Breaking – 14.2

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What was the saying?  Three could keep a secret, if two of them were dead?

I wanted to have more faith in humanity than that.  Three could keep a secret, if everyone involved had balls or tits in a vise, or if their throats were directly on the line.

Problem was, we weren’t talking about three.  We weren’t even talking about a mere thirty.

Advance Guard had thirteen capes on its roster right now.  Foresight had nine.  The Shepherds, who’d kept to themselves and hadn’t interfered or been involved with Breakthrough or Breakthrough’s business nearly as much as the other two teams, had sixteen.  The Wardens had twenty-five.  Breakthrough had five to seven, depending on how Capricorn was counted and if we included Lookout.

And I wasn’t even counting the likes of Fume Hood, who had been looped in, or the Major Malfunctions, who by their own choice hadn’t.

Not everyone was in the loop.  Team leaders were making tough calls and leveraging their knowledge of the people on their rosters to decide if those people needed to be lied to, left in the dark, or told.

Every decision involved its own kind of stress, and I wasn’t thinking merely of stress of the emotional kind.  I was thinking of stress lines appearing across a metaphorical piece of metal.  Something solid, seemingly unshakable, that was being pushed just enough that the damage was leaking in.  Cracks formed, and those cracks threatened to become breaks.

The Wardens had expanded their headquarters over the last few days, and yet the number of capes that were housed within had increased by several factors.  Each team had made its individual calls on who to inform and who to leave in the dark.

There were capes in attendance who were too short-tempered, unreliable, or otherwise prone to break under stress to have out in the city.  There were capes who could, but who were sitting this one out, because they had other shit going on, or because the stress of it was too much.  Effervescent was one, and she’d been open about the reasons why: she had a substance abuse problem and acting like she’d been pushed to her limit put her at the cusp of a slippery slope.

It showed.  In expressions and in appearance, in how close capes sat to one another and how far they sat with personal space established.  It showed in body language, in arms folded, in tension, and in the tone of the chatter that I could hear but couldn’t decipher, or in their intent silence.

All to keep our ruse going.  We pretended to look more stressed than we were, more desperate.  We pretended we were more ready to pick fights, to turn to our coping mechanisms, or show evidence that our coping mechanisms had failed.

Some capes in attendance were only barely keeping their identities secret.  Two of the Shepherds were wearing clothes I wouldn’t have worn leaving the house: stretch yoga pants with patches where they were worn thin, and plaid sleep pants.  Both wore their masks, but the one with the plaid sleep pants hadn’t even brushed her hair.

I saw Victor- Brockton Bay native, named for his power, not because it was an actual name.  The costume had been changed so it didn’t have that bold red, black, bit-of-white color scheme, but he’d kept the name, I knew.  He was talking with one of Capricorn’s old teammates from Reach, and had his girlfriend with.  She seemed to be Gospel, an ex-member of one of the smaller religious teams.  Rune sat at the opposite corner of that collection of Shepherds.  She’d changed her name to Scribe, updated her costume by adding a brimmed hat and a crook-topped cane that she could use to write her symbols, but it was hard for me to not see her as Rune.

Two days ago, the pair of them had been outed.  Victor hadn’t really been hiding it, but he’d kind of been exposed to the public years ago, and had more or less dropped off the map for two years after that, long enough for most people to forget.  After they’d been revealed as ex-members of the Neo-Nazi gang back in Brockton Bay, Victor had been open about it.  He’d written a letter about his past life, his attempt to use the amnesty to be better, how he had someone close to him that inspired him to be better, he’d found God, he condemned everything about who & what he’d been, blah blah blah.  He’d still been a guy who had a history that was violent and stark enough to have records remaining after the end of the world, who’d done what he’d done when he was a full-fledged adult.  The letter had been an apology letter without an actual apology or trace of contrition.  I was kind of glad in a way that the public hadn’t really bought it, but his team was standing by him.

Rune, by contrast, hadn’t written any letter.  Her silence had been damning, and I suspected that if she hadn’t already been brought here to the Bunker and firmly asked to stay here, they would have enforced it then.  She was benched, and she had no friends for the time being.  Nobody to talk to her.

Cracks.

Our last arrivals were trickling in.  Capricorn sat on a table next to me, strapping on his armor while Sveta provided a hand as needed, to hold things in place or hold straps out ready for Byron to grab them.  Ashley had set aside her coat.  Rain had stepped over to a storage area to switch over to a proper costume.

I remained much as I was.  No secret identity to protect, and I was comfortable as-was.

Gundeck and Solarstare entered, with Rain among the half-dozen people who were right behind them.  Gundeck was a big guy, loaded down with his weapons, but even though his power left him able and ready to carry a whole arsenal with him without buckling, he moved like a burdened man.

He’d apparently promised his family he was out of the game after Gold Morning.  At the same time, he was leading a double life.  They’d found out in the midst of all of… this.  I wasn’t sure how much was Teacher and how much was that he’d shifted his priorities to more… I didn’t want to say important things, but the ramifications of what we were doing were important.

More cracks.  If not an outright break.  He really didn’t look so hot, and I could only see his general body language and the twenty percent of him that his costume didn’t cover up.

Rain was in costume, with a silvery-white hood and upper body to the costume, a glowing crack running through one of the eyes of his gunmetal mask and down to the edge near the cheek.  His mechanical forearms and hands, attached at the elbow, were smaller than his ordinary hands but still five fingered and dextrous, colored the same way as his mask, with finer glowing cracks running along them.  The lower body of the costume didn’t hug him, but it wasn’t quite ‘pants’ either.  Silvery-white panels, some devices and weapons, and decorative tinker attachments contrasted the darker material.  More of the decorative attachments joined the fabric to his metal boots, and bridged the divide between the upper and lower half of the costume.

In my opinion, he’d graduated from a thrown-together costume that didn’t do anything explicitly wrong, but didn’t do anything explicitly right either, to something that looked good.

More came down from upstairs.  The floor above us was still partially under construction, but they’d been hanging out.  Egg, Engel and Scraping were staying here to stay safe from Teacher, and were finding friends, because Engel at the very least was the kind of person that people were drawn to.

Engel and Egg found a place in the crowd near the Shepherds.  They looked our way, and Engel stared at Sveta, hard.

Sveta, for her part, kept her eyes toward the front of the room, avoiding any interaction with the glowing, sense-scrambling Engel.

The influx of people saw the crowd shift.  The way the crowds were organized, each team had sort of gathered with its most familiar allies nearby.  Small teams stuck to the big teams that they tended to work with, which put some of the smaller religious teams I didn’t know in the Shepherd’s orbit, Navigators and Kings of the Hill closer to Advance Guard, and Foresight had… not many.  Auzure was close to them but not close enough for them to talk among themselves.  We were close, and we’d exchanged hellos, so maybe Breakthrough counted.  They were on the best terms with the Wardens, though, which counted for something.

With the people finding their places, Gundeck and Solarstare stepping up to the front of the room, Rain joining Breakthrough, and others finding their respective teams, some were squeezed out.  Vista widened the gap to slip between people, which seemed to take some effort, and then ducked into the space between me, the wall, and a table.

“Thank you for coming in,” Cinereal addressed the room.  “Tensions with one of the border worlds demands the attention of some of the Warden leadership, so I’ll be handling this meeting today.  Those of you that know me know I’m strictly business.  I won’t mince words, I won’t give you context that doesn’t matter, so pay attention.”

For the most part, the way the PRT, Protectorate and Wards programs had been run had been a closed-doors thing.  The public didn’t tend to hear that so-and-so was a good boss or that one PRT director in one city was a stickler for routine.  At best, those without boyfriends in the Wards would know that one newly appointed PRT director had a history of being a politician in a cape-heavy area, or they’d been FBI, or they’d risen up from the ranks of being a PRT squaddie or investigator.  When it came to Protectorate or Wards, similar thing.  Guesswork and whatever they decided to reveal.

But Cinereal stood out.  Atlanta was something like one thousand three hundred miles from Brockton Bay, but we’d heard about what a hardass Cinereal was.

She faced the room without flinching, with several capes, mostly Foresight, arranged in front of her, also facing us.  Crystalclear was among them, as was Effervescent.

Tattletale didn’t form the lineup, but she sat near the back, amid the Wardens, her eyes scanning the room.

“We’re close,” she said.  “We want at least two more entry points, ideally three, and with some help we’re getting there.  One day, maybe two, then we move.  We’re handling that and we’re holding off some of the big dangers, like war and the Machine Army.  Your job, each and every one of you, is to maintain and support the peace.  If the best way you can do that is to stay out of everyone else’s way, then do that.”

Ashley gave me a look over her shoulder, her head tilting with the motion.  It made the projection of smoke spill down from her eyes and bounce off her shoulder.

Sitting on the table, Byron tugged at his straps, fixing on the last pieces of his armor.  He tugged again, then twisted around, trying to see what he was doing.

They weren’t the only signs of restlessness around the room.  I suspected a lot of people here had hoped to hear something closer to a timeline of hours, not days.

“There are two ongoing wars between villain factions in two locations,” Cinereal said.  “The first is between Semiramis, Little Midas, and Bluestocking, Earth N.  The Wardens and Foresight have discussed it and we would like to push for a stable alliance between Bluestocking and Semiramis.  For those of you who don’t know, these are behind-the-scenes operators who are stepping in to fill a void after Marquis has left for Shin and Lord of Loss was arrested.  Auzure, you have a working relationship with Semiramis.”

“We do,” Lark said.

“You’re up to date on who these individual faction leaders are, and what they represent?”

“We are.”

“Talk to Semiramis, then.  See what it would take, and broker a peace with Bluestocking.  Offer assistance in taking down Midas.”

“We can try.”

“We need better than try.  We need success.  All three parties know about Teacher and we need that handled.  We want Midas arrested and at least temporarily shuttled to our prison world, and we want Bluestocking and Semiramis cooperating with each other and with us.”

“We’ll manage it.  Can we bring in others if we need help with the actual handling and takedown?”

“Yes.  Talk to the Wardens if you need help organizing that,” Cinereal said.  She got a nod from Lark and moved on, addressing the rest of us, “The second war is over the portal-wracked areas in the heart of the city.  Those of you who are more used to working over there will recognize the names.  Deader and Goner operate from a corner world much as we’re operating from the Bunker.  Barrow is a corner world, in a manner of speaking.  The Lords of the Pit have the villains of the Pitstop under their thumb.  We think the best use of resources would be to put Advance Guard on this.”

“We’ve already been preparing to handle it,” was Mayday’s response.  “While I have the floor, I also want to say we’re taking the last steps to fold the Kings of the Hill into Advance Guard.  If you’re looking for them, it’s best to go through us.”

The fox and the hound, Foxtrot and Houndstooth, raised their hands.  Dangerous mischievousness and stoic seriousness, respectively.

“Good.  Consolidation helps.  We are very curious and very interested as to whether any of the other corner worlds are shielded from Teacher’s eye.  If possible, we’d like to talk to Barrow and to have Deader and Goner in custody for interviewing.”

“We’ll make it happen.”

“If you can’t, at least distract them.

“Shepherds, we want you at the east end of the city.  Boston, periphery of New Brockton.  You have the numbers and organization to do it.”

Moonsong answered, “We talked informally with Legend about it last night, I told him I had reservations, and he seemed understanding.  Things feel fragile right now and if we split up too much or stop maintaining a lot of face to face contact, that leaves us weak.”

“We need all bases covered for one day.  Perhaps two.  There’s-”

Cinereal, in her ash-gray costume with a bird motif, feathers weaving together and criss-crossing along the length of her robe and at the edges of her mask, turned her head as some members of her frontline of thinkers broke ranks.  Crystalclear had stepped away first, going to talk to Effervescent.  Tattletale hopped down from her perch of a stack of chairs and joined them.  Countenance, Foresight’s team leader, joined them to make it a group of four.

“Is there a problem?” Cinereal asked.

“Nothing confirmed,” Countenance said.  “We’ll take some people upstairs to talk, if that’s okay?”

Cinereal nodded, gesturing for them to go.

The thinkers rounded up a few members of one of Advance Guard’s tertiary groups.  People I didn’t recognize.  After a short pause, they also gathered up two members of one of the Shepherd’s teams.

All were escorted upstairs.

“One or two days, Moonsong.  Knock down the nails that stick up.  Keep any villains from getting cocky, keep any big incidents at bay.”

Moonsong looked surprisingly stressed out by the notion of having to distribute her team across several areas of the city.  I’d have to ask Byron, who was staring at Moonsong, while absently adjusting his armor.

The armor- I turned to look.  The straps that he’d been tightening for the last forever dangled off the side of the table and down to the floor.

I turned to Vista, who was smiling to herself, and I elbowed her, which set her off, in a fit of soundless, supressed laughter.

Byron noticed, and then noticed the straps.  He gave Vista a push on the shoulder.

“Breakthrough,” Cinereal said.

All at once, we were at attention.

“You’re missing a member,” she said.

“Lookout is part of a new team now.  We support her and she acts as an adjunct teammate, but officially she’s part of a new kids-only team.  They’re on a job handling a kidnapping.”

“We hoped to talk to her about security and protocols.”

“We can let her know and send her your way.”

“Good. We would like you to handle some of the rising anti-parahuman sentiment.  It’s been simmering for a while now and we think it’s going to boil over.”

“Assessing our abilities and where we stand in the big picture, I’m worried we’re not the best choice for that task.”

“You may be the best we have.  We would have sent Legend and some other Wardens, but current events have forced us to refocus.”

“Could I suggest that we help out the Shepherds, and the Shepherds send their best front-facing capes to handle this?”

“The Shepherds are mired in scandal that’s about to get worse.  I won’t say more on that subject.  We feel that if they get some concrete victories, this will help.  You, meanwhile, have been involved in this exercise from the start, we want to keep you close to the bunker and available in case we need to act, and like it or not, your appearance on Hard Boil made you visible to the civilian side.  Your voices explained things that they had wanted to know.  You opened a dialogue, now use it.”

Her voice was hard, brooked no nonsense, and struck a tone where I felt like anything I said, one way or another, would make me look and feel like a petulant child.

“Got it,” I said.

“Good,” she said.  She turned her head, then pointed across the room at Tattletale, who had apparently just come down the stairs.

“Three moles,” Tattletale said.  “The others are figuring out when and for how much, but I can tell you right now that they’re new, they weren’t moles before, so they didn’t know much.  He doesn’t know anything about what we’re aiming to pull, yet, or he’d be acting differently.”

“Just the three?”

“So far,” Tattletale said.  She grinned, even though what she’d said was chilling, not funny.  It wasn’t a Kenzie thing either.  She was just way too fond of her own wit sometimes.

“If you try, you will be caught,” Cinereal addressed the assembly.  “It’s not worth it.”

Tattletale went back upstairs.

Cinereal paused, her eyes searching the room, as if she could see the traitors or informants in our ranks, who might tip off Teacher and spoil everything.

We were out of the limelight, in any event.  Byron was trying to fix his straps and looking a little bewildered as he tried to figure out which parts had stretched out.  Vista helped by contracting it back to its normal length, moving her hand to indicate.

I bumped her elbow with mine, moving her hand closer.  Byron noticed the moved hand, looked up, and moved his arm close enough that Vista could touch the straps.

She fiddled for a second, pulled the straps tight, then gave his arm a pat.

“Thanks,” he whispered.

“It was my fault anyhow,” Vista whispered, before turning her full focus to Cinereal.

Not her full focus.  Her hand reached past my coat for my side, thumbnail poking through my shirt to my stomach, fingernails at my back.  A claw of revenge, for forcing her hand.

Entirely undeserved.  If she’d embarrassed herself because I’d pushed her, I’d feel like shit and I’d deserve the revenge claw.  But she hadn’t.  We needed the bright moments, against such a grim backdrop, and we couldn’t take or maintain those moments so long as we had our greater deception.  A secret kept by, if I was counting right, seventy-two people in this building right now.

Cinereal continued, “Clip Kidz, we have a special errand for you, if you’re willing and if your guardians are willing to sign off.  We will pay, but we need you to take on a mission that we know will fail, because it’s important that Teacher thinks we’re putting up some resistance.   If you’ll stay after? Thank you.  For the other smaller teams, you’ll be running errands for us or supporting the larger squads.   One of those squads is us, because we anticipate an attack on the Bunker by Teacher once he realizes what we’re doing…”

She went on.  It hardly mattered.  To one in three of us, it felt like busywork, meant to bide time while the Wardens figured out where they could access or crack open portals to Teacher’s realm.  Those in that group wanted to move now.  Forget the extra portals, just send more people through the four or so that we had.  They were restless.  For many of them, the other shoe hadn’t dropped yet.  Every hour that Teacher was left to his own devices, their secrets and relationships all hung in the balance.

To another one in three of us, I was pretty sure, it felt like a doomed proposition.  That the attack on Teacher’s base would be hard, and resources we were committing or spending now would be resources we didn’t have against Teacher.  Or at least, we wouldn’t have at full readiness and capacity.  It was necessary to keep up the act, but ugh.  That group would be the quiet ones, the ones who were chin up and shoulders square today, but who dreaded tomorrow.  For many of them, secrets had already been spilled.  They’d felt Teacher’s hand and the associated hopelessness.

And to the last group, one I subscribed to, both were true.  It felt like the Wardens knew the attack would be devastating.  It felt like they were being safe, distracting us, preoccupying us.

Not chin-up, not shoulders-square, not restless either.  Just… dealing with a sinking feeling in our guts.  I was certain that nine out of ten of us had come to this meeting hoping to get the order, the news that we’d be attacking in a few hours.  It was too hard to believe that things would be easier or better tomorrow.

But we’d wait, we’d lie, and we’d confront the worst sides of ourselves, while trying to convince ourselves that we weren’t playing into the asshole’s plan by doing so.

The worst of ourselves.  I hadn’t expected a crowd.

“What the hell do we even do about this?” Rain asked.  “Christ.”

The swearing was a nice touch.  In figuring out how to present the best picture for our would-be attackers, we’d started talking to each other about our tendencies and habits when stressed, reminding one another, or pointing out things we did that we weren’t even aware of.  I’d told Rain he amped up the religious swears when the stress was at its highest.

We stood on a rooftop, looking down at the scene.  A single street was littered with people from one intersection to the next.  They weren’t shoulder to shoulder, but they were close enough that people had to weave and made it about ten steps before they had to ‘excuse me’ their way through.  Most of the focus was around a single place, a bookstore, and the building interior was packed, with employees wearing store colors beneath jackets that weren’t store-branded, keeping too many people from making their way inside.

The people who weren’t indoors were watching through the store window.  Though it was cold and the snow came down in thick wet bullets halfway between raindrop and snowflake, the crowd was more interested in watching than in seeking shelter.  Large screens displayed the video feed from the inside.

I’d expected signs and angry cries.  Instead, they were book readers.  They were silent, intently focused on what was going on.

“You and Vista were getting chummy,” Rain said.

At first I thought he meant me.  Then I saw him looking at Byron.

“She pranked me good.  My head wasn’t anywhere near my armor, I was thinking a clasp was broken and it kept loosening.”

“She’s pretty cool,” Rain said.  “Y’know?”

A little blunt there, Rain.

“She is,” Byron said.  He glanced at me.

“No question.  If the world had more Vistas, it’d be a better place.”

“You should talk to her more,” Rain said.  “Ask her out or something.”

So damn blunt.  You’re going to scare him off.

“Nah,” Byron said.  “I shouldn’t.  Wouldn’t be nice.  I think ‘girl I’d want to spend the rest of my life with’ and I think of Moonsong.  I think ‘attractive girl’ and I think of Moonsong.  I think of girls I might take home for the Christmas holiday and I think of Moonsong taking off her coat in the entryway.  It wouldn’t be fair to anyone, if I wasn’t totally over Moon.”

“Oh!” Sveta said.  “This is a good opportunity.”

“What?” Byron asked.  “For what?”

“That device Kenzie made, so whichever one of you two was stowed away could talk.”

“She’s working on the final touches, she said.”

“Nope!”  Sveta said.  She reached into her pocket, withdrawing a supiciously phone-like container.  “Ta-da.”

“That’s your phone,” Ashley said, deadpan.

“It’s built into the phone case, but it’s not a phone.  See?  I turn it on, press it to Byron’s arm…”

Byron stuck his arm out.

Sveta leaned in close to the phone, tilting her head to put her ear near it.  Then she switched to a deep voice, “Beep, boop, boop.  Test, test, I’m Tristan, and after hearing Byron say all that, I might actually manage to throw up in this extradimensional space, it’s going to make such a mess, and I’ll never be able to clean it up.”

Byron dropped his arm, moving it away from the phone.  He blurred, shifting over to Tristan.

“It works,” Tristan said, in the dullest, most unsuprised, unexcited tone he could manage.  “Also, after hearing Byron get mushy over Moonsong, I might throw up.  Good thing I’m not in an extradimensional space as I do it.”

“See?  It’s amazing,” Sveta said.  “Good work, Lookout.”

Her phone illuminated, showing a new text.  A thumbs-up icon.

“In all seriousness, though, the way things are right now, don’t speak for me, don’t put words in my mouth,” Tristan said.  There was a tone to how he said it that made Sveta take a step back.

“Sorry,” she said.  Then, like that wasn’t enough, but she couldn’t think of what else to say, she said, “sorry.”

“Are there any boys you’re ga-ga over?” Ashley asked, sounding very much like the words ga-ga shouldn’t have ever left her lips.  Her expression reflected a similar sentiment.

“What the fuck am I going to do with boys?” Tristan asked.  “I can’t do anything.  We can’t act, we can’t get the Wardens to take us seriously.  They assigned us this garbage watch-the-people-at-a-bookstore job.  Which would be bad enough, but I’ve got Sveta putting words in my mouth-”

“I said sorry.”

“And I swear I’m going to lose my mind.”

“Maybe you should switch out, cool down?” Rain asked.  “It’s Byron’s turn anyway.”

“Fuck him,” Tristan said.  Metal clicked against metal as he settled in, arms crossed, looking down over the roof’s edge.

Tristan was signaling – left foot planted a bit ahead of the right foot.  The signal had been Rain’s idea, with either arms being folded or footing being our cue to one another that we were playing a part.  That we weren’t really upset.

Still, it was spooky to go there, to see backlash and hear friendly voices sound so unfriendly.

My hands in my coat pockets, I looked down from the roof’s edge.

A narrow woman with short black hair shot through with gray was speaking, face displayed on the screens.  I recognized her but couldn’t place the name.  I was so bad with non-parahuman names.

“What’s her name?” I asked, to change the subject.  “Woman in the window.”

“She wrote a book, didn’t she?” Rain asked.

“Yes,” Ashley said.  “I read it, but I forget the name.”

“What’s the book?” I asked.

“Deconstructing power,” Ashley said.  “I like deconstructing things-”

She made an intentional spark with her power, a flicker of shadow twice the size of the flame a lighter might’ve made, and loud enough I worried heads on the ground five floors below us might turn our way.

“-and I like power.  It was fine.  Wasn’t a very good deconstruction or look at power, I think.”

“It’s apparently made the author popular,” Byron observed.

“Other person on the screen,” Rain said.  “Gary Nieves.”

“Ex-candidate for mayor,” I noted.

“He’s been a voice surrounding this general sentiment,” Rain said.

“Paying attention, huh?” I asked.

Rain nodded.  He turned his head slowly, glowing eyes of his mask surveying the crowd.  “I like paying attention to what ideas are taking hold and how.  Makes me feel more secure, like I won’t be blindsided by that stuff again.”

Speakers planted outside the bookstore that was hosting the informal presentation, dialogue, or debate had Gary Nieves’ voice now, distinct from the woman’s.

The crowd was reacting.  Little by little, step by step, they were being hyped.  Finding courage.

“What’s he saying?” Byron asked.

“I don’t know, but I want to know,” I answered.

“Let me,” Sveta said.  “I can go incognito.”

She pulled off her mask, then pressed it to her stomach.  Skin pulled away in strips, and then fat, muscle, and other structures were their own layers.  All the organs were there, but as necessary parts were pulled away, the organs went still, shriveling, moisture sucked into other surrounding spaces.

The mask was wrapped up  by the strips, then drawn into her stomach.  Strips then fell back into their natural order, with one or two misfires before something tidy was managed.  Only a slight bump suggested the mask’s presence.

Then, more dramatically, she did the same with the remainder of her costume.  The costume was salvaged from her damaged prosthetic body, forming armor that she wore with curling, wavy components to it, all painted either in a dramatic fashion with bright reds, yellows, and oranges, or in deep, cold greens and blues.

It took her some doing, to pull in the armor and wrap herself around it.  There were places it protruded through the skin, but it was set deep enough inside her that that when she pulled her coat out of her bag and pulled it on over everything, her silhouette was normal.

“Pretty cool,” Byron said.

“It’s uncomfortable.  I’m going to head down.”

She made her way down the side of the building, strips of her being helping her down, more appearing as she needed them to seize handholds.  The rain had settled in part, but the snow still came down hard.

My phone rang.  I put it on speaker.

“Woman named… Reidleigh Darleet is talking.  She’s the author,” Sveta reported.  “They’re talking about the amnesty.  Violent capes getting a pass.  The Drenched.  Valkyrie.  A… bunch of villain names I’m not sure I heard about.”

“Me,” Swansong said.

“Didn’t come up,” Sveta said.

“I’m offended by that,” Swansong said.  “I’d be offended if I were named, but being ignored is worse.”

“I think I’m okay with you not being named,” I told her.  “Earn your reputation as Swansong, don’t lean on what you did as Damsel.”

“I’m both,” she told me.  “All three.  Who I was, who I am, and who I want to be.”

“I guess don’t let one happen at the cost of the other two.”

“I’ll do that as soon as you take your own advice,” she told me, archly.

“Woah, hold up,” I said, my voice overlapping with Tristan’s, who’d said something similar.  “Dial it down.”

“Hmph.”

Her footing was right, at least.  Fuck me, though, we needed a middle ground that wasn’t her ranting at people on a train and murdering teammates with words.  She was so good at wearing this latent hostility that it spooked me a bit.

“Shitty thing is,” Tristan said.  “I think my parents would attend a group like this.  Powers fucked all our lives up.  They’re not exactly shaking the pom-poms.  Especially not for me.”

“Bitch at us when you don’t have any parents, like Sveta,” Swansong said.  “When you’ve killed them by your own hand, like I did, or when you’ve smeared your mom’s head across concrete, like Victoria did.”

My blood ran cold.

Ashley met my eyes, and there was nothing there.  Cold, emotionless, unflinching.

“Not fair,” I said.

“Cries for fairness are the loser’s prerogative.  Don’t be a loser, Antares.”

Fuck me.  I’d need to have a chat with her, because that hit a little too close to uncomfortable territory, tracing a ways back to a basketball game.

Tristan spoke up, “I’m not trying to one-up anyone, I’m saying it sucks.  It doesn’t have to suck the most to count.”

“If Cryptid were here, he’d have a good immature joke about sucking the most,” Rain observed.  “I miss Cryptid.  How fucked up is it that I miss Cryptid?”

“Very,” I said, at the same time Swansong said, “Exceedingly.”

“Alright,” Rain said, a little defeated.  “He was alright company sometimes.”

“Guys,” Tristan pointed down at the street below.

On the monitor was a grainy gray image, like one from a security camera.  The figure in it was unmistakably Ashley, Hollow Point era.

“Guys,” Sveta said, over the phone.  “I don’t know if you see-”

“We see,” I said.

“But it’s Swansong.  They didn’t mention her earlier because they’re using her as one illustration of their bigger point.  Trying to get people upset.  They’re talking about her place being provided for her, about support, how she abused amnesty when others didn’t get a shot…”

Swansong was shaking her head.

“We can deal with this,” I said.

Swansong’s answer to my statement was to step off the edge of the roof.

Shit.

Shit.

I followed her off the edge.  I flew down to make  up for the second or two I’d taken to process implications, then veered off as I saw her move her hands into position, one a little too close to me for comfort.  I didn’t want to get clipped by a lazy blast.

She blasted once to break the momentum of her fall, twisted in the air, and blasted again to reorient.  Her boot skidded on sidewalk covered in salt and gravel.

“We don’t get anything by doing this,” I said, as I put myself in her way.  I was aware members of the crowd were watching.   Behind me, the crowd parted, getting out of Swansong’s way, even though she’d stopped in her tracks.

Tristan was drawing out orange motes.  They solidified into a pole.  He slid down, controlling his descent with both feet and one hand at the pole, one hand on Rain’s shoulder.  The pole broke, and when it did, Rain stopped in mid-air.  With his grip on Rain’s shoulder, Tristan stopped too.

Together, they stopped once more on the way to the ground, landing heavily.

Sveta hung back, with the crowd.  Probably a good thing, because she wasn’t costumed and she passed for ordinary.  She could do things from that angle that the rest of us couldn’t.

“We don’t get anything by hanging back and watching,” Swansong said.  “Let’s open a dialogue.”

“You need to say that last bit without flexing your hands,” I murmured.  I glanced down at her feet.  She was putting on a show.

I was really, really worried that the show would bleed over into reality.  This really wasn’t the time to play with fire.  It made things more authentic, I was sure, but it was also playing with a really fucking volatile situation.

“Maybe you need to go,” I told her, my voice low.  “Let the rest of us handle it.”

“It’s about me.  It’s relevant to me.  My reputation.  They’re saying I was subservient, lesser, groveling for handouts.  I earned my money.  You don’t know me, you don’t know the answers to the questions.”

“I know you might do something you regret here.”

“I don’t play second fiddle, and I don’t bow down or back down.  At worst, I’m a partner.”

“Be a partner then.  Listen to what your teammate is saying.”

She set her jaw, knuckles cracking as she clenched her fist.

Rain and Capricorn caught up with us.

“I’ll let you take the lead,” Swansong said.

“Thank you,” I said.

“But we have to go,” she said.

The crowd had backed away, and in doing so, they’d opened a more or less clear path to the door.

I looked at Tristan.

“Yeah,” he said.  “We might as well engage them somehow.”

They’d moved on from Swansong, talking about others.  We approached the door, and the voices that came from speakers while we were outside became voices from speakers inside, resonating as they bounced off of bookshelves, walls, and ceiling.

I’d dealt with too many racists back in Brockton Bay to be optimistic about dealing with bigots of another stripe.  I could use the minute we had here, while they finished their segment on a villain from the west end of the city, and I could try to figure out what my arguments were.

I didn’t have any.

“For those of you who don’t have a vantage point to see,” Mrs. Darleet said, her voice smooth, one that made me think she’d practiced it over radio.  “Swansong , who we were just talking about, has graced us with her presence.”

Swansong swished her dress with one hand and swept a hand in front of her as she curtsied.

“Along with three others,” Gary Nieves said.  “All in costume.  Naturally intimidating.”

“Naturally,” Swansong said.

“No,” I said.  “That’s not our intent.”

“It’s the result, isn’t it?” Gary asked.

“It is.  Unfortunately, it is,” I answered.

“If intimidating us into silence isn’t the intent, then what is?” Gary asked.

“Clarifying facts,” I told him.  “Swansong wanted to clear her name, I think.  I and my companions wanted information, though we kind of planned to wait until all was done.”

Although I’m worried you might have started a riot or provoked something if you’d gone on too long.

“Clear your name?  You didn’t benefit from the amnesty, Swansong?”

“I did.  But I was on thin ice.  When I killed a killer that ice broke.  I accepted my punishment.”

“You admitted to the charges and punishment, so I can skip my second question.  Funny, that you admitted to murder, and yet you’re still here.”

“The prison is gone.  I’m doing my part by cooperating and helping to permanently remove villains,” Swansong answered.  “There’s no place to put me and they don’t consider me a priority.”

“An admitted killer isn’t a priority.”

“Seems not,” Swansong said.

“Gary,” I said.  “If you want, we look into giving you an inside look at the process.  Obviously we can’t let you talk about details, because the villains could use that, but you’d be free to agree, say the idea is flawed, say it’s inhumane, even-”

“Can it be inhumane if you aren’t human?” Gary Nieves asked.

“I think it can,” I said.

“I’m noticing you didn’t protest and say you were human,” Gary pointed out.

The reality was that I wasn’t sure if I really could say parahumans were human, exactly.  Too many structures went out the window.  Humans were social animals and parahumans were so often solitary, banding together by necessity and circumstance, but not by gravity and natural bonding, like humans seemed so able to do.

“I think my energy is better spent on other arguments,” I told him.  “Whatever you want to call us, we think, we feel, we have ties to loved ones.  Introduce humanity to an alien race from another planet with all of those qualities and I’d protest any cruelty or injustice turned their way.”

“She would,” Rain said.  “She’s a natural hero.”

Thank you, Rain, but it’s best to stay quiet, I thought, as I met his eyes and shot him a tight smile, I willed him to absorb the intensity of the thought.  If they turn on you or point fingers at you, this all gets messy.

“And I don’t think we’re that alien,” I added.

“Putting questions of cruelty and the inhumane aside, can you really say it’s fair, if Parahumans like Swansong get preferential treatment?  If people are dying out in the cold while a girl who got lucky gets her choice of apartments?”

“It’s-”

“It’s a tired old falsehood,” Swansong said.  “I’m no slave, I’m no servant.  I’m not an animal with my apartment as my pen to keep me contained.  They had questions, I was in a unique place to answer them.  I died, I came back.  I remembered things.  When I dream, I dream of other mes.  The labs were interested.”

“When the world ended, we wanted answers,” Tristan said.  “She was getting paid to help provide them.  Enough to pay for an apartment.  She’s working for the heroes and she’s doing so with the okay of the mayor.”

“The mayor,” Gary Nieves said.

I had a bad feeling.

“Do me a favor, Vince?  Open up my second set of slides.  Then go to slide… sixty-eight, I think it was,” Gary told the guy who was managing the slideshow that went with the talking heads on the screens outside.

Slide sixty-eight wasn’t the mayor.  It was Amy.  It was Cryptid, as some polished, gaunt figure that was so tall that Amy’s head only came to his elbow.  Marquis stood off to the side.  Other parahumans in fine clothing and costumes were arrayed around them.  A photo.

“No, wrong slide, that’s Earth Shin,” Gary said.  “Go forward.”

The next slide was a digital photo of Cheit leadership, in their long suit-jackets and straight-leg slacks, walking with sandals on in weather too wet and chilly for it.  The right half of the image had a zoomed-in version of one of their arms, where skin could be seen through the cuff.  The man had a vein running along the back that glowed like white hot metal.

“No, that’s Earth Cheit,” Gary said.  “Next.”

A candid photo.  Marquis and Lord of Loss on the rooftop of the Lodge.

“That’s Earth Nun,” Gary said.

“We get your point,” Tristan said.  “And that’s outdated.”

Being right doesn’t mean he’s wrong, I thought.

“Outdated?  So humans are in charge now?” Gary asked.

Tristan shook his head.

“Good enough for my point that you say you’ve already grasped,” Gary said.  “Next?”

The mayor, side by side with an image of Citrine from the Brockton Bay era, pre-Gold Morning.

The room filled with murmurs.

“Tell me again how the mayor signing off on your activities is okay.  Tell me how we’re supposed to be okay with secret after secret, lie after lie, coverup after coverup.  With people wearing masks while leading double lives.  Tell me how we’re supposed to be okay with the fact that every single world we’re in regular contact with, our world included, is under the thumb of parahumans, openly, otherwise, or currently undergoing a transfer of leadership between powers.”

Amy.  The thought made my thoughts skip beats, turned mental connections into dead ends.

Yeah.  Fucking thanks, Cinereal.

Gary had been ready, waiting for someone to take a stand or speak up, to drop this.  He’d planned to drop them as attention-grabbers late in this specific event, or he’d been holding them in reserve for when he was challenged, quietly changing minds and turning hearts away from capes in the meantime.

This was more serious than we’d been led to believe.  Gary was armed with all the damning information.

“You’re right,” Rain said.

I turned his way, caught off guard.  I wasn’t the only one.

“It’s not okay.  This whole dynamic is- Jesus, it’s fucked.”

I was betting that ‘Jesus’ wasn’t because of my tip to him.  It came from his stress, speaking in front of so many eyes.

Rain looked to me, to the others for support.

I nodded.  Swansong didn’t move, holding her head high.  Tristan put a hand at Rain’s shoulder.

The crowd was talking among themselves, and Gary seemed to be waiting for them to drop in volume before responding, visibly forming his response.

Rain didn’t wait.  Rain went ahead, and people shut up because they wanted to hear him.

“You’re absolutely, totally right,” Rain said, visibly agitated with the public speaking, being in the limelight.  “And we’re on your side in this.  More of us than you’d think, we agree with what you’re saying.”

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Breaking – 14.1

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I could see Darnall from the far side of the space, past stairs, railings, gym equipment, and benches.  He extended a hand in a wave, and I did the same.

He tended to always have two looks to him, like one minute he was the archetypical ‘movie dad’ in every way my dad hadn’t been, soft around the edges, bit of a belly, awkward, out of shape and with hair that was either short and noticeably imperfect or buzzed short enough that it couldn’t be that imperfect.  The kind of movie dad who wore a fairy costume and who was trying so hard to play magical princess tea party with his daughter that his forehead was marked with lines from the effort and focus, tutu on and tiny teacup in hand.

Then the next minute, generally at the end to a session, at the prelude to a session, or in the complex game of chess surrounding a session, he took on the look of the villain of the B-tier family movie who revealed those perplexing little behaviors we’d seen in evidence throughout the film had a greater meaning, who got a super calculating, penetrating look in their eye, which sufficed to make them seem dangerous despite the otherwise unassuming appearance.

I might have been overthinking it.

“You with me?”

I refocused my efforts on Ethan.  He was leaning forward against a punching bag.  One of his eyes was permanently half-closed, his straight black hair that was normally a mop was damp enough with sweat to be pushed back and stay back.  Athletic tee and loose workout pants were stuck to muscular arms, torso, and legs by the same measure.

Dr. Darnall ambush incoming, I warned myself, before giving Ethan ninety percent of my focus.

“I’m with you, sorry.  Saw a face I recognized.”

“Need a face to refocus?” Anne Lynn asked.  She had her plastic bag of stress helpers.  “I have a kitty, you like cats, right?  You picked a cat, first session.”

“Kitties don’t inspire aggression,” Ethan said.

“You should meet my cats,” Anne Lynn said.  “My neighbors probably think I’m deranged, the way I yell at them.”

She giggled and Ethan smiled.  He still leaned against the punching bag.

“I picked a lion, just so you know.  Then the bird.”

“I give those ones names too.  Stupid motorcycle roaring at six in the morning.  Birds singing at six in the morning.”

“Mouthfuls,” I noted.

“There’s a theme here,” Ethan added.

“I don’t need more,” I told my physiotherapist.  She pouted.  “Thanks though.”

“Give me a broken three into a two-one,” Ethan told me.

I had to shift my footing to be ready, which I reminded myself was a problem.  I should have been faster.

“Don’t think about it, just do it.”

I sprung forward.  Leap, kick aimed at what would be my opponent’s chest.  I stopped, using flight to drop to the ground, then sprung forward, flight-augmented to cover more distance, using the heel of my hand to strike, followed by my elbow.  I could feel the pull at my tricep.

“Woo!” Anne Lynn cheered.  “That’s something you don’t see every day.”

The area with the punching bags and some of the more active exercise equipment was partially segregated from the rest of the space, with windows with warped glass obscuring a lot of what went on, which was one of the factors that framed my distant observation of Darnall as skewed.  The rationale, Anne Lynn had explained to me, was that some of the patients had reasons to be shy of violence.  They were working on ensuring they had two spaces but things were still fucky after the portals had expanded and consumed a chunk of downtown.

Anne Lynn watched from the sidelines, sitting on exercise mats that had been stacked up high enough to act as a counter.  Petite, had as much energy and optimism as an overflowing soda float had bubbles, always smiling, and I somehow couldn’t resent her her optimism.  I couldn’t resent her for enjoying this little diversion.

“Two-three, two-one,” Ethan said, then while I was pulling back to launch into that, said, “Nevermind.”

“Nevermind?”

“Try to cut down on how long it takes you to act.  I’ve seen you fight, I know you can do this instinctively, but I want you to do it instinctively while fighting better.  Give me a two-one, again.”

I started-

“No.  Stop.  Instinct.”

“Instinct sucks.”

“Instinct keeps you alive.”

“Just- let me think on this.  Let me do my thing.”

“Okay.”

I’d been through enough sparring lessons in my life.  With my mom, with my dad, with uncle Neil.  My training sessions with Aunt Sarah had been more about flight and formation, or about problem solving.  I’d run through a set series of movies for a video.  I’d done a series of physical sparring tests when interviewing for the Wards program.

That was without getting into regular gym classes, regular training with the basketball team, track and field, after school activities my mom had had me do, clubs, and summer camps.

I’d been down this road a hundred times with a half-dozen different instructors or sets of expectations.  People with something performance-level they wanted out of me that would try to teach, trick, bludgeon, or otherwise ingrain into me.

Every time I told myself I could be better there were common things I tracked, analyzed, and focused on improving.

Mental state.  Footing.  Breathing.

“Okay,” I said.

“One-”

Flight got me moving without needing to adjust my footing.  Hand-strike, favoring the heel.  I hit the bag.

“-three,” he said, at the same time the impact happened, switching it up.

I pushed away using the heel-strike, used flight to put just a bit more extra distance between myself and the bag, turned my head slightly, then launched forward again.  My footing had been good as I landed, good as I launched forward, and flight just added to the velocity as I planted a heavy kick square in the center of the bag.

“Oof,” Ethan said.  “I thought you’d stopped or backed off and wasn’t quite ready for you.”

“There’s a bit of that, isn’t there?” I asked.  I smiled.

“Decent foundation,” he said  “One-two?”

I hit the bag.  Heel strike into elbow strike.  A kick of flight sped up the rotation and close of distance.  I winced a bit as pain shot through my tricep.

“See that?” Ethan asked Anne Lynn.

“It looks off, like I’m watching an animated fight and they missed something.”

“I meant your patient,” Ethan said, sounding amused.  “She winced.  Something hurt.”

“Tattler,” I mumbled.

“What hurt?” Anne Lynn asked.

I approached her, indicating my tricep, which still had the gouge and sucked-in indent in it.

“That seems to be a recurring thing,” she said.  She had to sort out her own papers, setting them aside so she could get to my notebook, which I had handed her earlier.  “And you’re a fun patient because you take extensive notes.”

Her legs kicked as she paged through.

“On your way to becoming a favorite,” Ethan told me, smiling.

“Long way to go,” Anne Lynn said, in a tone that was a stark contrast to her usual bubbly demeanor.

“Ooh, that’s interesting,” Ethan said.

“Shh,” I told him.

“Want to keep going, or-”

“No,” Anne Lynn said.

“-Or not.”    He hopped up onto the stack of exercise mats, sitting with enough force that Anne Lynn popped up for a second.

He leaned back against the wall, but because the stack of folded exercise mats was so broad, it made for a very slouching backward lean, more like he was on a large couch than anything.  It exposed his abdomen, flat, and no body hair, which was a bit of a mental disconnect for me.  My exposure to boys’ bellies -one boy who had a near-identical body type- had me expecting at least a bit.  It made me look twice to verify.

The disconnect was a bit of a switch-flip, the mental stumble seeing me going up and over mental walls I’d erected, the ‘over’ coinciding with a ‘woo’ thrill in my own belly.

What followed was a series of thoughts as I tried to navigate disorganized thoughts I really hadn’t explored enough in recent months or years.  What about- no, spooky territory.  Half-formed mental image banished.  What if- no, felt like I was wading into ‘crutch’ territory, because it was almost identical to a Dean memory, just with someone else playing the part.  Mentally banish every person in this facility except for him, lean over and lick or kiss every bead of sweat off his abdomen, his chest, reach down to his pants-

No.  Thoughts dogged me from places I really didn’t want to go.  Thoughts that had been bubbling up since Engel had hit me as hard as-

Didn’t want to think about it.  Also sweat was ick and if I knew him better and loved him I’d roll with the more general bodily fluid things, like kissing away tears in a tender moment- which got me right back to thinking about something that I’d done with Dean.  And now I was rationalizing my way out of this precarious state of mind and what if- no, that was bad porno.  Or- no, that was back to dark places.

In the midst of thoughts I found one that stuck- him and I sweaty from individual workouts, taking a shower, made sense.  Shower together, that was easy, safe, clean, sexy without requiring any specific act.   Once that was confirmed, I had the mental picture and it was something that wouldn’t crumble or throw up any flags if my brain twitched the wrong way.  In that scene,  I could reach down, and- there weren’t any ‘no’ flags thrown up in my way.

Satisfying, both to navigate the labyrinth and find my way to safe ground, and satisfying to dwell in that scene where I had reached down and satisfied him, heard his breathing change, felt him move in reaction.  Powerful and nice and…

I shifted my footing.

He lay slumped there, eyes momentarily closed.  He’d pulled down his shirt, not because he’d noticed my glance, and now his hands were folded over his belly button.

Anne Lynn paged through my notebook.

My thoughts had been going a mile a minute.  Not that much time had passed.  My thoughts were still going a mile a minute, painting a slow-moving scene I didn’t want to let go of, because it had been so hard to get to.  Getting here meant getting past walls that were in place for very good reasons, and it then meant navigating the labyrinth of red flags and dark places.

And now I was here and I wanted to keep going, somehow.  I knew Ethan.  I knew he was interested, and he knew me and that I had issues navigating issues.

I knew that if I asked him to his face -ridiculous notion but still-, if I wrote him a note or sent him a text -less ridiculous notion-, saying I wanted to take him to the nearest unoccupied shower, strip his clothes off, that I wanted and needed to take the lead and for him to do what I said, he would say yes.

Nevermind that I had no idea how or where that shower existed, nevermind that I didn’t want to get kicked out.  I could, and that added a deep-inside me jolt of real that brought a whole new life to the imagined scene.

I shifted my footing again.

Woo.

“Ethan!” the voice was loud enough that I jumped.  A woman peered from around the edge of the wall that separated the punching bags  from the rest of the rehab center.

“What?” he asked, in a slow, easygoing way that did not line up with how high strung I felt.  His eyes remained closed.  I felt irrationally annoyed at him.

“Can I borrow you?” the woman asked.

He sat up, hopped down from the stack.  “She works with some older patients, so I’ll probably have my hands full.  See you later, Antares?”

See you, Anelace, I thought.  “Yeah.”

He extended a fist as he walked by.  I tapped it with my fist, then translated to the elbow, using flight and mock-striking him with it, as he’d been drilling me.

He seemed to like it, a smile on his face.

“Perfect,” he said.  “Be nice to her, Anne Lynn.”

“Only if she’s nice to me,” my physiotherapist said.  She’d closed my notebook and was using it as a flat surface to write things down.

“I’m nice to you,” I told her.  “You like my notes.”

“Extensive notes are a long, long way from actually attending.  I just read pages of notes complaining about pain that I would have been helping you with if you, my patient, had been coming in regularly.  But you don’t.  Too busy saving the world and accumulating more injuries.”

I rubbed the notch at the back and side of my arm, my finger finding the groove.

“You’re better than the vast majority of my patients when it comes to doing the homework, but if you keep going down this road, you’re going to put off visits more and more until you’re not coming in at all.  And then a few months after that you’re going to find that an exercise that was benefiting you months ago is hurting you.”

“Okay.”

“I’ve made notes.  I’m going to assume you’re going to keep doing this, so I’ve modified and marked your homework to highlight things that are essential now and harmful later.”

“And after that?”

Come see me,” she said.  “But don’t continue past a certain point for this one, this one, or… hm, just those two.”

“Got it.”

“Thank you for showing me your fighting, and for showing me another side of Ethan.”

