer in her shared fifth of the room.  As she watched, they grew dimmer still.

This was what had happened to Jonathan.  Her heart pounded as she reached out, fist striking the surface.

“I know why,” Cradle said.

“What’s happening?” the Fallen boy asked.

“Two people in one area.  It’s draining the power twice as fast.  They get half the time.”

“Has it even been half?”

Cradle shrugged.  He pushed scratched-up glasses up his nose.

There were some, Love Lost knew, that she’d never quite been able to get.  The very best criminals she’d gone up against.  The ones she was closest to, like Lee, who wasn’t a criminal, except that he’d left their family and left Ever, and he’d never come back.  But he counted.  She’d never been able to get him.

As her room began to dim, it dawned on her that Cradle fit both categories.  Too good, too close to her, because he was a part of this room.  This engine.

Her hand slammed against the invisible barrier, and she screamed.  They didn’t seem to see her.

A face on the wrong end of one-way glass.

Her scream became raw.  So close to that scream, Colt shied back, scared.

“What’s happening?” Colt asked.

“March released something bad,” the Fallen boy said.  “They’re calling it Class S.  She’s going to release more.”

“The plan was for her to release one,” Cradle lied.

That hadn’t been the plan.  Zero, not one.  If she found the one she needed then she would mercy kill before it became a real problem.

She screamed again.

Why?” the Fallen boy asked.

“Because all of the rules we used to operate by were based around mutually assured destruction.  We needed a scare,” Cradle said.  “Something that forces everyone to look at where they stand and what they’re willing to do.  We pose a threat without actually following through, then remind you all that you need us.”

None of it true.  Well- some.  It had been a contingency plan.  Discussed in the span of one minute, as a possibility if something did get loose.

Cradle-

She screamed.

Just as bad as the Fallen boy.

“You chopped up my teammates.  You chopped up kids!”

“We took them out of the picture!  The plan was to take the best and most vulnerable-”

“And chop them up into mincemeat!?”

“No!  To disable them.  To force them onto the bench so that if something did happen, they wouldn’t get hurt in the time it took us to step in.”

Truth… except now she didn’t believe him.

“Why mincemeat!?”

“Because I handed the tool off to a hireling and they lost their mind.”

“I don’t believe you,” the Fallen boy said, gripping the dais.  “I don’t believe any of this.”

“I’ll admit.  A bit of it was to fuck with you.  To pressure- her idea.”

Cradle pointed at Love Lost.

She screamed and pounded.

“To put you into a corner.  To force you to surrender.  That was true.”

“You’re a fucking lunatic.”

“I hate you so much I can’t think straight,” Cradle snarled.  “I want you to die in the worst ways…”

His head bowed slightly.

“Love Lost?” Colt asked, her voice small.

“I’ll show you I’m genuine,” Cradle said.

“I don’t trust you.”

“Do you have the pieces of the red whip?”

“Yes.”

“Then I’ll give you what I have.  All of it.”

Love Lost swiped her hand across the dais.  Clearing away rubble.

Turning up the teeth.

Nothing new for Colt.

“Take these coins,” Cradle said.  “Full strength tinker power.  Fix the whip.  Use it to undo the damage to your team.  When we offer our help with whatever March is pulling, you let us.”

“Love Lost,” Colt said.

Colt turned to look at the younger girl.

Colt indicated the floor.

Centimeter by centimeter, hair by hair, the floor changed.  The nursery disappeared, and Cradle’s domain grew.

She touched the barrier, and she could feel its movement.

Hair by hair.  Drop of blood by drop of blood.

Hers- and probably Colt’s too.

She screamed again.

Cradle held out the coins, fingers pinching at the edges while he held them to the barrier.

Why?

Were they a trap, somehow?  How?

The Fallen boy didn’t take them.  When he’d said he didn’t trust Cradle, he’d meant it.

“Why is the room shrinking?” Colt asked.

“Be-” Love Lost started.  Her throat was raw from screaming.  “Because he’s killing us as we speak.”

She watched the Fallen boy reach up, hesitating, not yet taking the coins.

He’s been killing us- killing me, for a long time, she realized.  Just not physically.  An ego death.

The coins.

The compromises she’d made.  The coldness.  The lack of warmth.  The inability to feel for the children.

When we give up our tokens, we give up aspects of ourselves.  We change the other.  Cradle’s been constantly giving up his tinker ability.  To Jonathan and me, then to me alone.

He knew.

Giving us the ability to tinker, and making us into monstersThat’s how we bleed through.

Her hand shook as she touched the barrier.

The most galling part of it all- the Fallen boy had never been given anything.  Until now.  No bleed-through.  Just him.

In the near-pitch darkness of her shrinking room, staring at the exchange between the two young men, she gripped the teeth.

All of her anger, in one gripped fist.

She would have a split second to act.  When the dream ended, she would pass on her ability, and with it, all of her rage and savagery.  To throw it into one room, in hopes they would wake before the teeth could be collected and thrown back.

If that was even a consideration.

She watched, waiting for her chance, waiting to see if the Fallen boy took the coins that would steal his warmth.  Whether he did would determine who she gave her teeth to.  All her power for the day, and dangerous, reckless rage.

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