I nodded, looking through the window of warped glass for Ethan among the older patients in the expansive rehab area.  I didn’t see him.

“He good?” I asked.

“Good?  What are you asking, Victoria?” Anne Lynn asked me.

“He’s helpful?  No drama?  Friendly?”

“He’s great,” she said.  “One of our best volunteers.  He started out… very similar to you, I think.  But he graduated, and he liked the atmosphere enough to keep attending.”

Teaching some martial arts, and- I could see him now, supporting an old woman who was walking with the assistance of rails.

“Snap him up,” she prodded me.  “I have a boyfriend so I’m not going to, but I know a few others here would.”

“I’m way, way off from snapping,” I told her.

I heard a throat clear behind me.  I saw a glimpse of Anne Lynn’s expression as I turned, then saw Dr. Darnall, occupying the same spot by the wall that the other physiotherapist had when shouting out to Anelace.

“Homework,” Anne Lynn told me.  She handed me the paper with the neat handwriting.  “Your notebook, and…”

She held out the tattered baggie with stress balls inside.

“I have one.  I have two, technically, but-”

“Take one.”

“I’d end up giving it away.”

“Then do that.  I need to get rid of some older ones so I can buy newer ones.”

I conceded, reaching over and into the bag.

“Reach deep.”

I reached deep.  I pulled out two, holding them over the bag – an old woman with horn-rimmed glasses, and a fish with eyes that bulged out when squeezed.

I took the fish, giving it an experimental squeeze.

“I’ll see you in three days,” she told me.

“Got it,” I replied.

Dr. Darnall was giving me his ‘I was a villain all along’ look.  Calculating, focused, confident.

“You’ve been communicating with my physiotherapist,” I noted.  “She recognized you and you knew my appointment end-time.”

“Only about essential details and schedule.  I wanted to check in with you.  I know you canceled for what I’m sure are good reasons, but you’ve been missing appointments with her and you’ve been missing appointments with me.”

“She told you about the missed appointments?”

“No,” Dr. Darnall said.  “But I’d like to think I know you at this point.  I want five, ten minutes of your time at most- no, that would be lying.  I want two hours of your time once a week.  I will settle for five to ten minutes, acknowledging you have a lot on your plate.”

“I’m sweaty.”

“I’ve talked to people who had appointments with me minutes after their shifts ended, who smelled so bad that my office would stink for a day.  I can handle it, Victoria.”

“Who smells that bad?  Are you Barfbat’s therapist?”

“I worked with firefighters.  Certain times of year, full gear, heavy exercise, it was rough.  I can understand if it’s a question of comfort, but don’t worry about my comfort.”

“It is, kind of,” I said.  “My comfort.  Can I rinse off and meet you?”

“Sure.  Should I wait in the hall?”

“Please.”

I jogged over to one of the other physio sessions in progress, avoiding using my flight because I didn’t have the benefit of the separating wall and blurry window to hide what I was doing from the rest of the people in the area.  I set the fish down on top of a folded coat and bag.

“Sveta.”

Sveta was doing crunches, arms out straight and pressed together like she was diving.  Her therapist was a guy who looked a bit like a black Dr. Darnall, slightly pear shaped and short haired, with a perpetually concerned expression.  As she did each crunch, he would move his hand.  She would move her extended arms to touch her fingertips to his.

She’d painted her arms with what looked like markers, bold, straight lines, layered colors that created a blur effect, a bird on one upper arm, a sea serpent winding around one forearm.  Sweat had mottled the images somewhat.

“Time to go?” she gasped out, sounding hopeful.

“I’m going to have a word with Dr. Darnall.  Five minute rinse-off and dress, five to ten minutes with him.  Fifteen minutes?”

She dropped back to lie flat, and stopped, moving the weight to one side.  She huffed for breaths, chest and stomach rising and falling.  I could see spots on her clothes where marker and sweat had bled in at a touch.  Spots where there was paint.

Ten fingers, ten toes.  Two arms, two legs.  She still wore her wig, because she liked having the longer hair, but there was a scalp beneath.  The stomach that heaved was complete now.  Three procedures over four days, after two days of deliberation.

She saw me looking and smiled, teeth white.  Her skin wasn’t so close to the tone of her teeth, but remained pale.  She’d elected to keep the Cauldron mark on her cheek, but she’d covered it up.

“Happy in your suffering?” I asked.

She nodded, still smiling, still struggling to get her breath.

“You’re out of shape.”

“I’ve never been in shape.”

I wanted to talk to her forever, to revel in this moment of happy and enjoy the company of my friend with zero reservations.  Instead, I thought of Dr. Darnall and the unplanned five minute appointment.  “I should go see the good doctor.  You good to wait?”

“We can figure out something to do for another fifteen minutes,” her physio said.

“I’m getting good marks,” Sveta said.  “Is it necessary?”

“It’s necessary,” he told her.

I abandoned Sveta to her happy hell.

I put stuff away, got my towel, got my conditioner, and then made my way to the showers, which were thankfully unoccupied.  I had a coin with a hole in it that I’d run a rubber band through, strapping it to the bottle.  I flipped it around to its other side to help me keep track of which days were shampoo and which were conditioner only.

I took more time than I should have, rinsing off and cooling off.  A part of me had expected to run into Bluestocking, but I was guessing she had her hands full over Earth N and the ever-present faction wars, this time involving Semiramis and Little Midas.

I did my best to fall into thinking about the politics of it all because it was difficult to shake my head of the other thoughts; thoughts that I’d inadvertently groped for and now found hard to let go of.  I was familiar with the pattern, of fighting with my brain to put away a line of thought I didn’t want anymore, but I was used to it being the darkest memories, so vivid they were real.  This was just the fact I really needed some kind of release on other fronts.

Fuck.

Makeup, just enough that people wouldn’t think I was ill because of a sudden shift in my appearance.  Concealer covered a bruise at my neck and a cut near my ear that I’d glued shut.

I put on a striped long sleeved top that was cropped wide at the waist, just where it met the line of the black jeans I hiked up into place, belting in with a pale belt decorated with a thin chain.  The base of the shirt was wide, but the pants hugged me enough that it didn’t have any unfortunate effects.

I pulled on and zipped up my boots, put my clothes and towel away, got my hairbrush out of my bag, and gathered up the black coat that was part of my Antares costume now, doubling as something to wear outside if I needed it.

Coat and bag under one arm, hairbrush in my other hand, I ran it through a few times, then kept it with me as I stepped out of the locker room and up the stairs into the hallway.  The little set of stairs and the fact the hallway was raised did a lot to mitigate the lingering smell of sweat and public showers.  Windows looked down at the physio space, and Darnall was standing a few feet away from a family that were cheering on their person.

A teenager from that family looked at me and did a double take.

I was more recognizable now, apparently.

“This isn’t how I usually am,” Dr. Darnall said, as I settled into place at his side, my head at an angle while I continued to run the brush through my hair.

“Ambush therapy?”

“You’re one of three capes on my caseload now.  It’s a fight every step of the way.  To make time, to get through to the tough stuff… not to generalize.”

“Of course not.”

“I only have three data points, but I’m starting to come around to what you said in one of our first sessions.  It doesn’t get any easier when you sprinkle some alien space dust on it.”

I smiled.

“I’m agreeing with you just a little bit,” he told me.  “You need to attend my sessions with regularity if you’re going to sway me.”

“Uh huh.”

“How are you managing?”

I had to think before I answered.  “Frustrated.”

“Frustrated.”

“Breakthrough was told thank you for the useful information about Teacher and everything that asshole is doing, but they wanted to handle it alone.  So they tried and they failed.  Teacher drops some more data, more reputations get ruined, so far focusing on Warden-peripheral groups.  The anti-parahuman groups are finding a new sort of strength, and we have capes actually hiding in the Bunker because they’re worried Teacher will go after them or track them.  Not that it helps.”

“So I hear.  Dragon is doing what she can to keep people updated, and that sounds more or less like what was passed on to me.”

“Sveta had her procedures, and that was a big distraction, but she’s done for now.  She’s having to work her way back from some coping mechanisms, hesitation in movement, and train her coordination.  That’s it.  I don’t have that as a distraction anymore.”

He nodded.  He’d asked for five minutes of my time, but now that he had it, he was standing there, staring out the window, not responding.

I looked out the window too, still brushing my hair.  Sveta was on a treadmill now.  Three people were, all moving at different speeds, each with their physiotherapists, coaches, or family members.

“Is there an angle here?” I asked, after a few too many seconds had passed.

“A few,” he said.

“I’m open to hearing it.”

“In our first meeting, I laid ground rules, set expectations.  I wanted and want to work with you, to set goals and work toward goals, and to help you make progress.  I asked for your patience.  You missed two sessions in a row, which suggests impatience and doesn’t let me see where you are to make progress.”

I squinted at the window, trying to judge how my damp hair was.  I stopped brushing.  “My physiotherapist said the same thing.”

“That’s an extension of my point.  That you stopped coming in to see me around the time you saw Ms. Yamada.  You’ve been pulling away from physio.  You are engaged in cape activity.  I may not be the most experienced person with capes, but I’ve worked with cops who threw themselves into their work when life got hard.  Into their other life.”

“Yeah.  Probably,” I said.  “It applies.  Not going to argue that comparison.”

“Meet me halfway?” he asked.  “I can’t help if you don’t work with me, or if I can’t see what you’re doing.”

I shuffled my stuff around, putting the brush in my bag and digging out my notebook.  I flipped through.  “Did my homework.”

“Not quite as meaningful with therapy as with physio,” Dr. Darnall told me.  “But that’s good.”

‘Homework’ in this case consisted of his little ‘draw your mood’ exercise, and answering from a selection of questions.  Pick a color to characterize yesterday.  Pick a word to characterize how you feel now.  If the next twenty four hours looked like a person, what would that person look like?

I liked the person one.

And then numbers.  Silly, stupid measures without a yardstick to measure them.

I looked over as Dr. Darnall read.  Each ‘day’ was me getting up, then drawing out a circle using the base of the glass of water I kept by my bed.  Inside and around that circle, I’d draw to characterize my current state.  Below, I’d answer the abstract questions.

In the bottom right, I had my numbers, each with their heading.  Mood.  Health.  Mind.  Friends.  Family.   I hated the 1-10 scale because it was so subjective, and a ten from weeks ago wasn’t a ten today.  Instead, I used a plus and minus system, except when a day called for a very specific number.

After that was my notes for physio, my notes for the day, and commentary.  Then a new page, a new circle and list of questions and answers, and a new set of numbers.

The page he started on, past a few cursory glances at the preceding ones, was the day after we’d found out about Teacher’s plot.  The morning I’d told Sveta to do her thing.

I’d borrowed Sveta’s paint.  I’d filled in the circle black.

To characterize the coming day and days, I’d described the days as a person who was bloody from fingertip to elbow, tattered, and looming over me.

Blood because of the imminent surgeries.  Because Teacher.  And because that had been the day I’d had to pass under the shadow of my sister.  Thanks to those tattoos of hers, thanks to that fucking selfish symbology that was supposed to represent me with suns and my face in silhouette, thanks most of all to the color red that stained her arms from finger to elbow and whoever knew how much else, she was that bloody, looming spectre.

But I’d had to.

He read my explanations, ran a finger across the numbers.  No pluses, obviously, not so much use for minuses.  It had been a day that had caught me off guard enough that there was no saying my mood or my connection to my friends was a minus one or a minus five.  Instead a 1, -2, 4, 3, 2.  Low numbers.

On the next page.  Another circle.  Black, but with lines radiating out, shaky, to represent anxiety.

Another, but I’d left the brush on the page, letting the black soak in, bleeding out over text.  I’d been so anxious I hadn’t had it in me to sit down and write anything meaningful.  I’d gone straight to my physio, then left.

On the third day, a black circle, but with sliver-like gaps.  I’d drawn eyes in the gaps.  I’d elaborated around, in what I’d intended as rays of the sun.

On the fourth, the same idea, but the eyes were larger, and there was less black.  I realized now that I’d invoked the Wretch, with so many eyes, and with the ‘rays’ radiating out having frayed ends, like wavy, reaching arms, fingers extended out.

He paged through the progression, the gradual relaxation.  To today.  A day where there were no more procedures.  Just appointments, plans for lunch, and plans to go catch up with the Wardens.  I’d kept up the use of the black paint, but used it to draw the circle, fat and bold and brutish, crushing brush against paper, tracing it around the base of my water cup.  Then I’d drawn lighter things and feelings within.

“Walls?” Darnall asked, touching the thick border.

“Maybe.”

“This doesn’t make up for you skipping visits, but it’s good to know how you were doing and how you are doing,” he said.  “There was another thing I wanted to say, again, I’m touching back on what I said before.  Goals.  Making goals, meeting goals.”

“Doesn’t feel like I’m meeting goals while being kept out of this Teacher bullcrap while the other teams are struggling to get in.”

“When we had our first session you floundered a bit, or- not floundered.  Flailed.  But you told me a few things that came from the heart and sounded genuine enough that I think they hold true on your best days and your worst days.  You wanted to save them.  People you cared about, that were put into your charge.”

I focused on Sveta, who was walking across the floor.  She looked up, saw me, and squeezed her fish, its eyes bulging out.

Then she disappeared into the locker room to have her shower and get changed.

“I have to admit, I thought it would be a good dramatic moment if she was there when I said this next bit, but… she looks like the weight of a world is off her shoulders, doesn’t she?”

I folded my arms, leaning against the window.  I gave him my best stern look.  “I think if you keep on talking like that, I’m going to get misty-eyed.”

“Is that so bad?  You say you’re frustrated but… let it out?  If you’re at the verge of being well and truly emotional for positive reasons, or with people you care about, then do.”

I thought about my earlier feelings about Anelace.  Ethan.  I didn’t want to date him.  I didn’t even like him as more than an acquaintance, let alone a romance of any kind.  But he hit the right marks for a fling, a test run.  I could imagine him being cool.  Awkwardly up-front and blunt, but cool.

“This might be a cape thing, because I’m worried if I do let it out then I might go overboard and hurt someone.”

“First of all, I have to say, if the emotions are positive, can they really hurt someone?”

I thought about letting four years of pent up needs out on a poor bastard like Anelace.  I thought too about how, about a year ago, I’d tried handling it as a solo venture, and got so caught up in the darkness in my own head that I hadn’t been able to breathe.  I’d thought I could manage just like I almost felt like I could manage now, and I’d ended up in tears instead.

Stupid, and it was the kind of stupid that I really didn’t want a spectator for, even if Anelace was cool.

For now, just… I’d call it a win and a plus in one column or another that I’d been able to privately harbor a nice, healthy fantasy.

And that was without getting into the topic of Sveta.  I thought about breaking down into happy tears now, and maybe being unable to get control, walls, and balances all together before something critical happened, and that leading in an indirect way to me being too violent with a cape who didn’t deserve it.

Just…

“Yeah,” I agreed.

“Well, I’ll just say that I don’t think worrying about opening the floodgates is necessarily a cape thing.  But- but!”

He’d seen me being ready to protest.

“But,” he went on.  “I’ll concede it might make things harder.  Do what you have to do.”

I nodded.

“But, you need to make me a concession in exchange.”

“What?” I asked, guarded.

“Recognizing a win and a major goal being completed is another thing on the list of stuff you gotta do.  You helped her.  This is where it’d be dramatic if she was still down there so I can indicate her and you can look at her and be moved.  Drama and presentation are big cape things, right?  I’ve got that down right?”

“Absolutely,” I said.  I laughed and it came out small and hiccup-ish.  I shook my head.  “Fuck.  No, she’s not there for your fancy dramatic moment that you’re visualizing, but she’s over in the locker room, sore as hell and probably redrawing the shapes and placements for the tattoos she’s already imagining getting for her fancy new body.  I think she’s happy and knowing that’s happening where I can’t see it is better.”

“Count your wins as wins.”

“I’m really fucking worried,” I said, and my voice was a hush.  “That this doesn’t end happy, despite my efforts.”

“So am I,” he said.  “But all you can do is be there.  If tragedy’s in store, being close will let you help more.  If there’s only more joy, then you lose nothing.”

I nodded.

Sveta emerged from the locker room, looked around, and saw us.  She wore a dress that was a riot of color, black leggings, and her patchwork, ankle-length coat.  She was shorter than me, the top of her head coming up to my nose.

And she was smiling.

He handed me back my notebook.  “Appointment in two days.”

“I’ll try,” I said.

He gave me a look.

“Thank you for this,” I told him.  “This talk.”

He left as Sveta approached.  There was a moment where it was just me, leaning against the window that overlooked the physio space.

Sveta hugged me, and I hugged her back.

“I’m discovering new muscles through the pain they’re giving me,” she said.  “Verdict is pretty good.”

“Good,” I said.

“I might be too sore to walk.  Carry me?”

“My arms are too sore.  I think you’re going to have to limp along on your own.  But you can lean on me.”

“I’d do that even if I could walk perfectly,” she said, turning the hug into a half-hug.  Her hand and part of her leg beneath her dress broke apart into a morass of tape-like bands that, after a few false starts, picked up my bag and coat, passing them to my hand.

It was a wet kind of winter day, rain coming down and forming near-immediate ice that broke at the slightest provocation, so many of our hoods were up, our coats fastened up to the highest points.

It was a strange mix, because we were all at different stages in our costume.  I had my coat, which was one costume element, Sveta had nothing.  Ashley had her costume, but it was covered up by a coat that wasn’t part of the design or aesthetic, she carried an umbrella, and beneath the shadow of that umbrella, white eyes rimmed with black smoked with the effect of Kenzie’s projection lenses.

Tristan was wearing his bodysuit beneath clothing and coat, but wasn’t wearing his armor, Rain had his mask on but was otherwise civilian…

Short of a designated safe zone where we could pull stuff on, there really wasn’t a good way to organize, orchestrate, and be costumed at the exact right place and exact right time.

“How was physio?” Tristan asked.

“Wonderful,” Sveta said.

“My therapist and physiotherapist are coordinating to chew me out on skipping appointments,” I said.  “But I talked to Darnall, and it was a good talk.  How are you guys doing?”

The response wasn’t immediate or easy.  A few glances were exchanged.

“Pretty shitty,” Tristan said.  “Sorry to be a downer.”

Sveta nodded.  “I get it.  I get… facing the fact we might not win this.”

“You know me.  I’m the kind of guy who likes to win, so I’m not going to call it quits just yet.”

“Yeah,” Sveta said, giving him an uneasy smile, like she was really trying, but it was hard.

“What about you guys?” I addressed the quieter contingent.

“I miss Kenzie,” Ashley said.  “I woke up late and she was already gone on a job.  You two were gone.  The morning felt empty.  Let’s just have our meetings and hear how much worse it all is.”

“There could be good news,” Sveta said.

Ashley turned Sveta’s way, and reached up to lightly pinch Sveta’s cheeks.

“Ow?”

“You decided not to use Rain’s blood as part of your body.  That’s fine.  Sensible.”

“Hey.”

“I like you, Rain, but we don’t know how inbred your family is.”

Wow, woah,” Tristan cut in.   “Ashley, what the hell?”

“It’s okay,” Rain butted in.  “It’s okay.”

Ashley still had one of Sveta’s cheeks in a light pinch.  “You decided not to use my DNA as part of your new body.  That’s fine, I’m not holding a grudge, but it shows a grave error in judgment and critical thinking, and if you think what the Wardens have to say today is going to be better than yesterday, then that grave lack of critical thinking may be chronic.”

“Ashley, what the hell?” I asked.

“It’s okay,” Rain said.

“It’s really not, kind of?” Sveta piped in.

“It’s okay,” Rain said.

“I’m going inside where it’s dry,” Ashley said, before turning and walking away.

Leaving us standing in the freezing rain.

“Did I actually offend her?” Sveta asked.  “She said it was fine, but now it isn’t.”

“It’s not that,” Rain said.  “She went off on someone on public transportation.”

“Went off,” I said, repeating the words.  “People-had-phones-out went off?”

“No,” Rain said.  He paused.  “Maybe.  Someone mentioned that people might start targeting her because she’s ex-Slaughterhouse.  She’s not dealing with it.”

“I don’t think any of us are,” Tristan said.

“Maybe we go inside and they say, hey, we won,” Sveta suggested.  “Crisis over.”

“Want to bet?” Tristan asked.  “I will bet you any amount of money.”

“I don’t want to bet, Tristan.”

Tristan shook his head, getting visibly angry.  “Byron, you take over.”

Then he blurred.

“Maybe I don’t feel like taking over,” Byron said.  But he didn’t change back.  He turned his face skyward, letting freezing rain patter against his skin.  “Should we go inside?”

We did.  Into the Warden’s headquarters.  We said our hellos to the receptionist, and joined Ashley where she was pacing by the stairs.

Up the stairs to the password hallway.  Rain handled it.

And into the Bunker.  The weather wasn’t as bad, though the snowfall was heavier.  Sheet metal formed a peaked cover over the path to the Warden’s headquarters.

I exhaled.  “How are you guys really?

“Not so bad,” Byron said, smiling.  “But play-acting that we’re down and defeated is kind of bleeding into reality.”

“And you scared the shit out of that guy on the train,” Rain told Ashley.

“He deserved it.”

Maybe, but we don’t want to make enemies.”

Ashley smiled, “I can deal.”

I made a face, but I didn’t say anything.

Ashley added, “I’m sorry for the comments.  There really are no hard feelings, Sveta.  My brain comes with zig-zagging chemicals and I would understand if you didn’t want to risk that.”

“That wasn’t why.”

“It’s fine.  I’m not bothered-”

She’s bothered.

“-and I’m sorry for the inbred comment, Rain.”

“It’s all right.  I don’t love my family enough to care if it’s insulted, and I don’t think it’s likely.  It was funny.”

“You were sounding like you enjoyed yourself,” I commented.

“I was.  But I felt bad.  Both of those can be true.”

“Tristan and I play-acted a fight this morning,” Byron said.  “Started out, uh, getting good things off our chest.  Might’ve cut a little too close to the bone a few times by the end.  We’ll have to negotiate rules before we do it again.”

“It’s good though,” I said  “Frustrations are mounting, we’re at our limit, and Teacher’s won.  Our worst traits rise to the surface.  We play that up, create a narrative.  Do what we can to look like we’re broken so they don’t have a reason to break us.”

“It’s easy for the act to become reality,” Rain said.  “Especially when we’re playing the role at any time we’re not here.”

I nodded.  He wasn’t wrong.

“Just gotta keep the peace and keep up the act until we’re sure we have enough points of access.  Then-”

“A heist,” Sveta said.

“Not really a heist,” Byron said.

“I know.  But heists are cool.”

Ashley put an arm around Sveta’s shoulders.  “They are.  But I would characterize this as a raid.”

“I was thinking surgical strike,” I said.

“Is it really a surgical strike if it’s large numbers, large scale and high on the collateral damage?” Byron asked.  “It’s a raid.  We’re raiding Teacher.”

The Bunker was now in view.  People were gathered around outside, letting snow fall on them while they talked, and others were inside.  Construction was ongoing, and would be up until the meeting started, at which point they’d all be told to quit it.

I watched the faces within, tracked the people, and I couldn’t help but imagine that much like my group had tested boundaries and found the willful backslide into bad behavior to be an easy and comfortable slide, there was more chaos and more energy in the mix.  All from a little bit of acting, a few pre-plotted incidents.

“Whatever it is, I hope we do it soon.”

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Black – 13.z

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The room was an unoccupied, unfurnished office, plaster and brick, hardwood floor, and a flickering light at the ceiling.  The light was too bright when on, and the room was too dark with the light off, and the room was just a little bit too warm for her liking.  Sleep escaped her.

It was, in every given moment, a feeling like being on a ledge, the natural and instinctive adjustments to fix her balance pushing her forward, and her stomach lurching, alarm surging through her mind.  She couldn’t remember having a stomach that would react like that, or being afraid of falling, but she’d dreamed of it, and so it was intimately familiar without truly existing.

A few hundred times over, she felt it.  Reflexive, natural movements, each one prompting that surge of alarm, of tension, the desire to overcorrect and overreact.  The feelings washed over her like a wave, overlapping, combining, contradicting.  Dealing with it in every minute of the last nine years.

The faces of the dead had never quite left her.  They drove that alarm home and made the analogy of the ledge a lie.  There was no dream of holding a baby, but she’d heard it before and she liked babies, so it made a kind of sense.  The feeling, a dozen times in a second, that she’d been holding a child and she’d let it slip and fall.  That a whole, entire, precious life would be lost.

That lurching, lost, horrible feeling came with every thread of herself that reached out.  Extended to hooks and pulls, moved along the kinetic pad, rods and framing that connected the mechanical arm Rain had made her to one of her primary organs.  He’d given her a gift by giving her these arms, because their movement felt like arms she’d dreamed of.  She could feel fingertips drag along plastic laminate, as she turned a page.

She had brought her portfolio with her.  Each picture was a story in a long and hard journey.  The earliest ones had no sanity, no order, no choice of color, only long and narrow slashes of paint.  When she hadn’t even had the control to pick what paint to use, only the paint, the canvas, and enough emotion boiling inside her to drive her to attack the canvas with that paint, to tear at the canvas.

Then, here, one picture.  Vertical slashes on glass, photographed, because the glass wasn’t canvas but someone had wanted to preserve the image for her.  Vertical because she’d struggled and fought so hard and so long on that day that her inhumanly strong limbs had lost their last iota of strength.  She had collapsed against the glass, tendrils slick from tearing open paint tubes, and she had slowly slumped down, dragging the paint down with her.

Then paintings with more form.  Experiments with control, to attack the canvas, then to move more gently, moving near it and directing focus elsewhere, so it was gentle movements only.  There were experiments where she had everything covered with paint and then used her tendrils to whip it away, uncovering the pale canvas beneath.  Negative images.

And then the practice with pens and paintbrushes.  The focus on manual control.  Crude, scribbled images, where pen was so often dragged wildly across the page mid-stroke.  Slow, gradual improvement.  A rough outline of her old room.  A staff member, viewed from the back through the glass wall of her room, as he cleaned up blood from the floor.  That had been after Ernesto had hurt himself.  Ernesto hadn’t had powers, just the bad luck to have a kid who developed them and accidentally used them on his dad before he learned control.  Or her dad, Sveta didn’t remember.  Ernesto had always sung to her from across the hall.

On the next page, one of her first attempts at a portrait, to try and draw Ernesto as she’d remembered him.

On the page after, emboldened by her efforts with Ernesto, she’d drawn Weld, even attempting to paint within the inked out lines.

She stared down at it for a long time.

A soft knock at the door disturbed her thoughts.

“Come in.”

The door opened, and it was Ms. Yamada who came in.  Sveta felt her heart leap and already jilted emotions whirl around inside her organs and head.

“I saw the light on under the door.  I was going to go upstairs and work on things until you woke up, if you were asleep.  But this doesn’t look like a very comfortable room.”

“It’s what I wanted,” Sveta answered, raising herself up.  Threads of herself worked with the prosthetic arms to hug the open portfolio against her chest.  She had the portfolio with her, some grooming things like a brush for her hair and a scrubber to get the waxy shedding off her tendrils, and a bunch of clothes she’d removed from her bag and piled around it to try to make a pillow.

Jessica had a pillow, she noticed.

“Sorry, to make you worry.  I’m alright.  I’ve dealt with worse.”

“I’d like to see you moving toward better.  Steadily, carefully.”

Oh.

“Sorry,” Sveta said, instinctively.  She hated when she did that.  “I didn’t think you were checking in on us anymore.  Weren’t you delegating?  We were going to see someone else.”

“Victoria contacted me,” Jessica said.  “It seemed important for me to come.  She was going to bring you things, but she gave them to me instead.”

“A pillow.”

“Yours, apparently.”

From Weld’s.  How many times had Sveta brought up the subject of pillows, in her nattering to Victoria?  How she was always worried she’d destroy someone’s pillow or make it lumpy, how it was all she really needed?

Victoria had been thinking about her.

She reached out with tendrils, and she saw the alarm cross Jessica’s face.

“Sorry!  Sorry.”

“It’s okay.  I’m impressed you’ve come so far,” Jessica said.  She relinquished the pillow.

Sveta took it, then hugged it to her upper body, lower face buried in it, eyes peering over.  She inhaled, and she could smell the familiar scents of Weld’s apartment.

“You’re not staying with your friends?” Jessica asked.

“No,” Sveta said.  “I’m anxious, and I keep playing out nightmare scenarios in my head.  The room they’re lending me is so nice, I’m worried if I slip up, I’ll break or tear something.  And the door doesn’t… secure.”

“It doesn’t lock?”

“It locks, but not in a way that stops me, or stops either of them.  I could tear off the doorknob and hurt the person standing on the other side, or take the door off the hinges.  I stayed there the last two nights and tonight I was here and I decided… maybe I’d stay in an office like this one.”

“Are you more comfortable?”

“This door doesn’t secure either.  But it’s better.”

“Let me know if I can help.”

“Okay.”

Again, she breathed in deep.  It comforted her and hurt at the same time.

“Victoria’s going to come in shortly.  She wanted me to hear you out or talk to you.  The way she puts it, she’s worried she bullied or pressured you into this, she wanted me as the contradicting opinion.  Someone who knows you well enough to be gentle.”

“You’re here to tell me it’s a bad idea?”

“I’m here to ask you why you think it’s a good idea.  Then we can talk about that.  Do you want to get comfortable?  I have more things Victoria gave me.”

“Oh, sorry, I’ll take it off your hands.”

Jessica didn’t flinch from the reaching tendrils this time.  Sveta took the bag, setting the portfolio down.

“I remember this,” Jessica said.  “Ernesto Ochoa?”

The portfolio hadn’t closed in the time since Sveta had been staring down at the page.  Now it lay on the floor, open to Ernesto’s sketch.

Sveta nodded, solemn.  She was glad the page had turned and that it wasn’t still open to the image of Weld she’d been looking at.

“You don’t still blame yourself for him, do you?  I remember, after he was transferred to another wing for care, you kept apologizing, over and over, even though you’d only ever offered him comforting words and kindness.”

“Isn’t it okay, if I did blame myself?” Sveta asked.

The bag had other pieces of clothing, new articles that Victoria had apparently picked out on her own, probably earlier tonight.  When Vic had offered to take Sveta shopping, Sveta had said she’d rather hang back here and rest.  Vicky had apparently gone shopping with her in mind regardless.

“I think blame isn’t healthy, as a rule.”

There was a stretchy, silky shirt that made Sveta think of Semiramis, with its color scheme.  Jade, gray, and cherry blossom pink.  It was pretty cool.  Not the kind of thing Sveta would have picked out on her own, but now it was apparently hers.  Its addition in her tiny wardrobe begged her to find things that matched it.

Sveta pulled a music player out of the bag that Victoria had sent.  She pressed the button to turn it on and clicked through the songs.  By the look of it, Victoria had asked Weld about what music she liked, then put it into the player.

And art supplies.  She had her own buried in among her stuff, but Victoria hadn’t known that.  It was a nice touch, and a clean, untainted notebook and paint set was inviting.

“Blame keeps you going, doesn’t it?  Ernesto needed to blame his wife for what happened to his child.  Indignation and quiet fury got him through days he otherwise wouldn’t have been able to manage.”

“It doesn’t make those days better.  It’s my feeling that every day he focused on being angry and hurt, he got further from being okay.”

“Should-” Sveta started.  She stopped as it hit her that she’d walked into a verbal trap, or that she was setting one up.  Neither was okay.  “Should I be okay?  So many people died.”

“You were just a child, and you weren’t given a choice.”

“But Rain was just a child too, not that much older, and he was threatened with horrible, horrible things, he was brainwashed from a young age, and he had Mama Mathers looking over his shoulder, ready to make him insane and then to make him a breeder for her cult.  He had a gun to his head and people act like-”

Jessica didn’t cut in, didn’t interrupt while Sveta thought aloud.

“-Like if Rain finds a ceiling to his self-blame or a point where he stops blaming himself, then he’s not repentant.”

“I have my own feelings about that, I’ve talked with him about them.  I would reiterate, you were just a child.”

“So I should be okay?  It’s okay for me to be… okay?”

She’d aimed to put an inflection on that last word, and then her voice had cracked as she’d uttered it, which doubled on the effect.  The effect was to make it sound far closer to how profound and impactful the notion was to her.  How scary and fragile.

She was playing dirty, she knew.  This was the verbal trap that would either get turned on her, or that she would turn on Jessica.  The idea of her being okay was too layered, too heavy, for it not to be used by one of them.

“There are no guarantees, and there’s no guarantee of justice in this.  There were cultures where they would put hot coals on your tongue if you were on trial, and if you were burned, you were guilty.  There’s no more rhyme or reason to how this ends up than there was in that.  If you try to imagine there is, then you could end up still holding incredible guilt, with a body that miraculously was fine, or you could end up with a body that was worse than what you have now and losing years of progress in every respect because you attached your expectations to the idea that you end up with what you deserve and then ended up with a tragic result.”

“Or I could get the worst of both worlds, which I feel like I’m doing now.  With a body that wants to kill people and all of the self-blame.  When I wanted to leave with Weld, I remember you saying I shouldn’t, you didn’t recommend it.  You said I had a choice.  I made a choice, and people died after that.  A lot of people.”

“I think you’re assigning yourself more blame than is right, for those deaths.  You played your part, you tried to help, and things were going poorly.”

Sveta shook her head.  Emotions surged and seethed through her organs and toward her face, not flushing it or leaving her teary-eyed or leaking bile through her tear ducts only because she controlled herself.

She wanted to say a hundred things, but she couldn’t bring herself to.

“May I?” Jessica asked.  She indicated the portfolio.

Sveta nodded.

“Can I sit?”

“I don’t have chairs in here.  You can sit on my bag.  Here.”

Sveta dragged the bag over by the wall.

“Sit with me?”  Jessica asked, as she sat against the wall, sitting on the bag, the portfolio in her lap.

Sveta nodded.  She was glad for the company, even though it was hard.  Jessica sat so their arms and shoulders touched.  Something that hadn’t been possible before.

The portfolio and her development from the oldest images to the newer ones was a depiction of her progress.  Things took on more details.  More mental resources were freed up as she learned coping skills.  Bricks laid atop one another, building something.  Progress, step by glacial step.

Jessica started to turn the page, when Sveta stopped her.

Children on the rocks, the paint used with an impasto technique to give rocks dimension and give equal dimension to the waves.  That didn’t quite translate to the digital printing of the image, but still…

The images of the children were cruder, not quite matched to the three-dimensional image of the rocks and water, which annoyed Sveta.

“Which one is you?” Jessica asked.

“I don’t know.  I was thinking about it last night.  Trying to remember who I was.  That’s when I dug my portfolio out of my things.  Bough says that my mental image of who I’m supposed to be is going to be really important to how this ends up.”

“Is that why you’re dwelling on the notion of blame and self-blame?”

“A bit.”

“My concern, Sveta, is so much more general than what you’re talking about here.  You’re making sure and steady progress toward a healthier, happier, more controlled state, and you’re risking throwing all of that away.”

“Where do you think I end up, Jessica?  If I take this road where I say no to Mr. Bough and I tell Victoria to stop looking for answers like that one… where do I end up?”

“I think… I can envision you with a man that loves you entirely as much as you deserve, who sees your heart and talent and who trusts, respects, and pays close attention to you-”

Sveta shook her head.

“-I can see it, and I think that’s something you’ve expressed is important to you.  I see you with a house of your own with a sunny art studio filled with plants and aquariums.  I see you adopting.  I see you taking your newfound love of cooking and sharing it with this family of yours.  With friends.  And you working with others who have their own struggles with power and control.”

Sveta touched the page with the children on the rocks.  “What if I want more?”

“What if you can’t?  Can you make peace with that?  There are many people with disabilities or syndromes who have to learn to live with their own struggles.  Chronic pain, a body that fights them, a lack of mobility…”

“There are people with disabilities who can fix those disabilities.  People who can’t see who can get a surgery.  People who can’t walk who can fix it.”

“There are.  But that doesn’t necessarily require working with someone like Mr. Bough.  There’s a vast, vast difference between a medical professional who has dedicated their lives to healing, and a man like that, who has spent much of his life taking people apart and turning them into a product he can sell.”

Sveta shook her head.  “I’ve already come to terms with that, I think.  It doesn’t take away or add to what he did, if I say yes or no.  I still blame him and hate him for what he is.  I just… I’m impatient.”

She touched the shadowy silhouette of the child on the page.

“I want to be her again.”

“Ahasa!  Ieuem!”

“Oyet!”

The black rocks by the shore were precarious.  Where the waves crashed against stone, specks of water beaded the black stone, making it slick.  Plant life drank the water and spread on the stone, camouflaged black on black, but slicker still.

They clambered over rock, careful with how they moved.  A cousin was arranging stones to weigh down a bowl, igniting the contents of that bowl.  A beacon on the rocks.  They were the oldest, and so they got that duty.

Which was fine, good, because everyone else got to draw.  Orange clay mixed with crushed seashell as a binding agent, with oil and fat from the forever drowning, those sea creatures with sharp teeth that had the same general shape as people, except with legs bound together into tails.

The mixture made for sticks that could be dragged across rock, leaving behind bright orange markings on black that would resist being washed off.  The boats that came in would find it necessary, with clouds rolling in and the sky getting so dark so early.  The craft out on the water were having to fight to get to shore, as the waves rose and fell.

It didn’t matter what they drew, only that they defined the rocks clearly, and that they move carefully on the stone that was slick with salt water, seaweed, and slime.  Some of the rock was as sharp as any glass the blower in the village made, and in the dim light, they were hard to see.

Nayet watched as her brother worked with handsome Micha to climb down to one of the bigger rock faces.  Micha hunted the forever drowning with his father, and was strong and always happy.  Dimi hadn’t yet grown out of the stage where he wore simple children’s tunics with orange clay bead collars, his hair a mop that hadn’t been cut like someone who’d come of age.  It was a year overdue and made him look that much more immature next to tall, strong Micha, who was roughly the same age.

“Ahasa, Micha i Dimi!” Nayet shouted at the two boys who were joking together.  Hurry.  “Hasa ayae a ihe punus yahey ehasa!”

Micha laughed, boisterous, while other kids either laughed with him or jeered.  Dimi blushed a red that she could see even in the gloom, ducking his head down.  Embarassed.

“No en, Nayet!” Micha said.  “Sen, senet, senehasa.  Yen senet babat ehasa, huh?”

Now the jeering was directed at her and at Dimi.

“Huh!” she answered, a smile on her face.

She drew, broad side of her biggest chalk-stick against a wall of black rock.  She made her drawing a ‘punu’- a large, dramatic and exaggerated image of a boy’s thing, that took up the entire length of rock, ten paces long.  She put symbols for good fortune at the root of it and symbols for safety coming out of the tip.

She wasn’t sure what it meant, but she hoped it would give the struggling fishermen a laugh and renew their strength as they made their way to shore.

They were allowed to write whatever so long as they wrote a lot, so they did more rude things.  Aspersions about Micha’s ‘babat’- his male caregiver, and what he did with the forever drowning.  He might get angry at that one.  More ‘punu’, crossed like the fighting sticks the boys and healthier girls used for play-fighting.

Thunder rumbled in the distance.  As one, the gathered youth answered with roars and shouts of their own, as if they could beat back the thunder with a cry of their own.

More seriously, they set to work, outlining rocks and adding more symbols and words.

The sky was filled with energy, and energy filled most of the children.  Dimi wasn’t one of them.  Nayet’s jab from earlier had him sour, and even Micha’s good temper wasn’t enough to rouse him from it.  Sulking, Dimi drew on his own.  More creative swirls, fish.  Birds.  Ones associated with good fortune.  That was probably why the older people in the village liked Dimi so much.

“Nayet, net abram milana,” Micha teased.

Nayet wiggled, plucking at her top.  “Mmah aah, Micha, eyehn den sealman.”

Micha only laughed at the aspersion.

Worried about her big brother, Nayet glanced down at the rocks.

He wasn’t any angrier or more upset, even though he’d clearly heard.  Not jealousy, not defensiveness over Micha.

She used up the last of her chalk-sticks and took more from the smaller children.  They’d done enough now, but when the storm came they would be cooped up, listening to the drum of the water on the clay tile roofs.  This would be their last chance, potentially for days, to stretch their arms and legs.

The sky rumbled, and the children, joined by one adult who had reached the shore, shouted back.

They weren’t even done their responses when the sky rumbled again.  The answering cries were strained, higher-pitched, more forced, because of course they had to be louder each time.

When the third rumble came, Nayet and Micha simultaneously noticed something was wrong.  Neither of them joined the others.

Another cry, a wail, was undercutting the raucous noise elsewhere.

Dimi had fallen, sliding on the rocks.  Now he wasn’t getting up.  Micha, big and boisterous and brave, wasn’t willing to climb down.

“Iyet!” Micha warned.

But Nayet wasn’t willing to leave her brother for the water to take.  Rocks painted orange were easier to grip, resisting the rain, and so she focused on those.  With the sky growing darker by the second, it was impossible to avoid the hidden blades, where black glass stuck out of rock and sliced into finger, hand, leg.  Nicks, skin-deep cuts.  Dimi had no doubt cut himself once, then reacted in pain.

And when he’d fallen, she saw, he’d slid against that surface with a dozen hidden blades.  He’d been raked, cut deep enough times that skin hung loose in places.  Perhaps the only thing that had saved him was that he wore the child’s tunic, a straight drop from clay collar to mid-thigh.  Had he been dressed like Micha, his upper body would have been exposed and cut to shreds.  Had he been dressed like her, it would have been back and midriff.  As it was, only three or four long cuts marked his body.

He was conscious, wide-eyed, lying in water that took on the color of his blood.  When she grabbed him, he grabbed her back.  That strength wouldn’t last long, and when it went, her grip alone wouldn’t be enough to get him from the water’s edge to higher ground.

The two of them fought, with Dimi using ruined arms and legs to help when he could, every motion trembling.  Her own limbs screamed at her with the countless cuts.

Why had he come down this side?  It faced a part of the shore few boats were likely to use.  Was it her fault, because she’d talked about how he and Micha would have time to play with each other later?

Already, Dimi was delirious, more focused on the broken bead at one corner of his tunic’s collar than he was on anything else.

Micha waited, belly down on painted rocks, reaching down to grab Dimi.

Dimi grabbed onto her, gripping her with a startling strength.

“Ya sazha,” Dimi whispered.

“Iyet,” Micha said, face pale.

“Ahasa,” she answered, ignoring Dimi, focusing on Micha.  “Aha!”

It was Micha who carried Dimi, who took Nayet’s urging and left her behind so he could get Dimi help sooner.  Exhaustion overtook her, as she’d strained every muscle in her body from toe to tongue to get Dimi to safer ground, and now that the battle-shock she’d leaned on to save Dimi was leaking away, her countless wounds were making themselves felt.  Bruises and cuts.  Younger children supported her as she trudged up the hill to her home, dreading what she would find.

Their parents were ready to take care of Dimi and to bring Nayet indoors.  Despite the storm that was surrounding their home, families banded together to give what they had to bandage and treat the wounds.  Cuts on the rocks were bad but they were something that could be managed.

Normally managed.

The storm was as bad as any they’d faced in Dimi’s lifetime.  The temperature dropped until the healthiest of them was chattering at the tooth.  And Nayet was drained, Dimi drained further still.

When bandages were peeled away, the skin around them was red, inflamed.  Strength and vitality continued to bleed out of the wounds.

Exhaustion claimed everyone, as water rose high enough to take the boats and the houses closest to the water.  The clay-worker’s lodge was taken, and because so many had already moved in with neighbors, Dimi’s family was the one to take the clay maker’s family in, crowding in shoulder to shoulder to wait out the storm.

In the midst of it, in the middle of the night, three kinds of Death came for them.  One lurched, a giant with crude features, no doubt a bludgeoning death.  Another prowled, six-limbed, each limb narrower than Dimi’s arm, and Dimi had shed weight seemingly by the second since his injuries.

The last was the scariest of them.  A woman with features like nothing any of them had seen before, gleaming and clicking in time like a music stripped of joy.  Interlocking pieces wove in and out of each other like fibers for a tunic, toothed like a saw with teeth meshing.

Ever-changing, parts shuffling and turning in time with the ticks of the joyless music, an endless, inevitable kind of rapping, like a man striking the same part of a drum every beat for all eternity.  Where a bludgeoning Death was something the children could understand, and a prowling Death made all the sense in the world, this woman promised a different kind of death.  A transformative death.

The same marking adorned all three of them.  A tilted cup, etched in black.

“Sou,” the woman with gleaming parts addressed them from the clay tile walkway between huts.  “Asher chie senet, atol, pava.  Iyet a ayon, ie eh zoya.”

A proclamation, a promise.

Give us your young with no future, the doomed, the sick, the lost.  You won’t see them again, but they may live.

She said other things, but neither Dimi nor Nayet heard.  They resisted faintly as their parents wrapped them in blankets, then took them out into the pouring rain.

The shock of cold water and the colder touch of the ever-transforming Death was enough to rob the sick children of their hearing, as their parents said last words.

Three Deaths carried them past the thresholds.

Jessica picked up her phone.  It had vibrated.

“Problem?” Sveta asked.

“No.  Victoria was wondering if I was still here.  She’s avoiding me, I think.  Keeping her distance.”

Sveta wasn’t sure what to say about that.

“I’m going to go.  It’s late enough I should sleep, and it seems you’ve come to a decision.  Please do call if you need anything, I’m not practicing-”

“You could have fooled me,” Sveta answered.  Then she caught herself.  “Sorry.  It’s late.”

“It’s okay.  I… yes.  I’m making a special exception here.  While I’m not practicing, I can pull strings and ask for favors.  I also do want to hear from you, however this goes.  If you need me I will come.”

Oh, those were horrible words to hear.  Ominous ones.  The only way Sveta would need Jessica was if things went terribly wrong.

Or even a little wrong.

Jessica stood, getting her things.

“Jessica?” Sveta asked.

“Yes?”

“Mr. Bough was telling me that, um, for what he does, how I end up is going to be a combination of his skill, my old self, and, uh, it helps to have things to splice in.  He’s asking for tissue or blood samples from people I would like to model my eventual self after.  We were thinking, um, we would collect a series of samples from people very close to me, people important to me.  And that would be a little bit of who I eventually became.  If everything went right.  It would only be, like, two percent of my eventual body, and it wouldn’t affect my face or my brain or, um, anything.”

Jessica didn’t look surprised at the request.

“Victoria mentioned that.”

Sveta spoke up, rushed, hurried, “I’m sorry, but would you- could you be one of those people, for me?”

She hated herself for asking, for forcing Jessica to give a harder answer.

“I don’t think I could or should, I’m sorry.  I feel like if I did, I wouldn’t be able to help you after.”

“It’s okay.  I understand,” Sveta said, even though she did feel hurt and she didn’t wholly understand.

“I’m leaving behind my caseload, but I’ll make a special exception for you, going forward.  If you need me, I will be here for you.”

“Thank you,” Sveta said, quiet.  “I appreciate that.”

“Good luck,” Ms. Yamada told her.

She heard a distant noise, a crash, and she screamed, top of her lungs, as if to drive that noise away.

It ignored her, pressing on.  She turned away, her focus limping like a person with a crushed leg might hobble forward in an ungainly way.  Where she focused, she lashed out, she grabbed, and she tended to move in that direction.  She couldn’t ignore the sounds of tramping boots.  She couldn’t ignore the lessons imparted in her so many times before.  This was a pattern, a nightmare set to endlessly repeat, front to back, forever.  Dread, anxiety, death.  Sometimes that death was animal.  Sometimes it was insect.  Those were- they were bad, for reasons different than the other deaths.  Her body wanted to eat and that meant making her eat.  If she didn’t eat of her own accord, chewing and swallowing, then this writhing body of hers would pull food against her face until it was crushed against lip and tooth, feeding her by forced morsels and fighting every step of the way.

If she didn’t eat the rodents, the dogs, and the centipedes, then it would try to feed her the people, and she couldn’t bear that.  If she ate then she had more control, and if she had control then she could avoid the worst cases.  If she could maintain a kind of stability and train her focus, keep the deaths to cats and rodents, then it was a nightmare, but it was a looping nightmare that stayed stable.  By night, she would dream, of a village by the water, of peers and friends, family.

She’d been imprisoned alongside- had it been her brother?  And then she had become this and they had become dead, crushed to death by the movements of a body of black stone, ground into wall and floor until there was only pulp, and black gobbets that creaked like rock and twitched like meat.

That was stability.  To dream of things lost and live to avoid more loss.

This, the sound of boots, was the loss of that stability.  The descent into a whirlpool of worse and worse, darker and darker, less and less control.  If she killed a person, and she’d killed so many now, tearing into a crowd, then being hunted after, they came for her.

With limping, struggling movements, she fought to get away, focusing attention on anything that could be a handhold, willing her body to cooperate.  Her movement was slowed because her body insisted on carrying its next potential meal with her, dragging an arm, neck, shoulder, and the crushed lower part of a head behind.

“Upstairs!” was the shout, in English.  “I hear it!”

She screamed, long and loud, raw, to answer that coming fury with something that might drive it away.

“I’ll go.  Back me up,” was a woman’s voice.

Again, she screamed, her voice higher-pitched, more frantic.

The person came into view, a woman in a skintight outfit, wearing pieces of armor, broader across the shoulders than anyone she’d seen, man or woman, muscular, and wearing a helmet with red hair flowing behind.

She attacked by instinct, gripping, roping, choking.

“C’mere,” the woman said, gripping tendrils and hauling her in closer.  “Finally got you.”

She screamed, snarled, her body fighting to get away, to crush.  Nothing worked.

The woman pulled her in closer and closer, until gauntleted hands gripped her by the face.

They were eye to eye.  The woman’s eyes searched her expression.  In answer, she only trembled, tendrils continuing to lash out.

“Oh, you poor thing.  You’re not doing this on purpose.”

“No,” she said, in a voice she’d barely used except to scream.  She knew English even though she didn’t know why, like she knew Russian.  This was her first time using it.  “I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry.”

“I’m a heroine, okay?  They called us in to help and now we’re going to get you that help, alright?”

“I’m so sorry.  I’m sorry.”

The heroine hugged her, bringing face to chest, clumsy in how forceful she was, but unbearably kind.

Victoria hugged her almost immediately after coming in the door.

“You got everything I sent?”

Sveta nodded.  “Pillow.  The shirt.”

“I gave you several shirts, and now I’m really curious which one you like enough to call ‘the’ shirt.”

Sveta allowed herself a chuckle.  She broke the hug and turned, reaching for and picking up the shirt with jade and gray and light pink as boldly outlined cloud and animal shapes.

“Aha,” Victoria said.  She smiled.

It was good to see her smile.  She looked tired.

“How are things?  I’m a little out of the loop.”

“Things are manageable.  There was a triple-hit of releases, copies of messages from an online, inter-team message service, like the chatroom you guys used to talk outside of therapy.  They weren’t flattering, but Dragon pulled a retroactive overhaul of the look and style for the message system and we were able to respond by saying ‘no, this is what our messages look like.  Someone made that up’.  It happened in like, fifteen seconds, with five or six of us responding, so it’s… really positive.  It means people are second guessing things, being critical of what they read.”

“That’s really good.”

“The downside is we’re expecting them to drop something a lot heavier.  It’s been a few days of quiet since we uncovered it all, then this, and we don’t think they’re going to leave it at this.”

Sveta nodded.  “Scary.”

“It is.  But how are you?  Are you managing?  Are you comfortable?”

“I can’t completely relax,” Sveta admitted.  “I worry an employee is going to come through the door and it’ll take too long for me to pull myself together.”

“Let’s do something about that, then.  I can think of a few options.”

“Like?”

“What if we used our tech to drop you into another world?  Somewhere sunny where you can swim.  Forget everything.”

“Seems lonely,” Sveta said.

“Might be,” Victoria said.  “We could also, if you’re willing, use one of the empty cells.”

Sveta’s immediate reaction was an instinctive jerk back.  Then, as she thought on it, she relaxed some.  She’d had bad dreams about being imprisoned, surrounded by nightmares.  She’d found some catharsis and fresh horror in revisiting that field of nightmares organized into small boxes.  Cauldron’s cells.  Where she had once been kept.

It was the very first time and only time she’d really validated that her dreams had any foundation in reality.

“That might be better.”

“Are you feeling out of control?”

“I feel like if I don’t make sure absolutely nothing can go wrong, it will go wrong.  And it might go wrong no matter what.  Ms. Yamada thinks it will go wrong.”

Victoria made a face.

“Yeah,” Sveta said.  “She wishes me luck.  But she won’t say I should and she was very careful to say if I need her, or when I need her, I can ask for her.”

“Was I wrong to send her?”

Sveta shook her head.

“I wanted… maybe it’s selfish, but I wanted to make sure I wasn’t steamrolling you, that I picked the best person I could think of who could argue against my idea.”

“It was good.  It was fine.  I was glad to see her and to talk for-” Sveta said, pausing, “-what time is it?”

“Five in the morning, about.”

“For hours,” Sveta said.  “It’s really five?”

“Yep.”

“What the hell are you doing up at five, you moron?”

“Keeping you company.  Expecting you wouldn’t be sleeping, and figuring I could go over notes and work on stuff in a safer place if you were asleep.  But mostly figuring you wouldn’t be getting much sleep.”

Sveta shook her head.

“Do you want food?  I can get food.  Or anything you want.”

“I want, um, it might sound weird, but that idea about going into a cell.  Where I can let my hair down.  Before people wake up and employees come in?”

“Okay,” Victoria said.  “Get your stuff, and let’s go.”

Victoria helped grab things, carrying the pillow and the portfolio, while Sveta brought the bag with clothes and other hygiene things.

They passed through the hallway, and Victoria was fatigued enough she got one of the passwords slightly wrong.  Into the bunker.  Down the side path to the prison.

“Who do you want for company?” Victoria asked.

“Put me close to Bough?”

It took a minute to negotiate with the guards, ensure everything was okay.  Then she locked herself in, ensuring she had her phone secured where she couldn’t damage it.  She shed her prosthetic arms, jumping as the shock marked the detachment of the kinetic pads, and placed them away with care, surrounded by clothes.  She shed her clothes for the most part as well.

She let herself unfurl and reach out, finding things to anchor onto, and she had to take steps to relax, to undo the steps and the measures to keep things focused.  A headache she didn’t know she’d had eased.

In this cell, which had its reinforced glass and chickenwire on four sides, opaque panels providing some privacy, she could see the landscape beyond, and the night sky.  She could track the time of day.

Her portfolio she opened, pulling apart the rings that bound the pages together, and she let the pages scatter, decorating her cell with art and memories, personality and meaning.

Only then did she look past the glass at Mr. Bough, who was her neighbor.  She willed him to see her and her art, to know she was a person and not a patient or a subject.  She hoped that small measure would make a difference, if a difference was needed.

But her art was her own measure for sanity.  Her music, she put on at a low enough volume it shouldn’t bother the others.

This would do.  It would allow her to manage, for as long as this ended up needing.  For as long as she had her art, her music, and the ability to create, she could stay sane.  She was locked up and locked up was safe, whether it was in a hospital room, in a cage of Weld’s own body, her prosthetic body, or a cell.  Nothing could spiral down and out, getting worse and darker.

Something clinked at the door.  Sveta turned to look.

A vial with a plastic stopper.  Then another.  Then another.  All dropped into the slot in the door where file folders normally rested flush against the glass.  All crimson.

She drew close enough to look.

Antares.  Swansong.  Precipice.  K. Armstrong.

“Swansong and Precipice said you hadn’t asked, but they thought they’d offer.  We didn’t ask Lookout, but you know she’d say yes.  Tristan said he really doesn’t like getting his blood drawn so he won’t go out to do it until he’s asked.”

“It’s really kind,” Sveta said, blinking hard.  “Armstrong did?”

“He did.”

“And the others.  I- I don’t even know.  People are so kind, but-”

“You’re allowed to say no, if you have reasons, aesthetic or because of power interactions, cluster-”

“I thought of you and Ms. Yamada because I thought you were the people who I’d like to make a kind of official, unofficial family.  I wouldn’t have dared to ask Mr. Armstrong but I’m really glad and really touched.”

Victoria nodded.

Sveta was misty eyed, and remained where she was, looking at the vials, as Victoria found a position sitting down, leaning against the door.

Sveta found her own position there, a foot or so from her friend, meeting her eyes.  She hadn’t expected or counted on the company, but it meant a lot.  The blood for the procedure with Bough, too.

She got her fresh new art supplies, held it where Victoria could sit and watch with her head leaning against the glass, and she started drawing.

“Coming in,” the nurse said.

She wore the bodysuit, with its overlarge head and reinforced neck, a spacesuit in a normal atmosphere, reinforced three times over.

Sveta concentrated, focusing on the steps.  Visual images of bricks, every second as something that mattered, another brick on a wall, that wall as part of a larger construction, that large construction being art, something she crystallized in her own mind’s eye, elaborated on, refined to the precise detail.

Another trick was word games, switching from Russian to English.  One she played, she had a board in her head, like the game with letter tiles on a grid.  She alternated from English to Russian, matching by sounds rather than by letter, and tried to build it into something elaborate that she held in her head.

When she felt like she was in a good place, level and calm, she opened her eyes, looked at the nurse.

“Ready?”

“Yes ma’am,” Sveta answered.

If she snapped, let her control slip, if she sent one tendril the wrong way, then that might be the end of this experiment.

“Not too tight,” the nurse told her, while extending an arm.

Tendrils reached for and found the arm, and with care, she brought herself closer.  The nurse carried her out into the hallway.  The space had been evacuated, except for another employee who was in the spacesuit.

The freedom was exhilarating and the exhilaration was enough to make her anxious.  A tendril batted against the nurse’s helmet, which made her stop in her tracks.

“I’m okay,” Sveta said.  “Sorry.”

This was a judgment call.  The nurse could easily decide to turn back and carry her to her room.

Instead, the woman carried her forward.  Into a rec room, with television and computers.

Sveta thought what she was looking at was ten or fifteen people sprawled across the couch, an arm thrown over here, a leg thrown over there, head resting against backrest, another dangling near the floor.  All in the same dull gray sweatclothes, all with the same blonde hair, cropped short except in one case, where it grew long.

Except they were one person.

A computer was positioned next to the couch, and hands worked, struggled to coordinate to operate the keys.  Each key had a hole in it where joysticks could be screwed in.  Pull to push down.  They typed with effort.

“That’s my computer,” Sveta said.

The typing stopped.

“I mean, it’s the one I use, but I guess you’re one of the other two people I share it with,” Sveta said.  She pulled herself to the computer stand, and wrapped herself around the stand, resting her chin on the top of the monitor.  “I’m sorry if I hog it.”

Typing resumed.

“Its o.k.,” was the mechanical text-to-voice response.  After a short delay.  “Do you want to use it?”

Beneath the girl’s clothes, a tube shuddered, audibly slurping.  Multiple sets of eyes closed, as if in pain, or bothered.

“No.  You need it to talk, right?”

“I do not have much to say.”

“I can’t believe that,” Sveta said.  “I’m Sveta.  I’m a case fifty-three, which is what they officially call people like me.”

“I know.  I studied capes once.”

“Awesome,” Sveta said.  “So you do have something you’re into.  My thing is art, and a bit of video games, which is where I hog the computer.  I only follow some capes-”

“-What kind of art?”

“Painting, and drawing, and anything I can manage.  It’s therapy for me.  Sorry if I’m talking too much.”

“No.”

“Okay.  Just let me know,” Sveta said.  “What-”

“What capes?”

“What capes?  What capes do I follow?”

“Yes.”

“Um, sorry, before I answer, communicating like this is tricky.  Is it okay if I talk over, and then you interrupt, or do you want me to wait, or, um, sorry, just thinking-”

“Watch, question mark.”

“Watch the screen.  I’m dumb.  Okay, but um- if you grab me I might hurt you.  I’m not one hundred percent.”

“Do you need to go back to your room, Garotte?” the nurse at the door asked.

“No!  No.  I’m okay.  I’m just being careful.”

“Okay.”

A finger pointed from couch to the screen.  Sveta maneuvered to look.

It’s okay if you hurt me.  My psych and the nurse explained the risk.  If you hurt my hand or one of my heads, I have more.

Sveta settled down, much of her body finding some purchase across and along the floor, at the couch legs, and at the base of the computer stand.  She watched as words appeared.

I could use some company.

“Me too,” Sveta said.

You were talking about capes you like.

“Oh, yeah, I-” Sveta started, stopping as more words started to appear.

Warning: get me going on this topic and I may not stop.

“Warning acknowledged,” Sveta said.  She twisted around to shoot her new companion a smile.  “I have one favorite, and he’s Weld.”

I know Weld.

“You know who he is?  That’s great.  The more popular he gets, the better it is for all of us.  Erm, us being case fifty-threes like me.”

I know him know him.

“You know him?  Is he half as cool as he seems from- from media and videos and stuff?”

Yes.

Sveta was twisting around, to look between her companion and the screen with responses.

“If you get me started on that subject, I might never stop.  That’s my warning to you,” Sveta said.

Great.

“But- oh, man, this has been bugging me, and I’ve been searching, but I wanted to look up the heroine who found me, back when I was in Russia.  I’ve been looking but I can’t find her.  Do you think-”

YesTell me about her.

Then they were at it, not stopping in their exchange or chatter for more than a second at a time, until their turn in the rec room was done.

“This is going to be a multi-step procedure.  My planned approach will be to knit together your tendrils, three at a time.  Once that’s done, I want to fray the edges, make them serrated.  Then we knit them together.”

Sveta nodded.

Mr. Bough drew on the wall of his cell in erasable marker.  “It’s like a zipper.  With this, we can create a general framework, outline proportions, and from there we add mass, fill it in.  Inside-out, bone, organ, muscle, nervous tissue, skin.  It’s possible this will require multiple procedures over weeks.”

“Misleading,” Effervescent murmured.

“What?” Mr. Bough asked.  “You were there when they attacked us.”

“Arrested you.  For very good reason,” Effervescent said.  “You’re fibbing about the weeks.”

“It may require multiple procedures.”

“That’s true,” Effervescent said.

“Spanning days or weeks.”

“Less true.”

“Don’t jerk us around, Mr. Bough,” Victoria said.

The man drew in breath through his teeth.

“A couple of days or sessions?” Victoria asked.

“More likely.”

“There we go,” Effervescent said.

Mr. Bough frowned.  “I don’t know how your power will interact with this.  It’s my experience that powers tend to find a way.  When I was in Boston, there was a group that mutilated themselves to try to force their powers to travel in these alternate paths.  It worked.  They were strong.”

Sveta looked at Victoria.  Victoria’s power had found a way, wrapping its forcefield around the new body, then holding that shape after.

“How do we work with that?” Victoria asked.

“I think the best way is to give the power a way.  It might mean you’re not perfectly, one hundred percent an ordinary girl, but it might also mean that when your power does try to find a way, it doesn’t find that way by tearing your new body apart.”

Mr. Bough drew on the cell wall.  A hand with a hole in it, a line snaking out like a tongue from a mouth.

“I don’t want to be hollow,” Sveta said.

“There are other options.”

“Okay,” Sveta said.

“I feel like we glossed over the surgery and timetable,” Victoria said.  “Can we walk it back a bit?  Was that glossing intentional?”

“No,” Mr. Bough said.

“I don’t get the weird manipulation feeling from that response,” Effervescent said.

“Thank you,” Victoria said.  “Timetable, surgery.  How?”

“I make needles,” Mr. Bough said.  He ran his finger along his arm, and a needle slid out of it, a foot long and, as it disconnected from the flesh, bulbous at the tip.  “I can place what I need at the head, and it will disseminate into the patient.  That way, I can splice in traits I want-”

“What the patient wants,” Victoria said, stern.

“He wasn’t being duplicitous,” Effervescent said.

“Just sketchy,” Victoria muttered.  “Go on.”

“Some of this, if I use the right pins, and I do plan to, is going to tap into the patient’s self image.  Some of this is necessary to make the connections feel natural, making the body feel intuitive, instead of like a fit of shoes that’re the right size but worn and stretched out to fit someone else’s subtly different foot.”

“I’ve been using tech that uses the same principle,” Sveta said, moving her arm.

“Good.  That’s interesting, and promising.”

“If you were willing to let my companion do his thing-”

“No,” Victoria said.

“-he could unlock your missing memories and make that connection much stronger, bring your body closer to your actual self, that’s buried deep in your memories.”

“No,” Victoria said.  “Effervescent can’t get a good read on Mr. Drowsing and it feels more like a bad idea.”

Sveta nodded.  “Agreed.  At least for now.”

“Okay.  Just saying.  I can also make edits.  They’ll propagate through, depending on where the needle rests.  Rewrite DNA, alter the design, encourage adding mass… this won’t be easy.  I’m going to add mass and it’s going to look very wrong, even frightening, because of how far it deviates from who you are and what you want.  Tearing down or replacing is a lot easier than building.”

“Okay,” Sveta answered.

“This will be ugly.”

“This whole thing is going to be ugly,” Weld said.

Sveta wanted to reply, but she couldn’t bring herself to.  Not the way she should.

“Yeah,” was all she managed.

His bed was a collection of ripped up old tires that he’d set up in the back of the truck.  He’d thrown around some pillows so that others could lie down if they wanted to, and as he undid the loops and bindings that held her close to him, she reached for the pillow.  Being by his side and at his back was reassuring, and it was often distant, because even though she was touching him, reaching through him in places where her tendrils threaded into one part of his body and out of another, she didn’t face him.  Now she hid, pulling the biggest, toughest pillow around, hugging it.

In the background, the chatter of the other Irregulars could be heard.  Outside the truck, they talked and made late meals.

“Do you want the ball?” he asked, picking up the reinforced hamster ball.

“Not just yet?  Is that okay?”

“Perfectly okay,” he said, easing down and lying across the bedding.  His fingertips hit the side of the truck as he dropped his arm, producing a percussive bang.

“Do you want me to get lost?” she asked.  “I’d understand if you wanted your room to yourself.  We’ve got… thirty-seven Irregulars now.  It’s a lot.”

“Yeah,” he said.  He didn’t raise his head, instead staring up at the ceiling.  “Talking to some of the other groups about allying.  It could bring us up to forty-five, forty eight.  We’re estimating about ninety, ninety-five in total, that are still alive right now.  We could double that number if we included people like the ones you talked about from the asylum.”

“Maybe,” she said.  He was referring to the victims of powers.  People like Victoria, or Ernesto, or Colony, or Mick the Tick.  “I don’t think the others would go for it.”

“So many different factions.  So many politics.  You are maybe one of four people who get it, who I can talk to without stressing out.”

“I’m glad,” she said, her voice small.

“Thank you for having my back, in more ways than the one.”

“Ha,” she said, dropping her eyes.  She hated it and loved it at the same time.

“Hey,” Weld said.  “Hand.  High five or fist bump, but don’t leave me hanging.”

He was lying on the bed, arm extended above him, hand out and distorted, so the upper half resembled a fist, and the lower half had the palm.

Three tendrils slapped across his palm.  A bunch hit the fist a second later.  Two remained attached, as he kept his hand up there, holding on.

“I’m not good at this leadership thing,” he said.

“I don’t believe that for a second.”

“I screwed up in about fifteen seconds when talking to my first team, back in Brockton Bay.  I’m not sure I’m doing better here.”

“You inspire,” she told him.  “You inspire me, you inspire all of them.”

“Inspiring isn’t the same as leading.”

“You lead just fine.  People love and respect you.  We trust you.  You just… you don’t love and trust and respect yourself enough.”

“Do any of us truly love ourselves?  Our ‘tooth and nail’ faction aside?”

The group had banded together in the eastern United States and celebrated their case fifty-three nature.  To an extent, they celebrated it at the expense of non case fifty-threes.  Their recruitment had come with stern rules.

“I like us,” she said, and it was so close to saying what she wanted to say that she felt a little dizzy.  Small vital organs pumped and beat behind and beneath her like a trail of thudding hearts.

“I like us too,” he said.  His voice dropped, “But I don’t like me.”

Those thudding hearts shriveled, bile churned inside her, and despair threatened to consume her brain, insofar as she had an actual thinking-organ.  To see this wonderful, amazing boy so lost and struggling, even knowing it was because the week had been long and fruitless, it almost physically hurt.

“If you could only see yourself how I see you,” she said.  She tugged on the arm he still held out at an angle, that she still held, like she’d slapped him a high-five and then kept her hand there, holding his.

He dropped the arm, draping his arm over his face, eyes hidden in the crook of the elbow.  “Likewise.”

An automatic response.

“No, I don’t think it’s likewise,” she said.  “You’re smart, you’re good at so many things, you’re one of the nicest people I know, and one of the people who’s done the most to make the world a better place.  You are so beautiful, you have so many people who would give their right arm to be with you-”

“No,” he said.  “Listen, I know there’s a standard pep talk that comes with talking to other case fifty-threes.  I get it.  We tell each other we’re beautiful in our own way, we lie and we say anything’s possible.  And I- if I’m honest, I don’t really like it or buy into it, so I don’t say it, but I won’t say anything if someone else says it.  But you don’t need to give me the patter.”

“It’s not patter.  Weld-”

He pulled his hand away from where she held it, letting it fall alongside his body and leg.

Weld,” she said, raising herself up and over him.  Again, that trail of almost-hearts pumped within the curtain of tendrils.  “Speaking as the girl who is sort of in your bed-”

She was going to regret saying that for the next fifty years.

He moved his arm away from his eyes.  She almost lost the nerve to speak.

Almost, but somewhere inside her, some bizarre firework of images went off.  All of Weld’s star power, the folder of images and promotional material she’d saved of him that she would never ever show him, and the very normal, very silly things like how he talked among friends, among old teammates, and how he talked to leaders and capes or community people he respected, how he talked to her, how he laughed at some shows and how he looked when he listened to the exact right piece of music and let the tension melt away…

How he looked right now, just a guy that was eighteen or nineteen with a whole community leaning on him, weary and lonely…

Letting that summation of a person hurt was far scarier than even losing this friendship.

“A-as the girl who is kind of in your bed right now, if I could kiss you I don’t think I would ever stop.  You are beautiful and handsome and sexy and I would stake my life on the fact that there are thousands, tens of thousands of girls out there who would die happy if you would love them and let them love you.  If you let them see the you that is kind to children and who stands up to bullies.  If you let them see the you that listens to anti-music and laughs so hard, or the you that looks so happy when another case fifty-three has an achievement or hits a personal milestone.”

“You’re not so bad yourself, you know,” he told her.  “Not many people could say all that, so well or so convincingly.”

“I can say it because I mean it, and if there’s anything I want to come from our friendship or my embarrassing myself like this, I want you to believe it too, okay?  I want you to get to where you find a girl and you believe everything I just said.”

He reached out, and her tendrils snapped to his arm.  Impulsively, she brought her face close to his, and she kissed him.

Then she pulled away.  She reached for music she knew he liked and put it on.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m running away,” she said.  “Because I’m so embarrassed I can’t think straight.  Hamster ball for me, I’m going to roll out into the nearest ditch and bury myself.”

“Don’t.  Stay.”

“I can’t, I shouldn’t, I don’t know, I’m sorry,” she said.  Her feelings and thoughts were all fireworks, still, but now they were explosions of doubt, and a chasing shadow of blood, past and future.

“If I want anything from this, I want you to get to where you don’t feel you have to run, and where you don’t feel like you have to apologize.”

The music swelled.

“Good choice,” he said.  “Don’t be gone too long or I’ll worry.”

Hamster ball.  Lid on but ajar, door opened, lid screwed in.  This one had pegs she could use to propel herself.  She went out the open door.

The other trucks and vehicles were crowded around.  One of the case fifty-threes was acting as a television, projecting signals onto the side of a truck.

She fled from all of them, the surge of positive emotion giving way to doubts and anxieties.  She wouldn’t have been able to forgive herself if she hadn’t said anything and she couldn’t forgive herself now that she had.

There wasn’t any good ditch nearby, so she propelled herself in the direction of the woods, stopping at the treeline.  She stopped to ponder the mechanics of trying to bury herself alive inside her hamster ball, dismissed it as a silly idea, and spent long minutes stewing inside her own mire of thoughts, instead.

Footsteps trudged through grass, prompting her to turn around.

“Hi.”

She injected false positivity into her voice, “Hey Egg!”

“Can I pick you up?”

“Yep.  Come on, cheek, cheek.”

He made a face, but he politely obeyed, holding the ball to one of his cheeks so she could faux-kiss it through the hard plastic, then turned his other cheek.  It had started with one of the others doing it, one of the case fifty-threes from Europe, a boy, had kissed Egg.  To get Egg to relax about it more of the Irregulars had started doing it.  That it included some girls seemed to motivate Egg.

“How’s our seniorest junior member doing?” she asked.

“I’m happy.  I never thought life could be this good.”

“I’m so glad,” she said, her spirits lifting some from where they’d been.

“It’s a temporary kind of good, but it’s good.  Are you okay?  Are you good?”

“I’m… feeling very full of complicated.”

“Sitting in a ball in the woods-”

“Edge of the woods.”

“Doing nothing but getting ticks and mites and fleas all over you, crawling in through the air holes.”

“Ew, no, ick.”

“No,” he said.  He held her up, moved his flashlight against the orb, illuminating everything and creating stars behind her eyes, and searched the interior.  “One ant.”

“Great.  Company.”

There was laughter from one of the groups by the trucks.  Weld had left the truck and was probably looking for her or something.  She felt five different kinds of humiliated and awful.

“Sitting in the woods in the dark with an ant to keep you company.”

“And you.”

“And me,” Egg said.  He smiled.

“Just thinking,” she said.

She watched as the smile fell from Egg’s face.

“What?”

“I was talking with some of the guys, I think it was yesterday.  You know, I’m the oldest of the under-sixteens.  The older Irregulars found the one we’re calling The Cloak two days ago-”

“Mantellum.”

“Yeah.  And it sounds like as soon as we have a good window or opportunity to go after Cauldron, we can.”

She nodded.

“We were talking about who’s going and it sounds like I am.  The other junior Irregulars aren’t.  Whippersnap and those guys.”

“Yes,” she said.  She’d talked about it with Weld.

“They wanted answers, and they were asking questions, making sure we were all on the same page.  We have thirty-ish people-”

“Thirty-seven.”

“And six or seven groups or cliques inside this.  We might have more depending on who we recruit.”

She nodded.

“About the only thing most of us can agree on is we want justice.  I know you’ve talked about how bloody and horrible it was when you were dropped off near Karelia Lake.”

Before Wieldmaiden from the Guild had rescued her and taken her to the Asylum.

“Yeah,” she said, feeling diminished, aware of the darkness, the cold, and how close those mangled bodies were to her, as if Egg could take two steps forward, taking her those two steps back, and place her right in the midst of that bloody scene where she carried around part of a mangled body for hours before convincing her body to let her go.

That carnage and death followed her always.

“I know how angry you really are,” Egg said.

“Yeah,” she said.  “I was.  But I’ve calmed down.  I’ve realized that I don’t like the blood or violence.  It gets to me.”

Thanks to Weld, in part, for helping me get my head around it all.

“Not everyone has calmed down.  Some are angrier now than they used to be.  Some of those people are wondering… did you end up talking to Weld?  You were with us and you were saying we should back down, not bother him while he was stressed, and you’d find a time to bring it up.”

The idea of talking to him about that and breaking his heart shook her.  She wasn’t even sure how she would.  She wasn’t sure how she wouldn’t, or how things would go if she didn’t.

“I had… a conversation with him.”

“Do we need to worry?”

“I-I’m not the person to do this, I think.  I paint, I- draw.  I try to be moral support, and an extra set of eyes to watch over him if we’re in a situation he needs it.”

“Do we need to worry?” Egg asked, and his tone was fiercer, more dangerous.

What did that even mean?  Would he hurt Weld?

What happened if she said yes?  They’d hurt Weld?   Pressure him?  Depose him as leader?

What happened if she said no?  They would go on doing what they were doing, and maybe there was a chance she and Weld would convince them there was a better way, like Weld had convinced her?

“No,” she said.  “But don’t pressure him.  And if he says anything on the subject, try to hear him out?  Be fair to him?  You outnumber him-”

“We outnumber him.”

You do.  So be fair to him.”

“I’ll tell the others to play nice,” Egg said.  “Do you want me to put you down?”

“Please,” she said, not one hundred percent sure what Egg meant with the first part.  She didn’t want division among the only family she knew, and she definitely didn’t want to be the cause of it.

Egg laid her ball down in the grass, and she turned her focus to ushering the ant out through the airhole.

It was fifteen minutes before Weld was pointed her way.  Fifteen minutes of sitting in the dark, thinking.

“Keep me company?” he asked, and his question cut through all plans and fortitude she’d erected in her head.

“Gladly,” she said.  “Sorry I’m such a dork.”

“No.  Don’t apologize,” he said.

With one short exchange of words, and the distraction of talk, she let herself forget what she’d intended to say about Egg and the more bloodthirsty members of the Irregulars, and wholly convince herself that this wasn’t that big a thing.  There were too many nice people and too many people who she couldn’t picture being that angry or upset- after all, a fair few belonged to the tooth and nail contingent, and they were pro-irregular, how could they want revenge or violence?

Weld was enough of a personality and had a good enough heart to sway the handful of real malcontents.  Right?  He had to be.  She was bloodier than all of them put together and he’d changed her.

Her mind was cleared by the end of an exceedingly awkward night of hanging out with Weld and Gentle Giant, pretending nothing had happened, her heart cleared by seeing Weld happier and more lively, in a way she hadn’t seen in weeks.  If nothing else, he’d been flattered, and she’d made a change for the good.

The only trace of the conversation with Egg was a lingering feeling of something left unresolved, a deadline missed.

Sveta’s body arched as a blister appeared, filled with liquid meat, swelling until it was larger than the rest of her.  Skin tore and flesh within ripped apart under its own weight.  Her arm tensed, gripping the edge of the table.

“One more time.”

“It’s been six times already,” Victoria said, voice tense.  “Six times and you’re doing the exact same thing.  You’re torturing her.”

“It doesn’t- exactly hurt,” Sveta said, through grit teeth.

She felt the needle slide into place.  No sooner was it in place than some pins were pulled from a jar where they sat in some fluid.  She was poked, needles penetrating where tendril met the back of her face.  One after another, at least ten.  Her tendrils strained and flexed where they were clamped down against the table, stretched out.

Again, she felt the flesh appear, grow, and swirl with random, vague nerve connections.  It built up into a massive, fluid-filled hunchback.  Again, she felt tendrils stretch, strain, and splinter.  That splintering feeling, she knew, was the zipper edge forming, that would interlock tendrils.

The blister-hunchback popped.  Fluid flooded out, onto the metal table, and because that table had a lip, some sloshed back into her face.  She sputtered, coughing.

“One more time.”  He stabbed her with another needle.

“You keep saying that,” Victoria said.  “Say it again and we’re going to have problems.”

“Each time we do it we get better results.  How well does she hold together?  What are the stress limits?  What can this ‘skin’ take?”

“Building her up over and over again, only to repeatedly destroy her isn’t getting her anywhere.  Get to the damn finish line, then refine from there.”

“Can you trust what I’m doing?  I-”

The blister expanded, then unfurled, unzipped.  A hundred pounds of flesh became a hundred pounds of pencil-thin tendril.  Tendrils reached out and seized Mr. Bough.

“He’s panicking,” Effervescent reported, an almost ludicrous comment, given the scene.  Already, Sveta was screaming, in warning and alarm, her every instinct failing her.  Victoria kicked in the glass door to the lab, her backup following her in.

Sveta hung back, staring at the sea of reaching hands and arms, of faces.

She thought of Victoria.  There were too many similarities, as if she could take Victoria’s silhouette, hold it up against this scene, and find a perfect match somewhere.  It helped that this was so vast.

Weld had been torn apart, as far as she could tell.  Her fucked up body had been burned.  Now it glistened with the blood of the woman who had been responsible for…

For all of this.

The man with golden hair, beard, and skin was here, the end of the world.

Egg had painted a picture where the Irregulars were ready for revenge.  He’d led her to believe it wasn’t as bloodthirsty a desire as it had been.  Or she’d wanted to believe that.

She, in turn, had heard what Egg said and convinced herself it wasn’t that bad.  That it would hurt more than it helped.  That, with a looming deadline, at the very least, Weld would question Doctor Mother, and there would be a thousand answers to get.  By the end of that, when it was time for the revenge, for blood, she and Weld could temper it.  Ensure it was humane.  She had been genuinely shocked to find out that it was as bad as it was.

Now Weld might be dead or dying, most of the others were dead, and all was lost.  They didn’t have names or know where they came from, so they might visit home.

She saw a garden of flesh that seemed to reach as far in either direction as she could see, in the largest part of a large complex.  She saw reaching hands, legs, overlapping parts, heads, and hair both short and long, and she kind of understood what they were up against, how rooted it was in what they were and what they’d been dealing with.

A part of her fleetingly wondered if answers like she and Weld had sought and needed were even possible.  If it would have been better to be on the other side.

Too late now.  Too painful to even consider.

If there was one last thing to do, she would do what her hero would do, and she would help, however she could.

The last pin was removed, dropped into a metal pan.  Mr. Bough backed away, his arms and hands bandaged from when things had gone wrong in the last session.

Sveta drew in a deep breath, no longer concerned that it would make the pins dig in or poke the wrong thing.  Her partially-intact stomach pressed against the cold table, as did her thighs, her toes.  She twisted around, turning over, and winced as parts and flesh she’d never been old enough to have got in the way.

Victoria jumped forward to rearrange and reposition the towel that had been draped over Sveta’s back and buttocks.

There was still flesh missing, mostly in the area in front of and around missing, nonessential organs.  A kidney, part of the liver.  A bit of a Sidepiece aesthetic, but it crept up higher, framed by stiff ribbons of skin.

Her hair- she touched the back of her head, and she felt the short hair there.

And her power- she reached out, willed it, and her arm unzipped two dozen times between fingertip and elbow, unfurling and extending.  Tendrils reached out, far thicker but flatter, with saw teeth at the edges.  It zipped back up to normal a second later, with only a sharp smack at the back of her hand as one flat tendril was pulled in too fast.

Then, tears welling in her eyes, she allowed herself to relax, to let down her guard and be vulnerable in a way she hadn’t done for Weld, around anyone, in all the years she could remember existing, and all the vague years of her childhood she’d dreamed of.

Nobody died as a consequence.

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Black – 13.11

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The car doors slammed with a kind of finality.  Sveta went to my side, supporting the Old Man, while Tattletale emerged and walked around the front of the car, which had its headlights on, engine left idling.  Snuff leaned over the top of the open door.

“I’ve been a bad friend,” I told Sveta.

“No.”

“I haven’t backed you up enough, and I’ve been lost in my own head enough that I didn’t connect to the fact we were coming here.”

Sveta looked up at the narrow building, not so different from others on the street.  The differences were subtle, the front face of the building a little further into the sidewalk, the peaked roof with its golden solar panels extended a little higher than any of its neighbors.  Unlike the other Wardens Headquarters, the building didn’t advertise what it was.

“I’ll deal with it,” Sveta said.  “I think it’s important to show that I can deal with it.”

“You’re within your rights to have a day, a week, or a month where you focus on dealing, or feeling, or… anything.”

“A right isn’t an obligation,” Sveta said.

“It- isn’t,” I said, changing my mind mid-sentence, ending the statement awkwardly.

The break in the conversation was marked with a flurry of snowflakes from above, with the flicker of amber streetlights on the wide, snow-dusted, one-way street, and by the background noise of Tattletale talking to Snuff.  I caught the word ‘Roadkill’.

Arranging dinner for Lookout and the others.  I hoped Lookout was doing okay, outnumbered and wrestling with family dynamics.

I hoped Sveta was okay.  That any and all of us were okay.

“Whatever’s happening with Weld, if we really are breaking up like this, that doesn’t change that he’s a role model for me.”

I nodded at that, a slow nod as I digested the thought.

“Maybe not a relationship role model, but Weld-as-a-hero?  Absolutely.”

“Absolutely,” I echoed Sveta.  I wanted to say more, but I’d been dwelling, and now I was trying to pull myself up and out of it, take care of what needed taking care of.  My mantra of doing what it took to avoid regrets was still in effect, if it wasn’t in effect more so because I was out of it, frustrated, and closer to the me of the hospital room than I had been in a while.  The words didn’t come, leaving me with just an echo of her statement.

“I want to keep that going.  If I quit on the hero shit now then aren’t I just saying I only did it because I was dating him, or because of him?”

“You’d be saying you cared about him and you needed to focus on you for a little while.  The rest of it doesn’t matter.  Nobody who matters is going to judge you.”

“I matter,” Sveta answered.

I gave her a look, tilting my head to one side, then tilted my head further.  “Can I give you a hug?”

She didn’t answer, instead putting her arms around me.  The agitation from earlier that had led to her hurting me, if very little, seemed to have passed.  I could feel the give in her shoulders, the pushback from tendrils that held them in place, the lack of structure to her upper body, and the weight of her arms.  I was aware that tendrils were supporting the Old Man a couple of feet from us.  He seemed remarkably okay with it, though he might have still been dazed by the fall down the stairs.

“I don’t get to act on my emotions,” she said.  “At best, I’d go to my- Weld’s apartment, my old room, lock myself in and relax my control.  But I don’t have a room to go back to.”

“Yeah,” I said.

A thousand thoughts went through my mind, and I felt as though I could have sorted and filed them, putting things into an order or priority, if the day hadn’t started with my meeting with Jessica and ended with Teacher’s power move.

“You’ve got a ten thousand yard stare there, Antares,” Tattletale said.  My eyes went to her, tracking her as she walked around the car.  Snuff pulled away.

Sveta broke the hug.  She gave me a curious look.

“You sent Snuff away?” I asked Tattletale.

“To get food for the sprogs.  I’m going to break my promise of being back for dinner, so I might as well feed them.  Besides, what’s he going to do if the Wardens decide to unilaterally arrest me?  Fight Dragon, Defiant, Vista and Narwhal?  He’s good but I don’t think he could beat any of those guys.”

“True,” I said.

“At this point the only reason I’d bring him along would be to protect me from you two bullying me, and he’s done a piss-poor job of it.  He’s got a long way to go before he’s a proper Jeeves.”

“A little conspicuous for a hypercompetent butler,” I noted.

The other car had parked a little further down the street, and the trio were approaching.  Engel glowed in the dark, and the glow- I had to look away.  She looked like music and the smell of flowers.  Synesthesia.  It was deeply uncomfortable.

“Come on,” Tattletale said, winking at me.  “Let’s see how fucked you all are.”

She really didn’t have to word it that way.

The trio joined us, following a little ways behind as we entered the building.

It was late enough that the lighting had inverted inside the Warden’s headquarters.  Earlier, the light that had shone down and inside had been from the windows, diffuse and soft.  Now it was light from the walls and corners, starting from the places that shadows had been earlier, while the windows and surrounding areas were dark.  This light was sharp and stark, with fairly clear distinctions on the walls between where the beams touched and where they didn’t, the ‘didn’t’ catching only the diffuse, dull reflections, and only where the gleaming wood grain was raised.

This lighting fit the way we’d disposed of the four prisoners this morning, and disposed of the other prisoners earlier in the week.  It somehow fit that mornings were the time we ended up doing most of them; capes stayed up late and slept in, really slept in, in the case of Ratcatcher and her ilk, and our nine in the morning was the equivalent of two in the morning for ordinary people.  It was also possible that my feelings about mornings were because I really wasn’t a morning person.

There were staff members inside, including a receptionist and a few people in business formal clothing.  They were tracking the news, crowded around a phone.  It was possible they’d been on their way home when the details hit the media.

Multiple sets of eyes turned our way.  I had to convince myself that there was no way that details of the diary would have been disseminated and shared yet, that it was more about Engel, Egg, and Scraping than about attitudes and resentment.

No, those feelings would come soon, I was sure, but not now.

I stopped by the receptionist’s desk.

“Can I help you, Antares?”

“Heavy question,” Tattletale said, quiet enough I wasn’t sure the receptionist caught it.  I avoided reacting.

“Can you page the office?  Antares, Tress, and Tattletale coming in with a… I guess a prisoner and three guests who might have useful information.  Tell them our prisoner is Case Twelve, they should know what it means, and tell them he’ll need medical care.  Um, I think it’d be best if we took security precautions.”

“Precautions?” Tattletale asked, behind me.

I’d hoped she was far enough back to not hear me.  Good ears.

“Um,” the receptionist said, tapping a few keys.  There was a hint of nervousness there.  “Precautions.”

Her hand moved to one corner of the keyboard.  The F-keys.  The lip of the counter around the receptionist’s desk blocked Tattletale’s view of her hand.

“Yeah,” I said.

“The power grid is overloaded.  Can you wait a minute?”

“It’s fine either way,” I said.  I saw the receptionist relax.

So, apparently, did Tattletale.  “Coded question and answer?  I approve.”

It was one of four special codes that had been shared with me, but there were apparently six in total.  ‘Can you wait a minute’ translated to ‘should I hit the alarm?’ and any yes or no answer was confirmation.  It was good that she’d asked, faced with an unfamiliar situation and faces she didn’t know.

Really annoying that Tattletale had caught it so quickly.  Now we’d have to change it up.

The receptionist typed for a few long seconds, then paused.  I could see the change in what was on the screen in the tint and brightness of the light that reflected off of her glasses.

“Lobby, stairs, or elevator to an upper floor?” she asked.

I looked around the lobby.  I was wondering exactly what she meant when I saw her hand hovering over that corner of the keyboard.

“Stairs,” I said.  “Thank you.”

Without a smile, the receptionist nodded.

We headed to the stairwell.  The lighting was even more focused there, halogen bright, highlighting stairs and wall without shining into our eyes at any point.

“Come on,” Sveta told the Old Man.  “Lean on me.  You’ve fallen down enough stairs today.”

“Funny girl,” the Old Man replied, humorless.

Egg, Engel, and Scraping were utterly silent, but they followed.  Our progress was slow, because the Old Man was hurt but he didn’t want to be outright carried.

“Curious,” Tattletale said, walking with her gloved hands clasped behind her.  Her coat flapped around her legs as she ascended.  “You say we’re ‘going in’, but then she brings up the lobby.  Another code, but I didn’t get this one.”

“You’re being annoying,” I told her.  “Surprisingly annoying.”

“Very,” Sveta echoed.

“I’m just being me,” Tattletale said.

“Is it a thing where you get cranky and ramp it up?”

“No.  On a day this lousy, we need to find joy in the little things.  This is interesting.  The heart of the heroes.”

“I can’t help but wonder if you revel in these lousy sorts of days,” I observed.  “I remember the Undersiders doing quite well when Brockton Bay was at its worst.”

“Ah,” Tattletale said.  There was a gleam in her eyes as I glanced back.  “I sense a teeny tiny bit of resentment there.”

“A bit.”

“You’re not wrong.  I like picking up the pieces and puzzling them back together.  Is that the dark line of thought that’s been eating at you for the past fifteen minutes?  Resentment?  Thinking about how the troubles in Brockton Bay started with Coil doing something similar?”

“No,” I said.

“Can’t puzzle you out right now.”

We reached the first landing.  I looked up, and I spotted the security camera.

“What?” Tattletale asked.

When I reached for her, she was already pulling back.  Sveta took my cue, grabbing Tattletale and keeping her from retreating.

I raised a hand, waving at the security camera.

The appearance of the hole in reality wasn’t as noisy, with the work Lookout had done earlier.  I wasn’t even sure the people in the lobby heard.  There was a snow-dusted landscape on the far side.

“Not funny,” Tattletale said.

With Sveta helping, I chucked Tattletale through, then raised my hand again.

The portal closed.

“A little funny,” I whispered to myself.

Sveta, by contrast, had body language that betrayed her worries.  Tendrils reached out of the sleeves of her patchwork coat to help wring her hands.  They ran along the backs and fingers of hands where the wrinkles and textures of flesh weren’t quite right, and where fingers didn’t end in proper nails, with stick-on nails pretty clearly stuck on.  She glanced back at the other case fifty-threes.

“Same methods as Cauldron, Sveta?” Egg asked.  “Dimensional doors, snatching people.”

“Fuck off, Egg.  I’m really not in the mood.”

“Calling it like I see it.”

“The catchphrase of assholes everywhere,” I murmured to Sveta, as I put a hand on her shoulder and led her to the corner of the landing that was furthest from the other group.  “You okay?”

“Yeah.  You’re sure?” she asked.  “About Tattletale?”

“Can’t have her looking at our security apparatus,” I said.  “The way she’s been talking, she might actually figure something out.  That’s bad.  But she might also press buttons and let us know she knows, in which case everyone freaks out.  This is simpler.  Let her cool off.”

“Yeah.”

“Let’s hope this isn’t so much of a routine shift that it screws up the password procedure,” I told her.

The Old Man was looking so out of it I wasn’t even sure if he’d registered everything that was going on.

“You okay?” I asked him.

“I’m looking forward to lying down,” he said.  He visibly tried to straighten to his full height, something he hadn’t even been doing when working at the counter in the Lodge.  He swayed slightly, was steadied by Sveta, and seemed to realize he was doing it, because he managed to stop.  As much as he presented more of an image of strength, he conceded, “I’m worried.”

“What we’re doing right now, we’re doing to protect you.  Feeding people parts of yourself is gross and concerning, but it’s not our priority right now.”

“I’ll cooperate,” he said, smiling.

He had a bit of a creepy vibe.  It sucked that my feelings about the guy were so mixed.  On the one hand, creepy reverse-cannibal.  On the other, he was a survivor of a kind we really didn’t have enough of.  Every minute, hour, or day he lived, he was blazing new ground, as far as I knew.  Raising the bar for all of us.

“Don’t touch the diagrams.  Follow behind Sveta,” I said.

“What happens if we don’t listen?” Egg asked.

“Alarms go off, battle-ready parahumans come storming in from all directions.  You get interrogated.  It changes the attitudes they have toward you.”

“Do not,” Engel told Egg.  “I want to make a good impression.”

Egg scowled, face cracking in twenty places, but he acquiesced.

We walked up the stairs, and the hallway lit up with its two dimensional shapes, running along the wall and floating through the air.  Piecing together the password required using the fragments around me to make the image appear right from my perspective.  Step one was the five-sided snowflake, bracket moved toward the hollow square, greater-than sign moved to another corner- I was missing the middle part, and I found it on the wall, touched it, and slid it in the direction I wanted, until it was three-quarters of the way down the hall, but centered in the image in front of me.

Confirmed.

Step two for my password was what I’d committed to memory as the ‘upward hourglass’.  Triangle, triangle, diamond for the center, then brackets moved and rotated to top and bottom, the ‘prongs’ of the brackets all facing skyward.

Confirmed.

I cleared the five stages of the password, walking forward at a steady, casual rate, and the portal opened at the end of the hall.  Beyond, I could see the bunker.  The Warden’s headquarters, illuminated with spotlights at the exterior.  Areas under construction were decorated with yellow ribbons and sashes, blocked off with gray tarps.

“Into the belly of the beast,” the Old Man grumbled.  It was possible that the interdimensional stuff was far enough out of his wheelhouse that his composure was cracking.  Pain and hurt might have played a part.  That the bunker was a little bit on the imposing side might have played another.

Defiant waited outside the headquarters.  On seeing us, he approached, footsteps not heavy in the ground-shaking, clumsy way that I tended to associate with the word, but solid, leaving no room for ambiguity.

“Case Twelve,” Defiant said.

“Apparently recognized from a decades-old case file,” the Old Man said.

“Who?” Defiant asked, finger extended toward me, Sveta, then a general gesture for Engel’s group.

“Me,” I told him.

“Good,” he said.

“Tress helped,” I added.  “Kept him in one piece after the villains were provoked.  Tattletale thought it was a maneuver from our culprit.”

“Tress.  You’re one of Armstrong’s,” Defiant said.

“I- yes.  Kind of.”

“I like Armstrong.  There was a time I had my eyes set on Boston, and I imagined him and I making a good team, complementing each other’s strengths.  I’m… now glad I didn’t get that position, having learned more about who I am.”

“He mentioned you once or twice in passing, I think.  Even years later.”

“I hope it was flattering,” Defiant said.  “Tell me, is our Case Twelve an immediate concern?”

“No,” the Old Man answered for me.

I answered, “Only his health, as far as I can tell.  Little Midas pushed him down the stairs to score points with the more violent villain faction.  Tattletale said something about wanting to check him, or see if they scanned him to inspire tinker tech they’re using.”

“And Tattletale?”

“We stuck Tattletale in the prison world so she wouldn’t crack our passwords.”

“I know, and that’s good,” Defiant said.  “We put her in area Z-X.  Z-Y and Z-Z are being used for storage.  But what do I need to know before bringing her out?  Is she a concern?”

“She’s cooperated, played ball, and she has a pretty good sense of what’s going on.”

“She usually does.  They’re discussing the situation inside.  Some of the details are private.  I’ll have to ask our guests here to wait while you two go in.  I’ll open the door for Tattletale and fill her in on what we can.”

“That sounds perfect,” I said.

I felt a bit of trepidation at going inside.  On my last visit, I’d found out that Jessica no longer believed in me, and that Dragon had been sitting on a very ugly perception of who I was as a person.  False, but the kind of false that hewed close to reality.

He might have noticed me hanging back, because he said, “Once Dragon started believing you, she started investigating.  We think her searches tripped a switch, which prompted the attack.”

“Tattletale said something similar,” I noted.

“Dragon is sorry,” Defiant said.  “We all are, I think.”

That idea, ‘we all’, it suggested more than him and her.  I wasn’t sure it included Jessica.  I could imagine talks being had, about whether I was a problem.

“No need for apologies.  Makes sense to do, right?  Got to keep an eye on things.  There’s no PRT keeping tabs on dangerous parahumans.”

“You can be sorry even when wholly justified in your actions,” he said.

“Can you?”

“I think so.”

Was he talking about his time as Armsmaster, and his retirement of the name and role after the Endbringer fight?  I’d heard the rumors and reports from the other Wards, once upon a time.  The statement didn’t quite line up with it.

It was Sveta’s hand on my arm that helped get me moving.  I pulled off my mask and lowered my hood.  To be more open, to be less threatening, to people I’d explicitly threatened.

Door locks clicked and let me in.  Scattered members from various teams were present.  It wasn’t even leadership, it was too soon for that.  It looked like it was whoever had been closest.  Dragon, Legend, and Valkyrie were at the head of the room.  I saw Vista, Golem, and Cuff, Rescue, Effervescent, Houndstooth, Lark, and Mayday.  Moonsong’s friend with a name I couldn’t recall was taking notes.

No Weld.  I could see Sveta relax a fraction.

No non-parahuman staff, it seemed.

“Welcome,” Dragon greeted us, as we passed through the door.  “Let it be known for transcripts that Antares, AKA Victoria Dallon, and Tress, aka Sveta, neither of whom have secret identities, have entered the room.”

Vista had a laptop with her.  Carrying it in one hand, she brought it over, setting it down on the table.  She paged up to show us what we’d missed.

Situation handled, security breach repaired.  Temporary moratorium on all online communications and downloads bought time to patch the damage and run damage control.  The mayor and her husband were working on the business and interdimensional relations front.  Conflict was not expected but they were planning to be ready regardless.

Dragon’s presenting style seemed to be to start from the general and then hammer in specifics.  That was the general.

Specifics: the security breach wasn’t a thing.  Yes, some redundant security code had been used, yes, it was flawed, and they suspected the culprit was why.  It was groundwork laid weeks in advance.  But it had been spotted and ninety percent fixed.  The culprit had pushed the false story regardless.  Proving the falsehood would require a lot of businesses and groups to share private data on how they’d managed things, and that was going to be an uphill battle.

The brief internet blackout had been fought and delayed, forcing use of actual munitions to enact.  It had led to minutes passing before the blackout took effect, after which point the adversary had ceased fighting.  Speculation: they’d wanted those minutes, nothing else.

I skimmed other, lesser details, with lists of businesses and groups that may have been more explicitly targeted, but nothing jumped out at me, and Legend’s words were more interesting.

“We think this is more groundwork, a platform that lets them launch further attacks.  If details, emails, personal information or secrets are leaked in coming weeks, then people won’t ask who.  They’ll be interested in what, because their curiosity is piqued.”

“We should do everything we can to keep this from being named,” Lark said.  “If it gets coined as a term then it moves us even further from the ‘who’.  We should also pay attention to the initial details they share.  If this becomes a battlefield where we’re painted as the bad guys, quote-unquote ‘leakers’ will be held up as heroes.  We want to combat that, and it’s going to be hard.”

I found myself nodding along.  I didn’t like Lark, he’d been scummy and and tried to use me to get Amy into Auzure, his corporate team, but there was no denying that he and Legend knew their PR and image stuff.

“We agree there,” Legend said.  “We’ve already seen some hints of how subtle this can be.  Dragon?”

“Once I found the telltale signs, I uncovered two incidents, in addition to Antares’ case.  I hope you don’t mind my raising the subject, Antares.”

“No,” I said.  I hadn’t seen mention of my diary in the transcript.

“They manufactured months worth of falsified diary entries and planted them on Antares’ computer, put in key phrases they knew would trip my alarms when Antares shared files with me, and led me to think poorly of Antares for weeks.”

“What kind of thing are we talking about?” Rescue asked.

“Diary entries with zero alibis, matching times I was online.  Filled with details suggesting I’ve been watched every minute for weeks or months.  They fit how I’d write and almost fit how I’d think.  Except it’s twisted.  Talking about using my teammates as pawns, manipulate them, hurt them for my own goals.  It’s me if I was a manipulator playing the long game.”

“Yes,” Dragon said.  “The two other entries I found before other things demanded my attention dated to when the villains were lashing out violently.  One was a false piece of surveillance, suggesting one group had been more violent than they were.  It impacted decisions we made and how we signed off on Super Magic Dream Parade going all-out against those villains.  The other incident was an exchange between local law enforcement and capes in Advance Guard.  The outgoing message was altered to be more dismissive and aggressive.  It may have played a part in police not cooperating as fully as they might have.”

“Antares mentioned something might have happened with Foresight,” Effervescent said.

“There are a few more incidents,” I noted.  “They disrupted recruitment efforts for Foresight, driving off Ratcatcher and Big Picture.  All of the attacks we’ve tracked down so far are two-pronged, hurting multiple parties at once.  Ratcatcher’s move was to pull her away from the group while hurting Countenance’s reputation.  Big Picture was a ploy to deny Foresight a recruit while simultaneously denying a colleague of Big Picture the ability to use Foresight’s resources to gather information.  Protecting themselves.”

“You know who they are?” Valkyrie asked.

“They’re Teacher’s thralls, acting on Teacher’s behalf.  We’re almost positive.  The long story short is that he fully staffed Cauldron’s old base and is staying out of reach.  Tattletale can explain the breadth of this to you better than I can.  She’s talking to Defiant for now.”

“Then let’s skip a few sections and move straight into need-to-know,” Legend said.  “That will let us get to where we talk to Tattletale sooner.  The way this is set up, we can expect they will make moves in coming hours, days, and weeks.  They’ll reveal secrets and mix falsehood with fact, saying it’s what they found or downloaded in the minutes that we weren’t able to bring things down.  I can already anticipate three major angles of attack.”

“Scion,” Mayday said.

“It’s possible.  People still have questions.  Breakthrough opened the doors to that when they appeared on Hard Boil, and we’ve all done our parts in sharing necessary pieces of information.  Changing the narrative, twisting it, or incriminating people or groups could be devastating, given how close to home this is.  The other possible angles are sharing just how bad things are elsewhere.  The Machine Army, the rising rate of broken triggers, the wars over footing that we’ve been engaged in, among other things.”

“And the last?” Lark asked.

Legend looked at Dragon.

Oh no.

“Some of you know this.  Many don’t.  I am not human,” Dragon said.

I felt a chill creep over me.  Okay, my ‘oh no’ might have been understated.

“Not human how?” Mayday asked.

“I was created by a tinker, who is now deceased.  I was made with heavy restrictions and I live by several of those restrictions today.”

“That’s why I can’t read you,” Effervescent said.

That’s the least concerning thing, Effervescent.  There’s so many cases of things derived from powers going sour or getting screwed up.

“I’m an A.I., and people will panic when they find out,” Dragon said.  “Some of you might feel the need to panic or be concerned now.  Please trust me when I say I am the same person who has been fighting on the side of the heroes since I was created.  Nothing has changed.”

Fuck.

The chill redoubled as I recalled Tattletale’s phrasing around Dragon.  She knew.  Dangerous knowledge to have.

“For what it’s worth, I give my full faith to Dragon,” Legend said.  “She’s a true heroine.”

She was.  Just… it really sucked that it was one of the best of us who had such a glaring weak point for our enemy, now.

Dragon went on, “I won’t push for immediate answers, but I want people to know we should be open where possible.  Share what you think is necessary, so we know and can come to terms with it before there’s a bigger problem.”

“Then I’ll be upfront,” Lark said.  “I planned to share this before anyone mentioned anything.  Auzure got started after Gold Morning with illicit funds.  Nothing too worrying, but when we contributed to the Navigators’ work in dealing with human trafficking, it was because we realized our role in one specific incident, and we wanted to make amends.  I lost sleep over it.  I still do, if I think about it too much.”

“He’s being honest,” Effervescent said.  “There’s stuff we need to cover from Foresight, but I have to run it by the boss first.

Secrets, lies, and dirty laundry.

I could wrestle my head around Dragon being what she was.  By deed, by action, and by the impact she’d had on the world, she was a heroine.  I didn’t trust powers and I worried about anything big that came from powers, but… I could look past that.

But Effervescent’s comment was followed by Mayday talking about a settled lawsuit, which made me think of my history as Glory Girl.  Too violent, too rushed, people got hurt.  All was happy in the end, but it was the kind of thing that could be put in a very ugly light.

“Anything else?” Legend asked.  “Most of you know my history.  Those who don’t, you can talk to me after.”

I heard a faint creaking, and saw Sveta clenching her fist.

“If there’s nothing else, we should bring in our guest.”

“Guests,” I said.  “We brought two case fifty-threes and their colleague.  They’ve seen Teacher’s installation.  I think Tattletale is holding off on questioning them because she’s worried about being overheard.”

“We should be safe here,” Legend said.

I nodded.

Nobody else had any dirt to volunteer, so Dragon turned her head to the window.  Her voice wasn’t loud enough he should have heard.  “Defiant?”

Some other kind of communication.

Eerie, in context.  What was Armsmaster or Defiant in light of this?

Tattletale grinned at me as she entered, like she thought being unceremoniously chucked into a prison dimension was a good laugh, or because she was trying to nettle me.  Egg gave Sveta a dark look.

Defiant followed them in, then stood at the door.

“Thank you for your cooperation,” Legend said.

“For sure.”

“Start us off?”

“What we talk about here doesn’t leave this Earth,” Tattletale said.  “Teacher can’t see us here, he can’t hear us, and if we’re going to get out ahead of this, it means being careful and decisive.  We brought some help for figuring out the layout and context of what’s going on, I already know a few ways we could potentially get in there… it requires less energy and manpower to leave a door open than to constantly open and close them, and having an emergency way in and out gives Teacher security if he loses his horde of tinkers.  There’s a way, but it’s not an easy one.”

Sensations swam around and through me.  Tastes, smells, touches, and visual patterns.  Engel was barely doing anything.  It wasn’t ‘love’ as an emotion, or else I’d have some defense against it, but it was something approximate, a dizzying, thrilling, sublime set of fucking sensations I wanted nothing of.

Being around Engel was getting to me.  I’d already spent most of the car ride here in a dark place, in part because Engel had set me on the road there, but in combination with the lingering feelings I had about the way Dragon and Jessica had treated me, I wasn’t sure I had this in me.  The main room of the Wardens’ bunker was spacious and it still felt claustrophobic.  Effervescent was giving me a look.

“If it’s alright, I’m going to duck out for a breath of fresh air,” I said.  “This is a retread of stuff I’ve spent the day investigating, and it’s been a long day.  I’ll read the transcript after.”

“Not at all.  It’s understandable.  Thank you for your contributions, and your efforts to uncover what’s going on,” Legend said.  “Tattletale, can you start by walking us through what you know?”

“I can,” Tattletale said, smiling.

I didn’t really trust myself to speak.  With everything going on, knowing he’d left Cauldron in a tumultuous time and that there were reasons for that, it had still felt good to hear kind words from someone as big as Legend.

“I’ll be right back,” Vista said.

It was only after the glass-like door had shut behind me that I felt like I could breathe again.  Sveta and Vista had followed me out.

“Sword of Damocles poised over our heads.  A threat of blackmail or losing all standing at any point in time,” Sveta observed.

“If we can’t beat Teacher, we might have to make hard decisions,” I said, still trying to get to grips.  I was aware of Engel behind me.

“Hard?  I don’t follow,” Sveta said.

“Whether we take our lumps, play nice, and trust that people will turn around… or if we stop treating them like they’re a consideration?”

“Them?” Sveta asked.

“Civilians.”

“Victoria, no,” Sveta said, sounding genuinely horrified.

Vista was silent, serious, and utterly unsurprised.  I wondered if the idea had already come up in some fashion.  Had it been discussed among the Wardens?

“I don’t want it either.  There’s always been a divide, and it just got wider.  Getting back to a comfortable or even slightly uncomfortable middle ground is going to require a hell of a lot of effort not just from us, but from them.  From the civilians.  And I’m not sure if they’re ready or willing to meet us in the middle.”

“I want to say you’re wrong, that… neighbors and friends and people I took a cooking class with have all been decent to me,” Sveta said.

She wanted to say it, instead of just saying it.

“Yeah,” I said.  “It’s not the option, it’s a option.  It won’t be easy, either way.”

Vista was quiet, “Saying we don’t care what you little people think, we’re going to do what we need to do… or trying to be friendly while some asshole out there stokes fears and makes us out to be monsters.”

I looked up at the starry sky above.  My eyelid flickered as a fat snowflake hit it.  Sveta, at the same time, looked down at the ground.

“This isn’t turning out to be a breath of fresh air,” I said.  I didn’t feel better after leaving that claustrophobic space, Engel pressing in on my every physical sense.

“Can we walk?” Vista asked.  “You wanted to know how our mission went earlier.  Foresight and the Wardens had our team-up.  We succeeded.”

I couldn’t even remember what I’d asked her about.  I just nodded my agreement to the walk.  Putting distance between us and the ongoing discussion.

The route she led us on should have clued me in, but I was caught up in thinking about implications.

The row of cells.  Parahumans awaiting sentencing.  Lights were on inside, illuminating cells.

I saw the Old Man first.  Two doctors were in there with him.  Sufficiently private, maybe.  The door had been left open.  Defiant would have warned them about not ingesting his fluids,which might have been why they wore face masks with clear plastic panes.

And in the other hallway, I saw Colt and Love Lost, both awake.  Jessica stood outside Colt’s cell.  She’d already noticed me.

I approached, my heart hammering.

“Victoria,” she said.  “Sveta, hello.  Vista.”

My hand touched my visor, where it hung from my belt.  I looked around.

“I am so sorry about earlier,” she told me.

Same thing as Defiant.  Same answer.  “You had every reason to think the worst of me.”

“I could have handled it better, at the very least.”

I shrugged, looking at the cells.

“Is Precipice around?” Colt asked, raising her voice.

I shook my head.  “No.”

“I’ll see him soon, I guess.  I’ve lost track of what time it is.”

Jessica said something to Colt, then walked our way.  So we wouldn’t have an audience.

My backup, Sveta and Vista, didn’t leave.

“Can I have a word with Victoria alone?” Jessica asked.

“It’s up to Victoria,” Sveta answered.

I knew she loved Jessica, that Jessica was one of her favorite people and one of the very few people she’d ever had in her corner.  That this had to be a really hard line to draw.

It meant a lot.  I needed to make it up to Sveta.

“You can go.  Thanks,” I said.  “But stick around?”

“Sure,” Sveta said.

Vista and Sveta walked off a bit.

It was cold, the path down to the prison area was the same slope and cliff edge that seemed to bring the cold air down while letting the warm air get lost.  The path was lit by bulbs on sticks, the prison and the more distant bunker itself illuminated more by lights on the outside than by anything on the inside.  The spotlights and lamps caught drifting snowflakes and turned them into water droplets, which mottled the light.

“I don’t know what to say,” Jessica told me.

“You’re fine,” I responded.  “It’s the nature of what we’re up against.”

“It doesn’t feel fine to me.  It feels fine to you?”

“No.”

“I know it’s not an excuse, but for context, I did not handle being cast away very well.  Sent to another dimension with some of my most difficult patients, knowing what was at stake, that I was abandoning my patients.  I tried to do too much after coming back and I struggled- failed on multiple counts.  I failed you.”

“Is it kind of messed up or unfair that I can remember you walking me through the process of how to go about an apology, when I wanted to address all the people I hurt as Glory Girl?  And now it feels a bit bullet-pointy that you’re hitting all the usual notes?  Acknowledge blame, get a response, promise to do better, yadda yadda?”

“It doesn’t mean the apology isn’t genuine.  I really do mean it.  Feeling some resentment is entirely fair.”

“No, it’s just-” I started, stopped.  “I don’t know what I can say here, that isn’t lashing out.  I already regret what I said just now, about apologizing.”

“Don’t.  Some lashing out is fair.”

“I’ve tried to take care of that team.  Look after the people.  If they’re a little banged up, missing, or in tougher spots, it’s because of what’s thrown at us.  Not because I think of them as pawns or anything.”

“I know that now.  I know we’ve differed in opinion on some things, Victoria, but it was always my impression that you would treat them with kindness, care, and concern.  You kept Rain alive when people wanted to kill him and they’re in custody now.  You found out about Kenzie’s parents, something she kept a secret from me, and you got her into a healthier place.”

“Different, not necessarily healthier.  She’s spiraling again, I think.”

Concern crossed Jessica’s face.  “How badly?”

“I feel like three or four really difficult conversations and a very watchful eye will cover it.  Not sure though.”

“I’ll trust you there, and I’ll send a colleague her way.  Are you aware I’m taking a leave of absence?”

“I’m aware.”  It had come up in passing earlier in the day.

“I can’t be a good therapist as I am now.  I can provide some advice and perspective, but that’s all I’ll be doing.  I’ll be available for absolute emergencies, if you need me.”

“Thank you,” I said.  “Take care of yourself.”

“I’ll try,” she said.

So formal, so rote.  All so careful, like neither of us wanted to step on the other person’s toes.

“Are you here to talk to Colt or Love Lost?”

I turned toward the prison, looked at the rows of high-tech cells, glass and chickenwire, all see through walls with only some panels up for privacy.  Vents seemed to direct warm air into the individual cells.

“In part,” I said.  “Partially to get away.  Other stuff.”

“Do you want company?”

I shook my head.

“Good excuse for me to go home?” she asked.  She made it an offer, light, friendly.

“Yeah,” I told her.  “Safe travel, you know?  It’s messy out there.”

“It’s going to be hard, and it’s going to be tense, as we see how this unfolds.  I hope it doesn’t hit you too hard.”

It already hit pretty hard.  I feel like a lot of relationships and connections have been fucked with, even though people are ninety percent sure it’s fake, now.

I didn’t say it.  Instead, I told her, “Tattletale is dishing on what we uncovered today.  She’ll have details she’s figured out that she hasn’t shared with me.  It might be worth picking up a copy of any transcripts.”

“I’ll do that,” she told me.  “Good luck with Colt and Love Lost.”

“Thank you,” I said.  I thought for a second, then impulsively added, “Mind telling Vista and Sveta to stay put for a minute?”

She gave me a quizzical look.  The sore spot where I’d been doubted so much still smarted, even from that simple look.

“It’s for a good reason,” I told her, even though I wasn’t sure.

“Then I will,” she said.

She walked past me, toward the headquarters and the two girls.  I walked past her to the prison.

Being deceptive felt shitty, especially leveraging her guilt.  But Jessica didn’t need more to deal with, and I was worried she’d stop me if I told her the unvarnished truth.

There were guards on duty, but they were caught up in their own business.  One or two looked at me as I made my way down the hall, but my interaction with Jessica or Vista vouching for me seemed to give me a pass.  They didn’t stop me either.

“Hi,” Colt said.

“Hi,” I replied.

“I have a court appointment tomorrow,” she said.  “Mrs. Yamada thinks I have something in my powers messing with my head.  If it’s true, it might change things.”

“Good luck,” I said.

“Thank you.”

In these sterile rooms that were more window than wall, I saw the beds and the stainless steel combination toilet and sink that made me think of the asylum.  Locked doors, therapists, guards.

I couldn’t trust Jessica with this because of a fundamental difference in our philosophies.  It wasn’t a pretty difference, and that difference had been clearly marked out for me in the diary.  Being here, I was closer to being the Victoria of the diary than the Victoria I was so sure Jessica would want me to be.

Jessica wanted to get us to a place where we were dealing.  Where we were equipped with the skills to battle our own issues, to handle conflict and confrontations.

I’d tried that.  I was so, so weary of it.  The game.  The back and forth.  Consideration, when none was extended back.  It was so hard, so difficult.  I was so tired of dealing.  I wanted to at least consider what we needed to do so things were dealt with.

“I want to make a transaction,” I said.

I’d walked past Colt, down to the end of the row.  One of the prisoners had changed into his prison outfit, letters marked down each leg and the side of the costume.  He was a skinny guy with styled hair and a beard a little too long and frizzy to be stylish.  Brown hair, brown beard, a long face, and rectangular frame glasses.  On the end of the bed, a uniform was laid out, black coat, bodysuit, and pants, with silver branches worked into the design.

Across from him was his partner in crime.  Blond, tousle-haired in a way he’d tried to do with styling gel, but looked forced, still wearing his white bodysuit with black branches.  He’d only taken his jacket off.  His eyes and nose were red, cheeks wet, his face a perpetual scowl.  I couldn’t imagine not removing a costume with those hard branch bits.  Maybe he was denying his new reality.

Whatever.

“What’s the transaction?” the one with the beard and brown hair asked.  He stood from his cot, adjusting his glasses.

I didn’t answer right away.

The two of them were Orchard.  Ex-Boston.  Apparently people Ashley had crossed paths with, in a former life.  Slave peddlers who used their individual powers to alter slaves in mind and body, to fit custom orders.  Vista had said the Wardens and Foresight had been successful in picking them up.

There was a slot for file folders built into the door.  I picked them up, paging through.

If everything else hadn’t thrust me into a bad place, the pictures here would have.  Before and after pictures.  Abducted people, then what Bonesaw would have called art.  What my sister would have decried as a mistake.  A young man made to have the heads and legs of a dog, only the trunk of the body normal.  Three women, apparently abductees from overseas, made to look identical, the ‘after’ picture showing them sitting in a row, smiling the same smile.  A Mr. Sheppard had paid for a Mrs. Sheppard, wife, to be changed into an old woman, paying forty thousand dollars for the procedure, and another fifty thousand for the mental changes to go with it.  There was a picture of Legend, same features, hair, build, and costume.  An exact likeness bought and paid a dizzying price for by villains trying some obscure scheme.  It hadn’t worked.

There were others.  One to four jobs a year brought in enough money to keep this pair living comfortably.  There had been a two-year hiatus after one had been injured when capes came after them.  They’d escaped overseas.

Just being near them made me feel nauseous.  The files also gave me names to put to that ugly feeling and creeping horror.  The one with the beard, now in his uniform, was ‘Mr. Bough’.  The other with pale skin, pale hair, and red eyes and nose was ‘Mr. Drowsing’.  Cape names.

“Mr. Bough, you’re going away for a long time.”

“It’s probable.  No court, no justice.  Just… this, I suppose?”

“Not even,” I told him.  “We have a place to send you.  Because you’re dangerous, we’ll put you somewhere especially remote, so any other prisoners in the same world aren’t likely to find you.”

“Remote?”

“A prison world.  Pushed through a portal like the one that brought you here, with a pallet of supplies.  Then you fend for yourself.”

“Oh Lord,” Mr. Drowsing mewled.  “Oh god.”

“You’re offering me a way out?” Mr. Bough asked.

“Fuck that,” I told him.  “Fuck no.  But I think a guy who lived the kind of lifestyle you did is used to his comforts.  I helped uncover a conspiracy today.  I have some clout, or favors I can pull in.  We can provide some comforts-”

“Victoria!” I heard Sveta.

She and Vista raced forward like there was a danger.  Some of the guards stationed outside an empty cell a few cells down rose to their feet.

They weren’t rushing because they were worried about me.  This pair was so scummy, I imagined, that it conjured up imaginings of deals with the devil, as though any shake of the hands could doom things forever.

“Vista explained what you were after,” Sveta said.  “These guys are supposedly utter monsters.  What are you even doing?”

Mr. Bough stared at her, studying her, even approaching the corner of his cell that put him nearest to her.

“She wants me to fix you,” he said.

Sveta looked at me.

“You… you despise this stuff, Victoria.  The unquestionable monsters, biokinesis-”

I looked away.

“-You can’t even hear it without flinching!  What are you doing?”

“I’m asking about options,” I said.

“Why?  You don’t have to.”

“I do have to,” I told her.  “I have to do something so I’m actually changing something for the better, for people I care about.  We’ve been fighting against this slow grind and dealing and we’re getting worn out and worn down.  I want permanent, good changes.  I want to get at least a few things dealt with.”

“All at once, today?  Why?”

“Not today,” I said.  “I’ve been asking around and looking at options for a little while now.  Uh, options for the Capricorn brothers, asking a power specialist.  I talked to someone about placing Lookout, given her special needs.  Sent out some emails about hand tinker stuff and changers who modify their hands, to see if it’s useful for Rain or fixing up Ashley’s hands, or helping you.”

“And talking to biotinkers, despite everything else that’s happened, for me.”

“You more than anyone,” I told her, with some emotion in my voice.  “Because you’re my best friend.”

“I didn’t ask for it.  I didn’t ask if you’d do this for me.”

“But you want it,” I said.

She didn’t respond, emotions crossing her face.  When Vista touched her arm, more of a support pillar than I was, Sveta came free of the train of thought, nodding.

“There are other reasons,” I said.  “For me looking into this for you, specifically.  I knew some of what was going on with Weld-”

I saw the pain in her face at that.

“-And I wanted to bring it up somehow, but I didn’t know how.  I thought- if I could find a good, safe way to give you something good, maybe that would help on a level, if and when he went forward with it.”

“How long did you know?” she asked.

“Weeks.”

“Fuck it, Victoria.  What the absolute fuck?”

“I don’t want to watch you hold this in, and I don’t want to watch you struggle with forces outside of your control.  And I know this is stupid, it’s a long shot, and it’s probably retreading old ground you or others have looked into, but… I wanted to try.”

“Try?  Are you aware of happens if we try and fail?”

“More than anyone,” I said.

“Not that,” Sveta said.  “Not what Amy did to you.”

I floated back a half-step, involuntary.

“I’m saying it, blunt, because that’s what we’re talking about.  You can’t offer me hope and have it be for nothing.  That would hurt more than anything.”

I nodded.  “I did tell Jessica to tell you guys to hang back a minute.”

“She did,” Vista said.

I’d originally planned to include her from the beginning, but when Jessica had been leaving, and I’d been faced with the decision to bring Sveta along or not, this way had felt more sensible.

After a pause, Sveta seemed to accept the line of thought, though it was a far cry from accepting everything.

“I want good things for you,” I said, meeting Sveta’s eyes, my own eyes moist.  “You backed me up when it counted and I want to do the same, but I can’t even give you a reassuring hug on days like today.”

Sveta blinked a few times, trying to be angry, but getting teary instead.  The tears were black, welling in the inner corners of her eyes.

Vista pulled out a tissue from her belt, which Sveta took.  She was remaining the mostly silent ally to the both of us.  A referee.  I was aware guards were close enough to hear, and so were the two prisoners.

My heart pounded as much as it had in any fight.  I hadn’t handled this well.  This… it came from black thoughts in the car ride.  From thoughts of indulging in monsters, wading into murkier waters.  It wasn’t familiar ground, and now I was repeating Jessica’s mistake from earlier in the day.

“Show me?” Mr. Bough asked.

Sveta turned his way.

“Show me what I’d be working with.”

She stared at him for what might have been twenty seconds, before reaching up.  She undid clasps and removed her dress, then shed her wig.  As if to be more imposing, to scare him away from what he might say if he were insecure in the least, she raised herself up and stretched out.

“What do you want?”

“To be human again,” Sveta told him.  “To have my body again.”

“I can think of ways.  I can try.”

“Trying isn’t good enough,” I told the man behind the glass and chickenwire barrier.  “If you can do it, we can talk special dispensation while you’re locked up.  I pull favors, get you something to send you on your merry way.  Television, solar panel, something to play movies, or-”

“Regular,” he said.  “Regular visits.  Once every week, something smaller, books, supplies.  Check on me, ensure I’m well.”

“We can look into it,” I said, glancing at Vista.

“There are people who we put in remote places, bolt down their supplies to the rock,” Vista said.  “Ensure they can’t roam, make it harder for them to get help if we check on them.  Some of the minors.  We have a precog check the coast is clear, and if it isn’t, the plan is to just leave them to rot, count them as dead.”

I looked at Mr. Bough.

“Works,” he said.  “No recruited help.  Just… give me enough to stay in touch with things.”

“Twenty dollars in value, once a month,” I said.

“Stingy.  I’d be changing a life.  I’d-”

“Can you?” Sveta asked, interrupting.

I cut in, “And don’t say ‘try’.  Because if you try and fail, I will personally pulverize one of your legs in my hands before we drop you in another world.  Be sure.”

Mr. Bough smiled wide, showing some silver-capped teeth.  “I have ideas.”

The statement seemed to shake Sveta, to the point she wasn’t holding herself up at an imposing height anymore, or even at my height.

Seeing that and the latent nausea of having to deal with a biotinker and every mental picture associated with them was enough to get to me too.  I reached out to Sveta to stabilize her and for stability.

“Being a case fifty-three is a big part of who I am,” Sveta said.  “Even if it worked, which it isn’t guaranteed to…”

There was nothing I could say to that.  It was hard to fathom.

“…I don’t even have a community with my kind anymore.  So why do I cling to it?”

“Because it’s what you know,” Vista told her.

“You said they’re the worst kind of monster, Vista,” Sveta said.

“We’re not that bad,” Mr. Bough said.

“Shut the fuck up,” I told him.

“So it feels wrong,” Sveta added.  “Going easier on them to get a selfish favor.”

“You struggling feels wrong,” I told her.  “You lost your prosthetic body because I failed you, and-”

“No I didn’t, you moron.”

“-Because I could have pushed harder against what I saw as a bad idea, when we split the groups.  I didn’t want to be a tyrant, bullying people and pushing for my ideas, and I let us take a bad route, and you lost your body because of it.  I felt guilty about Weld and I wanted to help somehow, and… this is entirely the opposite of what I wanted to say.  What I mean is you suffering feels wrong, because you’re one of the best people I know.”

Tendrils reached up to wring her prosthetic hands, and touch my hand where I held hers.

“I need to think about it,” she said, but as she said it, she was unconsciously bobbing her head, nodding in agreement to her own internal arguments and thoughts without even realizing it.

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Black – 13.10

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“You’ve been doing this for years,” Tattletale said.  “Uh huh.  Yeah, no, I’m not going to say I don’t have some sympathy for you.”

She moved her head to one side.

“Be better, then.  Be smarter.  Be more mature.  If he’s being a dildo then you do have Mrs. Bishop as your nuclear option.”

Tattletale looked at me in the rear-view mirror of the car.

My eyes dropped.  The Old Man was draped across the back seat, braced by Sveta.  Bruises crept along his arm and the side of his face, and my gloved fingers held a wad of sterile cotton swabbing Tattletale had had in the glove compartment against the wound.  He’d been knocked out as part of the fall, and he stayed that way for seven minutes before stirring awake.  Tattletale had looked in his eyes, then drugged him with another of the drugs in the glove compartment.  Something to ease the pain and make it easier for him to sleep.  My leg kept his head stable, while my other leg was a spot for my mask to rest on.  Black with gold tracery, it stared at me, accusatory.  Or maybe it was accusing of everything it looked at.

“She was his teacher,” she said.  “He pulled every string he could and twisted the other Heartbroken’s arm to keep it a secret from me.  Everyone in his class wrote in a big letter to her.  We’re going to miss you, you’re my favorite teacher, yadda yadda.  And he wrote a poem.  You can use it if they start in again on our junior team and you absolutely need to.  No, it wasn’t an indecent poem, it was heartfelt.   He’s still  embarrassed by it.”

“What the fuck?” Sveta asked, from her seat behind Tattletale.

Tattletale waved her off.

“The other nuclear option is she cried when she read it.  You can use that detail if he gets too upset after you bring it up.”

A response from Imp.  A question.

“If I have to, and they have a way of making you have to.”

More from Imp.

“Fine,” Tattletale said, still talking into her phone.  “But- let me talk.  Let me- fine, I’m a cunt, just-”

I nodded at that last bit, dramatically and closed-mouthed, Sveta joining in, until Tattletale glanced in the rear-view mirror, saw us nodding in unison, and flipped us the bird.

“If you want to have any authority, then it comes down to fear and love, and I think you know this, Imp, but most of them are either fearless or react to fear in screwed up ways, and they all have some fucked up background when it comes to love.  So maybe, you know, you’re not going to have any pretty options.  You were the one telling me that some of them are getting to be adults and some of them are barely any younger than you.  If you want to convince them that you’re the one in charge, then you need to bring your A-game.”

There was a pause as Imp talked.  I could hear only notes of her voice through the phone, pieces of words, but not words themselves.

All against the backdrop of the barely audible car engine, the hum of tires against road -Tattletale liked nice cars, and the interior of this one was quiet-, I could hear the Old Man’s breathing punctuated by small, unconscious noises of pain.

Tattletale answered, sounding exasperated, “If that’s the angle you want, then that’s fine, except being their ally means paying attention.  ‘Aunt Rachel’ has been giving you an easy time of it by keeping two or three with her at Casa de Bitch, and you’ve gotten lazy.   But- Imp, you wanted this.  If you want to be their peer then sometimes that means manipulating them for their own benefits.  Imp-  Imp.”

Her position was one where I couldn’t see her eyes through the mirror, but her head moved in a way that made me think she was eye-rolling so hard that her eyes were dragging her head with them.

“Imp.  If you have to be a little cunty, as you so eloquently phrased it-”

Imp said something.

“Latin, I’m sure.  If you have to be a Latin cunt-”

Imp said something else.

“Your effort’s wasted, because I didn’t even bat an eyelash at you knowing the word for it.  If you have to be a jerkass to get through the next few hours, then you do that.  But I’m going to warn you, if you don’t set boundaries, if you don’t keep the older Heartbroken from stomping all over what Chicken Little, Darlene, Candy and Lookout are trying to build, those four kids will never forgive you.  They-”

A momentary pause, an interruption.

“-Yeah, ‘fuck’.  Those four kids will love you but they won’t forgive you.  They’ll wonder for the next forever about what could have been and when they’re nursing hurt feelings and resentment in their hearts, a little piece of that resentment and hurt will forever and always be ‘why didn’t Imp back us up’?”

There was a long pause.  I didn’t hear any of Imp’s voice in there.

Tattletale went on, “If that triple-pronged dildo Samuel wants to stomp all over their feelings, mayyybe let him know you can stomp all over his.  Make him buckle and the others will follow.  If they’re really into it, you might need to get Chastity to back off, because she’s another mini-leader in that troupe.  She always gets giddy when we order pizza and grumpy when it’s not the teenager with the scooter, and as far as I know she doesn’t even realize why.  Mention it.  That’ll get her to stop.”

Imp said something.  I heard a long, drawn out sound that might’ve been a groan or a strangled scream.

“Together-together?” Tattletale asked.

One-word response.

“That’s fascinating.  You could ask those two if they want dessert, and if one said yes, the other would skip dessert out of sheer spite.  And they’re together on this?”

Another short response.

“Mostly together.  That’s still something.”

Imp said something more.

“Easy.  Drop a comment like how similar they are to one another sometimes.  You-  well say it and be careful, Imp.  Obviously.  So it’s Samuel, Juliette and Roman, you’ve got everyone else handled?  How’s Flor?  And she’s not being sly so you let your guard down?  Huh, good for her.  Okay.  And Lookout?”

I frowned at Tattletale, as her eyes locked onto mine in the mirror.

“Good.  Then it’s just the three older ones.  Go handle that.  Yeah, good luck.  Bye,” Tattletale said.  She didn’t hang up.

“Um,” Sveta said.

Tattletale held up a finger.  After a pause, she said, “Don’t listen in on my phone calls, Lookout.”

She hit the button on the phone, then laid it across her knee.

“She was listening?” I asked.

“No idea.”

I sighed.

I kind of understood, though.

“Nothing hinky either,” Tattletale said.  “I told you it was fine.”

“Maybe you’re fine if you’re the one calling, but why is she picking up the phone?”

“She didn’t.  I called a nonexistent number and your tinker patched me through.  Blame her for keeping an eye on the airwaves.”

I ran my hand along my forehead, fingers brushing through hair to fix it where the hood had flattened it down.

I wasn’t really sure how to answer her.

“The whole gang is settled in at the kids’ H.Q., and it seems the older Heartbroken are jealous of our quartet of ten, eleven, and twelve year olds.  They’re picking apart ideas, ganging up, pressing buttons, and being their worst selves.  I give it three weeks before they start wanting to copy the chicken quartet.”

“Triple-pronged dildo,” I recalled.

“That would be Imp’s contribution to the conversation.  Referring to Samuel.  He’s a little gentleman and a much-needed level head, but he has his moments where he isn’t level and he becomes unmanageable, fake, stiff, and more than a little weird.”

“Imp’s contribution, as far as I can tell, is mythology and three-way dildos,” Sveta said.

“Triple-pronged.  I’m fairly certain that’s three going one way.  If you have questions about the mechanics of that, I’m sure Imp could explain it.”

“I’m fine,” Sveta answered.  “I’ve dealt with more disturbing ideas than that.  Like how you were talking about emotionally manipulating that teenage boy in your care.”

“Hold on,” I cut in.  “No.”

“In Imp’s care,” Tattletale said.  “And I wouldn’t throw stones about emotional manipulation, honey.”

“Woah,” I said.  “Stop that right away, both of you.”

To their credit, they listened.

I checked my watch.  Tattletale had estimated forty-five minutes as the outer range of our time limit, and that had been sixteen minutes ago.

Twenty-nine minutesAt most.

I could feel how much the two of them wanted to get back into it.  Sveta hadn’t entirely abandoned the angry look at any point, and her position over the Old Man wasn’t helping, being so close to this degree of hurt.

“Brooms,” I said, to change the topic, and to refocus on important things.

“I was wondering when you’d ask.”

Tattletale sounded so damn pleased with herself.

“The Custodian,” Sveta said.  “She was there before, a watchdog and builder, the person who kept the prisoners in their cells.  If people have brooms, that means she’s not there anymore.”

“Do you have to steal my thunder?” Tattletale asked.

“If you pause to act smug when we’re in a rush, I’m going to hurry things along.”

“Well I’m not positive you’re right,” Tattletale said.

“Are you saying that because you’re sure or because you don’t want me to be the one with the answers?”

“Now who’s wasting time?  It’s possible she’s gone, but it’s also possible it means she’s taking breaks, going on errands, or it means Teacher might be anticipating having to replace her.”

“You grinned like the cat with the canary when you heard it,” I pointed out.

“Yes.  But getting into why has to wait until we can be more sure we aren’t being observed.  What happened back there, that was another push.

“Push?  The way you said that tells me you aren’t thinking of Midas pushing this guy down the stairs,” I said.  I looked down at the Old Man.

“It was another nudge, to drive in a wedge, to screw things up.  Subtle and deniable.”

“Midas was?”

“Bluntforce was.  The guy with the knob obsession.”

Nubby, the guy who’d had the spiked armor, except all the spikes were rounded off.  “They sent him a message and…?”

“And knew with pressure that Midas, who was only barely on our side, would feel the need to reclaim his authority.  Because Midas knows how fragile his hold is, and Midas has always been one of the voices advocating for violence.  If it weren’t for that push from Bluntforce, our man of gold would have played along.”

“You’re sure about this?” I asked.

“Pretty sure.  The parts I’m not sure about are the parts that you’d probably consider minor.  They’re on our trail, nipping at our heels.  Just in case you were wondering.”

“This is going to be a thing when we get to Engel and her group?”

“If it is, that’s fine.  As I see it, the goal has shifted.  We know seventy-five percent of what’s up.  We have a pretty good idea about who, when, where, how much and how broad, we can guess about the how and why.  Right now, we’re looking for two things.”

“A way to stop it, deny him what he wants,” I said.

“Well, in a manner of speaking.  I would say we need to find a chink in the armor.  That’s one thing.  The other thing we want is standing.  Authority.”

“This isn’t because you lost a lot of yours when you lost New Brockton?” Sveta asked.  “Or because of what Midas said about you having lost it all?  Because I can’t help but notice the first thing you did after hearing that-”

“Sveta,” I said.

“-was talk to your team.  Sorry.  I’m done.”

“You see what I have to put up with, Snuff?”

“No comment.  I don’t want to get in the middle of this.”

“I’m paying you.”

“That you are.”

Tattletale turned around.  Sveta moved her head closer to mine to make the face to face interaction easier.

“You’re kind of right,” Tattletale told Sveta.  “Him mentioning that got me thinking about the team and about where we stand.  But I don’t think it’s wrong to think about leverage and reputation.  The more we know, the more power we have when the diarrhea hits the fan.  It means they’re more likely to listen to us, instead of telling us to fuck off and then fumbling around for a week to figure out what we already know.”

“I don’t disagree,” I said.  “We might have seventy-five percent of the answers, as you put it, but having eighty percent is better.”

“And,” Tattletale said, actually enthused, “Anything they do to fuck with us, like Bluntforce back there, it gives us more information than them not doing anything at all.”

“Really,” Sveta said.

“You know, you remind me of someone,” Tattletale told her.  “My old teammate, Grue.”

Really,” I said.  “That is not the first, second, all the way through to the twenty-fifth name I would have thought of.”

“I feel like I’m being insulted,” Sveta said.

“No, no.  This new you?” Tattletale asked.  “Coming into your own.”

“We should focus,” I said.

“Sure,” Tattletale answered, shrugging.  “Will this new Tress be joining us for the meeting with Engel, Egg, and Scraping?”

“Did they respond?”

“Yeah,” Tattletale said.  “At Miss Treat’s.  Do you know it?”

“No.”

“It has reputations.  It’s actually a hangout spot for Parian, when she can make the trip, and if certain people she’d prefer to avoid weren’t there.  You didn’t answer my question.”

“You asked a few.”

“Are you coming in?”

Sveta bit her lip, glancing out the window, then down at the Old Man.

“You know them better than I do,” Tattletale said.

“Is it neutral territory?” Sveta asked.

“No.”

“Because that’d be too easy,” Sveta muttered.

“Is this the villain bar?  Swansong mentioned one,” I said.

“It’s not,” Tattletale said.  “But there’s overlap in clientele.  This is more rogues and weirdos, but that last bit might be me being judgmental.”

“You?  Never,” Sveta said.

“Be snarky after you decide whether you come in,” Tattletale said.

“What about him?  Aren’t we taking him to a hospital?”

“No,” Tattletale said.  “If we took him to a hospital they’d separate him from us, and he wouldn’t survive that.  I don’t trust back-alley doctors, so we’re going with the next best thing.  Miss Treat’s.”

I looked at my watch.  Twenty one minutes left.

“There’s nothing we can do about it, Antares,” Tattletale told me.  “It’s going to happen.  It’s just a question of where we are when it does happen.”

“I could message Dragon.”

“Might hurt more than it helps.”

I looked out the window.  I could see the portals.

“Do you mean hurt us, or hurt everything?”

“Hurt us,” Tattletale told me.  “Puts us in focus, might get you a thank-you but when they’re assigning blame the jerks in charge are going to like you for it.  It’s better to sit back, let shit go down, and then come at them with a folder or a phone full of answers and an ‘I told you so’.”

“If I message them, it’ll help them work it out?”

“Possibly.  In small fractions.  It’s not like they know what they’re up against even more than we do.  Maybe they call and get more hands on deck.”

“…I’ll message her.”

Tattletale nodded for what might have been ten seconds before saying, “Okay.”

Okay.

It was three minutes of driving through roundabouts and one-way streets before we got to Miss Treat’s.  A quaint, English-style tea shop.  The overhang over the door was snow-dusted with icicles hanging from the plastic ‘lace’.  Just inside, it looked to be warm, with doilies on the tables.  A mom and her younger daughter were drinking tea, and the little girl had a big pastry on her plate.

Sveta emerged from the car, holding the Old Man steady.  I could see how nervous she was, even without the telltale agitation of her body.

“Coming?”

“I think I have to.  It’s safest if I carry him, I think.”

I nodded, even though I suspected she’d needed an excuse.

We passed through the doors.

“Good afternoon!”

“Jesus,” I said, turning to the young server who stood just by the door.  “You scared me.”

“Sorry about that,” she said.  She wasn’t wearing a uniform, except for an apron with lace at the edges and a name tag.  “I, uh-”

She’d noticed the Old Man, who Sveta held.

“I’m supposed to ask if you’ve been here before, but-”

“My friend has,” Tattletale said.  “Can we talk to the owner?”

“He’s out.  His daughter is in though.”

“Can she give medical care?”

“I’m not sure, and I’m not sure if- um.”

“I’m a friend of Parian.  I know she comes now and then.  She has fans here.”

“I know the name, but- I’ll really have to check.”

“Please,” I said.  I still had my mask off and hood down.  I smiled.  She returned the expression.

She fled into the back, leaving us standing there.

A display case had overly cutesy cakes, and a few mascot characters were positioned around the shop, characters with the softest fuzz around the edges, proportioned so their heads were about fifty percent of their body mass, eyes small and spaced apart.  Mischievous frog, sad puppy, friendly mouse.  All wore old-fashioned clothing.

I positioned myself so that the little nine or ten year old girl who was at the window eating her pastry wouldn’t see the insensate, bloody Old Man that Sveta carried.  She was looking though, and Sveta looked back, meeting her eyes.

The little girl, tea-cup in one hand, offered a little wave.

Sveta waved back.

“You can come back,” the employee said.

The back of the place was a mirror of the front, if perhaps a little cozier, for lack of a better word.  Gingham was replaced with leather, pink with black, and pastel with wrought iron.  The mascots were still present, but more… lively, I supposed.  The mouse from before was encased in leather, zippers done up, the mischievous frog was bent over the top of one bench holding end of her dress up and out of the way while a  bird held a paddle, and the sad puppy that had been around before was wearing dresses, smiling.

It said a lot about how striking the tone shift was, that it was the first thing that caught my eye, considering clientele.  There was a severe woman in a leather dress with a laptop, typing away, and a very bewildered, uncomfortable dad sitting with a teenager who had hair dyed the colors of a sunset.  It made me think of my own dad, who I hadn’t really talked to since maiming my mom.

The two case fifty-threes were sitting in a booth, joined by the guy I was pretty sure was ‘Scraping’.  I had only a glimpse of them, of hair that glowed, skin like eggshell, and bloody bandages, before the employee and her boss joined us.

It was a little shocking, tearing my eyes away from that group, and feeling the fleeting sensation like I’d just laid down like a dog lying in a sunbeam, and been forced to get up.

Was there an emotion manipulator in that grouping?

“What happened?” the boss asked.  She was done up in high fashion, with dramatic makeup.

“He was outed as a cape, he got pushed down the stairs.  We can’t take him to the hospital because people might want to hurt him.  Can you check him over?”

“Parian would vouch for you?”

“Yes.  She might have mentioned me, but it would have been to gripe about me as a person while respecting me as a colleague.  I don’t futz around with stuff like this, I wouldn’t want to ruin her reputation.”

“I can call her?”

“No.  You’ll find she won’t pick up.  But that’s because something bigger is going on.”

I saw the doubt on the boss’s face.

“It’s true,” I said.

She looked me over.  “You’re one of the heroes.  I’ve seen you.”

“Yes.”

“Okay, take him through here.  Lay him down.  That’s good.”

Sveta followed the instructions.

“I like your costume,” the boss told me, before turning her attention to her employee, giving orders about getting a medical kit.

Yay.  Small wins.  She liked my costume.

A small win, small feeling, that met its match as we turned our attention to the trio in the booth.  My attention was split between them and Sveta.

“You got control,” Egg said, by way of greeting.

“I did,” Sveta answered.

Egg was younger than Tristan or Rain, older than Kenzie.  His skin was like eggshell, brown, his eyes molded into the shell down to the eyelash, but with no separation between lid and eyeball.  It broke when he moved, with membrane beneath the shell holding it mostly together, and the regular breaking that came with blinking led to a crumb-trail at his cheekbones.  Where a part was still for a moment, the cracks closed up, only to break again when that part moved.  Here and there, blood mixed in with white vitreous and thick yellow yolk weeped out of the biggest cracks.  His clothing was normal, a sweater and slim jeans, but it looked as though he were wearing a plastic layer beneath.  His head was hairless and smooth on each side, with a shock of yolk-yellow hair on top, the same kind of liquid-thick as corn silk.

“Greetings, Sveta,” Engel greeted her, and I had to blink, because the sound of her voice affected my vision.  She had an accent, but I couldn’t get my head around the look of her voice to even begin to figure it out.  “Antares and Tattletale, yes?

“Yes,” I said, making myself recover.  Tattletale was distracted, caught between paying attention to us and watching proceedings with the Old Man.  She was listing off the medication she had provided in the car, and pointing out he had a liver problem he took pills for.

Engel was… it was hard to frame it, even.  Her hair glowed like a light shone from within every strand, and her skin was textured with a pattern that only showed where the light caught the edges of her face, but that was the smallest part of it.  When my eye moved over the lines of her face, I could taste sunshine at the back of my tongue, and feel a faint, pleasing vibrating song through my bones, like I was sitting in a massage chair that got to the core of me and played music through it.  The sensations were full-body and varied, but always pleasing.

Her clothing was easier to focus on, of a similar style to Sveta’s casual wear, but a little bit lighter and fluffier, with more white and more of the kind of fabric I detested, that made tops see-through, forcing multiple layers to keep bras from being visible.  They were all over the place, too.

“It’s been a little while,” Engel said.

“It has,” Sveta replied.

“Are you alright?  You don’t seem well.”

“It has been a rough day,” Sveta said, her voice controlled, even a little bit tense.

“Good,” Egg said.

“Be kind,” Engel told him, striking him with the back of her hand.  It produced a sickening crunch, caving in one corner of his chest.

“Go easy on him,” Scraping said.

“Sorry,” Engel said.  “You are so fragile today, Egg.  Have you been eating?”

“Not now,” Egg said, his full attention fixed on Sveta.

“You must eat to be healthy.  We’ve talk about this.”

“Leave him be, Eng,” Scraping said.

It was such a strange little group, because it did look like they were fairly close, but they were even more different from one another than Sveta, Tattletale and I.

Where Engel was an assault of pleasures to all the wrong senses, Scraping was visceral.  Maybe seventy-five percent of his flesh had been flayed, seemingly stretched out, then reattached in folds and arrangements.  It looked as though he’d had an artist do it, because the way flesh came together made me think of the overlapping petals of a rose.  Here, however, the flayed flesh was used to create accents.  Pockets and slivers of crimson against a backdrop of white with inflamed pink edges.

Where he wasn’t flayed, his flesh was badly damaged, like it had been sandpapered or he’d been dangled out of a car and held against the road while the car raced along.  He had an Asian cast to his features, and with how he was built and how square his face was, I was guessing he was Chinese.  His hair was styled medium-long and straight, his high-quality clothes were chosen to fit the style he wore his flayed skin, black and pinstriped with the ‘ruffles’ of flesh serving in much the same way one might wear a ruffled shirt.  Bandages wrapped a part around his neck that I was guessing had been freshly done.

The conversation was so stiff.  My eye found a clock above the door, and I noted our dwindling time.  Maybe best to push things forward.

“We talked to Semiramis,” I told the trio.

“We have mixed feelings about Semiramis,” Engel said.

I had to wince at the sound of her voice.  Damn it, this was uncomfortable, but I didn’t want to derail the conversation.

“Understandable,” I said.  I tried to meet her eyes, and then flinched away.

It reminded me of being- of being around Amy, when I’d been altered to be in love with her.

“You do not have to look at me if it’s hard,” she told me.  “I won’t be offended.”

I looked away, nodding.  “It’s not because you’re a case fifty-three, it’s because-”

“Of my power.  Yes,” she said.  She’d lowered her voice, which helped.  “Often it is people who have been through things who have trouble with me.”

“Tactless,” Scraping said.  “Let’s not bring that up.”

“Of course,” Engel said.

“I would have warned you if I’d realized it was this intense,” Sveta said.  “We talked online.  Almost every day, for a while.”

“We did.  I’ve missed those talks,” Engel said.  “I love your arms.”

I could see Sveta’s expression easing up.  The anger that had been there earlier, even the darkness in her eyes that had followed from Weld, they softened.  Until she looked like my friend again, instead of this angry, hurt person.

“I had a whole body,” Sveta said.  “It got trashed in a fight.”

“I’m so sorry, honey.”

More easing up of the tension.  Sveta smiled a little, welcoming the sympathy.

“Until she betrayed us,” Egg added.

It was a comment that chilled the otherwise warm exchange, and brought the darkness back to Sveta’s eyes.  I could have hit the kid over it.

Engel, for her part, laid a hand against Egg’s arm, almost a warning, or an urging to hold back.

Conversation didn’t pick up where it had stopped, so I tried to look for another way to move things along.

“Can we talk about something more pressing?” I asked.  “We have limited time.”

Fifteen or so minutes before our enemy makes a move and we have to figure out how to respond.

“What do you need?” Engel asked.

“It seems like an investigation we’re conducting has led to what looks like a certain villain, Teacher, picking up where Cauldron left off,” I said, measuring out my words.

Egg clenched one fist, his hand audibly breaking, with a severe enough crack forming that fluids leaked out.  He cupped it in one hand and leaned forward, elbows on the table, and used a bright yellow tongue to lick up the blood and other fluids before they reached his sleeve.

“They aren’t Cauldron,” Engel said.  “They aren’t making case fifty-threes.”

“Yet,” Tattletale said, joining the conversation.  “That we know of.”

“We talked to Semiramis.  She said you two exchanged notes,” I said.

“Did she also say that she was working with L.J.M.?” Egg asked.

“We talked to him too,” I said.  “Tattletale and I did.  I walked away with a less than great impression, pretty much confirmed Sveta’s take on him, as far as I’m concerned.”

“You’re friends, then?”

“From the hospital,” I said.

“The asylum,” Sveta clarified.

Egg’s displeasure seemed to shift.  No longer solely reserved for Sveta.  I was the enemy now too.  Not because of the hospital, as far as I could tell, but from my association with Sveta.

“Were you the girl who looked after her?  The one with the multiple heads, multiple limbs, a-”

“No,” I said.  I hadn’t meant to deny it so much as I wanted to indicate for her to stop.

Sveta clarified, stepping in for me, saying yes, but in doing so, talked over Engel for a moment.  Engel raised her voice, which raised the intensity of the sensations – touch, smell, taste, and shifts in my vision, that made the world pulse with added life and detail, contrasts and textures, like the world was a masterwork painting.

Fuck.  Between the sound of her voice running through me and the visceral mental images, it knocked the wind out of me and put me right back in that room.  The right words and images could make me think of the hospital room and bring the memories up, but one thing I’d been so grateful of was the fact that the emotional ‘adjustments’ that my fucking sister had made were a distant memory, disconnected from the me in the now.  Given how feelings tended to attach to things, removing the feelings might have involved excising the attachments.

In effect, where everything else was so vivid, the fact I’d been sick with infatuation was something I remembered had happened, but didn’t really re-experience.

Until this woman with a voice that tasted and felt like biting into brownies fresh from the oven started talking, as a pretty fucking close tactile-and-taste approximation to the contentment of being in love and being with the person you loved.  Which wasn’t- not the hospital room, but scenes before it.  Before my mom had pounded on the door.

Sveta touched my arm, jarring me from the thoughts.

“You’re here,” she whispered.  “Cafe.  Feel my hand.  Meet my eyes-”

Vivid memories sat in my mind’s eye until I met Sveta’s eyes and forced what I was registering in the forefront of my brain to align what I saw with my eyes.

“There’s a clock above the door-”

I shook my head.  I was aware that in the background, Scraping was chiding Engel on tact again.  Tattletale said something.

“Clocks are no good,” I murmured.  “Used to always watch the clock.”

“Smell the baked goods, the tea.  Think about today, what you did.  We sent off the prisoners.  You went to drop Lookout off.  Saw Tattletale.  Remember the errands you ran with her.”

I nodded, going through the steps as she mentioned them, forcing recollections into my mind’s eye, squaring away what I needed to be feeling in the now and pushing the other feelings into the edges and the gaps of my brain.

Drawing in a deep breath, I put my hand over hers, squeezing, exhaling as I said a quiet, “Thank you.  I’m okay.”

I wasn’t positive I was, but still.

“-You realized where you were?” Tattletale asked.  A question I’d missed the start of, aimed at Engel.

“After,” Engel said.  “Egg had to clue me in.  I want to say I’m sorry, Antares.”

“It’s okay,” I said.

“I was so very worried about my online friend, back then.  Then she had you and she was so happy to have company.  It wasn’t for long, I know-”

“It might be good to drop the subject,” Scraping said.

Engel nodded.  “It meant a lot.  I am so exceedingly glad to finally meet you.”

“Likewise,” I said.

“How can we help?” Engel asked.

“We should have discussed more about whether we would,” Egg said.

“Cauldron, whatever shape it takes, is an enemy,” Engel told him.

“Like you said before, we don’t know if this is Cauldron,” Egg replied.

It was interesting, seeing the interplay between him, her, and Scraping.  He came off like the moody kid brother, her as the wiser, warmer older sister, and Scraping… was the referee?  He reined in, chided, warned, and otherwise stayed out of it.

“We talk to them, then we find out,” Engel’s voice was firm.

“Was there a discreet entrance?” Tattletale asked.  “You said you didn’t even realize it was Cauldron, which means a big door-shaped hole in reality didn’t lead you in.”

“We went on the water, and under a bridge.  I thought at first it was a camouflage bubble.  Something to hide the building from planes and spies.  Now I think… maybe portal, hidden.”

“I remembered discussions about strategy, approach, how the Irregulars would get in,” Egg said.  “It was the sluice, at the base of the facility.”

“Did you dock?” Sveta asked.

“No.  We took the boat inside.”

“Then it wasn’t the sluice.  The sluice had enough water coming down that it was violent, and a boat would get pulled in,” Sveta said.  “Still water?”

Engel nodded.  “Mostly.  Some trickling flow.”

Egg looked pretty pissed at being wrong about his contribution here.  I wasn’t sure Sveta cared at this point.

Sveta was focused on her mental map of the place.  “Um.  What was it?  That would have been the reservoir.  Which makes a few different degrees of sense,” she mused aloud.  To Tattletale and I, she said, “We had to figure out how we’d attack a facility like Cauldron’s.  They didn’t have as many employees as it sounds like Teacher has, and they had less as the years went on, but they did have some.  Those employees had regular portals they’d use, in out of the way spots, with simple signals they’d use to ask for them to open.”

“Teacher doesn’t,” Tattletale said.  “Teacher has portals.  They’re tinker operated and clumsy, they take time to set up and time to take down, and they require power, which isn’t always the easiest thing to obtain.  Easier over time, don’t get me wrong, but I would imagine that’s a bottleneck for him.  His portals being what they are, if we can find them or figure out how to find them, that could help.”

“If he’s listening now, he could dismantle them,” I said.

“He could,” Tattletale said, and then she grinned.  “And he will.  But now he needs to devote time and energy to dealing with us, which is risky, or time and energy to dismantling that, which is another kind of messy.  Repositioning portals means informing anyone coming in and out about the changes of location, and that’s something we can catch or track.  What else?”

She’d asked Sveta.

“Did the lights flicker?”

“Yeah,” Engel said.  “They went out at one point, which was when I saw some of the things and labels on shelves.”

“Books with letters and numbers on the cover?  Labels taking up half the page?”

“No.  Manton’s texts.  It rang bells.”

“That might have been their power testing area.  It’s where they gave customers vials, when they weren’t sure of the results.  Gave all of us vials.”

“There’s no us,” Egg said, under his breath.

“Shh,” Tattletale shushed him, like she didn’t even know she was doing it.  “Power testing area?”

“In big, reinforced spaces, like aircraft hangars,” Sveta said.

Engel nodded with some energy, agreeing.

“They’d be in a hallway with… there’d be labs, kind of, but people described them as looking more like they had gym equipment and MRI machines in them, except they weren’t either.  They would have been on the left side if the hangar spaces were on your right.”

“There were rooms to the left but they were empty,” Engel said.

Egg was looking more and more disgruntled.

“This is fascinating,” Tattletale said.  “You said people described them.  Who?”

“Old customers of Cauldron we tracked down.  We wanted to know exactly where we were going and what we were doing,” Sveta explained.

“If they moved the equipment they moved it somewhere.”

“Egg and I talked about it, even took notes,” Engel said.  She reached into her pocket for her phone.  Edges of the phone had distorted to have an oil-slick shimmer where her hand touched it most often.  “We thought about trying to find some of the others, who were interested in the Irregulars but who never made it, or who could not be part of the attack.”

“But you didn’t,” Tattletale said.

“No.”

“They might have interfered or got in the way, like they did with the artist L.J.M. and your deal with Semiramis.  Keeping you isolated.  They didn’t come after you because Egg’s memory is imperfect,” Tattletale said.  “He got details wrong and that threw off the scent.  Now… with Sveta helping to connect the dots for you, they may be more onto you.”

“You led them to us?” Egg asked.  He turned to Sveta.  “On purpose?”

“No,” Sveta said.  I saw the pain cross her face at the accusation.  “No.”

Scraping looked rather upset, where he’d been the calm one before.  He put a hand on Engel’s shoulder.

“They were going to come after you whatever happened,” Tattletale said.  “But not while it was going to raise more questions and problems than it put anything to rest.  Engel is too well liked and Scraping has a family that would ask questions.  It’s a good thing that we’re approaching you now and forcing their hands instead of them showing up in the middle of the night.”

Engel wrung her hands.

“I didn’t want this,” Sveta said.

“Don’t,” Egg told her.

“I didn’t!”

“You said you didn’t want what happened before either, but we’re playing through it in fast forward now.  You told me you were sorry once, but ‘sorry’ doesn’t mean shit if-” Egg stopped.  He’d made a fierce enough expression and talked violently enough that it had cracked his chin open.  He wiped at the mess and left a streak of red across the line of his jaw.  That hand held his jaw together as he finished, “-doesn’t mean shit if you don’t learn from it, change anything, or make amends.”

“I’m helping people.”

“Like you were when you were with us.  Except you’re repeating the exact same old mistakes, and you want to waltz into our lives, earn our trust, and fuck us over again, exactly as before.”

“That’s not what I wanted.”

“I know what you wanted.  You wanted happy, pretty illusions.  You wanted to be with us and you wanted to be with Weld and you didn’t want to do the hard thing and take action.”

“That’s not fair,” I said.  “No, fuck that.”

“Fuck you,” Egg retorted.  “Don’t talk like you know.”

“I’ll talk like I know her.  It was the end of the world, everyone was panicking, and you’re condemning my friend for not making a decision you agreed with in the midst of the worst days in human history.”

“You.  Don’t.  Know,” Egg said.

“It’s not worth it,” Sveta told me.

You’re not worth it,” Egg told her.  “You-”

“She’s one of the best people I know,” I interrupted him.  “And this is about something more than your grievances against my friend, okay?  Things are at stake.”

I looked at the clock as I said it.

Only a few minutes until the deadline.

“Doesn’t matter anymore.”

It had been Tattletale who said it.

“What?”

“The time.  No need to watch the clock.  They aren’t acting on us right now because they’re preoccupied.  They pulled the trigger.  Bullet has left the gun, and now we find out who or what takes the shot.  How is our Old Man?”

“He’ll live.  He’s concussed.  Do you know the treatment for a concussion?”

“Yeah,” Tattletale answered.  “Sveta?  Still feeling under control?”

Sveta bobbed her head in a nod.  She walked away from the argument to pick up the Old Man, who was conscious enough to recognize what was going on.

“You should come,” Tattletale said.  “If they make a move against you guys it’ll be soon, after they’ve done what they’re doing, sometime while we’re reacting or reeling from their big move.”

“What Tattletale was saying before about you being too visible and connected to easily and quietly deal with isn’t going to count for much if everything else is chaotic,” I pointed out.

“Where would we be going?” Engel asked.

“The old portal in New York City,” Tattletale said.  “Where the Wardens Headquarters used to be.”

“You sure?” I asked.  “That’s a long trip.”

“Has to be.  Trust me,” Tattletale said.

She met my eyes for a long moment.

I didn’t trust Tattletale as far as I could throw her, whether I used my power or not.  She knew that.  She knew I’d know she knew that.

Was that supposed to be a signal?

We’re being watched, and they’re going to start taking action.  If we assume they’re tracking everything we say, then stating one plan and following another makes a ton of sense.

“We should go now,” Tattletale said.  “You two should come.  You too, Scraping, if you want to chaperone these two.”

“I do.”

“Do you have a car?”

“I do, yes.”

Once the trio got moving, they wasted no time.  Engel slapped down some money on the counter on her way past it.  Tattletale paid the tea shop’s owner.

The only slow process was easing the Old Man into the back of Tattletale’s car.  He was hurt and just conscious enough to be moving, writhing over that hurt.  Sveta was gentle, while Snuff, Tattletale and I watched out for trouble.

“I loved you,” Engel said, behind Sveta.

Sveta straightened, turning around.

“I love all of my brothers and sisters, but I loved you in particular.”

Present tense, then past tense.

“I will always cherish my memories of the company you provided me in darker days.  You helped me find optimism and a brighter outlook in lonely days.  Without that girl from the hospital, I would not be out and about today, chasing my dreams.”

“We could still talk.”

“No.”

I saw the pain in Sveta’s face.  No response came to her lips.

“Why the hell not?  You’re being asinine about this whole thing,” I told Engel.

“I am grieving my friend Sveta,” Engel said.  “It is easier to move on without reminders.”

“I’m still here.”

“You are,” Engel said, and her voice was accented more as she said it, still warm and an eerie, discomfiting kaleidoscope of pleasant sensations.  “But she isn’t.  And I will forever miss her.”

“Will you work with us on this thing?” Sveta asked, bitter.

“I will endure,” Engel answered.

“Oh fuc-” I started, before Sveta took hold of my arm.

“You’ll continue being a moron over this whole thing, you mean,” Tattletale said, from the far side of the car.  “Getting caught up in the ‘hate the tentacle girl for going against the hive mind’ thing.”

“No hate,” Engel said.  “Only disappointment.”

“Can we just-” Sveta started, stopping for no explicit reason.  “Get in the car?”

Tattletale hesitated, and Sveta reached a tendril inside, around the passenger seat, and tugged Tattletale partway in.  Tattletale climbed in the rest of the way.

Even though I climbed into my seat normally, my hand ready to close the door, Sveta was quicker than I was, seizing the handle and tugging the door shut.  Sealing us off from the other group.

“Start us up.  I want the radio,” Tattletale said.  “And keep an eye on those guys.”

“Will do,” Snuff said.

The radio was on a second later, along with the blast of heat from the car’s vents.  Snuff pulled out partway and stopped, waiting for the other car.

“I’ll leave my seatbelt off, so I can fly out and help them if I need to,” I said.  A surprise attack now wouldn’t be much of a surprise, given how Teacher was operating.

The radio was going, but it wasn’t the convenient movie or television thing where things started at a convenient time.  That was if this was the sort of thing that came up in the news, and if Tattletale was right.  For now, the noise on the radio was about politics.  Druck striking a deal for the construction workers.

“I’m sorry,” I told Sveta.

“They still say nice things about Weld now and then on the message boards and sites.  Never anything nice about me,” she murmured.  “They barely consider me alive, apparently.”

“They’re idiots,” I said.

“They’re idiots who used to call me a sister and Weld a brother.”

I reached out, into the tangle of tendrils between head and blouse, and hooked my fingers into them.  They wrapped around my hand and forearm, while her head turned my way.

I was in the midst of tugging her closer, into something approximating a hug, when I felt a pang at my finger, then at another.

Sveta visibly concentrated, worked at relaxing, and let my withdraw my hand.

I flexed my hand.  My finger had been bent to a painful point, but not broken.

“Sorry.”

“No need for,” I said.  “Offer for a hug still stands.”

“I want to,” she said.  “I can’t.  Not right now.”

Only the background noise of radio and the sound of the vehicle followed the statement.  I watched  over one shoulder to make sure the car following was okay.  Saw Engel’s silhouette through the tinted windshield, and found myself kind of detesting her.

I put my eyeless mask on and my hood up, and I told myself it was so I could better fly through the cold wind when and if I had to fly to rescue them.

Tattletale began to adjust the radio’s volume, raising it.

A newscaster announced.  “Breaking tonight, you’ll want to secure your data.  Officials are scrambling as we speak to get encryption servers back up and running after an apparent error in the code has broken password security for a majority of online accounts.  Some experts are cautioning that you will want to change your password as soon as possible, but others are saying this may not be enough.  Even deleted data or images uploaded to social media-”

“Here we are,” Tattletale said.  She reached back, her phone dangling from her fingers.

My email, and she was signed into my account.

I checked my phone.  I hadn’t been notified, and it hadn’t requested permission to sign in.

The radio kept going.

“Any password will get you into any account, if you know what their username or email is,” Tattletale said.  “Browser history, files mirrored from desktop, email, social media… it’s all out there now.”

I glanced back at the other group.  They drove carefully after.  Egg was talking a lot.

On Tattletale’s phone, I dug through the files on my account.

I found the diary, mirrored onto an online account from desktop.

“It won’t be long now before people start looking and finding the planted stuff.  Secret identities and any nudes you took will be the least of it,” Tattletale said.

“No nudes,” I told her.

“Small mercies,” she answered.

I thought of Presley, Natalie, and of Jester.  In part because I knew how devastated Presley would be, and how bothered Ashley would be that her biggest fan might get the wrong impression. Natalie… I could see her reading the diary, believing it, and never trusting us again.

Jester was… just a friend.  One I’d hate to see go.

It gutted me, thinking about it on that level, like someone had shivved me, dragged the blade across my midsection, and left me with a horrible, hollow pain there.

“It’ll feel very organic to the public, that they find the bad stuff.  It’ll lead to bigger problems.”

“Can you just-” I started.

“Can I what?”

“Trust us to connect the dots and realize how bad this is?” I asked.

“Okay.  You want me to shut up.”

“Please.”

On a level, I wasn’t surprised.  It was fully within his power to do something like this, to release it en masse.  I hadn’t expected this specific angle, but… it made sense.  That, in the weirdest way, didn’t even touch me, didn’t elicit the smallest emotional reaction.  It was only the specific cases that, even thinking about them for the second time, hit me hard with the impact of it.

Maybe I’d been too disconnected from the public for too long, if I was this unbothered.

Maybe it was a strange shape or kind shock.

Snuff picked up speed, until there was a reckless edge to the driving.  I sat with my right hand on Sveta’s Rain-made right hand, my body twisted around so I could watch her out of the corner of my eye while keeping a closer eye on the car that followed.

“I’ll contact our teams,” Tattletale said.

“Thanks,” I answered.

My attention was split, but none of the subjects of that attention were any easier than the others.  Sveta, who I wanted to hug or help somehow.  The group behind, who I wanted to slap across their faces.   The hurt Old Man, who lay with his feet near me, this time.

I didn’t know what to do.  It was possible a door had permanently closed here.

Sveta, somehow, was more pressing, but I wasn’t sure what to do about that, either.

“Take Dorsey,” Tattletale instructed Snuff, as she brought her phone to her ear.

Dorsey, I knew, was a route that would let us make a last minute diversion to the Bunker.  We were going there, I was willing to bet.  Dragon.  Jessica.  Colt.  Love Lost.  Cradle.

We, I hoped, could talk about things there that we couldn’t talk about in the open.  I could grill Engel on details.  We could make plans, gather notes on Teacher’s base of operations, things Tattletale had picked up.  I really hoped it was the case that we could talk there, because if it wasn’t, then we really had no options.

A general plan, a set of options.  It didn’t make me feel better, but it helped suspend me in a place where I wasn’t sinking into feeling worse and worse.

Not until I let myself.  Made myself.

Except for noting it was something about to happen, I didn’t devote a thought to any of the broader, bigger subjects, or imminent subjects of meetings.  Earlier, Sveta had brought me back to reality by touching on details around me, and now I abandoned that reality.  I turned to thoughts of the hospital room, darkness, and some mixture of stray animals and vermin transmuted into pale, reaching flesh.  I remembered watching the clock endlessly until I could hear the tick of it, and the pain I held in my chest mirrored that heart I’d been given that had been made to be broken.

For the course of this journey, there was nothing I could do to change what Teacher was doing.  I found myself mired in other thoughts, so dark they could be called black.

Teacher’s move here was to drive a permanent wedge between parahuman and human.  With distorted, false, and misleading evidence, they would see us as monsters.  Not immediately, but soon.

Thinking of Engel’s comments, Sveta’s perspective, and the me that had dwelt in that hospital room for nearly two years, I didn’t shy away this time from black, panic inducing memories, from the idea of breaking promises I’d made to myself to stay sane, or the notion of indulging in those monsters.

If we had to deal with monsters, real and fake, then I’d fucking find a way to deal.

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Black – 13.9

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The Old Man being held at gunpoint had arrested all of the private meetings and conversations in the upper floor.  Most of the heat in the Lodge was coming from the kitchen built into the center of the ground floor, but that was a heat that diffused up and out from vents in the center of the upper floor, and we were arranged at the edges.  The atmosphere was chilly, and eerily quiet for a dining area.

Nobody ate and nobody talked.  Ears strained to hear us, despite the usual rules and expectations.  We’d overturned the peace to a significant enough degree that the rules of the upper floor no longer held.

“Fine,” Semiramis said.  “I’ll give you something small, you give me something, I’ll give you the rest.”

She put a slight emphasis on ‘you’, locking her eyes to me.

“Okay,” Tattletale answered.

“Is it?” I asked her.

“I’ve got a sense of Semi here.  It’s okay.  Really.”

Semiramis lowered her voice as she said, “Full name, please.  I’d only allow a joke like that with friends and peers, and you’re far from being either.”

Tattletale smirked.  Sveta did something under the table, and I saw the movement of her coat, like she’d been flicked or whipped.  The smile dropped from Tattletale’s face.

“Understood,” Sveta told Semiramis.

Semiramis drummed the table with her pointed nails.  “Tattletale is right.   I threw a party, Engel, Egg, and Scraping attended.   The intent was to make them feel welcome, comfortable, and to give them a sense of the atmosphere they might enjoy if they signed on.  I kept my party sequestered, with a place they could retreat to, quieter than the party, and I remained there, waiting until they wanted to join me.   Engel and Egg came, they sat, they got to talking.   They knew each other in passing, from what I heard.  I overheard much of it.”

“Engel almost joined the Irregulars,” Sveta said.  “She wanted to focus on real life things, friends, family.  Stuff she worked hard to get.  Then when she was ready, we- travel and getting her from where she was to us became hard.  It never lined up, and then she found other things she wanted to do.  Egg did join, but more as a tagalong or mascot, too young to do anything big.”

“None of that sounds wrong, given what I heard,” Semiramis noted.

“Important thing is,” Tattletale said.  “What did they say?”

“You first,” Semiramis said.  “What’s this?  This man.”

She indicated the white haired man with the nice clothes, trimmed facial hair, and a weapon pointed at him.  He’d lowered his hands, and rested them on the bar, fingers splayed.

Tattletale leaned back, looking at me.  Her hand went from fist to flat, as if to indicate something.  Like a hand signal for a fucking dog.

Whatever.

I answered, “Case twelve.  Before the PRT was a thing, a gang gained a lot of traction.  They knew too much, to the extent that law enforcement thought they’d gotten their hands on cold war spy tech.  Then it got to the point they thought it was experimental, never-used tech, because it was so good.  Around the time they started thinking that was impossible, parahumans were breaking onto the scene, and they realized something was up.  It went like I described, they thought they had the guy at the center of the information flow, the one guy who rose a little too fast, who wasn’t hurt or wasn’t as hurt by the gang.  It turned out to be his uncle.  A man who could feed people his own DNA to-”

Excuse me?” someone at another table asked.

Snuff stepped in between us and the table in question.  “Private conversation.”

“Snuff,” I said.  Snuff turned his hooded head.  I glanced at Tattletale, “Can I give him orders?”

“Sure.  Go nuts.”

“Snuff, protect the Old Man from everyone else.”

Snuff stepped away, putting himself between the parahuman and the man.

“That’s what he’s called?” Little Midas asked me.  “The Old Man?”

“The nickname he took on.  Formally, he’s just case twelve.”

“What does he do?” Semiramis asked.

“He’s the waiter who spits in food,” Prancer said.  “Only superpowered.  Fuck me, I’ve eaten here way too often.”

“No jokes,” Semiramis told him.  Her neck was stiff now.  She had said she didn’t like losing, and in this case, she hadn’t even known she’d played and lost.  There were a few other people who looked incensed.

On the upside, they’d be really pissed at Lord of Loss, who had apparently known.  He’d earned his spot on the list of people where I wouldn’t be upset if they tripped and fell headfirst into traffic.  Or on the wrong side of villains.

“He doesn’t spit,” Tattletale said.  She pushed her glass further away from her.

“Don’t push that toward me,” Sveta told her.

“I was going to leave that part out,” I told Tattletale.

“What does he do?” Semiramis asked.  “And how?  Clarify.”

“They searched his apartment and found little bottles with sliced off bits of flesh, blood, vegetables nourished and grown in his own DNA.  That last one might have been an experiment, might be a regular thing.  He put his flesh in food and drink, and after that was consumed, he was linked to them.”

Someone nearby stood from their seat.  Snuff stiffened, raising a hand.

“Asshole made us into cannibals?” the guy asked.  He had a western desperado look, which arguably came into style and inarguably went out of style in the course of one month in 1998.  I supposed if there was a place to take another sad stab at it again, Earth N was it.

He had nice hair though.  Long, but he took care of it.  His eyes were narrow in the part of his face that showed between kerchief and black hat.

“Sit,” Semiramis said.  “We’re resolving this in a civilized way.”

Fuck civilized,” Desperado said.

Sit.  We gain nothing by taking it out on him.  We’ll decide his fate soon, when we know all the facts.”

“No.  I don’t think we will,” Desperado answered.  “We’ll decide it now.”

Semiramis narrowed her eyes.  She moved her hand in a claw, stiff and tense, as if every movement would make her knuckles pop, and there was a sound like the very foundation of the Lodge cracking.  More than one person rose from their seats at the sound.

Desperado turned on his heel, one hand at his jacket, head lowered so the brim of his hat hid his eyes.

“Do I-” Sveta whispered.

“Only if they threaten our man,” I said.

Sveta nodded.  I watched as Little Midas tracked the nod, looked between Sveta and I, and then heaved out a breath.

“Dustwind,” Little Midas said.  “No.”

“We’re not-”

“No.  Not until we say.”

The Desperado paused, then turned to walk away, heading downstairs.  As if taking the command as suitable for everyone present, others sat.  They didn’t sit happily.  Tension and anger leaked in.  This warm, cozy building with whole logs forming the walls, soft light, and heat from wood stoves and fireplaces had been a safe space, and that space had been exploited.

They still obeyed, as angry as they were.  Little Midas had clout.

The conversation didn’t pick up immediately.

“Clear out,” Semiramis said, turning her head to look at her people in the booth behind her.  “Give us more space.  Protect the Old Man.”

People in the booths around us stood.  They walked away.  One table of people was sitting close, and the departing henchmen indicated for them to relocate.  They did.

We were surrounded now by empty booths and tables.  Some people crowded in the corners of the room, leaning in close to talk to one another and either commiserate or conspire.  The light that came in through the small windows by each table cast long shadows and made faces bright on one side and darker on others.    By contrast, the light from the backlit bar was diffuse.

“Can they be trusted?” Sveta asked.

“Mine won’t talk,” Semiramis said.  “I can’t speak for Midas’.”

“I keep mine distracted with blood and circuses,” Little Midas said.  He giggled.  More seriously, he said, “If you resolve this soon then you shouldn’t need to worry.  Take too long… they’ll get to it.”

“We’re making it a priority,” I said.

Blugh,” Tattletale made a sound, looking at her drink.  “I’m caught between having no appetite and really wishing I could get a drink or a bite of something to get this bad taste out of my mouth, except I know I won’t feel good about eating anything until we’re fifty miles from here.”

Okay, well, maybe Sveta and I were making it a priority.

“Tell me more about what this man does.  What kind of link does he make?” Semiramis asked.

“Right to business,” Tattletale said.  “Not that I’m not curious.”

I wracked my brain.  I’d read the file a dozen times, but the last time was a year ago.  “When he slept, if people he was linked to were sleeping at the same time, he’d get their memories from the day.  Vague, not complete memories, but enough to piece most things together.  It gave him other advantages, an instinctive knowledge of how people would react or respond, after he slept.  Made it more effective if he went after them, presumably, but he was careful, favored sending people instead of going himself, or attacking them in subtler ways.”

“That sounds awfully familiar as an M.O.,” Tattletale murmured.

I nodded.  “It is.  He’s in a rare class of parahuman who could pull off something like this, given a chance.”

“A rare class in a lot of ways.  I didn’t think parahumans lived to be that old,” Tattletale said.

“He’s a survivor,” Prancer said.

“He could almost pull it off, but no, he’s not a culprit, too slow,” Tattletale said.

“Yeah,” I agreed.  That was the sticking point.

“I’m not sure if I should thank you for explaining that or be horrified, but fuck,” Tattletale said.  “I don’t get the impression he was a mole for them.  Marquis, Lord of Loss, and the other background players of Earth N?  Sure.  But them?  Not consciously.”

“But the parallel is important?” I asked.

“Could be.  Teacher’s, and I’m pretty sure he’s a big part of this, his big thing right now is that he’s trying to connect an awful lot of dots.  He performs that connecting with the bottom-tier thinkers and tinkers his power makes.”

“Tinkers scan things,” Sveta said.  “They can study parahuman powers and reinterpret them into blueprints and ideas for tinkering.  Is it possible they scanned him, and got something similar?  A machine that reads memories?”

“I wouldn’t rule it out,” Tattletale said.  “But I wouldn’t rule it in, either.   They’re acting on information fast enough I don’t think they’re sleeping or waiting until we’re sleeping to collect it.  There are so many ways they could do this that it’s not worth getting stuck in the weeds.  He could have a clairvoyant sitting on the guy, tinker cameras like your ex-teammate, or a hundred other things.  Point is, he’s connecting the dots, and I think he’s devoting a lot of resources to keeping others from connecting and connecting dots.”

“That’s two distinctions you’re making there,” I said.  “Connecting in the… team sense, and connecting in the information gathering sense.”

“I don’t care about this,” Semiramis said.  “I want to know what to watch out for.  You’re giving me a non-answer.  You’re saying you don’t know, which is reneging on the deal.”

“No,” Tattletale said, in a voice somewhere between strained patience and outright exasperation.  “I’m saying this is very much what to watch out for.  What happened to you was a dots and connections thing.”

Semiramis’s voice was low.  “You think he disrupted my deal with Engel and Egg to keep them from connecting dots?”

“You connected dots.  We are the dots.  You know the how, where, and what.  I know Teacher’s why,” Tattletale answered.

“Tell me,” Semiramis said.

“You show me yours and I show you mine.  How, where, what.  Help me narrow this down.  I’ll give you your why and then, if we’re lucky enough to get the chance, I’ll point this bruiser-”

Tattletale indicated me.

“-at the culprit, and hopefully we keep him from doing this or anything like it again.”

“Engel went to Teacher for help.  She saw his organization, and had a sense of what he was building.  Her unique vision reveals things in darkness and limits her ability to see things in light, and she saw enough hidden things to make her wary.  He has a building larger than some cities, and he’s filling it.  The lower floors were crowded enough that things had to be shuffled around and moved to keep her from seeing them, but she still saw them.”

“White walls, floor?” Sveta asked.

Semiramis nodded.

“I’m wracking my brain to think what other terms might be used to describe it.  Was a portal used to enter?”

“I don’t know.”

“It is what you think it is,” Tattletale told Sveta.

Sveta nodded, jaw and mouth set firm.

“We knew he was siphoning in people.  Not a city’s worth.  That’s useful,” Tattletale said.  “It doesn’t give us many hints about what he’s doing here though.  Egg said something and she connected dots?”

“When they talked, they made sense of things between them.  Egg said what you said, that ah, they were in the old headquarters.  Engel seemed upset.  I remember because of how disturbed she seemed by the revelation.”

“That’s because they were at the old Cauldron base.  The place Engel would have gone to attack if she’d ended up with Sveta’s old team.  The place where everything was managed behind the scenes.  Where they made the case fifty-threes.”

Sveta’s head bent down, her eyes fixed on the black table.  I reached out to rub her shoulder.

The others reacted with their own measures of mild surprise.  A frown from Semiramis, because she probably got it at this point.  Teacher being there made Teacher very hard to get to.  Not to mention the people, the resources, and the attention he was paying to us.

“What else?” Tattletale asked.  “What did Engel see, that Egg could explain?”

“People, many were vacant behind the eyes, lined up in the dark.  I don’t know what else-”

“Every detail matters,” Tattletale said, firm, eyes wide and focused on Semiramis.

“I don’t remember the details.  At the time, I didn’t care.  It was a conversation about someone I cared very little about, that I wasn’t even a part of.”

“But you remember the conversation.”

“Only fragments.  You’d have to talk to them.”

“Give me something, because the way things are going, I’m not positive we’ll get a chance to talk to them.”

“Broomsticks,” Semiramis said.

“Broomsticks are good,” Tattletale said.  “What about them?”

“There were people in a stairwell who tried to keep her from seeing their brooms, according to Engel.  Egg thought it was strange or important.”

“Brooms,” I said.

I glanced at Tattletale and saw her smiling.

Semiramis drummed her fingernails.  “Engel thought it was because they didn’t wish to appear lowly, or they were ashamed.  Egg said no, then said they had someone for the job?  I didn’t follow.”

“The Custodian,” Sveta said.

“That was the word he said,” Semiramis said.  “Why?”

“Every detail matters,” Tattletale said.  “That’s good.  But it doesn’t relate to our current issue, and you don’t care about it if it doesn’t relate.  That’s the where and the what.  Teacher in the unreachable extradimensional complex with the army of thralls and other allies.  Thralls with brooms.”

“Tell me why.  Do I need to worry about him doing this again?  How do I stop it?”

“The why is that you got too close to people who were asking questions and you started asking your own.  It’s that simple, because he’s going after anyone and everyone who does the same.  His predecessors went after problems like a surgeon with a scalpel and a precise knowledge of what they wanted to achieve and how.  He’s… going after things like a… analogies fail me.  He’s getting enough people under him that he can gather five people and tell them ‘watch them’ or ‘slow them down’.  Something like that, but he can do that for everyone that matters.  Five sets of eyes on every last person that matters.  He amasses information, gathers people, and connects all the dots, while blocking everyone else from doing the same things.”

“Villains, heroes, rogues, civilians-”

“Mercenaries, machines, governments,” Tattletale finished for me.

“He’ll do this again?” Semiramis asked.

“He’s doing it.  He never stopped.  He’s doing it as we speak.  And you don’t stop it without stopping him, and you aren’t strong enough to stop him.”

Semiramis frowned.

“You can help us,” I said.  “If you want this to stop.”

“Or if you don’t want to help us, because Tattletale’s annoying or you don’t trust heroes, help anyone who’s opposed to Teacher,” Sveta said.  “But… I think helping us is a pretty good bet.”

“You’re biased,” Prancer said.

“It’s my opinion if I were objective,” Sveta answered.  “Antares fought Teacher’s army before, I know more than you’d think about the place Teacher is and what’s going on there, and about Engel or Egg, and Tattletale knows things.  You’re not going to find better people to handle this.”

“There’s no guarantee you succeed,” Little Midas told us.  “You want money, you want access?  We give you that and chances are we get nothing.”

“Not money.  We don’t care about money.  Give us information, which costs you very little to give-”

Midas interrupted me, “Opinions may differ on that.”

“Give us information and shortcuts to the key people in this.  Introductions, opening doors, favors, whatever it takes to achieve their cooperation.  Because if we don’t step in and this continues like this, we might reach a point where Teacher just doesn’t have any legitimate opposition.  You want this to end.”

“Seems reasonable,” Prancer said. “But I don’t know what I can give you.”

“Semiramis can help us with details from the past.  Midas can help us with details in the present.  You’re our insurance for the future,” Tattletale told him.  “Keep your ear to the ground.  You should have a sense of what to look for.  Wedges, attacks from an angle that use communication and separate or disrupt people.  You’re best networked among the low-level villains.  Keep an eye on them, report to us.”

“I can do that.  I’ll warn you I won’t betray their privacy.”

“Of course,” Tattletale answered with a smile.

Semiramis had been quiet for a minute.  Now she was nodding, more to herself.

“What do you need?” she finally asked.

“Contact details for Egg and Engel,” Tattletale said.  “If you were probing around the subject of the Teacher thing before you decided to pull back and focus on other things, any notes you have would help.”

“I’ll give you the contact details and look at what else I might have that I could give you.”

“Thank you,” Tattletale told her.

“Anything else?”

“Honestly?  No.  Back us up.  Don’t slow us down.  We’re all on the same side here.  Heroes, villains, rogues.”

I really didn’t consider Semiramis a rogue, to use the archaic PRT term for those who pursued strictly neutral or business-oriented interests instead of fighting for the heroes or the villains.  But Semiramis seemed to like the sentiment.

She wasn’t exactly smiling or jumping with joy, but she’d found out she was being stalked, she’d eaten human flesh however many times, she was having to deal with Tattletale, and she probably had the bad taste in her mouth that anyone got when motherfucking Teacher came up.

But we had her.  Prancer was cooperating.

Which left Little Midas.  Mr. blood and circuses.  We looked his way.

“There’s no way I can help you without losing my place in things.  I facilitate, grease the wheels, I don’t obstruct, demand, or use my position for leverage.  I don’t show people my books or reveal the men behind the curtains.”

“You greased the wheels for mercenaries who attacked the Navigators.  Navigators who were lured out with something very similar to the form of attack being used now,” Tattletale said.  “Even if you told us only what you knew, called-”

Little Midas was already shaking his head.  “Won’t, can’t.  And you can be reassured that means I won’t be talking to others about what you’ve all shared here.  I mean no ill will, this has been very interesting, even fun, but no.”

Pain in the fucking ass.  That-

“Okay,” Tattletale said.

-was not okay.  I arched an eyebrow, but Tattletale couldn’t see it with the mask obscuring the upper half of my face.  By Sveta’s expression, her take on this wasn’t so different.

“No groveling, no mercenary offers?” Midas asked.

“No,” she told him.  “No.  Time is of the essence.  Prancer, you have the means to contact me.  Semiramis, if you’ll give me the contact information for those two, we’d like to try talking to them, seeing what they remember, specifically.”

“I can give you the last known numbers.  They made it clear they weren’t interested in further contact, after my association with Big Picture tainted their view of me, I don’t know if they’ll answer.  I leave that to your discretion.”

Semiramis took a pen from Tattletale, writing the number down on a napkin.

Midas slouched back in his seat, watching carefully from behind his golden helmet.  He’d expected a fight and got a surrender instead.  He was wary, and I was too, even though I was coming at this from the opposite angle.

“Do me a favor?” Semiramis asked.

“Maybe,” Tattletale said, warily.

“Tell them I’m open to working with them on another project.  L.J.M. does not need to be associated with it, and I’m no longer working with Big Picture.”

“But you’d still want to do a sex scene with a Case Fifty-three?” Sveta asked.

“Wouldn’t it be progress?  Acceptance of the body?  Something deeper than a one-kiss on screen?”

“One-kiss?” Prancer asked.

“When they allowed white people to kiss black people on screen, it started with the one-kiss.  Toe in the water, never two kisses in the same episode or movie.  Then they eased in, as people got used to it.  Same with gay people.  Then with the- you case fifty-threes.”

“I know the guy who got the first on-screen kiss,” Sveta said.  “But it wasn’t only one kiss.”

“Yes, you’re right.  More than one.  Deliberately so.  They wanted to push the envelope.  But so do I, here.  The difference is that they, I think, had the PRT helping?  It’s common knowledge the American organizations helped.  They are… greasy like our Midas here, greasing up the wheels.”

“Have I offended you, Semiramis?”

“No, Midas.  But you haven’t won my favor today, either.  I want this done with, with a minimum of headaches.  I want to focus on my empire, and grow it.  I can’t do that if this looms above.”

“You guys can work this out later,” Tattletale said.  “We’re going to chase down this lead.”

Her chair scraped against the floor as she stood.

“If we leave the Old Man with them, then they’re going to kill him,” I said.

Tattletale gave me an annoyed look.

“What?  It’s true.”

She almost rolled her eyes.  “Yes, it’s true.  Yes, we should bring him with.  If we can work out what they did to him, we can work out something about how they operate.  There are resources.  Then… how long does his thing last, before the body digests it?”

I wondered if I should lie.

“Long enough,” I said, to be coy.

Tattletale nodded.  “Two, three days?”

“Maybe five,” I lied.  As far as the PRT figured it out, it was indefinite.  So long as he was alive.

“You’re not taking him,” Midas said.  “And he does need to die.”

Midas stood.  He banished the black table, and Tattletale’s glass dropped.  Sveta caught it with tendrils, which brought it to her reaching hand, only a bit slopping out.

Now we had issues.

Sveta didn’t stand up, but straightened to her full height.  I used my flight to make the process equally smooth.  Minor expressions of power.  Posturing.

Midas had started it, with his firm line in the sand.

Sucked that we were in his territory more than we were in ours, but… I wasn’t going to watch a sixty year old guy die, when I wasn’t sure just how active he’d been in using his power.

Besides, he kind of represented something major.  I could hate him, though I didn’t really loathe him, I could think he was scummy and freaky.  I could recognize that he had been a gang member and had perpetuated violence, drug dealing, and a culture of fear.

But he’d survived.  Every parahuman I knew who’d been in the game for a while saw enough people die or meet unfortunate ends that they kind of… absorbed it, really.  The implicit assumption became that we’d die early.  We had other causes and those causes were more a priority than reaching the age where we could get discounts in stores for our age.

I hadn’t exchanged any words with him.  I had no idea who he was now, if he was aspiring to control like Teacher was, if he got off on feeding people bits of him, or if he was an angel.  But I felt like I needed to protect that.

“He’s essential to uncovering this thing, Midas,” Tattletale said.

“Which means he submits to power testing?  Investigating?  Scans from tinkers?”

“Something like that,” Tattletale answered.

“And then?” Midas asked.

“And then we pass him onto the guys who have been making the most dangerous villains disappear.  Out of sight, out of mind.”

“Out of sight and very in our minds,” Midas said, and his voice was lower.  “Stowed in a basement in a building only the Wardens know about, made to watch or monitor key people the heroes have a problem with.  People who have been fed pieces of his flesh.”

“That’s not what the heroes do,” Sveta said.

“Or in a place the Undersiders protect?” Midas asked.  “Or elsewhere?  He could be snatched up by another player.  By Teacher.  There’s no way of knowing, unless we watch him die before our eyes.”

“That’s not going to happen,” I said.  “That’s not how we do things.”

“And you’re exaggerating,” Tattletale said.  “You make him sound bigger than he is.  Have some perspective.  Is he strong?  Yes.  But once he’s gone he’s going to be so much trouble to retrieve that it would be a hundred times more effective and efficient to go after one of the other creepy thinkers or tinkers.”

“Like a certain young camera tinker?” Prancer asked.  He was the only one who hadn’t stood up from the table or booth, and presently leaned back, casual.

“Not helping, Prance,” Tattletale muttered.

“Do you know what puts him even further out of reach?” Midas asked.  “A beheading.”

“I know a few too many people who were cloned for me to be sure about that,” Sveta said.

“If you want to talk about perspective,” Midas said, “If there are questionable characters who can do that who are free and capable of resurrection, we have other worries.  Be realistic.  Death is final enough.”

“You’re acting like someone with something to hide,” Semiramis said.

Midas had more emotion in his voice, but he bore it well, sounding almost outraged, in a way I was betting was compelling for the twelve or so capes at the sidelines.  “No.  Tattletale is working to cultivate the impression we’re on different sides, Semiramis.  When she agreed so quickly to my refusal to share information, it was because she plotted this.  She knew that he would need to be dealt with.  She knew you need this out of your way and that I’m not in a position to help with this.  Think, Semiramis, think, you have niggling doubts.  Little thoughts and things that don’t add up, that we’ve completely ignored.”

“This is a repeat of the fiasco just before the Navigators were attacked,” Semiramis said.

“Yep.  Cries for blood,” Prancer said.  “The heroes were applying pressure and villains decided to fight back, no holds barred.  Your voice was a loud one, Midas.”

“You weren’t silent,” Midas answered.

“I was grieving.  We all made mistakes.  This course of action looks a hell of a lot like another one.  One very convenient to Teacher, if we start fighting among ourselves.”

“Can we compromise?” I asked.  The looks I got back in surprise ranged from Semiramis’ wary one to a ‘get real’ look from Prancer, and hostile eyes behind a jolly bearded faceplate for Little Midas.

“Compromise?” Prancer asked.

“Lend him to us.  We investigate, which helps all of us, we see what we can do to undo his hold on anyone, disable his power, whatever, and then we reunite after.  If you’re satisfied, we follow through with our plans, imprison or sequester him.  If you’re not, then we’re exactly where we are right here, right now, but with cooler heads.”

“That involves a lot of trust in heroes,” Prancer said.  “And no offense, Tattletale, but you’re kind of a jacakss.  You and your teammate did get on the bad side of more than a few villains here.”

“Are you negotiating right now because you believe in it, or because you really like debating?” Tattletale asked.

“The second, I guess?”

“Back off?” she asked, in about the least offensive way someone could say that.

“Sure, fine,” Prancer replied.  He backed off, walking away a few steps.

“It does involve trust,” Semiramis said.

“I’ve dealt with Bluestocking, I’m approaching you here in a fair, open way, about a situation that could hurt you.  I’ve been fair,” I said.

“You say ‘I’ and not ‘we’, I notice,” Semiramis told me.

“Sveta too.”

“You’re carefully avoiding mentioning Tattletale.”

“Look,” I said, “nothing good comes from our guy staying here.  We’ve got enough shit on our plates that we can’t make the time to exploit this guy against you, and that’s not our style anyway.  If it was, we’d be doing way better than we are, instead of building the Warden’s third headquarters downstairs and trying to wrangle a half dozen teams in the center and downtown areas of the city.”

“Admitting weakness?” Semiramis asked.

“Admitting reality.  Things are a mess.”

“The difference is that we have to live with the people here,” Midas said.  “We have to lead them.”

“You’re insecure,” Tattletale said.

Midas stiffened slightly.  “I’m aware of what it takes to lead.  Do I need to remind you that you ran a city and you lost it, your group is fractured, and you’re having to ask heroes for support because you don’t have enough of a team to lean on?”

“Talk to me in a month, Midas, because I haven’t backed down or bowed down yet, and I’m going to recover and surpass you without needing to quiver at the knees, biting your nails and worrying what the big bad group of F-lister villains in your corner world think.”

This… this was a massive pain.  She was taking a completely different approach from me, where I was trying to build empathy, and Tattletale was… I wasn’t even sure.  Getting him to back down?

Maybe her approach made sense from her perspective, and there was a course here where she’d batter them, get them to admit weakness, and then strike home with a decisive verbal blow, which they’d be too flustered to respond to.

But… no guarantee.

“Is there another option?” Sveta asked.  “What if we… just took him?”

Midas made a hand motion.  Some of his people shifted their posture.  Snuff moved a step to one side, to put himself between those ‘some’ and the old man.

“I don’t mean that in a hostile, bad way,” Sveta told Midas.  “But if you care what the lesser villains think… what if we skipped that part?  You let us kidnap him, you tell your people whatever you want, make us out to be the bad guys, then we move forward with Victoria’s plan.  We meet you, negotiate, leave the lesser villains in the dark…”

“No,” Semiramis said, at the same time Midas shook his head.

“That’s a lot of bad blood,” I said.  “It closes doors for the future.”

“I’d rather close doors than kill someone without putting him on trial.”

I nodded.

The suggestion had been off-the-wall, but it seemed to have shifted the tenor of the conversation to be less combative.  There was a pensive, tense pause.

I pulled off my mask and pulled my hood back away from my head.  “Give us the Old Man, let us talk to him, let us test him and try to break the connections or force him to give them up.  If the concern is that we’ll keep him and use him, you can send us a trusted representative to see what our setup is.  How villains are being disappeared, imprisoned, whatever we end up doing.  But we loop you in, you come away with a lot of information and a bit of clout, because from that point on, anyone here that wants to deal with us is pushed to act through you.”

“I’d agree to that,” Semiramis said.  Because she wanted power and influence, she wanted control – it had motivated her hiring of Big Picture.

Even Prancer was nodding.  He had his own motivations, wanting a footprint.  Influence in any form would translate to people joining his corner world or supporting it.

Little Midas was the sticking point.

“I don’t like it,” Little Midas said.

“You don’t like anything,” Tattletale told him.  “Except the easy, immediate solution.”

“I’m a greedy man, Undersider.  When I want something I want it now.”

He touched the air and turned that air into something solid, a wispy statue that looked like it was made of a thousand hair-thin gold wires.  The shape was of a woman’s face, upper chest, and breast.  He gripped it by the neck and chin, hard, as it continued to form, then made it dissipate with a wave of the hand a moment later.

I was fifty percent sure he’d screwed up a part of his model at the shoulder, made it too triangular.

“Can you ‘not like it’ in a way that sees you nodding, accepting it, and us being more willing to work with you on something else later?” Prancer asked.  “Any answer besides ‘yes’ is going to cost, probably start a fight.”

I saw Midas pause, stuck on the fence.  I saw Tattletale open her mouth, and I elbowed her.

“Finders keepers,” I said.  “Isn’t that a rule among the greedy?  I spotted him, I found him.  He’s mine.”

Midas made a sound that might have been a chuckle, muffled by his mask.  He nodded, the molded beard at the faceplate of his helmet clinking against his golden breastplate.

“Bring him,” Semiramis said.

At the same time, Tattletale gestured to Snuff.

The Old Man was walked our way, while Little Midas’ people approached him, their words hushed and angry, while Little Midas was calm.

“You’ll cooperate?” I asked the Old Man.

“Yeah,” he said.  “How’d you get me?”

“Old records.”

“Antares is the kind of geek who reads old PRT files,” Sveta said.

The Old Man nodded.

“The past never lets you go,” he told me.  “The amnesty doesn’t protect me?”

“Right now, you’re being protected, that’s a main goal of ours.  But Tattletale thinks you know something we can use, the rest of the people here want to hurt you.  Cooperate with us and we’ll be fair to you.”

“Okay.”

I got Semiramis’s attention, and we began to make our way downstairs.  Since the open construction of the stairwell didn’t really obscure view at any point from anywhere on the ground floor, I put myself between the man and the crowd, to better block their view.  Sveta descended the stairs beside me, while Semiramis followed.  Little Midas caught up and followed, with Tattletale and Snuff.  The Old Man had a bad leg, apparently, and limped.  I held his arm, in part just to keep him from reaching for anything, if the limp was a trick.

A lot of eyes were on us as we made our way down, step by step.

“Out of curiosity,” I said.  “Etna.  What happened to her?  She okay?”

“She retired,” Midas said, behind me.

“She retired?”

Prancer explained, “Went out after Bitch and her hounds, that night three weeks ago.  Took a hit, decided she was done.  Hung up her costume, moved.  Said she’d probably have to do something cape-ish to work out her stress, so she might be a B-list heroine.”

“Oh,” I said.  “I think that was me who hit her.”

What the fuck was I supposed to think about Etna now?  The idea of that being what had actually happened had me caught between this being a bad, cruel joke, like saying someone’s puppy had gone to live on a farm somewhere, and it being real and me then having zero idea what to think of the inept villain who irritated me so much but had actually done something cool.

“You hit her so hard she retired?” Tattletale asked, grinning.

“It wasn’t a hit, exactly.  Is this a bad joke?”

“No joke.  And you’re going to have to regale us with your explanation of what this mysterious technique is,” Prancer said.  “Was it a specific angle of hit?  A combination?”

“You’ll have to teach me, whatever it is,” Sveta added, playing along.

“I tackled her in the air.  Spun her around pretty violently, then dumped her into the side of a hill.”

“Ten-eighty spin with a punt to finish it?” Prancer asked.  “That’d do it.”

“More than ten-eighty and I didn’t punt.  I spun, stopped, and after a momentary pause I… very firmly introduced her to the hillside.  I measured my strength.”

“And worried you killed her,” Tattletale said.

“I- no.  I-”

“You worried you killed her.”

“If someone disappears and the last thing you remember is a K.O.-”

“Midas!”

A voice from the crowd.  We were partway down the stairs.

Fuck.

The guy looked like Cleat’s brother, but he was nubby instead of spiky.  And clearly angry, from what I could see of his face behind the nub-studded helmet.

“Let it go,” Midas said.

“You’re letting them take him?”

“I made my arguments.  I was outvoted.”

Not exactly resounding cooperation there.

“He fed himself to us!”

“If you want to take over the Lodge while Lord of Loss’s back is turned, now’s the time to show some leadership,” Tattletale murmured.

“Shut up, Tattletale,” Midas growled.

“It’s being handled.  We have a solution in mind,” Semiramis said.  “The heroes have a way to take away his power, then they’re bringing him back here.”

Not exactly the way we’d posed it, and now we looked bad if we didn’t do either.

“Not good enough,” Nubby said.  The Desperado Dustwind stood behind him now.

“It’s going to have to be,” Semiramis said.  “You-”

Nubby moved, and I flew over the railing, to get far enough away I could block with my forcefield if I had to.  Semiramis moved in that very same moment, causing a ghostly, out-of-sync image to overlap Nubby.

It was the initial moves of a fight and those moves were very much on our side.  But we were badly outnumbered by angry B-listers, and I had only a second to take stock of them and figure out who I was going to be fighting, out of everyone here.  Not Nursery, thankfully, but there were others.

In that moment I was sizing up the room, I heard the sound, the gasp.

I turned.

Little Midas with his arm outstretched, and the sixty year old cape with the limp was falling down the stairs.  His hand reached for the railing, and was blocked by a crude block of gold.

Snuff slammed Little Midas against the wall.  I flew toward Mr. Case Twelve.  Sveta got to him before I did.  Tendrils caught him, arresting his fall, supporting him from multiple points.

Here, everything was upside-down.  Villains and violence ruled, Sveta wore an expression of anger rather than sorrow while holding a limp bloody man in her tendrils, and it was an act of caring, not of killing, because she didn’t hold him tight.

By the look of it, though, she might have been willing to hold someone else tight.  I saw her look at the crowd, move, and I put myself close enough to her to block her view.

“Your plan,” I told her, in an effort to break the spell.

“My plan?”

“We might have to.  What you outlined.”

“You don’t have to,” Semiramis said.  She sounded pissed as she addressed the room.  “There will be no fight!  You’ll seat yourselves or turn away and you will let them leave as the group upstairs arranged!  If you defy me, if you press me on this, I will bring this building down on your heads!”

Could she?  I wasn’t sure I grasped her power.

But they certainly seemed to think she could.  Nobody fought.  Nobody spoke.

Sveta carried the Case Twelve to the door, her tendrils forming a bed for him to lie across, unmoving.  She opened it without adjusting how she held him.

I remained where I was, as something of a bodyguard, while the rest of the group filed out.  Snuff let go of Midas and left the man slumped against the wall on the stairs.

There would be something of a contest here, to decide who had the most say over this band of villains.  But if there’d been any hint of law and order here, it was gone now.

Bluestocking was outside, smoking with her overlong cigarette holder.  Close enough to hear, not so close she was a participant.  Her stare was long and hard as she watched us walk to our vehicle.  Then she stepped inside, to take her own actions as a major figure in this miserable little community.

“What’s next?” Sveta asked.  “After we get him medical care?”

I put my hand to his throat.  Tattletale moved my hand away.

“Pulse?” I asked.

“He’ll live.  Don’t worry about it,” Tattletale said, her voice laced with condescension.

So fucking frustrating.  I’d welcome a good excuse to fling her into a hillside.

“What’s next?” Tattletale went on.  “Engel and Egg, if we can.  I suspect they’ve been dealt with.”

Snuff deposited the Old Man across the back seat, knees folded.  I sat by the man’s head, and Sveta perched over him and the area just behind the driver’s seat.  The angry, staring-into-the-distance look on Sveta’s face wasn’t going away.

“Then, whether you invite me or not, it’s understandable if you don’t you’re going to want to go talk to Cradle, Love Lost, or the idiot, to get information on the mercenaries that were hired.”

“Talk to Dragon at the same time,” I said.  “Her tune might have changed.”

“It hasn’t, I’m betting,” Tattletale told me.

“She was entertaining the idea-”

“A little bit.  But mostly she worries you’ve gone off the deep end, inventing a conspiracy.”

That stung.

“But,” Tattletale said, her voice gentler.  “They’re getting closer to believing us.  One more lead or bad coincidence and they might change their minds.”

“Let’s hope,” I said.

Tattletale seated herself and slammed the car door.  Snuff started up the engine.  “Let’s not hope.  Let’s keep them in the dark and maybe even do stuff to help them believe you’re bonkers.  Because the second they come around, Antares, whether it’s because we dish out that final clue or they find it while investigating on their own, that’s going to be when Teacher drops the hammer and this gets ugly.  Soon.  Within the next forty-five minutes soon.”

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Black – 13.x

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“Look lively, ladies, gentlemen, and genteel others, we’re firmly in yellow book territory.  You’ve read procedures and protocols every night, but if you’re not feeling like you’re firm on this, you need to get your books out and refresh yourself while you’re on your A-game.  Shout or put your hands up if you’re panicking, stand up if you’re panicking and your mouth and hands are busy!”

The chorus of replies came back, all positive.  The decagon was a raised platform, with short walls, and each of the ten walls had a cubicle connected to it.  Each cubicle had one or two employees within, most facing the decagon.  One of the pillars holding up the arching ceiling emerged from the decagon, a structure for computer equipment and display monitors to hang off of.

Two people in the cell were pulling open bag and drawer, respectively, to retrieve identical booklets, both with yellow covers and yellow at the page’s edges, so the closed books had yellow at the three sides that weren’t the black spine.  Three others already had the book open in some fashion, as  matter of habit.  They had for some time now.  Another two cells were spartan, with little decoration but for a plant in one cell and a family picture in another.  No notes, no books, no papers.  Only the computers, displays, a magnetic board with iron shavings, and a set of bells.

One of the two that was getting their book out tried to open it to the first section, but the book naturally closed because of the rigidity of paper and the firmness of spine.  She typed with one hand while struggling with the other to maintain her place in the book.  A tinker lens was mounted over one corner of her face.  She was young, seventeen or so, dirty blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, her clothes somewhere on the comfortable end of the sliding scale between comfortable and business casual, while not being altogether inappropriate for the space.

The Overseer looked over her shoulder, while reaching out to help press and hold the pages flat.  Text was appearing on the screen without problem at the same time and rate it was being spoken.  The other person in the cell who was transcribing was using a stenotype machine, while this one used a keyboard, typing on a keyboard that was normal but for a few added buttons that helped navigate the autocomplete.

Tattletale: I’m not sure if I should thank you for explaining that or be horrified, but fuck.  I don’t get the impression he was a mole for them.  Marquis, Lord of Loss, and the other background players of Earth N?  Sure.  But them?  Not consciousllllllll;;;y.

“Shit,” was the muttered and horrified acknowledgement of the error.  The girl had been trying to turn the page and the book had clapped shut.  She’d leaned on a key as she reached out to pull the book closer.

The Overseer tapped a bell.

“No, don’t- fuck.  Shit.  I’m sorry.”

C.M. Miltona walked along the divide between cubicles, stepping down into the cubicle, leaving the other two C.M.’s behind in the Decagon, which had just flicked its lights over to red.  The C.L.s from other cells were approaching, the first ones finding places to settle in where they wouldn’t be in the way.

“We have limited moves if they’re blacking us out, so let’s make those moves count,” C.M. Howe said, clapping his hands together.

The C.Ms came in a variety of flavors, and with the way they’d been spread across cells, they tended to fall into certain roles.  Cell Manager Howe was the cheerleader, the coordinator.  An omnipresent and encouraging voice that kept everyone moving at the same tempo.

“Talk to me, what’s going on?” Cell Manager Miltona asked as she entered, assessing the scene in the cell.

“Laurie is fumbling,” the Overseer said.

“I’m fine.  I’m sorry.  I hit a key wrong,” Laurie said, rushed, her voice overlapping the Overseer’s.  But in the process of her continued attempts to open the book, type, and explain herself, she made another typo, autocompleting to the wrong word.  She made a face, then hit a key combination.  A red box encased the lines of text.

Semiramis: You think he disrupted my deal with Engel and Egg to keep them from connecting dots?

Tattletale: You connected dots.  We are the dots.  You know the how, where, and what.  I know Teabag’s why.

Heads in the Decagon turned toward Laurie’s cell while Miltona ducked her head a fraction lower, unhappy.  The text and the error was clearly visible on their screens.  The C.L.s were there, too.

“Type.   Take thirty seconds, type, find your rhythm,” Miltona said, voice calm.  She got a cloth from a high shelf in the cubicle, the upended a water bottle to wet the cloth.  She pressed the cold cloth to Laurie’s forehead, then moved to wet Laurie’s hair, smoothing it back and out of the way.  A hand rubbed Laurie’s shoulder.

Laurie let out a breath she’d been breathing too shallowly to really process.

“Headache?” Miltona asked, after the thirty seconds had passed.

“No.”

“In about five minutes the next team starts cycling in.  Denton sits in, he can assist you.  If you need to call off early, that’s fine.”

“No, I don’t,” Laurie said, her eye not leaving the screen.  Her left eye, almost hidden by the opaque white lens and the rigging that held that lens to her head, would periodically move in a direction independent of her right eye, tracking details and numbers as they came in.

“You were getting your yellow book out.  I’ve quizzed you on that on shift starts and ends, you’re as good as anyone.  Aren’t you confident?”

“I’m confident,” Laurie said.  “But I thought it would be nice to have.”

“First section?” Miltona asked.

“Please.  Sorry.”

The Overseer hung back, watching as Miltona opened the yellow book and used a paperweight to fix it in a permanently open position.

C.M. Miltona managed things on the individual level, looked after health and performance, assessed and kept track of each person in her cell.

“Why are you stressed?  This isn’t like you,” Miltona said.

“I’m managing.”

“I know you are.  But why are you stressed?”

“I’m-”

Miltona spun Denton’s chair around, sitting in it, then wheeled closer, so her armrest touched Laurie’s, her back was to the screens.  Laurie continued her constant typing, eyes not leaving the screen except to glance at the propped-open yellow book.

“I don’t want to be a pig,” Laurie whispered.

“A pig?  What are you even talking about?” Miltona asked.

“I know we’re not supposed to use terms or labels for them, but… the boy in cubicle three and the girl in cubicle six.  When we’re in the dormitories we talk and there’s obviously a set of procedures and protocols where a worker gets… demoted.”

“We’re not going to demote you or do anything to you, Laurie.  You’re our best in the cell.”

“They say if you’re a worker who has to be actively given orders and constantly managed, then you’re a dog, and that’s as low as you get before you get… stuck in the mud.  And you don’t get out of the mud.”

The Overseer crossed over from Laurie’s cubicle to cubicle three.

The nametag read Donna Sledge, but the Overseer hadn’t heard any mention of the name since Donna had arrived.  The woman worked without comment or flinching, her eyes on reams of code.  Phones, internet, and the streams of data from other means of communication, each with their own symbology.  One display was split into fifteen individual sub-sections, and Donna’s hand was on a mouse, holding the right button while sweeping over the windows.  A column to the right of the screen had Donna’s notes.  Where Laurie had marked one line of text in red in the last hour, the sweeping motion of the mouse was designating every bit of communication as flawed, mistaken, or undecipherable, yellow filling each of the fifteen sub-windows.

But not entirely.  The code had moons, stars, hearts, and strings of numbers that the notes in the adjacent column noted as ‘coordinates’.  The brackets around the coordinates were green, and the notes included a shorthand note that Donna could, if asked, pull out those coordinates.  Donna’s head flicked left, her eyes falling on a line of text.  She double-clicked it, typed something, and it highlighted green, text superimposed over it.  ‘Handshake’.

One bigger blob of green in that a sea of yellow.  Wherever that code or text appeared, it was translated as ‘handshake’, with a note beside it.  One one-thousandth of the text on screen was translated in this way.

Like her last name, Donna was a blunt instrument, turned to the undecipherable and unbreakable and set to the task with stubborn persistence.

The Overseer collected a tissue from a stack of tissues on Donna’s undecorated desk.  She wiped a dribble of moisture from the corner of Donna’s mouth.  There was no reaction, no change in Donna.  The older woman breathed at a set rate, blinked at a set rate, and even seemingly filled the catheter bag attached to her chair at a set rate.  She had much less work to do with the communications blackout in effect.  No phone calls to track and take notes on, no emails to file.

Of the fifteen sub-windows, six were gray and frozen.  There would just be the data stream, and the one sub-window with the countdown for when Precipice entered his dream room.  There would be a burst of data as they connected, a burst of data when they left.  Donna had already cracked that for the most part.  The window had the ‘logs’ from the last access, along with notes and numbers about the room’s distribution of power across its visitors.  In lieu of the power distribution table, the fifth occupant had a stress meter, akin to a heart monitor, but frozen in time.

“You’re better than Denton,” Miltona told Laurie, reassuring.  “It’s why you’re day shift.  If we accepted these ranks as fact-”

“They are fact, aren’t they?  Not those names, but, they are,” Laurie murmured.

“-then Denton would be the dog, and you would be above Denton.  He makes more errors regularly than you’ve made this afternoon.  We’re not going to make you a…”

“A pig,” Laurie whispered.

“Not for innocent mistakes.”

“It’s higher stakes.  We’re yellow book.  Soon we go red.  If I stumble and our cell can’t manage, they might.”

“They won’t,” Miltona said, smoothing Laurie’s hair back.  “I won’t let them.”

“I get shaky when I dwell on it,” Laurie whispered.

“It’s not so bad.  I was one, once.  It’s like sleeping, for a very long time, and when you wake up, you feel like you’ve accomplished something and you were taken care of.”

Laurie shook her head slightly.

“You don’t have to worry,” Miltona said.

Laurie nodded, still typing, always typing.  The Overseer looked.

Semiramis: Take him downstairs and out.  Don’t cause a stir.  We won’t bring it up to the people downstairs until he’s clear.

Laurie adjusted her headset.  She hit a key combination, and the line was flagged.  Not a red box around the line, but a green one.

“Good,” Cell Manager Miltona said, standing.  While the others were still reading the text that had been highlighted for the Decagon, she was explaining, “They’re close to the mark and the Old Man is caught.  We’re losing some of our eyes.”

“Noted,” the cell’s third Cell Manager said.  He went by Thrift, he had powers, but he rarely used them.  “When?”

“Ten minutes from now,” Laurie said.

Thrift tapped on a keyboard.  “That gives us a two-minute turnaround on keeping our target from catching him in the first place.  Can we?”

The C.L.s weren’t volunteering much.

“No pawns in place,” Howe said.

“Then can we make it harder?  If they investigate him they may find out we’ve been peeking through his eyes.  Any pawns for that?”

More shaking heads.

“Come on, come on,” Howe said.  The cheerleader.  He had a background as a top seller in a pyramid scheme.  “There’s a way.  Bluestocking?”

One of the C.L.s spoke up, “Our focus was on the trade deal with the city.”

“Is there anyone in Blood Team?” Howe asked.

Another C.L. nodded.  “Possible.”

“A pawn?”

“Wild cards.  Little Midas sided with the more aggressive villains, but he’s hard to push.  There’s someone downstairs we can use, too.  I’ll talk to my cell and run the numbers.”

“Thank you,” Howe said.  “Setting the clock.  Eight minutes fifty.”

The C.L. walked along the divide between cubicles, stepped down, and jogged off.  Miltona had barely settled in the Decagon when another C.M. approached from the direction the C.L. had gone.

“This started with your cell?” the C.M. asked.  “You were first to go yellow.”

“Unavoidable,” Howe answered.

“You let one slip the net, and now you want my assets?”

“We all work together,” Miltona answered.

“Explain it for me first.  I can see your displays.  You have seven minutes.”

“They went to the Bunker, where we don’t have eyes and we can’t see.  We were told to let them go, no interference, because the others wanted to see what we could get in the way of access or brute forcing their access.  That’s not on us.”

“I’m not interested in your ass-covering, Howe.”

“There is no ass to cover.  We’re assless.  Others decided it was worth the risk, they were wrong.  We didn’t get anything and we tipped them off.  A target was clued in that something was wrong, went home, and immediately went to the material we planted.  We pulled everyone in, best people at the desk, and by the time we were set the target was already collaborating with Tattletale from the Undersiders.  We’ve been coordinating with the second team since, keeping them in the loop.”

“You shouldn’t have let the target reach Tattletale.”

“We asked, they said to let it happen.  They felt trying to act would tip her off.”

“If it’s that blatant, your writers weren’t soft enough.”

“Our writers are fine.  You’re trying to assign blame when there’s no need.  We all knew this would happen sooner or later.”

“We expected later.”

“And it’s happening now.  Can we have our pawn?”

My pawn.  What for?”

“The Old Man.  He’s one of our unwitting eyes,” Cell Manager Thrift said.

“I know that.  We use him too.  We have the cell with the second-highest coverage, we use everything.  I don’t see how I can supply a distraction, delay, or deniability in six minutes and change.”

“We need him dead.”

“You want me to sacrifice my pawn?”

“There’s no choice,” Thrift said.

“Assholes.  You drop the ball and I take the hit?”

“We’re all in this together,” Miltona answered.

“On paper.  But you didn’t spend weeks on assets only to have them deleted,” the C.M. from the other cell said.

The Overseer descended from the Decagon, approaching the C.M.  She found one of the boards with metal shavings that faced the C.M. that stood beyond the cluster of cubicles, and she reached out.

“Work together,” she said, quiet.

Her movements were not simple ones.  When she reached out, her hand was a touch a hundred times softer than that of a feather, but that hand filled the space like water from an opened sluice rushed to occupy lower ground.  Her hand moved, to strike with one side of the hand, with fingertips, with nails.  Her position was fluid, and her face was close to the board, her breath even less substantial than her fingers, but still something that could influence the movement of single particles.

She observed thousands of individual specks of metal dust with a hundred faces, above, around, and near.

DO IT, spelled out with the letters barely visible, light gray against darker gray.

The C.M. who had been complaining paused, then looked away, scowling.  “Can’t argue that.”

“What?” Howe asked.

The target personality analysis agent in the cubicle picked up the board, turning it around for the Decagon to see.

“Thank you,” Howe said.  “Thank you, Overseer.”

“Sacrificing my pawn.  We’ll message you as soon as we’re signed off on this move.  Stand by,” the C.M. said.

“Thank you for your assistance,” Howe said.

The Overseer was a thousand inverse statues filling a vast space, limbs entangled, hair touching shoulder and back, toes on shoulders, knees against the side of heads, all propped up against one another.  Statues, except they were in constant motion, they could not be seen or represent anything, they tended rather than require tending, and they had as much substance as a solid concrete statue had air pockets.  When she pulled away and up, to better see the cell and the other cells, she filled space above, building on a collective mass, while figments at the edges fell away, crumbling into nothing.

There were nineteen Decagons with a twentieth in construction, wiring and cubicles being set up.  Workers and managers were lingering nearby with laptops propped on crates and boxes, already figuring out the groundwork.  C.L.s from other teams were working with them, filling them in.

Those C.L.s were the most active around the space, hurrying from cell to cell, liaising, sharing information, coordinating.  More cells were switching to yellow.  Ready to fight on a subtler front, deflect, disturb, deny.

In cell five, which was tracking the Shepherds, a young man in cubicle three was moving his mouth back and forth, clicking.  His arm rubbed against the edge of the desk, back and forth, to the point of bleeding.  She saw as the droplet of blood hit the flooring.  She swept over the blood, putting it in the trash receptacle, and hit the specially made bell to get the attention of the cell managers.

In cell eleven, tasked with media, a community manager was breathing heavier.  He was unaware as ten of the Overseers faces moved closer, crowding in together to study, observe, track every detail.  His eyes were unfocused, moving back and forth as if they were reading a single short word over and over again.  A vein stood out at his temple.  She hit the bell.

A flake of pastry hit the ground as a team delivered meals to cell nineteen.  She swept it up.

The gears were turning.  Enough people were acting exactly as they should for their role, and the roles were interconnected enough to serve.  Precogs were reinforced by clairvoyants, ensuring the baseline flow of information and monitoring.  Others in a cell tracked all digital media, and worked on breaching passwords and defenses.

Tinkers, thinkers, and borrowed capes were turning their powers toward more complex operations.  Getting into the heads of key individuals or systems that would let them better collect information.  Not baseline, but far more valuable when it worked.  Others scanned and searched, deciding who the most valuable targets were, so teams or oversight could attempt breaches on an even deeper level than hacking, parasites, or mind control.

Everything moved as it should.

Cell One was home.  Coordinating things and influencing things here.  It was Cell One she reached out to, finding the magnetic board with iron dust spread evenly across it.  She manipulated the dust to craft her message, then hit the bell.

FIFTEEN.

“Good work, Overseer,” the C.M. of Cell One said.  “Everyone, top attention.  Surveillance, coordination, management.  In order, I want network, utilities…”

She left him and his team to the task of filling in for her.  She pulled back and away, passing through Cell Two, which was double-size, to see where things stood.  The Bunker was a big enough blind spot they couldn’t track everything, but the Wardens were a big enough concern that every resource possible was being set to the task.

She pulled away enough that she was disconnected from the cells and cubicles.  She moved through the vents, collecting dust as she went.

Home.  The vast majority of it was back to its old glory.  Gleaming white walls, everything in working order, a complex that could host the population of a small town.  A complex that was on its way to doing just that.

The Overseer passed through a hallway undergoing renovations.  Building materials were moved, slapped against the wall, then set into place.  Fine wires, nails, and interlocking tiles she had worked on in past visits.

This area was being modified to be a prison.  It was already occupied by people in the cells she had finished.  There weren’t many rooms, and thus the people in those rooms were a select list.

The Overseer swept into the room with the first occupant.  She pushed hair from forehead, and reached beneath clothes to wick away sweat and keep those clothes from sticking to skin.

She had a great fondness for the building.  Her hearth and home.  Her contribution.  It was old and her identity was rooted in it.

Not so much a fondness for Fortuna, the woman in the first cell.  She did feel a duty, however.  Responsibility.

Their Fortuna, their Contessa, had wanted to try her hand at a normal life, without trusting in her power to know the exact route to take to achieve what she wanted.  She had dedicated her life to the task of trying to save the world and she had failed, her burden was lifted, and nine weeks after the world ended, she had taken off her shoes, walked along a beach of white sand, stood in the water far from any civilization, and let her guard down for the first time in three decades.

That was all it took.  After two days of that, with no questions to predict potential attacks, subterfuge, or other tricks, she had been captured.

Fortuna had reached for a means of defending herself, and she had found it.  A loop of thought and willful paralysis that rendered her useless and deaf to the world.  Even from oversight’s influence.

Fortuna hadn’t wanted this.  A rushed thought, in conjunction with her being off balance, two days out of practice in using her power.

“I like your face,” the Overseer said.  “I don’t love you, I don’t hate you, but your face is a home to me, Fortuna.  It’s too familiar.”

Her movements around Fortuna would be felt as the slightest of breezes.

“A little under two weeks and I will see your face more regularly.  They’re certain we’ll break you then.  They know the date, down to the hour.  Then you’ll be his.”

There was no response.

Of course there was no response.  Even the most delicate of instruments couldn’t catch her voice.  She spoke and nobody heard.  She touched and was scarcely felt.  She saw, and nobody saw her back.

Another cell.  The young man who had leaked information to Engel.  He had slipped his leash, panicked, and warned of the darker sides of this place.  Engel had left, more aware.

She breezed into the cell.

“You,” the occupant said.  He was a nobody, beyond his actions in regard to Engel.  He had bought a Cauldron power, got the ability to make smoke and form phantom attackers from the smoke.  He had owed a favor and oversight had called it in, before pressing him into service.  The problem had been that the creations took a fragment of his mind to function, and when they gave those fragments back, those fragments were clean of any and all influence.  He couldn’t be brainwashed.  Not permanently.  He raised his voice, accented.  “Overseer.”

She cleaned up particulars.  Black marks on walls.  Droplets of urine where he had missed the bucket.  When the other cells were more complete, the plumbing would work.

“They did this to you, and you serve them so slavishly.”

Discarded dirty clothing.  Bits of food.

“This place is a Ship of Theseus.  Every part of it has been replaced at least once, it feels like.”

“No.”

“I saw it, right when Teacher got here.  Everything in ruins.  The people in charge have changed, the walls, the floors, the lights… except for the shape, none of it’s the same except in shape.  What holds you here?  I wouldn’t be.”

She moved the collected waste to the hallway, where it joined the other detritus and the materials from construction.  She began setting tiles into place: placer, tile, tile, placer, a swipe of sealer behind the completed row.  A thousand hands wiped away excess sealer, working with no concern for getting dirty because those hands would disappear seconds after they were no longer needed.

“Why?  You were a person once.  Who were you, that you’re okay with this?  You keep people prisoner, enslave them…”

Wiring was threaded through the ceiling at the same time tiles were set in place.  Further down the hall, shock-absorbing panels were set into concrete, then covered.  A technology from another earth.  The ‘damascus concrete’ was another such technology, from yet another earth, leaving satisfying whorl patterns that became even more polished and refined as she smoothed down the surface.

“You can leave.  You can tell people.  None of this is okay.  Not when he’s going to win.”

“I could always leave.  There was nobody who could stop me not even when the Doctor Mother and Contessa ran this facility,” she answered, knowing he couldn’t hear her gossamer echo of a whisper of a voice.

The cell’s occupant banged his hand against the bars.

“But this is no Ship of Theseus,” she told him.  “I am the constant.”

He banged against the bars a few more times, before turning away to pace.

She did an hour’s worth of work in six minutes.  She put up signs to warn about the concrete and the setting tiles.

“You might be the worst of the first generation members of Cauldron,” the man in the cell said.  “Because they at least seemed to think what they were doing was for a greater good.  But I’ve been around just long enough to see hints of personality in what you do and how.  There’s something there and… you don’t even try to be a force for good.”

Good.  ‘Greater good’.

“Fuck you!” the cell’s occupant screamed.  “Fuck.  I’m going to be smelling those fumes for hours.

He would be fine.

There were more tasks to be done.  A sweep for stowaways.  A brush through the power facility.  Every pass through, she tried to find the secret ways a creative person might try to enter.  A shaft with power lines running through it.  A water pipe with insufficient pressure.

She checked the exterior as well, and did her circuit around the crater.  The facility had been built around the crater, whole sections set above, and that part had been dismantled in the heat of battle, dropped on Scion.  The one part of the facility that hadn’t been rebuilt.  Instead, she had damaged it further, then sealed it, to ensure that if there was a speck of alien matter behind, it would be gone.  It was a column of solid metal all the way down, now.

There was no place left in her creation that she could not enter.  She brushed her way through the dormitories, where the night shifts were resting, and through the kitchens, where the early morning shifts were eating and talking.  Those who were in no shape to talk were being patiently fed.  In the dormitories, someone was sleeping poorly, chewing on fingers until they bled without waking up.  She rang a bell.  In the dining hall, a pair of men were getting belligerent.  Bell.  The anger was gone in that moment, the fight forgotten, anger replaced by fear and alarm.  They would be checked over.  If there was a need, they would enjoy a long sleep, followed by waking up to the feeling of accomplishment.

Her circuit took fourteen minutes and thirty seconds.  When she returned to the floor where operations were being conducted, she found oversight was there, already partway through assignments.

She brushed her way past Teacher’s beard.  It had grown longer.  He wore a stylized suit with a long body, draping down to the mid-thigh.  A different cut from a different Earth.  Latin phrases were stitched into the breast pocket, lapels, and cuffs.

“Hello, my dear,” Teacher said.  He motioned.  “Board.”

She was at the board before it was even picked up, working on it.  She worked on it more as it was carried to Teacher.

“Almost done,” he said.

She had the message written.  A list of needed replacements in cells, where the people had worn down.  The one where the boy had rubbed his arm to the point of creating an open wound.  The fourteen year old girl who had been contentedly brainwashed and happy to work up until the thirteenth hour of her shift, when she suddenly began crying.

What broke could be replaced.

There was a line of twelve people waiting to be assigned positions.  They would watch for a while, then pick up their duties, if they weren’t outright granted the knowledge of schedule and how to perform them.

“This requires commitment,” Teacher addressed the twelve.  “You can walk away at any time, but we will take your memories of what you saw.  I’m sure you understand.  If you do agree to work, I can guarantee that it will be difficult.  Twelve hours of work, eight hours of sleep, four hours of recreation, every day.  There will be times there are more than twelve hours of work.”

Every day?” a woman in the group asked.  “From what I was told, I imagined it was twelve hours a day for five days a week.”

“It is not easy.  Hours may relax if we continue to grow and recruit more.  For this, for one year of work, you’ll earn five times what your average citizen in the city would.  You get room, board, pay, healthcare, and you’re safer here than anywhere.”

“What about the zombies?” the woman asked.

“Zombies?”

“I keep seeing people that… they don’t look well.”

“A status reserved for those who fail in their duties and who break our rules.  Do good work, you will not need to worry.  Stick to the rules, no need for concern.  Do good work while obeying the rules, and you will be amply rewarded.”

A boy spoke up, “And if we don’t, we become, uh-”

“Mindless,” the woman finished.

“The exact opposite of mindless, miss-”

“Therese.”

“Miss Therese.  The exact opposite of mindless,” Teacher said.  He smiled, then addressed the group.  “Decide now.  I have places to be.”

There was some hesitation.  To see the engine at work was daunting.

Ten agreed.  The woman who had spoken up didn’t.

“Limited precognition, short range, cell thirteen,” Teacher said, touching one man’s shoulder.  He moved on to the boy beside him.  “Mind map of personalities, relationships, cell five.”

He went down the list.  Each time he finished, the people were intercepted by William, who touched them on the shoulder before letting them go on their way.

“Writing analysis,” Teacher said.  “Pattern analysis.  Computer skill.”

Until only the two remained.  Some of the new workers cast backward glances.

“Elijah?  Will you see them out?”

“Of course.”  The skinny blond boy smiled, and the smile had an uncanny edge.  The fix to his jaw had been too perfect.  He blinked, eyes closing over tinker-made spheres.  With the faintest of machine sounds, metal whisking against metal, only audible to the Overseer because she had an ear right next to his eye, the irises switched colors from blue to yellow.

They were a part of oversight.  The powerhouses, the ones who made more complex engineering possible.  Fine tuning the teams, taking away the bad,

Teacher walked over to Cell One, and held the board with the magnetic dust.  She wrote out particulars from her last three hours of work.  Tracking those who had collapsed or broken down.  Tracking the little things around the facility, her creation.

William to grant any free will.  Teacher considered it a generosity, and a tool to ensure that there really were multiple perspectives on every problem, not just his own, with his thralls serving as only his hands, rather than his eyes and ears.  Everyone started out with the opportunity to retain everything about themselves.  From that point, it was a steep way down, but climbing was possible.

The managers that hadn’t been hand-picked for their backgrounds and skills had been selected from the best of the original batches.  Those who understood how cells worked and those who had few compunctions on the subject.

“Join me?” Teacher asked.  Some eyes raised, heads turned.  He tapped the board with the iron dust.

I ALREADY HAD A BREAK, was her response, etched into the dust with touches in the same way someone might try to spell out words with assault rifle fire.

“It should be fine.  Soon we go red.  There won’t be much time to rest for a little while after that.  Let’s enjoy the quiet before the storm.”

She was, she wanted to say.

She hesitated.  She would do her rounds.

“Two hundred and thirty-five individuals are on the clock as we speak,” Teacher told her.  “Nine individuals suspect something is amiss.  Our facility here is perfectly fine.”

The Overseer could see people watching Teacher carry on the one-sided conversation.

“We’ll step up all security measures and alerts if that makes you feel better,” he told her.

She scratched out her message on the board.

MAX.

He moved his head with a small jerk.  “Follow me?”

She brushed past him.  Past bald head, past longer beard, through clothing.

When they were alone, he said, “If we shutter all the windows and put possible measure into effect, our enemies will know when you’re here.  It makes us weaker.”

She wrote her message.

DRILL.

“Yes.  Absolutely.  We can put it into effect at random.  If you join me.”

WHY.

“Because I think you need this, my dear.  In so many ways, you need this.”

WHERE.  She wrote it, but she’d seen what Teacher wore.  She suspected.  She felt trepidation.

“Home,” he said.  “Yours, to be specific.”

Home.

“Think on it.  You have until we leave.  But there are assassins out there, and I would appreciate the added protection.”

She thought on it, sweeping up and down the hall, brushing past him with every pass, to let him know she was there.

Ingenue waited at the end of the long hallway.  She was dressed in a short dress with long sleeves, and with the hose and cape she wore, she was as covered as she ever was.  The ex-Birdcage cell block leader was pixieish, her eyes sly, her smile mysterious.

The Overseer remained closer to Teacher as he walked closer to the woman.  Protective, defensive.  Nobody disturbed her quite as much as Ingenue did when Ingenue was near Teacher.

Then there were the others, in updated, finer costumes.  The Thomais Fallen in somewhat old fashioned clothing with a sinister spin, and The Horseman wearing ragged bandages beneath a tattered suit.  The Horseman was a gift from Cheit, and a security.  Their eyes on Teacher, which was an irony, considering Teacher’s many eyes and the tools he had at his disposal.  Saint, Dragon’s nemesis, was there and standing proud in ornate armor, his cross-tattoo on his face colored gold.

William, Scapegoat, was catching up, drawing nearer to the Thomais Fallen.  Elijah, Valefor, walked arm in arm with his mother, Madam Mathers, who wore an ethereal white gown with a shawl around her shoulders.  Her health was better since coming here, since she’d been… helped, with firm boundaries.  She looked closer to her actual mid-thirties than the weary young crone she’d been before.

“This will be preparations for your moment,” Teacher told the woman.

Madam Mathers curtsied, supported by her son.

The portal opened at the hallway’s end, managed by teams of tinkers.  Big, dramatic, bright.

“Shall we?” Teacher asked, and he looked at nobody specific as he asked.  Because the Overseer occupied nearly every place, every position, like a gas with molecules writ human size with faint human capability, he looked at her.

“We shall,” she said.

The group walked through, two of the tinkers tapping at their equipment to turn it off, so the dimensional effects wouldn’t interfere.

The Overseer passed through, and the power that had gripped her and defined her form pulled at her, stripped away her selves.

For three, four seconds, as they passed through the glowing, arching doorway, she was a meek girl again, wreathed in tatters.  One of fifteen children sold in exchange for power.  Sold and taken to a prison, sold and left to watch as other children went to pieces or became monsters.

And even then, somehow, seeing those horrific ends, she’d been relieved.

“Scared me,” Ingenue murmured.  “Custodian?”

“Overseer,” her own voice was rough, uneven.  She’d talked while doing her work around the facility to stay in a kind of practice, but it didn’t really work.

“Overseer,” Ingenue said.  “You’re older than I imagined you.  Do you have a name?”

“No.  Not for a long time.  Only the title.”

Teacher rested a hand on the Overseer’s shoulder.  She laid hers over his.

They left the portal behind them, and as they did, she pulled away, casting off innumerable light-as-air duplicates, each one leaving her original self diminished, less there.

Until the original self was gone, left behind to fade into tremors in the air.

Teacher’s hand dropped as there ceased to be anything to hold.

And she rose, in her glory, in her manifold form, to fill the air above and around, to identify every person with eyes and insubstantial hands, to track weapons and search for traps.

She could see the crowds, the celebrations.  There were many crowds, gathered for ceremony and festival.  What might have been four large schools worth of students were singing, choiral.  Drums joined with the singing.  White birds were being released at set stages, so there were always some overhead.

She saw the shapes of the buildings, the way they stacked and layered upon each other, crowded, the peaks decorated while the foundations were pure utility.  Though decades had passed, she knew them to be home.

Earth Cheit.

“Ally, brother,” was a greeting.  A man hugged Teacher, the hug becoming a two-handed handshake, as hand slid down arm to hand.

“I was told to expect something amazing.  This for just a saint?”

“A saint’s day, a hundred years after their death.  People needed an excuse to celebrate.  The memories of our brush with the end of days was close.”

Saint kept his distance from the Fallen.  With the word ‘saint’, Secondhand looked his way, and he looked away, avoiding eye contact.

Only here because of his ongoing concerns about Dragon.  Because he wanted every resource.

It barely mattered.  The Overseer had ten thousand hearts and though each was insubstantial, they added up to a thrum, like a hundred hummingbirds flying through the air.  Her eyes drank in home, and remembered the moment the syringe had been injected.  She remembered going to pieces the first time, a bloody, screaming process, and she’d reveled in it.

Reveled because it had been change, and she’d been escaping a role that was frozen, unchanging.

Everyone on the dais was being recognized as a sponsor of the play.  For Earth Cheit, it was a way to elevate Teacher and the others.  Though the pretense was false, the festivities were in part for them.

The Overseer watched as Madam Mathers had her moment at the front of the dais.  Center of the stage, just behind a short, balcony-like fence, stairs covered in red velvet stretching down to the city street on either side of the dais.  She watched as nearly every eye present looked at the woman.

With that, with one fell stroke, Teacher assumed the ability to cripple the capitol of Earth Cheit.

Elijah couldn’t even keep the smile from his face.

“You wanted me to be a housewife, and I am,” she said, to the void, her voice rising.  “I maintain my home.  You wanted me to be meek, never heard, and I am.  You wanted me to be nothing and no one and I am!”

She liked to think the choir carried that voice higher, rather than drown it out.  It didn’t matter.  She had come to terms with her silent voice long ago.  To accept was one of the first things she had learned.

“I am a creator of my own kingdom.  I am free.  I’m a woman more powerful than any of you.  I’m everything you wanted yet everything you feared, and I can be both because…”

She filled the space, sweeping past people on either side of the street, people on the stairs, people on the dais.

“…I am everything everywhere.”

She moved amid the masses, searching for assassins and familiarizing herself with everyone present.

“I was bartered away for power.  You’ll find now that you get what you pay for.”

The show was done, and the students were dissolving ranks.  The crowd closed in, filling the street.  There was food, drink, and cheering.  She knew, from dim childhood memories, that it would continue into the night, and then there would be fireworks, colors matched to the saint.

She swept close to Teacher, and she touched her lips to his, while the world that had cast her away unwittingly watched.  A thank you, a message.  She saw his eyes move slightly, his eyebrows twitch.

Teacher smiled.

“Enjoying yourself?” one of the Theocrats asked.

“I am,” Teacher said.

“I’m glad.  I’ve been to Gimel.  I’ve seen how thinly it is stretched.  I thought you would enjoy something more… substantial.”

“The insubstantial has its appeal, but I thank you, Caleb.”

“All that we have is yours, if you’ll elevate us, give us more worlds, more fertile ground.  Every soldier, every weapon, every pen, every facility.”

Teacher smiled.  He took the man’s hand, shaking it firmly.  “You won’t be disappointed.”

“The appearance of the Titan so close to home has people worried,” another man said.

“Rest assured,” Teacher said.  “Have faith.”

“Faith,” was the answer.

Teacher had his army, now.  More people than he could hope to use.  He had his stranglehold.

A few hundred steps away, past that shining portal, he had the fates of everyone in Gimel.  A different kind of stranglehold.

People came and went, saying their hellos, getting their introductions.  It was an hour before Teacher was alone with the man he wanted to talk to.  Not a face most citizens would recognize, but he had visited once when The Horseman had first arrived.  A dangerous man who always wore black.  Ian.

“The Horseman told us of your information gathering apparatus.  Spreading false word.”

“Something like that,” Teacher said.

“You can do this?”

“You, Ian my friend, I can assure, I can do this.”

“An army.  An endless supply of people to be your thralls, with no need to recruit or kidnap.”

“The army has nothing to do with it.  My information gathering apparatus has nothing to do with it.  I have other tools that I’ve yet to reveal.”

“The top floor of your facility.”

Teacher nodded.

“The Horseman said he couldn’t go there, a phantom stopped him before he could.”

“A good thing too,” Teacher said.  “I can trust you with this, and few others.  If anyone knew what I had there, they would want it.  Anyone, large or small, whatever world.  I’m certain.”

I can trust you, he’d said.  You in the plural.  His eyes hadn’t focused on the man.  That had been partially directed at her.

“I’ll trust you.  Just tell me you’ll save my world.”

“I will.  Carrying on where my predecessors left off, I suppose, saving worlds.”

“And your own?  Gimel?  Will you save it or leave it to fester?”

“Only to save it from itself.”

He’d been right, to invite her.  To see her world leashed by an invisible chain.  To give her a chance to scream to it that she’d changed, she’d played by its rules and she’d beaten it.

Saint approached, putting a hand on Teacher’s shoulder.  He showed the man his phone.  The Overseer barely had to look.  The color of the screen said it all.

Red.

Things began in earnest now.

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Black – 13.8

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“You’d think someone who was regressed two years in age to be a teenager again would at least try not to be such a stereotypical teen.”

“What?” I asked.  I looked up from my phone, which I was holding so Sveta could read it.  She was moving more fluidly to get in a position to read over my shoulder.

“You’re zoomed in on your phone like it’s the only thing in the world,” Tattletale said.  “You’re as bad as the Heartbroken.”

“Are you lonely, Tattletale?” Sveta asked.  “Sitting up in the passenger seat with only your henchman for company?  Were you bored?”

“Ha,” Tattletale replied.

I could have connected to what she’d said better if it weren’t for the fifty individual crises I was keeping on the back burner, the five on the front burner, my attempts to keep Sveta’s mind occupied with practical things.

That, and the fact that mentioning the age regression reminded me of Amy which set my brain to red alert, sirens flashing and emergency doors closing.  These days, getting back from that state was a little easier, but it was still a couple of seconds of added bewilderment and alarm, and a mental reset button that forced me to start from zero in figuring out what the hell she meant.

Of course, she probably knew she was doing it.

“I see you set the communications blackout for everyone, but you’re not abiding by it yourself.”

“Phones come equipped with features that let you make a call to emergency services even if the phone bill isn’t paid, phone doesn’t have an I.D. chip, whatever, and phones come with features that let authorities force phones to boot and bypass settings if there’s an Endbringer attack.  Dragon is messaging me,” I said.

“And?”

“She’s simultaneously worrying about whether I’ve gone off the deep end, suggesting everyone go to maximum alert, and worrying there might be something to what I’m saying, in which case she’d have to worry about watching her back.”

“A communication blackout really hurts the local heroes’ ability to function,” Sveta added.

“What’s her wording?” Tattletale asked.

“About?”

“Start with her wondering about watching her back.”

I cycled my way up to find it, then cleared my throat.  “If this were true, I’d have to devote resources to validating, scanning, and damage control.”

“Interesting order,” Tattletale said.

“Order?”

“To what she has to do.  It’s not scanning, validating, and damage control.  Why?”

“You suck at rhetorical questions,” Sveta said.  “How are we supposed to know?”

“It’s not a rhetorical question,” Tattletale answered, exasperated.  “I’m asking my power.  And my power says Dragon’s not prioritizing finding the questionable character assassination stuff because she has the stuff.  At least two incidents she looked up and found since it was brought to her attention.  Or she’s a culprit that already knew because she did it, but I’d say the odds are very low.”

I leaned back, my thumb working to find my place at the bottom of the chat while I ruminated. “That takes time, to find out and then look.  Unless it’s obvious-”

“It doesn’t take time if you’re Dragon,” Tattletale said.  “She, you know, bzzt.  Overclocked.”

She put a finger to her head as she said that last word.

“She hacked her brain?” I asked, my eyebrows going up.

“You are exactly right,” Tattletale said, smiling.  “Defiant did too, from another angle.”

Armsmaster.  That was jarring to think about.

“Scary,” Sveta said.  “I feel like the brain should be sacrosanct.”

“It’s really scary,” Tattletale answered.  “Once you get a look at who she really is… let’s just say that part of the reason I’m more or less ruling her out as a culprit is that she wouldn’t need to be subtle.  If she wanted to do this, she’d do it blatantly and she’d succeed.”

“Oookay, Tattletale,” I said.  “Dealing with more than enough paranoia already.  Dragon’s given us no reason to doubt her.”

“I’m not saying we should doubt her.  I’m saying we should shit ourselves if and when the day arrives that we do.  For now, I’d put all my chips on Dragon being alright.  She’s weighing not trusting you, which is entirely understandable, with two more incidents that probably just popped up recently.  Our player is ramping up, getting more schemes into play.  Not so much it seems like too much, but distractions.”

“I worked with a loose team that was working with Tattletale, around Gold Morning,” Sveta told me.  “Having her working from an investigating or planning role like this is kind of like those candidates for class president you see in movies, who promise soda pop in the fountains and shorter school days for everyone.  They deliver on these really thinly justified ideas when they shouldn’t.”

“That’s a good analogy,” Tattletale answered.  “Except you’re outing yourself as someone who didn’t go to school or spend nearly enough time around ordinary people, because you call it ‘soda pop’ like a nineteen fifties character, not even ‘pop’ like a midwesterner, but-”

“Get bent, Tattletale,” Sveta said, interrupting.

“Leave her alone,” I added.  “Read the room and learn to be nice when it matters.”

Tattletale looked at her driver, eyes wide.

“Don’t look at me,” Snuff said.  “I’m doing my job and staying out of trouble while I do it.”

“I’m outnumbered two against one,” Tattletale said.

“That’s what happens when you’re a jackass,” Sveta said.

Tattletale slumped back into her seat, head bumping against her window.  Sveta, at the same time, was sitting behind Tattletale, and looked out her own window, creating a kind of maximum distance between them, insofar as it was possible in this confined space.

Sveta was coping better than I’d imagined, and I had to wonder how much of that was an extension of the personal control she’d honed with her sessions with Rain.  She didn’t look happy, for one thing: the lines of her face were different.  She’d turned much of her emotion into being very ready to call Tattletale on her shit.  Provided Tattletale didn’t retaliate or take it too hard, it seemed like a pretty reasonable outlet, if there had to be any outlet at all.

I checked my phone again.  No more messages from Dragon.  The last message she’d left me could theoretically be a sign-off.

Tattletale talked while looking out the front window, drawing out her sentence, as if she was trying to reset the flow of the conversation, “The reason I’m concerned about you being on your phone is that you just ran off to intervene in a crisis.  If the emergency communications work this way, then it’s theoretically possible to use them to send weaponized messages and distract you again.”

“If it’s a crisis like what just happened, doesn’t it make sense that I’d want to be on top of it?”

“If they’re watching us closely, they might decide to unload now because they know you’ll see it.  If you had put the phone away and obeyed your own communications blackout, they’d hold that back.”

“Or they’re mounting a general offensive and they’ll release it anyway, hoping to break up our support network.  If that happens, we come back from what we’re doing here and find everything on fire.”

“We don’t want that,” Sveta said.  “I’m saying that as someone who was on fire and feels the sting pretty- completely and constantly.”

I reached out for her hand, gripping it in mine, giving it a squeeze, then waggling it.

“You don’t have to do the shakey-shake thing,” Sveta murmured.  “Rain gave me hands with a full tactile range.”

I gave her another waggle.  I caught the faintest smile on her face before Tattletale’s voice pulled my attention away.

“Look.  The situation’s bad, it’s getting worse, based on the hint from Dragon.  The best thing we can do is cut right past all the mess and go for the heart of the issue.  Put the phone away,” Tattletale said.  “You’re clinging to it out of brute-classification tendencies and I’ve got to tell you, this isn’t a situation you smash or take head on.”

I could have argued, but I didn’t.  It was possible Tattletale was stressed, from how exasperated she was being.  I held down the power button and let the phone go black.

“Good,” Tattletale said.  She was in the front seat, her head turned to look the opposite direction.  She was using her power to identify what I was doing.  Obnoxious.  “Fill me in, how did your deal with Bluestocking and the Mayor go?”

“Why?” I asked.

“So defensive.  I’m not trying to get secret info here-”

“It’s between them and us.”

“-I’m trying to figure out the particulars of the situation we’re walking into.”

“Why would that matter to what we’re doing?”

“I’ll tell you if you tell me,” Tattletale said.

We were in a car, and the landmarks or geographical changes I could make out were limited to what I could see out the window.  Narrow slices of world.  I wasn’t sure I recognized this area, but I could guess.

“We’re going to Earth N?”

Tattletale didn’t answer, but Snuff glanced at her.

“You might as well be the bigger person and tell her.  She’s going to figure it out,” Sveta said.

“Original deal we struck in the heat of the moment was that I’d negotiate a preferable trade setup for the Earth N settlement with the Mayor.  If I didn’t follow through she’d get to borrow a member of Breakthrough for six months.  I went to the mayor, struck some compromises, and got Bluestocking some of what she wanted.  She wasn’t flailing her arms around and crying out ‘penalty clause’.”

“We’re good to go, then?” Tattletale asked.

“I feel like walking into her territory with her providing favors or oversight might be an excuse for her to bring it up.  I think I’d have been happier pretending she didn’t exist for a while, let the deal disappear into distant memory.”

“Well, that sucks, because I reached out to the people who matter and this was their preferred neutral ground.  If we need a referee, Bluestocking’s that.”

“We’re close to the station.  Which way in?” Snuff asked.  “We parking?”

“No.  Car and truck entrance,” Tattletale replied.  “Right road.”

“Got it,” Snuff said, taking the off-road.

“That’s usually closed,” I remarked.  “Has been since the portal incidents.  They’ve stepped up security.”

Tattletale snorted.  “Welcome to the big leagues, kiddo.  Paying to be able to drive your own truck in is worth it, if it means you don’t have to ask for a ride or worry about the danger posed by whoever is escorting you.”

The station was at the end of the road, and we were approaching by an angle I hadn’t seen it from.  There was a gate, and people stood on either side of it.  In the warmer months, when the portals had been open to service, this would have been how the trucks of construction material would have come in, along with any vehicles anyone was attached to.

“This is Big Picture’s contact?” Sveta asked.

“Contacts.  There are a few people I keep tabs on because they have a lot of sway over the city and even things that aren’t the city.  I break this down into categories.  Threats, cultural, financial, information, and powers.  Some people are influencers for reasons that don’t tie directly into their abilities, like Dido from Auzure and her effect on finances.”

Auzure.  I felt a bit slimy at the thought.  When I’d hunted for a position in a team, they’d been nice up until they let slip that what they really wanted was my sister.  We’d worked with them in passing since, mostly at arm’s length.

“Dido?  She does fine.  Her team makes money,” I said.

“The team makes money.  Lark manages money well.  But Dido is a disaster waiting to happen when cold hard cash or theoretical cash are involved.  there’s a reason they keep the team small and the growth slow and steady.  She’s like an alcoholic with a wine cellar.”

“You said it was more than an ordinary disaster,” Sveta said.

“Everyone would feel it, at least a little,” Tattletale said.  “There’s at least a subconscious reason she named herself after the woman who threw fortunes away in history and myth.”

I frowned.

“At least a few of those times were ruses,” Sveta said.

“People tend to have reasons for doing dumb things,” Tattletale said.

“That feels like pretty obscure mythology,” I remarked to Sveta.  “Knowing those were ruses?”

“Dido marries Pygmallion, and the mythological Pygmallion is the guy who made and married a living statue.  I related,” Sveta said.  A sad look passed over her face.

Ah.  The statue, the boy made of metals.

“That’s pretty out there, for stuff to be researching,” I said, trying to keep the conversation normal and light.

“Uh huh.  I spent a long time looking for cape names and costume ideas, when Breakthrough was new.  I’m so, so glad I didn’t go with Galataea or anything Weld-related.”

“I wouldn’t have let you,” I said.

She squeezed my hand, and her eyes dropped to look at where her Rain-made prosthetic hand with its not-quite-right skin clasped my gloved hand.

“Bright spots in a dark day,” she murmured.  “I can feel this.”

“You good to do this?” I asked.  “Mission in enemy territory?”

She nodded.

I looked out the window as we emerged into light.

The road in through the station had passed through the series of turnstiles that would lock and block away the majority of the fumes when any vehicles passed through.

We were out of the station now, passing by more guards and some idle capes I recognized from three weeks ago.  Inhabitants of the Earth N corner world.  We traced the top portion of an ‘S’ curve in doing so, carrying on north.

No Etna among the idle capes, as it happened.

Thinking about Etna made me think about violence and death, even though I’d gone reasonably easy on her.  She’d just been a face or a mask to latch onto, like an annoying, ostentatious song in my head.  The thought led to my mom, and my dad, who had gone with her.  Neither had returned from Earth Shin.

Thinking about family got me thinking about Sveta, and about Kenzie and Kenzie’s family, or lack thereof, and about Kenzie’s new pseudo-family in her new team… and Chicken Little’s issues with her.  In a perfect world I’d talk to Jessica about that, but Jessica wasn’t talking to me.

Tattletale cleared her throat.

At least this time she didn’t disrupt my thoughts with a pointed reminder of the worst possible things.  It made it easier to align my thoughts, as Snuff drove us along the dirt road, up past buildings and toward the peak of a hill.

“We were talking about Dido,” I said.  “Right.”

“Dido doesn’t matter, and we don’t have time for a full briefing.  I can fill you in as necessary,” Tattletale said.  “If you’re listening and not wallowing.  Are you going to focus while we’re inside?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Game face.  Don’t kill anyone, both of you.”

I let the statement pass without commentary, and I put my mask on.

“If I kill someone it’s probably going to be someone close to me.  Probably you,” Sveta answered.  When Tattletale twisted around to look at her, Sveta smiled.  “But I won’t.  I’m… controlled.”

She put her own mask on.  A standard mask that covered nose, surrounded eye sockets, and covered the brows, but with twirls and hooks and decorative elements branching out and following the curve of her face.  It was dramatic and artistic and whimsical, and it didn’t match the look in her eyes.

At the top of the hill, a fair distance from the settlement, there was a lodge nestled in the trees.  Signboards were propped up and hanging on the wall by the door.

“Swansong mentioned this place,” Sveta said.  “The Lodge.”

“I ended up screwing these guys over once or twice.  They aren’t happy, so we play nice,” Tattletale said.

“Are you capable?” Sveta asked.

“We’re going to see.  There’s a step by step process here.  Be patient.  Your relationship with Bluestocking will help.”

Snuff pulled into an empty parking space in a corner of the lot without any vehicles.  Gravel had been raked out and the light snow filtered in between the pieces.

We got out of the vehicle.

“How intimidating do we want to be?” I asked.

“Don’t put that aura of yours on full blast, don’t crack any skulls.”

“There’s whole lot of options before that point,” I said.

“How about you let me take point.  Don’t overshadow me, that’s the line you don’t want to cross.  If you’re not sure about something, take my cue or look to Snuff.”

“This is feeling less like a partnership.”

Tattletale sighed.  “You can stand shoulder to shoulder with me if that makes your ego feel better.”

“The concern isn’t ego,” I told her.  “It’s falling into the trap of being your status pieces like Bluestocking wanted us to be.”

“You don’t want to be my bitch?”

“You’ve got enough bitch for the three of us,” Sveta muttered.

Tattletale smirked.  “You sure, Tress?  Because while I understand you’re having a sucky day, you’re definitely bringing a lot onboard.”

Sveta glanced at me.  I wondered if it was to check, to ask if she should step down.

“It’s fine,” Tattletale waved it off.  “It’s fun.  Antares, you can walk in beside me if it makes your ego feel better.  Shall we?  Yes?  Yes?”

I nodded.  But Tattletale’s second yes was a lingering one, awaiting confirmation.  Because Sveta.

“I wish I’d changed,” Sveta said.  “Redone my paint on my arms and neck.”

She touched the collar that gave her neck the appearance of being a neck rather than a tangle of tendrils, painted on either side.  From a distance it would have looked like vivid tattoos.

Wracked with doubts, a little off kilter.  Still more together than I would’ve been.

“You look good.  The art’s good.  The dress is pretty,” I said.

“It doesn’t match the seriousness of what we’re doing,” she murmured.  “And I don’t feel very colorful right now.”

I gave her a one-armed hug, my forehead touching hers.

“Come on,” I said.  “We get through this, figure out this crisis, then we see if Swansong will let you borrow a suitably colorless dress.”

That got a smile out of Sveta.  “The horror.  So not my style.”

“You’re thinking about style, hey.  Step up from before our shopping trip.”

Tattletale rolled her eyes, opened the door, and walked in first, ignoring her offer to walk in together.

Being casual and confident was a kind of presentation on its own, when faced with a dangerous environment.  It started with being a kid on her first patrol, standing tall and not looking afraid as she passed through dark, crime-ridden streets.  It played into our stepping inside, me and Tattletale first, then Sveta and Snuff.  A spacious dining area, with high ceiling and a kitchen setup in the direct center with a chimney reaching up to the roof, built around a stone stove with wood burning within.  A stairwell off to our left seemed to lead upstairs.

Scattered villains were within.  I saw Cleat and Crested.  Vulturehawk was in the corner, alone, and focused in on Sveta the moment he saw her.

Nursery was here, too, sitting with a pregnant teenage girl who wasn’t in costume.  Maybe a local.  Her back was to us.

Bluestocking was sitting with Bitter Pill at the kitchen, and she stood.  With a motion of her hand, she bid some of their enforcers to pat us down.

I’d always felt this little ritual was really dumb when I saw it.  When powers were involved, weapons barely seemed to factor in.  I undid the strap on my armor and pulled it away from my upper body, while the burly guy used the back of his hand at my armpits, then the top of my chest, the underside, my stomach, and then between my shoulderblades and the small of my back.  He did my legs, then straightened.

Maybe it was a power thing.  Subjecting us to this.

“You don’t usually come here,” Bluestocking observed.  “You go to the tea shop?”

“I go where there’s business.  Are they here?”

“They are.  They’re waiting.”

Tattletale, Snuff, and I turned to look as the guy moved from me to Sveta.  I strapped my breastplate back into place as I watched with something between bemusement and sympathy.

Fingers closed around cloth, finding that the only shape being maintained was a combination of wire frame and tendrils.  Past the arms and shoulders, there really wasn’t much at all, and his attempt to find something to investigate saw him getting grabbed through the cloth more than he found purchase on anything.

Gentle grabs.  He didn’t scream in agony.  There was only bewilderment on his face.

Sveta’s expression was almost the inverse of my own, yet didn’t make me feel bad- there was no humor in her expression, it was stock still as she frowned at the man, but… I could see how she stood a little taller as she watched him work through it, her eyebrows moving slightly closer together as she focused intently to manage her control.

The guy turned toward his boss, helpless.

“It’s fine.  Go sit down,” Bluestocking said.  “Visitors, Tattletale, you may go upstairs.  I have to check my paperwork, I’ll be with you in a minute.”

Tattletale and I walked beside one another as we ascended the stairs.  Most eyes in the place watched us as we made our way up.  Nursery turned to look, saw us, and waved.  Not a wave for Tattletale, apparently.

She was like a bully from high school who met up with a victim years later and talked like they were old friends.  Just… didn’t connect.

“The last time I was here was when I was hiring those guys,” Tattletale said.  “The community center thing.”

I set my jaw, nodding.

“The clairvoyants we were using dropped off the map, but it was in service of a bigger picture.”

“Comforting,” I said, sarcastic.

“That’s great,” Sveta said.  “I’m sure Cauldron thought the same thing.”

“Cauldron kind of saved the world, Tress.”

“Cauldron kind of doesn’t get to lay claim to saving the world when they created ten thousand problems and solved one.  We don’t know if we would have been able to do it if they hadn’t caused the messes they had.  If Gray Boy hadn’t killed heroes, if Eidolon hadn’t broken the Protectorate and Wards…”

“A discussion for another time.”

“Mm hmm.  I look forward to it,” Sveta said.

Tattletale stopped in her tracks, putting out a hand to stop me.

“What’s going on?” I asked.  The four of us were on the landing, nobody was on the stairs above us or below.

“Stop at the top of the stairs.  Look natural,” Tattletale murmured.  “We can talk, just know it’s a bit of a bear trap.”

“Bear trap?”

“There are rules and expectations.  This is a floor for meetings and private conversations.  You don’t come here without invitation and you need the go-ahead to cross the room, unless you’re really trusted or too big to fuck with.  If you don’t meet the standards, then anyone who has a problem with you can say you were listening in, and you’re out.”

“And people have a problem with you?” I asked.

“Imagine,” Sveta murmured.

“Let up, Sveta.  I get it.  And yes.  A problem with me and a problem with you.  Bluestocking doesn’t adore you, and she didn’t warn you for a reason.”

“Okay,” I said.

Tattletale indicated with her hand, and we made our way up the last set of stairs.  With the height of the ceiling in the space downstairs, the second floor was closer to being where the third floor would be in another building.

Upstairs, things were nicer.  Maple planks for the floor, trimmed with what might have been walnut.  The lights were dimmer, each table had a small window beside it, with lamps for illumination after hours.  A bar in the corner was backlit so the light shone through the various colored bottles.  Behind the bar was a man in his sixties with deep black skin and a white beard, no hair on the top of his head, but trimmed hair at the sides and back.  An earring glinted in one ear.

I recognized him and I had no idea where from.  I felt like he was placed into the same mental drawer as the Slaughterhouse Nine, somehow, but however much I rummaged and tried to put a mask to the face, I couldn’t.

Which was ridiculous, because he was gray haired and gray haired parahumans weren’t a thing.

“Who?” Sveta asked.

“Table in the corner,” Tattletale said.

The most noticeable person at the table in the corner was a man with a prodigious belly, wrapped in golden armor.  His mask was modeled off of what could have been a Greek statue, beard included, the eyes not visible past the dark eyeholes.  His servant was cutting his sandwich into pieces.  He looked loud, aggressive, and obnoxious.

Opposite the man was a woman with a stone mask so fine that there was no gap between stone and skin- it could have been latex.  It made her face look like it was part statue.  Her skin was a dark olive, her hair long, black, and wavy, and she wore a lot of ornamentation with snakes, primarily ouroboros imagery- the snake eating its own tail as a circlet, as a bangle at one arm, and at one leg.  Her costume was stone ornamentation with fine cloth draping from it.  Gray and jade as a color scheme, down to the contact lenses she wore.

Prancer was the last of them.  His hair was combed back, but it was wild and brown locks of hair peeled away or mingled with the antlers built into his mask.  He slouched a little, and he engaged with the man more than the woman.

“Fill us in?” I asked.  “These are people you’ve studied and followed?  We know Prancer.”

“The woman is Semiramis.  Named herself after the first queen of Babylon or some shit like that.  Dido might have named herself after someone who chucked a shitton of treasure in the ocean, but Semiramis named herself after the person who invented eunuchs as an institutionalized thing.  That tidbit comes courtesy of Imp, by the way, and it fits perfectly, because this woman used to be as vicious as salt rubbed into a wound.”

“I’ve never heard of her.”

“Semiramis was second-in-command to a warlord and arms trafficker in Southern Europe, northern Africa.  Held her position while waiting for her boss to die, and he finally kicked the bucket on Gold Morning.  She took over, and now she’s a player behind the scenes.  I mentioned the categories these people cover.  For her, she’s a player when it comes to culture and cash.”

“Player how?” I asked.

“Music production, film, online media, games, some sports but not many, but what she does is a kind of slavery, getting people into her media empire and then keeping them in.  Gets them in legitimately, then pulls a turning back the clock thing.  Reverse their age, let them return to a point where they’re in their prime, actresses can stay in their early twenties forever, gamers can keep their reflexes, singers can keep the voice.  All wholly voluntary… but they lose the memories of the time they undo.”

“Ahhh,” I said.  “And if they were thinking about leaving…”

“They’d lose that desire to leave along with the year or so of memories.  But she does what she does carefully.  Always with witnesses.  Always with benefits of a doubt.  She combines that with turning ahead the clock, not for people but for things.  Speeding up constructions, if they’re outlined well enough, and she’s one of the few parahumans who seem like they can do that without any apparent issues.  She’s thriving right now, and she’s in a position where she can cancel a contract or pull strings and tens of thousands of jobs would be affected, or a market sector would change.  She has celebrities and people under her thumb who she could tell to say something or start a war on the internet and make life really hard for someone.”

“That’s a little close to our situation,” Sveta commented.

“It’s close but no cigar.  Her P.R. attack is a cudgel.  With our situation we’re talking… tasteless poison.”

Tasteless poison.

“Big guy is Little Midas.  He’s a warmonger and a financial player.  If you’ve noticed the uptick in the number of mercenaries around…”

“He’s responsible?”

“Yep.  This is the kind of thing the Wardens, Undersiders, and others in my circles are trying to keep under control, while you’re focused on the more visible, surface-level crime.  Little Midas tried to take over some corner worlds and as luck would have it, he failed.  He went from funding his lieutenants to making it very easy for criminal mercenaries to be criminal mercenaries.  Making up work for them to do, ensuring they have resources, ensuring they have a place to go back to.  His power helps him make the money to make it possible.  See the lieutenants?”

I did.  Behind Little Midas were heroes who didn’t look like they were big players or planners.  Behind Semiramis were a woman in her mid twenties in a blouse and slacks, and a guy in a suit with a beard oiled to a point.  The two ate while looking at the same tablet computer.

“It’s quiet,” Sveta observed.

It was quiet.  Aside from the occasional clink of utensil on plate, or the knock of a cup on the wood of a table, most of the conversation in the room was respectfully hushed.  Little Midas might have been the loudest person present.  Even if he hadn’t said a word in his inappropriately loud voice, he would have been audible, because he wore armor casually, and the gestures he made with every other statement made his armor clack against the table or the bench he sat on.

“If I was alone with Snuff, we wouldn’t have gotten this far.  The fact you struck a deal with Blue and there’s some knowledge about it gives us a little bit of protection.  Having a lot of deals in play provides more protection.  Can’t knock someone off if people will think you kill anyone who you contract with.  The protection helps too.  Little Midas would sic his people on us and take his chances, and most of the people up on the second floor would side with him.  He has too much clout.”

“How many enemies did you make?” I asked.

“Enough,” Tattletale said, her eyes scanning the room.

That was the end of that thread of conversation.

The curious old bartender stayed where he was, and it seemed like Tattletale was very right about movement through the room being a careful thing.  When Midas raised a hand and then waved a mostly empty beer glass around, the bartender clanked glasses audibly, and knocked glass audibly against counter.  A signal to people that he was coming by.  The tone of conversation shifted, people drawing quiet as he passed within earshot.

The beer was delivered, and he took more orders on a clipboard before returning to his station.   Tap tap, he knocked clipboard against the edge of the table, before returning.

The silence or adjusted tones that seemed to surround him as he walked by only added to my curiosity about him.

Sveta wasn’t focused on the room, but on the outside, I saw.  I nudged her arm, giving her hand the briefest squeeze, and she turned my way to give me a small, sad smile.

“What you’re thinking, I don’t recommend it,” Tattletale said.

“Thinking?” Sveta asked.

“You’re thinking about Bluestocking’s deal with Victoria.  That, if someone had to come stay here, it could be you.  It would be nice to get away, have a fresh start.  Fresh air-”

“No,” Sveta said.

“It crossed your mind.”

“Only barely,” Sveta said.  “But being around shitty villains would suck, so my thoughts immediately went to going out on my own, living by the shore.  But I can’t do that either.  I need sessions to reinforce control, because now that I have it, I can’t give it up.  I need technical help.  Being disabled doesn’t give me the freedoms everyone else would enjoy.  It’s not an option.”

“It’s not an option in the first place.  I had teammates do that.  It’s lousy.  For them and for everyone else.  That’s all I wanted to say.”

“Vista says Rachel is doing well where she is,” I noted.

“Her?  I suppose,” Tattletale said.  “But hush hush.  Blue’s due to show up.”

I turned to look at the stairwell.  No sound, no sign.

As I started to turn back, I saw movement- light from below cast a shadow against the wall by the landing of the stairs.  Bluestocking rounded the bend in the stairs and came up.  White puffy blouse, corset at the stomach and waist flowing into a stylized Victorian-style sweeping dress with a slit up both sides, to showcase the indigo blue stockings.  Opaque glasses of a similar tint glinted as she pushed them up her nose.  A long cigarette holder was tucked into a strap at one of her arms, cigarette absent.  It was a decent look, spoiled by the fact that her face at rest made it look like she’d just caught the faintest whiff of something dead.

“I’m doing you a favor, mediating this,” Bluestocking said.

I met Tattletale’s eyes.  See?

“You got your trade deal,” I told her.

“We got a trade deal with the city.”

“You asked for the moon and-”

“And we got a big rock.  It’s fine.  But before you play any games with me or my tribe, you should know I can always say you didn’t deal fair.  That means any informants or contacts clam up when it comes to you, your team, and any heroes you call friends.  Things get harder in other ways.  You wouldn’t be allowed through the portal.”

“Noted,” I said.  “I’ve got enough to do that you’re not really a concern right now.  We’ll do our thing, you focus on getting through the winter, don’t give us a reason to come after you, and we won’t come after you.”

“And do yourselves a favor while you’re at it, and don’t harbor people-butchers,” Sveta said.

“Extenuating circumstances,” Bluestocking said, smiling slightly, enjoying the ‘get out of jail free’ card Prancer had provided far too much.  “This way.”

Bluestocking led the way, with Tattletale and I walking side by side, Snuff and Sveta in the wings.

“Tattletale!” Little Midas boomed.  “You dared show your face.  You know Nero.”

“I’m aware of him,” Tattletale said.  “The Teapot Emperor.”

The man in the seat behind Midas clenched one hand.  He had a gladiator-style helmet, tunic, and armor, with a coat draped across his lap.

“And you know Snake-eater and Whistler,” Midas said, lowering his voice.

The other two people near ‘Nero’ shifted position.

“I don’t, actually.  Nice to meet you, Snake-eater, Whistler.  Semiramis, good to see you.”

Semiramis didn’t move a millimeter, as she stared Tattletale down.

“Prancer,” I said, before Tattletale could handle all of the introductions.  “Still around, I see.”

“I was invited.  We’re getting settled elsewhere,” Prancer said.

“Doing well?”

“We’re managing.  A few weeks into building and organizing, and we’re getting to the point where we have creature comforts again.”

“If you call the eighteen year old keeping you company in your cabin a ‘creature’, sure,” Midas said, chortling at his own line.

“Company and a comfort.  As I see it, we’re all creatures, we all have our needs, and I’m still mourning Velvet in my own way,” Prancer said.  “But thank you, Little Midas, for bringing that up and reminding me.  Let’s change the subject.  How are you, Antares?”

“Some headaches.  Ones we’re hoping you can help us with.”

“Straight to business?”

I shrugged one shoulder.

“Information costs,” Semiramis said.

“If my gut is right, and it always is, you’ll think this is worthwhile,” Tattletale said.

“My servants didn’t carry me all this way for nothing,” Little Midas said.  He moved his hand, touching the table, then holding his hand out beside the table, level with the tabletop.  Another table materialized, the material a glossy black, like obsidian or onyx, the particulars of the table identical to the one he’d just touched.

“Gracious,” Tattletale said.  “I’m sure you wouldn’t act like a child on the playground and disappear it when we’re leaning on it.”

Little Midas chuckled.

A warning for the rest of us as much as it was a pre-emptive move to keep him from doing just that.

We collected chairs from empty tables nearby and gathered, Tattletale, Sveta and I each taking a side.  Snuff stood a short distance away, arms folded.

“You hired Big Picture to join Foresight, Little Midas,” Tattletale said.  “Semiramis provided the intelligence to put him in the right place at the right time to join.”

“Harsh accusations,” Prancer murmured.

“We’ve been investigating this for the last little while,” I said, “and these are things we already know.  Can we skip the pretense?”

“No,” Semiramis said.  “Pretense is important.  You have to exchange a few parries before the fight can really start.”

“Or you can sweeten the deal and give some evidence about how this meeting is supposed to be worth it,” Prancer said.

“There’s a conspiracy at work,” Tattletale said.  “And one of you was bit by it without realizing it.”

“Then it can’t be that bad,” Midas said.

“It will be.  Every move they’ve made so far has had at least two targets.  Every move they’ve made so far has worked on a level.  Big Picture didn’t get placed in Foresight because someone got in the way.  They also, I think, targeted you.”

“You think this why?” Semiramis asked.

“Because it’s a pattern, and I don’t see the move against Big Picture hurting Foresight in any way.  Which means it’s bouncing back at you, most likely.  Attacks against heroes is something I get, but if we confirm they’re against you and which of you they’re against, then that hints at their motivations.”

“And I’m here because why?” Prancer asked.

“Because you’re the most networked while being the least complicated, just like Antares here is well networked with heroes while not being so enmeshed in the upper echelons that I need to worry about moving heaven and earth.  That and she found this out before I did.”

A nice way of putting it.

Tattletale motioned for a folded card that was on the table, and Prancer slid it over her way.  A drink list, by the look of it.  She raised her hand and motioned to the man behind the bar.  She held up fingers.  Three, two, zero -a circle made with her full hand-, three.

The man nodded, and began preparing.

I addressed Semiramis, “You want to know this if it’s being used on you.  It’s going to come across as minor and questionable, but it’s going to feel impactful, and once they get going they aren’t going to stop with the one.”

“What are we looking for?” she asked.

I leaned forward.  “Look for the consequences.  People at the fringes of your organization who pulled away recently.  Then identify the wedge.  It’s going to be communication by some digital medium, something you find or casually come across.  Authenticity of the message won’t be provable, but it won’t be disprovable either.  In this case, we have a sense of what the Wedge is or where it comes from.  It’ll relate to Big Picture.”

“Okay,” Semiramis said.  “You’re right.  No need for payment for my help.  This is critical.”

“You already know exactly what happened, don’t you?” Tattletale asked.

“I already knew,” Semiramis said.  “It bothered me.  If you have more information, you can have mine.”

“Your media monsters,” Prancer said.  He glanced at Sveta.  “Is that offensive?”

“Yes.”

“Your whatevers,” Prancer corrected.

“Not better.”

Semiramis leaned back, fingernails with detailed jade decoration on then tapping the table’s surface.  “Before Gold Morning happened, the PRT was trying to normalize the… what do you call them over here?”

“Case fifty-threes,” Sveta said.

“That works.”

“What term did you use?” Sveta asked.

“Their names,” Semiramis said.  “They’re clients and products both, and both should be treated with care.  There were three.  Engel, Egg, and Scraping.  The idea was that they would join me.  An artist with ties to Big Picture and a history of working with case fifty-threes would join us, but to produce a video feature.  We wanted to continue what the PRT of America was doing before things abruptly terminated.  Engel, Egg, and Scraping in media.  Big Picture didn’t get into Foresight, a letter about why found its way to my three would-be clients.  They became uncomfortable and canceled their contracts.”

“Why did you want Big Picture in Foresight?” Tattletale asked.

“I did not say I did.”

“What do you know about them?” I asked Sveta.

“Engel is a community leader.  She’s beautiful, inside and out, very opinionated.  Not a big fan of me.  She’s… I’m not sure I feel comfortable saying more about things personal to her.  She had difficulties.  She got help.  She would be my second pick to be a movie star, but I wouldn’t want her to do so if it’s with the photographer I’m thinking of.  From what she says she’s avoided the worst of all of that kind of mess.  Egg is a kid.  They were around for the attack on Cauldron, as of Gold Morning.  Scraping I don’t know.”

“Scraping isn’t a case fifty-three,” Tattletale said.

“Then that’s why I don’t know them.”

“You know more than you’re letting on,” Tattletale said, to Semiramis.

“I need more if I’m going to give more.”

“And I’m barely involved, apparently,” Little Midas said.

“No,” Tattletale said.  “You work with mercenaries.  You farm them out.  You work with people that include the ones downstairs.  Those people targeted the Navigators three and a half weeks ago.  They butchered them at the client’s behest.  Familiar?”

“That does not mean I’m involved.”

“When they made that attack, they lured the Navigators out with carefully crafted messages.  I think that was a first draft of this particular kind of attack.  It worked.  It passed muster.  It leaned on deep and specific knowledge of the team and their deeper desires.”

Frick.

This wasn’t a sudden thing.

“No comment,” Little Midas said.  He made a small, pleased sound, moving the beard portion of his helmet to drink some beer and giving me a view of a smug smile surrounded by facial hair that had been pressed out of shape by the helm.

“-Unless you give us more,” Semiramis said.

She really wants more.

“We could talk about their other moves,” I said.  I can share what they did with me.

“No,” she said.

“You have this ouroboros design in your costume,” Tattletale remarked.  “It all ties back into itself.  You poked a bear and you lost three possible underlings.”

“Actors and actress,” Semiramis said.  “I don’t like losing.  I’m a builder, I lay groundwork, I gather loyal people, and I reward them to keep them loyal.  Oftentimes the work is a grind.  I bite my tongue and work and I make my way toward my goal of having an empire.  Something cleaner than what I used to be.  It’s rare that I’m passionate about a project, and then don’t get to see the fruits of that labor.  Give me my revenge, bring my three actors back to me, or tell me something else I need to know.”

I heard the clink of glass.  Conversation across the upper floor changed.  The old man approached.  Our conversation paused.

Tattletale had her phone out.  For a second, I thought she’d breached the communications blackout.  Then I saw it was a note-taking application.

“Was there a nude scene?” Sveta asked.  “Sorry, that’s a random question.”

“Yes,” Semiramis said.  “A sex scene.  But it was Engel who was interested in it.”

“Why?”

“Years ago… a kiss between a Case Fifty-Three and a human.  Today… perhaps more.”

“She’s too innocent,” Sveta said.  “She doesn’t get it.”

“Yes.  But that can be good,” Semiramis said.  “Innocence, optimism.”

Tattletale slid the phone over to Sveta as the bartender set her drink down.  It was small and smelled like mint.

Sveta typed out her response, not as slow as she might’ve been, considering how unpracticed she was.  She knew her way around a regular keyboard, and that helped.

She passed it back to Tattletale.

“Okay,” Tattletale said.  “Engel went to Teacher for help with mental issues having to do with her power and physiology.”

“Hey,” Sveta said, looking legitimately pissed.

“She just said she didn’t want to share Engel’s private business.”

Tattletale continued on, ignoring our protests, her eyes alert.  “-And Egg knew his way around Cauldron.  They talked, they shared information, and they knew things between them.  Big Picture was sent to Foresight because they’re the best information gatherers.  Teacher… wanted to ensure nobody was too hot on his trail.  So he blew it up.  Surgical strike.  This is looking a lot like Teacher, with some resources behind him.”

“Yes,” Semiramis said, not sounding pleased.  “I know this.  I would say you need to tell me things I don’t know to get me to share information, but you seem dead set on digging on your own.  Perhaps… we should tell you goodbye, and minimize how much you dig until you’re ready to deal.”

“This is why nobody likes you, Tattletale,” Sveta said.  “Everyone at this table is annoyed, now.”

“I’m fine,” Little Midas said, at the same time Nero at the next table cleared his throat.  “This is amusing.”

“Basically, anyway.  One less person at this table, another at the next table over.”

“It’s fine,” Tattletale said.  She indicated Semiramis.  “She still wants to know more.  How.  If it’s salvageable.  What she can do to protect herself.  It’s why she sent Big Picture to Foresight in the first place.  She wants to build and she wants to know the lay of the land.  Teacher’s the biggest unknown.”

“You may be underestimating my spitefulness,” Semiramis told Tattletale.

“I’m exactly estimating it,” Tattletale said.  She leaned back, put down her phone, and picked up her drink.  Settling in for a game of chicken.

I reached out, putting my hand on top of the drink.  I eased it and her hand back to the table.

All the talk of cases.  Case Twelve.  I turned to the Old Man.  I’d thought of him in the same way I thought of sinister and ominous things in the background, like the Slaughterhouse Nine.  The Nine had even been a series of cases, with Siberian’s attack on the Triumvirate as case one.

“What?” Tattletale asked.

“The first parahumans appeared starting in 1984,” I murmured.  “Parahumans tend to trigger between ages eight and thirty, give or take a few years for the edge cases.  In the nineties, there was talk and rumor of a gang leader gaining a lot of ground, once upon a time.  The first thought was that he was a parahuman.  He wasn’t.  His uncle was.  The man slipped away.”

A few heads turned.

“Given his age, he’d have triggered around thirty two, thirty-three years of age.  That was roughly thirty years ago.  The portrait matches.”

“You know this how?” Prancer asked.

“She collects old case files,” Sveta said.

Little Midas tapped Snake-eater on the shoulder.  The man stood from the cushioned bench he sat on.  Not even facing us, the man at the bar raised his hands in surrender.

“Not putting up a fight?” Snake-eater asked.

“Too old to run.  Never one to fight.”

“Do we need to worry about what he’s capable of?” Prancer asked.

“Have you had anything to eat or drink here?”

“Yes.”

“Then the damage is done,” I said.  “You’ll live, don’t worry.”

“I’ve eaten and had a drink on a past visit,” Tattletale said.  She tugged on her drink.  “I’m good to go, right?”

I kept her from lifting it, my hand still over the top.  “You probably don’t want to.”

She leaned back, letting go of the glass.  “I have a headache.”

“You wouldn’t if you didn’t use your power for a hundred small ‘looking cool’ moments in the car,” Sveta murmured.

“Five at most,” Tattletale said.

“Explain this,” Semiramis told me, stern.  “Explain him.”

“He’s the secret weapon the top people here were joking about,” Prancer said.  He smiled.  “Marquis, before he left.  Lord of Loss before he was arrested-”

“He was released, but he’s being monitored,” Little Midas said.

“All the same.  Loss tried to make sly remarks while they were a little too lubricated to be clever… this was worthwhile.”

“I know they talked about things.  I want specifics,” Semiramis said.

“And you get your answers when you give us the details we need, open and fairly,” I told her.

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Black – 13.7

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I flew, Chicken Little remanded back to the care of Tattletale with the shortest possible explanation.  If she was so smart, she could figure me out.

In the first minute of flight, I’d told Rain to enforce the communications blackout for anything short of ambulances needing to be called.  That had been ten minutes ago.  I wasn’t even sure if I trusted ambulances, or Rain’s call.

Then… silence.  Music seemed like a distraction, so I got the rush of wind past the Wretch instead.  I got the replays of conversations from earlier, with Big Picture and Ratcatcher included.  I felt like I’d betrayed Sveta in a way by trying to give Big Picture the benefit of a doubt, and I felt like I’d betrayed myself because I hadn’t succeeded in finding any ground I could stand on where I could make sense of his actions.  I prided myself on being a scholar, but people couldn’t be studied without becoming comfortable with a lot of gray areas, definitions, and unknowns, and I wasn’t that good at that.

What was my saying?  Do what was right, do what was legal, do what I could do without regrets?  ‘Right’ was where it went out the window because it felt wrong.  It was disturbing, being in that studio, but not in a way where I could say rights, as in human rights, had been explicitly and intentionally violated.  Fine, then default to law.  Was it legal?  It walked a line because ‘law’ included a right for victims to stand up to wrongdoers, and Case Fifty-Threes couldn’t.  The courts had never been the kindest to parahumans.  They couldn’t sue and they couldn’t step in or ask for rights or for their art not to be displayed when he took art he’d told them was for himself only or for a select audience and made it part of a gallery showing.  He seemed to revel in that space between art and pornography, a space where it was also technically legal but pretty damn questionable beyond the technical.

Putting me smack dab in the ‘regret’ column.

On that same topic, I regretted not being just a little more protected against the cold.  My mind was on the coat I’d picked up and put down while at the Wardens’ ‘bunker’.  Cold got to me even though I had the Wretch up, a creeping loss of warmth inside me as the environment eroded at my stores of energy.

I was cold and there was nothing I could do.

My friend was hurting and there was nothing I could do.

In the distance, I could see the shape of the Dauntless Titan.  ‘Kronos’.  Where portals riddled the city, taller than some buildings, slices of another sky against our sky, the titan was pure white, unmoving, with only a periodic distortion around it.  The Simurgh came and went, and when she came, the light seemed just a little darker in the area around her roosting point.

He existed in Shin, and Shin was concerned.  He existed in Bet.  He existed in Earth N, in the corner world ‘Q’, and other scattered realities.  We had every reason to believe he existed in every variant of our world, standing there, ignoring every stimulus, including one of the most evil creatures I knew of.

On a rooftop below me, I saw people burning something in an improvised stove.  I flew close, passing through the smoke and warm air, and saw it was construction material.

Lineups around a block, mid-afternoon.  In the summer and fall it had been to buy the latest line of clothes or tech, when options were so few and far between.  We’d peaked over the fall where a bunch of new options landed, and then… this.  A paradigm shift that came with the colder weather.  I was willing to bet the line was for food.  To stock up and prepare.

There were streets where people shuffled forward on foot, the sidewalks so clogged that people were forced to go the speed of the slowest person.  Some people walked in the road.

We weren’t at the hard part yet, but the bite of last winter had been bad enough that people had learned to conserve, prepare, and wait.

But this was going to be different, I was pretty sure.  Last winter had been something we’d collectively endured, with the mindset that we could get through the difficult patches, and if we could make it through then things would be okay.  This winter, the titan loomed on the horizon and the portals shattered the sky.  This winter, we had someone to blame.  Mayor Jeanne Wynn.  Citrine.  I was sure she was trying, and I was sure it wouldn’t be quite enough to satisfy.

Blame was a hell of a thing.

Fuck, I wished I could fly faster, to get to Sveta and Weld in a workable span of time.

Fuck, was I cold.

Fuck this character assassination bullshit, fuck the people who had done it.

I could find my way across the city by the flavor of the buildings.  How densely they were packed together, the style of them.  I had a sense of which materials had come from where, with a lot of the prefab building segments having come from Cheit, a lot of crude materials from Shin, and outright raw materials from Earth N, with processing and industry set up within arm’s reach of the destinations for the end-products they made.

I saw my destination, at a point where the neighborhoods ceased to be places I’d flown over fifty times and became familiar.  I felt the same hollow feeling from earlier, recognizing the stores, restaurants, and the peninsula that was Hollow Point, just over the water from our headquarters.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but what I saw felt off.  Rain on the ground, leaning against Tristan and Byron’s car.  Tristan out of costume on the fire escape stairs, and Ashley standing in the doorway.

I floated close, because Victoria catch-up was an interruption that stood to make it harder to grasp the immediate situation and its demands.

“Please leave,” Sveta said.  Her voice was tense, breaking slightly.  “Give us a bit.”

“You’re not getting anywhere.  It’s my headquarters too.  Take a break and wait for Victoria or make a decision.”

“Victoria can’t do anything about this,” Sveta said.

“Then who do I call?”

“Nobody.”

“Jessica?”

“Ashley, Swansong, I- I said nobody.  Jessica’s not even doing therapy anymore.  She’s not caught up.  It would be too much to ask.”

“Then who?”

“You’re not listening to me!  You can’t fix this.  This isn’t the sort of thing you fix,” Sveta said.  Her voice broke at the end of the statement.

“Isn’t that a decision on its own?” Weld said, distant, barely audible.

“That’s not what I’m saying,” Sveta said.  “I’m saying it’s not her business.  That’s all.”

“My headquarters, m-” Ashley said.

“You’ve said that,” Sveta said, bitter, annoyed.

“-My friend,” Ashley said.  She took advantage of the pause that followed.  “My, hm, cousin?”

“Cousin?” Sveta asked.  It was like the statement had shaken her from her train of thought.

“We’re all Armstrong’s, in our way.  Should I call him?”

Armstrong.  The PRT director who had de-facto adopted Weld, who had supported Ashley from a distance when she was Damsel of Distress, living in a small town.  Who had accepted Sveta with open arms and, I wasn’t even sure Sveta knew, provided a good chunk of the cash for Sveta’s now-destroyed prosthetic body.

“I didn’t even think about Armstrong,” Sveta said.  I could hear the pain in her voice.  “Can you just leave, Ashley?  Please?  Tristan, I’m guessing you’re in earshot.  Can you-”

I flew in, touching Ashley’s shoulder.  She backed out of the way of the door.

Inside, it was cold, the door had been open for at least a few minutes.

Sveta’s cheeks had been marred, both by tears that weren’t clear but were shot-through with black, and because makeup that had been used to give her a more normal skin tone had been wiped away.  Her tattoo on her cheek was plainly visible.

The headquarters space was a good forty feet across.  We’d picked it for its spaciousness.  A good thirty feet separated Sveta, who stood at the end nearest Chris’s old corner, near the washroom and the tiny kitchen counter.  Weld stood near Kenzie’s console at the ‘head’ of the apartment.

I started forward, saw Sveta move in reaction, and hesitated.  I could see her telling me to leave, or telling me not to approach.  The former would fit with what she’d said to Ashley.  The latter would suggest she didn’t trust herself.

But there was no resistance, no defensiveness.  Without a word spoken, despite the fact she no longer had her unsteady prosthetic body, she teetered slightly my way.  I closed the distance and I hugged her.  She hugged me back tightly enough that nails that had been sculpted into her Precipice-made hands bit into my back.

I didn’t want this to be one-sided, and I didn’t have either side, yet.  Only Rain’s statement.  I wasn’t sure I’d trust anything coming through the phone or any technological medium, anyway.

I turned, and Sveta moved with me.  I looked at Weld, and saw how unhappy he was.

“You okay?” I asked.

“No,” he said.

“Why are they out there and you guys in here?”

“Weld came, we talked, things- we fought.  We were going to leave but we ended up fighting more.  People were staring,” Sveta said.  “We came back.”

And the others left, to give privacy, except for Ashley, who got impatient or didn’t want to let things continue?

“What happened?” I asked.

“Everything was fine,” Weld told me, his voice low.  “As fine as it gets.  Sveta was showing off how she can use a phone.  Which is great.  She saw pictures of me with a teammate.”

“A woman,” Sveta said.

“A teammate,” Weld said.

“Can I?” I asked.  I stopped myself.  “I’m not just asking if I can see.  I’m asking- can I mediate?  Can I help?”

“We said things,” Sveta said, every inch of her face indicating hurt.  “Things we’ve been holding in for a long time, maybe.  I don’t think you can help that.”

Weld averted his gaze when I looked at him.

He hadn’t waited the full six weeks.

“Can I see the pictures?” I asked.

Weld drew his phone from his pocket.  He tossed it.  I had to break the hug with Sveta to be sure I caught it.

The images were still up.  Weld with a girl with black hair, and a skintight suit that… well, there were suits that looked like they were were painted on and it looked like the woman had pointed to one of those and said ‘tighter’.  Every muscle and rib stood out with the black gloss of the costume.  Something hybridizing fins with blades ran along strategic points, tapering down, so cameltoe and nips weren’t quite as obvious, and served to make her look fairly dangerous.

One selfie of her and Weld, with slivers of two other capes on either side to suggest they were sitting on a bench on a plane, helicopter, or truck.  Her head was tilted to rest on Weld’s shoulder, and the selfie was supposed to be focused on the fin-blade at her arm, which was absorbed by Weld.  The caption was a simple ‘stuck to him’.  I used ‘supposed to be’ to refer to the focus, because she had an easy, infectious smile that suggested nothing untoward.

That was just going by smile, though.

“You have to scroll.  Nighttime photos,” Sveta said.  Her voice was as empty as I’d felt earlier, after reading the diary.

I scrolled.  Past photos of this twenty-something woman gardening, more gardening, a faintly unhinged photo of her showing off a cut on her face, post-fight.  Her hanging out with capes.  Her unmasked face was kept out of photos.  Nothing betrayed her secret identity or location.

Then the nighttime photos.  Twenty, twenty five pictures of her at what I took to be a wind-down from a Wardens operation, a bunch of capes, Patrol officers and military-types drinking and lounging in an apartment where one wall and part of the ceiling were glass, giving it an open-air feel.  A good eighteen of those pictures, she was within arm’s reach of Weld.  In four of them she was touching him.  For balance, possibly.  Together, but never quite in a way that suggested they were together.  They could have been friends, but if I’d seen it I wouldn’t have assumed they were friends.

I tapped the photo.  I saw the name above her face.  Slician.  I’d heard of her, but hadn’t ever seen the face to put it to the name.

“Is there context?” I asked.

Weld didn’t volunteer an answer.

“Not exactly,” Sveta said.  “I asked about her, and you know, I may be dumb-”

“You really aren’t,” Weld said, before I could.

“I’m- I don’t know how to put it, then,” Sveta said, quiet.  “Because I feel so fucking ignorant.  I feel like I never get it.  I lost a childhood of memories, and then I spent the next few years killing anyone I might have interacted with, I- I spent the years after that in a hospital, and the time after that with a team that it turned out I never really knew or understood.  When was I supposed to ever learn all of these things that everyone else seems to get?  You know?”

“You do okay,” I said.

“I don’t know,” she said.  “But I do know my boyfriend.  I do know when something’s wrong.  I’d like to think I’m good at knowing when he needs space or when he needs someone to talk to.”

“You are,” Weld said.  He looked pained.  “Better than Armstrong, better than any teammate, friend, or girlfriend I’ve had.”

Sveta continued, not to Weld but to me, like she was making an appeal, “I try to look after him.  I try to nag him if he needs nagging, usually if he’s not trying hard enough to push his boundaries and starts falling into a rut.”

I looked at Weld, saw him nodding to himself.

“I know when he’s lying or hiding something,” Sveta finished.

Weld’s nods to himself stopped.  His eyes remained fixed on the floor.

“Did you cheat?” I asked, my voice hard enough that he looked up.

“No,” Sveta said.  “He didn’t.  But he toed the line.  And I knew there was a reason he seemed happier lately.  I asked and he was honest.  He’s always been honest with me.  Not always upfront, but…”

“Yeah,” Weld said.

What did you say, Weld?

I couldn’t ask, because I could see the consequence of that statement.  Fresh hurt on Sveta’s face.  I could see the agitation of her tendrils beneath her wig, and her hand went up to hold it steady.  Her dress stirred, moving like there was a wind, when the door had shut minutes ago.

“Was there something I was supposed to do differently?” Sveta asked.  “Was I unfair?  Did I ask too much?  I’m sorry, if I got it wrong.”

“No,” Weld said.

“I thought we got along.  We have common interests, common goals.  You have your hobbies and I have mine, we- I wasn’t oppressive?  I- didn’t get too in your face or ask too much?”

“No,” Weld said.  “You keep asking that.  We’re going in circles.”

“Because,” Sveta said.  She stopped.  Her hand was at my arm and she squeezed.  “Because if it was that, then it’s something I’m working on, that I can fix.  My sessions with Rain’s power- I’m getting better.  I’m more independent than I’ve ever been.”

“It’s great,” Weld said, glum, not making eye contact again.

“Can you give me more than a few words at a time?  Can you yell at me again?”

“I didn’t yell.”

“Be angry, then.  Hit me with more stuff about me trying to push cooking on you or conflicts of interest between your team and Breakthrough, or… anything?

“Those things don’t matter.  They’re bullshit I threw back at you because you were shouting at me and people were looking.”

The fight that had extended outside.

“I don’t want them to be bullshit.  Because… Victoria, you took University classes at the hospital.  There was this term, in this one language class.  It’s not what’s said, it’s…”

I could see where this was going.  I couldn’t see a way of stopping it.  Or there was a way, but using it now would be taking a side, and that would irrevocably harm my relationship with Sveta, and it wouldn’t help anything.

“Textual silence,” the words left my lips.

“Textual silence.  A journalist writes an article and brings up five bullet points, but it’s a seven bullet point issue.  They left those things out for a reason.  That tells a story of its own.  Did I get that right?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Ignorant old me can get something right,” Sveta said, bitter.

“You’re not-” I started.

She pulled her arm away from my hand.  I stopped talking.

“We’ve ruled everything else out.  It’s because of my body,” she said.

“No,” Weld said.

Tears that were more black than clear now ran down her cheeks.  She wiped at them.

“He’s better at lying than he was years ago,” Sveta said, to me.  Her voice was the kind of hollow that was bubble-fragile, the kind of too-steady normal found on the cusp of being unable to speak at all.  “It’s… really shitty.”

Her voice tremored at the ‘shitty’.

“Hey,” I said.  “Let’s stop here, take a break.  There’s other factors in play.”

She didn’t stop.  “We’re freaks of nature, orphans, amnesiacs, we lost everything and the difference between us is he’s really good looking, he gets to pass, he gets people like Slician.  He gets to kiss actresses on television, and fans crushing on him.  I don’t- I don’t get anything.”

I reached out for Sveta’s arm, and tugged her into a hug.  Her body twisted so she could latch onto me, without the usual stumble or shuffle of feet.  She hugged me tight.

My arms wrapped around cloth and that cloth wrapped around tendrils that were trying and failing to hold the shape of a human torso.

“You’re getting so much better-” Weld started.

I felt Sveta tense, and I pulled a hand away to motion for him to stop.

There wasn’t any salvaging this.

“He gets Armstrong,” Sveta said, more to me now.  “The apartment is more his than mine.  I don’t know where I’m supposed to go tonight.  I don’t know what I’m supposed to do about that.”

“We’ll figure something out.  You can stay with Ashley and me.”

“The Case Fifty-Threes hate us, you know.  Actual want-us-to-die hate,” Sveta whispered.  “I don’t get that.  I don’t have that community.  But Weld… he was famous once, he’s popular.  More of them hate me than him.  How is that fair?”

“It’s not,” I told her, “But you’re not alone, okay?  We’ve got your back, here.  Hug.  Come on.”

She started to accept, then stopped.  “I’m out of tears and I’m crying bile.  It’s stinging my eyes.  If I get it on your clothes it’ll stink.”

“Don’t care,” I said.  “Come on.”

Her face hit my shoulder, forehead hitting the bone.

“You said there were other factors in play,” Weld said.  “Your team said there was something fishy going on.  Communications blackout.”

“There is.  Um.  Shit,” I said.  I didn’t want to let Sveta go, but I didn’t want to see Weld leave without the situation being resolved.  Especially with what Tattletale was theorizing about dual-pronged attacks.  “There’s a possibility this was planned, to mess with you.”

“Planned?” Sveta asked, not raising her head from my shoulder.

“There was something on my computer,” I said.  “It looked like it was written by me, but it wasn’t me.  Dragon saw it, she passed it on to Jessica Yamada.”

“What kind of something?” Weld asked.

“Very subtle, but enough to break Jessica’s trust in me, and to break the team’s trust in me.  Tattletale and I found other possible leads.  The fact we were looking might be why this happened, because they wanted to throw us off the scent.  But I’d have to know more to know.”

“I don’t think it’s the kind of thing you’re talking about.  I got a friend invite from Slician,” Sveta said.  “I already turned off my phone’s access to the network.  It was there, waiting, I just don’t see my phone enough to catch it.  I only just got hands that can press buttons on screen without a stylus.”

“The way these guys operate, it’s possible the invite was fake, but in a way that has plausible deniability, where even Slician thinks she could have done it by mistake, or when drunk.  It’s possible the images were altered.”

“Altered?” Weld asked.

“I can talk to you about this after,” I told him.  Sveta felt barely under control under my hands.

“No,” Sveta said.  “Altered?”

“Shrinking the distance, props.  Taking people out of the picture, or altering the people in the background.  Stuff that stands up to scrutiny.”

“I don’t remember her putting her head on my shoulder, but-”

Sveta flinched.

On a level, I could see why that simple little thing in particular hurt.  Because Sveta, prosthetic body or no, control or no, had always had a claim to that.  Even after leaving the hospital, she’d had her head and his shoulder to lean on.

“-but I don’t- I don’t know.  I don’t feel much, so I don’t want to rule anything out.  Half of me wants to say you’re paranoid.  Half of me hopes…”

He didn’t finish the sentence, faltering.

Sveta turned.  “Hopes what?  Does this change anything?  The- that you want to leave me because I’m a monster?”

“That’s not it,” Weld said.

“Then what is?” Sveta asked.  “Tell me you’ve changed and tell me how and okay, that’s going to break my heart, but okay.  I can get over that.  Tell me I did something wrong, something unfixable.  I can get over that.  Tell me I depended too much on you and you see me as a little sister more than a girlfriend.  That you don’t see yourself ever getting over that and seeing me as a girlfriend again?  I can… I can accept that.”

I looked away, blinking tears of my own out of my eyes.

The implication in Sveta’s statements was that these options were good because she could come to terms with them, the flip side being… she couldn’t accept or come to terms with the reality.

“If we know something else is at play, we can avoid playing into their hands, we step back, act like things are normal,” Weld said.

“We don’t know if this is something else,” Sveta said.  “And apparently we’ve been acting like things are normal for a month, because you haven’t been hanging out with Slician for no reason.  What you want, Weld, is to not be the bad guy.  And it’s great you get these mystery villains to blame, but… it doesn’t change the reality.”

“It changes the context.”

“No it doesn’t,” Sveta said.  “Not the context that matters.  You don’t want to be the bad guy, but the only way you get that is if everyone agrees it’s fine to dump your girlfriend because she’s a monster, because she’s disabled-”

“I don’t want to dump you.”

“What do you want!?” Sveta asked, raising her voice.

“Stop,” I said.  “I’m interrupting.  I’m being intrusive and butting in because this doesn’t look like it’s going to end or stop otherwise.”

They stopped.  Sveta didn’t breathe, but with my hand on her back I could feel the pulse of fluids through the organs behind her head, near where her shoulders were.

Weld was statue still, only his face betrayed any emotion.

“Okay?” I asked, trying to gather my thoughts.

“I’m okay with it,” Sveta said, jumping right back into it.  “Fuck it.  I’m the freak, you’re the guy with a heart of literal gold, Weld.  You’re not the bad guy, Weld, you’ve been so good to me.  I’m the one with the problems and I heaped them onto your plate.  You want absolution?  You got it.  You tried and it’s okay.  I’ve got my own shit to deal with and I need to get that done on my own.  So you don’t need to tell me it’s not a breakup and we’re somehow going to stay together, because I know when you’re lying.  I know you that well.”

“You’re not a freak, and that’s not it,” Weld said.

I hated to interrupt again, but I doubted there was anything to be gained from letting this continue, besides bitterness.

“Master-stranger protocols,” I said.

They stopped, looking at me.

“It’s not a set of magic words,” Sveta said.  “You can’t just say them and expect us to just comply.”

“That’s kind of what they are.  I argued for them before, on the phone with Rain.  I’m pushing them now.  We’re not getting anywhere, and I don’t like how this started or why it’s happening.  Protocols.”

Sveta shook her head, but she didn’t speak again.

“Okay,” Weld said.  “What next?”

“Do you have work?”

“Yeah.  Later this afternoon, until ten, might go as long as midnight.”

“Go work.  Talk to the bosses, let them know.  It’s their call.  They should communicate to other teams, verify the rules are in place.  If this is a thing then it’s a thing that’s going to hit other people.  Go.  We’ll go to your apartment, get Sveta’s things, and be gone before you’re back.  I’ll do what I can to look into this thing when I’m free, but I’ll prioritize Sveta for right now.  Yes?”

I looked at Sveta.

She nodded.

I looked at Weld.

He hesitated, then nodded.

“You focus on the threat at hand,” I told Weld.  “Think about who to tell, and be aware that if they are onto us, things are going to get messy.  This is where we see how strong our teams and their human resources are.”

“Yeah,” he said.

“Time matters.  Don’t trust digital communication.  They’re playing a subtle game.”

“Yeah,” he said.  “But I’m not entirely sure you haven’t lost it.”

“That’s the subtlety of it,” I said.  “And speaking of subtlety, I’m kind of trying to politely nudge you here to, uh, make your exit.  Let us deal.”

“Got it,” he said.  “Thanks.”

He headed to the door, floorboards creaking beneath him.

“Sorry,” Sveta said, to his back.

“Me too.”

The fire escape creaked precariously as he stepped onto it.

“You have a guest,” he said.

Then he was gone.

“Why did I say sorry?” Sveta asked.  “So stupid.  I didn’t want to say sorry.  I went that entire conversation and two arguments without saying sorry, because I didn’t want to apologize.  I didn’t do anything I wanted to apologize for.”

“It’s okay.  Brain misfires happen.”

“It was my one goal.  The one thing I knew I could hang on to and I just threw it away.  And then he says ‘me too’?  What the hell does he think I should apologize for?”

Her tendrils ruffled beneath her dress.  Some spilled out to grasp at sections of the floor.  I avoided moving, ready to use my forcefield if I had to, but I didn’t want to step away from her side.

“I think I need a control session with Rain,” she said.

“I think a session with Rain right now would be a terrible idea.  Not when you’re off balance.  I’d veto.”

“You can’t veto,” she told me, and her eye contact was damn close to being a glare.

“Can and will.  As a friend.”

She was still ready, riling for a fight, upset and with no place to vent it.  It was reaching the tendrils, but those tendrils weren’t reaching anything or anyone.

The anger faltered, and I saw the hurt creep across her face, the black moisture in her eyes, that she blinked into tears that ran down her cheeks as soon as they appeared.

“It burns,” she said.  “I’m going to go wash my face.  Then I’ll go to the apartment.”

“I’ll come.”

“No,” she said.  “No.  You’ve got to figure this out, and I… if I can’t use Rain for more control then I want to go to my place, my room, and lock the door, and just… lose all control.  Alone.”

“You sure?”

“No,” she said.  “Yes.  But I’ve got to figure out how I’m going forward and I can’t keep leaning on people.  I’ve got to pull my own weight.”

“After a day as shitty as this one, there isn’t a rational, sane soul out there who would blame you for turning to friends or wanting company.”

“Then I guess I’m not rational or sane,” she replied.  She forced a smile, “Kidding.  Half kidding.  And washing my face.”

“Okay,” I said.

I walked over to the window to see who the ‘guest’ was.  Tattletale, who had stepped out of the car, while Snuff remained in the driver’s seat.  No tiny Chicken Little head peering out the window in the backseat, and no birdcage.

The bathroom door shut.

“Um, hi.”

“You were listening?”

“Ashley was trying to listen at the door and you were here, so I thought it might be okay.  Nobody told me not to listen.”

“Communications blackout, Kenz,” I said, turning toward the computer.  “You were told to turn everything off and step away.  This stuff is messy.”

“It’s my own private line and channel.  And I checked everything once I heard why.  I think they can’t get in.”

I sighed.

“The diary isn’t real?” Kenzie asked.

I stared out the window, watching the group and Weld talk to Tattletale.  She pointed at me mid-sentence.

I digested the ramifications of Kenzie’s question.  Fucking what?  When?  How bad was this?

Was it possible to be offended she read my diary when the diary wasn’t real?

“No, Kenzie.  It’s not real.”

“Oh.”

“Did you read it?”

“Uh huh.”

“When?”

“A few weeks back.  I was making sure I had everything I needed for the move, I backed up everyone’s stuff in case some tinker thing I didn’t pay enough attention to or let fall between my desk and the wall went kablooie and took everyone’s computers out with it.  I realized I had it when I did a search for something and it popped up, read a bit before realizing.”

“You read ‘a bit’?”

“I read most of it.  I got lonely while with my new team, even though I’m only technically not a member of Breakthrough anymore.  I missed you guys, I wondered what I missed so I read more.  It’s really not real?”

“No, Kenz.  I didn’t type a word of it.”

“Okay.  That’s too bad.”

“Why- Kenzie, why is it bad?”

“Because… I didn’t feel so lonely while I could read it, and… that’s all fake.  I feel really weird about that.”

“That’s not how I think, Kenzie.  It’s not- definitely not how I think about you.  I care about more than what you can do with your tinkering.”

“I kind of thought that’s how adults think and do things.  Not fun, but it made a lot of sense, after I thought about it for a while.”

Oh fuck.  Fucking shit.  How ingrained was this in her now?

“No,” I told her.  “How long have you been reading this and thinking about this?”

“A couple of weeks.”

“Fuck, Kenz.  No.  That’s not me, and it’s not okay to think that way.  To treat people as chess pieces.”

“Okay, but, if it was you, it’d be okay.  You had my back when it counted and you have it now.  You could do or say whatever and I’d be okay with it, I think.  Unless you actually went and hurt Ashley or anyone else.  Then we’d have to talk seriously about it.”

Talk about it.  Something told me she was entirely serious, that she would be open to being convinced.  No, no, no.  How the hell was I supposed to deprogram her when she wasn’t even around half the time?

“Did you listen in when I talked to Chicken Little earlier?”

“He asked me not to,” she said.  “So I didn’t.  Also, Sveta’s getting out of the bathroom now.  Take care of her, give her a hug and lots of love for me, okay?”

She didn’t wait for a response.  Effectively a hangup.  The computers and monitors went dark, the light on the speaker going out.

What the hell?

The handle clicked, and Sveta stepped out of the washroom, face and hair wet, streaks of tears and ruined makeup gone.  She’d toweled herself dry and applied fresh makeup, covering her scar, but it wasn’t an elaborate, full-face, nor was it the coloring that made her more flesh tone than actual white.

Weld was leaving.  The others were talking.

“Feel any better?” I asked.

“My eyes don’t sting.  My face is clean.  I feel less of a mess.  And… not at all.”

I nodded.

“It physically hurts,” she said.  “But I don’t want to complain or angst.”

“You’re allowed,” I said.

“And I’m choosing not to use that allowance, so there,” she said.  Her voice a little harder and a little more accented than it was on an ordinary day, but otherwise normal-ish.

She was trying so damn hard, and I had no idea how to help her with it.

“Tattletale,” Sveta said, joining me at the window.  Her voice was level, her composure intact.  “How is she, after being carved up and being back in one piece?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “If it’s messing her up any, I don’t think I’ve noticed much.”

“No problems with the mission?  It’s going okay?  You’re going to find these people who apparently went after Weld and my relationship?”

“It’s going… not great.  Turning up leads, but this has been ugly so far.  Very plausible deniability.  One of the people we interviewed was a photographer, you should know.”

“Should I?”

“It’d come across like a betrayal, I think, if I didn’t mention it.  L.J.M.”

Sveta made a face.

Past the window, in the parking lot, Tattletale was standing by her vehicle.  She beckoned.  She wanted me down there.

“Thank you for telling me,” Sveta said, her expression hard.

“He was about as creepy as you’d imagine.”

“I know.  I’ve seen videos and read interviews.  You really should go if she’s asking for you.  Don’t let me hold you back.”

I didn’t want to leave her.  “Come outside?”

She nodded.

I opened the door to let us outside, and flew down rather than take the stairs.  Sveta hopped over the railing, and landed on a morass of tendrils, which were ninety-nine percent covered by her long dress.

We walked past the others.  Tristan gave Sveta a reassuring pat on the shoulder.  Rain ducked his head.

“Resolved?” Ashley asked.

“Yes.”

“Good.  Anything you need,” Ashley said.

“Thank you.”

“She needs a place, at least for a short while.”

“Then she takes my bedroom,” Ashley said.  “I’ll take the couch.”

“Just like that,” Sveta said.

“The two of us were half-adopted by Armstrong.  Basically family.”

“Okay,” was all Sveta had to say.  “I, um, I’m going to see what Tattletale’s saying.”

“Yeah,” Ashley said.

Tristan was quiet throughout, which was odd because on a lot of levels he was closest to Sveta.  They were a similar wavelength, but they’d found kinship through mutual like of Weld.  At the moment, that was iffy.

I could see a point in coming weeks where he helped her on a deeper level, because he could help her process and work her way through details.  He’d even be good at it, with unusually good background in the subject due to the attention he’d paid Weld.

And Rain would help her with her hands and in a peripheral way.  They talked sometimes during the control practice under the umbrella of Rain’s power.

All of that was secondary.  Tattletale was chewing on what looked like a tiny plastic trident from a late lunch, leaning against her ride.

“Be nice,” I said.

“Sucks,” Tattletale told Sveta.

“That’s reaching for ‘nice’,” I told her.

“It does suck,” Sveta said.  “And if you want to test the limits of my newfound control over my body, I think you’re on the right track, reminding me.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.  Always glad to help with testing or being a convenient target for bitterness,” Tattletale said, glancing my way at the end of the statement.  “Antares, you disappeared on me, and you turned off your phone.  You told me something cryptic in a hurry, like a riddle I was supposed to solve.  I went down the wrong rabbit hole, tried to find your cousin before I realized.”

“My cousin.”

“Someone important, with the word choice, I thought it was family.  Doesn’t matter.  What matter is this is a distraction.  I need to know if I can keep you in the loop or if I should carry on investigating this on my own.”

“After you just said you went down the wrong rabbit hole, I’m not filled with confidence,” Sveta said.

“Down girl.  Down,” Tattletale told her.

“You might have to handle the next parts on your own,” I answered.  “I spent most of that last meeting stewing in how sketchy that guy was, and I wasn’t much use.  Besides, I’ve got to look after a friend.”

“No you don’t,” Sveta said.

“At least to see you home safe.”

“You don’t,” Sveta said.

Tattletale jumped in, saying, “She says you don’t, and I wouldn’t mind a little firepower.  I want to ask people questions but they aren’t entirely friendly people.”

“Who?”

“People who are pulling strings behind the scenes.  Little Midas, maybe the mayor, people in that vein, who play games and who haven’t been getting directly involved.  This is where my years of playing the dastardly mastermind comes in useful.  I know these guys.”

“Why are you wanting to talk to them?”

“Because Big Picture had connections and one of the things those connections wanted was for him to get into Foresight.  I think that’s the double prong.  If it isn’t, talking to those connections of his will show us the second prong.  But talking to them requires having more than Snuff at my back, and anyone else I’d trust is busy watching the kids.”

I thought of Kenzie.  That aborted conversation.

“You go,” Sveta said.

I shook my head.  “No, that’s-”

“You go, and I’ll come with,” Sveta said.

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Black – 13.6

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Tattletale took her sweet frigging time in catching up to us.  There was enough time for a concerned citizen to start talking on their phone while looking warily at Chicken Little and the hooded ex-killer Snuff who had been chasing -following- after him, time for me to talk to them while Snuff kept an eye on Ratcatcher, a defusing of the situation with Chicken’s help, and then time for us to get slightly bored.

With a light whistle to get Chicken’s attention, she motioned to the hawks.  “Release one to show goodwill?”

Chicken Little didn’t.  He hung back, on the opposite side of the alley as Ratcatcher, with Snuff standing beside him, one hand at his shoulder.  Ratcatcher had retreated into the building she’d been planning to escape into, mainly for warmth, and I stood at the doorway, keeping it just ajar enough I could keep an eye on her.

Not that she was going anywhere, with Chicken Little holding her pets.

“I’m not sure I can,” Chicken Little said.

Ratcatcher didn’t make a sound, but the bent nose of her mask flicked around in an alarmed way, her head craning to see Chicken Little through the cracked-open doorway.

“Why can’t you?” Tattletale asked.

“Because when you said I had to be nonlethal, that’s something I’ve never done before.  It’s like I plant these flags and the birds go to the flag to do whatever it says on the flag.  Attack, wait, watch out, patrol…”

“Yes… and?”

“And I don’t have a ‘catch but don’t kill’ flag so I just stuck down an ‘attack’ and ‘wait’ flag in the same place and they’re kind of stuck between the two and getting stressed out.  But it worked for them grabbing but not killing.  I can’t really tell one to do one thing and the other to do another, and if I put down more flags they can’t follow because of contradicting orders then they’ll either snap and eat the rats or they’ll both go quiet and let the rats go.”

I put up a hand to ease Ratcatcher.

“Let them both go then,” Ratcatcher said.  “I’ll cooperate.”

“No,” Tattletale said.  “We’ll figure this out.”

“They’re my friendth.  I trained them to use the litter boxth, and they bring me thnackth if I’m in bed and I don’t want to get up.  Ratthputin is my betht helper and Templeton is a cuddler.”

“Maybe-” Chicken Little started.

“Don’t cave,” Tattletale warned him.

“Maybe he wasn’t going to cave,” I said.  “If he has a suggestion let him think it through.  It’s his power.”

“I was going to cave,” Chicken said.

Tattletale extended a hand, as if to say ‘see?’.

Well fine, then.

“I’d rather not hurt people’s pets, and I did this because you were rushing me and telling me I had to do it now, I had to learn to think on the fly, and so I did, but now I’m doubting myself.”

“Don’t,” Tattletale said.  “You’re better than you think.”

Ratcatcher wrung her hands while Tattletale talked to her protege.  Her head turned, as if she was considering an escape route, then turned my way, looking me up and down.  As if she was considering an attack.

Fuck.

“Snuff?” I asked.  “Can you watch Ratcatcher?  I’ll help.”

Snuff left Chicken behind to take hold of the door.  I backed away, into the alley, then flew up to where the two hawks roosted on a length of pipe.

This felt weird to do.  I put my hands out, and I gingerly held the rat and the bird’s talon all together.

Feet like a fistful of knives, was that what Chicken Little had said?  Beaks like a sharp, fast moving knife.

With the other hand, I held the rat but not the talon.

“I’ve secured one of the rats.  Try releasing?” I asked.

“You’re sure?”

“I think so.”

I felt the animals move beneath my hands.  With one hand, I ensured a hawk didn’t let go or lose the rat.  With the other, I pulled a rat away.  I suspected they were as clean as any pet, but Ratcatcher was just far enough off the beaten path that I wasn’t ruling out fleas or other hygiene questions.  I was glad for the gloves I wore.

“And secure.  Back to what you were doing before.”

“Okay.  Done.”

I backed off.  One of the two roosting hawks had a rat pinned and gripped in talons.  I carried the other down to Ratcatcher.

“Thank you,” Ratcatcher said.  She lifted the rat up to her shoulder and adjusted her shirt collar so it served as a partial blanket.

Tattletale approached, and we entered the side door of the building, stepping into the hallway and letting the door close behind us.  Snuff and Chicken Little were left to wait outside.

“Where are we?” Tattletale asked.

“Rude messages were sent to the boss while she was drunk.  She doesn’t know if she sent them but it fits her prior behavior.  The messages came from her phone.  We hit a wall.”

“Phone and not computer?  Smart phone?”

Ratcatcher reached down to her pyjama legs, hiked them up, and then pulled checkered knee-high socks down.  The socks were pulled up around a phone, holding it snug to her calf.

“Why not use your pockets?” I asked.

“Running with thomething heavy in my pocketth is a good way to have my pantth fall down.  More comfortable for lying around.”

The phone was the kind that served as a hybrid between a flip-phone and a smartphone, oval and hinged at the top, with up to three ‘windows’ fanning out from the hinge.  Low resolution, and not much depth of color, which marked it as maybe ten years old.  The panes were scratched and the hinge had what looked like a splinter of a shell from a sunflower seed stuck in it.

“Counts as a computer.  Can I look?” Tattletale asked.

Ratcatcher touched the rat that clung to her neck and hid in her tangled hair without looking at it, then nodded, snapping the phone closed, opening it, pressing her thumb to the middle pane, and then handing it over.

“The messages line up to a time you got drunk?” I asked.

“Not thure, but wath it after five?”

“Yes,” Tattletale said.  “I found the first one.  Six p.m..”

“Then yeth.  I wait until five to drink.  They thay you’re thuppothed to wait until later in the day to drink.  That way you’re not an alcoholic.”

“What time do you get up?” I asked.

“Three or four?” Ratcatcher asked, like she was unsure and wanted my verification.

“In the afternoon?” I asked.

“Yep,” she said, with enough affirm in the affirmative that it felt like she was very satisfied the question when she’d asked me the time had some resolution.  “Thleep when I’m tired, eat when I’m hungry, walk when I’m rethtleth.  Annoy people when lonely.  If I’m hired I work the hours I work, thober.”

“Usually sober,” Tattletale murmured.

Ratcatcher considered, then shrugged and nodded.

Tattletale didn’t look up from the phone.  “Were you especially lonely a few weeks ago?  We’re trying to figure out if this was you or something bigger.”

“I have company,” Ratcatcher said, touching the rat at her neck again.

“I’m hearing that as a yes, you were lonely.”

Ratcatcher considered, then nodded again.  The body language was subtly different from the answer about whether she’d been sober.  Less carefree.

“And did you have a prior working history with Countenance?” Tattletale asked.

“This ithn’t fun,” Ratcatcher commented.

“Sorry,” I said.

She shrugged.  The rat stirred, moving around behind her neck to the other shoulder.  “No.  No hithtory.  I had a little bit of a cruth.  You know when you’re in a bad plathe and any boy with a nice voice and cute butt is nice to you, you get hopeth up?”

Not so much, I thought.

“And these messages, you thought about this sort of thing?” Tattletale asked.

“Doeth it matter?”

“We’re not sure you sent them,” I told her.  “People are going around messing with people.  Maybe something more insidious.”

Ratcatcher tilted her head to one side.  The rat perked up, reaching up to her ear.

“Nothing in the data,” Tattletale murmured.  “No weirdness in injections, outgoing data.  No patterns in the static, basically.  This stuff lines up with things you’ve thought before?  Or did it feel off?”

Ratcatcher motioned, and Tattletale handed her back the phone.  Ratcatcher slumped against the wall beside me, putting her rat in fairly close proximity to me.  She held it up so I could see too.

“Yeth, yeth, maybe, yeth, yeth…”

“Clarify?” Tatteltale asked.

Ratcatcher was busy scrolling.

“Uhh,” I said, “Go back?  Okay, so, opening prelude… rats mate more than once a minute, so even if he finishes quickly, he’d have a good thing going.”

“Pickup line,” Ratcatcher said.  “Yeth, thoundth like me.  There’th more.”

“Rat climaxes last five minutes-”

“-pretty thure it’th not true but thoundth good-”

“-which he might find fun, but if he doesn’t want to, ahem, take a rat to bed and attempt the physiologically impossible, he can take a girl instead.”

“Me.  Thatht the pickup line.  Thee?  I rate mythelf an honest three out of five and thay I’ll do thith, becauthe even a bad one ith pretty good, and then no thtringth attached-”

“Yeah, yeah, I get it, I see.”

“And thith part, we’ll thkip thith part, if that’th okay?  Personal.”

“Sure,” I said.  I cupped a hand to block my view of the phone while she scrolled.

“It still reads like you?” Tattletale asked.

“Yeth.  I don’t remember, but I thought about it a lot.  Even wrote thome but never thent them.  Until that night.  He rethpondth here,” she said.

I read it.  This is inappropriate, Ratcatcher.  Drink some water and rest.  We’ll talk about this tomorrow.

Pretty reasonable for a response to unsolicited texts in this vein at five in the morning.

“I apparently thent thome more, thith… leth me.”

Less her?

I read the texts, flinched, and looked away, which meant I was looking at Tattletale, who smirked.

“I thought you liked mice and rats,” I said.

“I do!  I wouldn’t do thomething like that, if you’ll reread it-”

“No thank you.”

“Thome guyth like thith thtuff.  I offer an alternative.  Rather than put a rat, thereth a potthibility of uthing a thnake inthtead.  Theemth more practical, you can hold on to the end of the tail.”

“Thank you for the mental image,” I said, averting my gaze from everything, while I tried to avert my ears from everything at the same time.

“Leth me.  Thnaketh are awful, they’re horrifying and they eat rodentth, but I don’t think I’d do that.  And I don’t think I’d keep texthting him unleth I was very, very drunk.”

“Okay,” Tattletale said.  “Good.”

“What do you think?” I asked her.

“I think I’m sixty percent certain this is weird.”

Only sixty percent?  I thought, raising an eyebrow.

“…In terms of the weirdness we’re investigating.  If it is weirdness we’re investigating and this isn’t a regular incident, then it’s a fifty percent chance that Ratcatcher here sent the first messages, and they sent everything after he responded to tell her to quit it.”

Ratcatcher reacted to that, head pulling back a bit.

“Otherwise, they fabricated it all.”

“You think that thomeone else thent thethe methageth?”

“Yes,” Tattletale said.  “There’s a very good chance that someone else sent these.  Tell me what happened after.”

“I went, they thaid to clean out my locker.  They were nithe about it.  Very polite but very careful.”

“Careful?” I asked.

“By the bookth.  Procedureth in plathe.”

“Has this sort of thing happened to you before?” I asked.

Ratcatcher shrugged, shook her head.   The shake was forceful enough that the bent portion of her mask flipped over to be bent the other way.  “But I’ve been in trouble before.  I get how it goeth.”

“But they’ve had trouble before,” Tattletale said.  “Countenance has.  There’s a history there and this attack was built to attack that weak point.”

“You sound pretty definitive at this point.  No percentages?”

Tattletale shook her head.  “I’m pretty darn sure.”

I looked over at Ratcatcher.  I tapped her phone at the hinge.  “This wasn’t you.”

“Hm,” She made a sound.  Her nose dropped.  “I’m not thure that maketh me feel better.”

“I get it,” I said.  “It’s invasive.  Violating.”

“No,” she said.  “I don’t care about that.  That’th the game we play.”

“It shouldn’t be,” I said.  “I prefer the good old days, when cape against cape fights wouldn’t dig any deeper than the surface level.  Costume against costume, no wounds that went beyond cuts, scrapes and bruises, unless they upped the ante first.”

“That’s stupid,” Tattletale said.  “Nothing’s surface level.  Our powers are intertwined with us, and we’re bringing all of our shit to the table when we go toe to toe with someone.  Pit your powers against their powers, and you’re digging into your own shit while they’re doing the same, going back to what used to be the worst day of your life, you’re flinging that shit.  To win your fights you need to know your enemy, but to do that you can’t stop at the surface.”

“We used to be able to.”

“We used to keep up a charade.”

“And while we were doing that no kids were getting chopped up into wriggling pieces!”

That seemed to give Tattletale pause.

“Point,” she said.

“Thank you.”

“But I think your take is a romantic, fragile one.  We can’t go back there.”

“Believe me, I’m coming to terms with that.  All I’m saying is I miss those days, and I’m going to respect anyone who holds themselves to those standards.  Holding back while doing what needs to be done.”

“I was never good at that,” Tattletale said.  “Surface level.  It’s a good way of putting it, but the tool I was handed is a backhoe.”

Her entire tone had changed, and… if I tracked backward in the conversation, it felt like it had turned around when I’d dropped the ‘wriggling pieces’ line.  Like she respected me more because I’d turned to using a backhoe.

I wasn’t sure I liked that.  That the only way to deal with her was to be an utter bitch.  Where did that take me in the long run?

“Thpeaking of romantic thuff,” Ratcatcher said.  She held up her phone, now all folded up.  “Thtarting with rat factth and ending with putting thnakes up boy’th pooperth-”

“Yeah,” I said.  “No.  No.  You need a friend to give you advice on crafting a better approach.”

“I had advithe from Rathtputin, Templeton, Duthty Rothe and Turnaround.”

“Your rats?”

“Rat, rat, mouse, and booze,” Tattletale clarified.  Ratcatcher nodded vigorously.

“But you guyth thtarted arguing and the thing ith, I don’t care about that thtuff.  I don’t do thecreth.  What thuckth ith that I’ve alwayth thtayed thurfathe level, like you thaid, and that’th why until today, I didn’t think anybody hated me that much.”

Always playing nice, and then someone turns around and delivers a low blow.

I couldn’t say the situation lined up perfectly with my own experiences… or maybe it was better to say that I couldn’t say it lined up perfectly with me, but I felt like we’d -collectively, pre-Gold Morning- tried, and we’d been dealt a low blow.

Part of that dealing had come from someone with a backhoe.

“Sorry,” I said.  “Hopefully our investigation will do something to clear your name.”

Ratcatcher shrugged.

“We should go,” Tattletale said.  “I’m thinking about things and I’m worried.”

I nodded.

“I’m free to go?” Ratcatcher asked.

“Be good, okay?” I told her.  “Whatever you were running from us for-”

“Petty theft,” Tattletale said.  “Grand theft.  Vandalism.  Criminal mischief.  Bit of a backslide since the regular thinker work dried up.”

“…Don’t do that,” I said, a little exasperated, staring past the holes in the paper mask at the eyes behind, wet, large, and guileless.

“Doeth it matter?  I wath being good and it didn’t help.  I had a good thing going and they came for me, attacking my not-tho-thterling reputation.”

“It matters,” I said.  “If not for yourself, do it for your pets.  They need someone to look after them.”

Ratcatcher shrugged.

Tattletale opened the door, and Ratcatcher rocked back, at the cold air.  Tattletale whistled and motioned.

Ratcatcher bent down to scoop up the rat that came bouncing along the floor, running up to her.  It shivered, possibly from shock as much as cold.

Tattletale let the door shut.  She leaned against the frame, arms in her coat pockets.

As Ratcatcher cupped her pet in her hands, I offered, “Do you want a hand?  Your place is next door.  But it’s cold, so I could fly you home, or-”

She was already shaking her head.  She turned away, walking down the hallway into the dimly lit recesses of the building.

“There’s an underground passage connecting buildings,” Tattletale said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Okay.”

“It’s better she’s gone.  I can fill you in.  We shouldn’t waste too much time, because I do think she sent initial messages and she was being watched closely enough that the moment she passed out or put her phone down, they were ready to pick up.  Which confirms that they’re watching you closely.  Us.  We.”

“Right,” I said.

“This was a multi-pronged attack, on Ratcatcher’s part, and I think yours would be too.”

“Pronged?”

“Ratcatcher isn’t the key target here,” Tattletale said.

I looked in the direction Ratcatcher went.  I wanted to go grab her by the arm, tell her.

“No,” Tattletale said.  “We’re better off if we keep this contained.  It shapes what they do next, and the less messy this is, the easier it is to get a sense of who we’re fighting.  I’ll be able to get a sense of them by how long it takes them to respond, how they move, where from.”

I felt uneasy at that, and it took me a second to articulate why.

“If you’re willing to keep her in the dark about particulars, are you doing the same thing to me?”

“As long as you stay more or less in my sight and avoid lying to me or giving me misinformation, I don’t need to.  But if we don’t resolve this soon, we’re going to have to part ways, because you have things to look after and so do I… and from that point I’m going to bullshit you.”

I frowned.

“Best you’re going to get, hon.”

“Sure,” I said.

“Ratcatcher was vulnerable and on the fringes, she made a certain kind of target.  But Countenance was the real focus, and he, I’m thinking, has a history of, how should I put it-”

“Rooftop liaisons?” I asked.

“No.  Hooking up with coworkers.  Maybe subordinates, maybe with messy end results, because any parahuman to parahuman interaction gets messy.”

“Some do,” I clarified.  “Some.  Maybe even most.”

“They all end in tears,” Tattletale said.  “And these moves our enemy is making are aimed at pushing things to rushed conclusions on that front.  They chip off anything that’s easy to chip at, and then they drive the chisel deep into the core elements.  Countenance is stable, trusted, and acts as the heart of his team.  This creates a seed of doubt.”

“And after this?”

“Sometime in the future, his past history with coworkers comes out.  A girl that he’s dating breaks away, another teammate, Effervescent, feels slighted.  She’s not the kind of person who would cheat on someone but she’ll be hurt she wasn’t even considered or flirted with.  It’s a schism that disrupts the team.”

And on our end, it’s Jessica?  Someone close to the Wardens?

“The fact we’re being watched means I want to keep a better eye on Chicken,” Tattletale said.  “Any questions you want to ask that you can’t ask in front of him?  Please tell me I don’t need to tell you what’s on and off the table.”

“I’m pretty sure I get it,” I said.  “We protect people besides Chicken, you know.”

“Yes,” Tattletale said, and I had a hard time identifying if she was being sincere.  “We’ll take steps.”

She pushed the door open.  We stepped out into the alley, where Chicken Little, Snuff, about twenty pigeons and crows and two hawks were perched on every available surface.

“Got what we needed.  That went exactly as planned, thank you, Chicken Little.”

Chicken Little hopped off his perch on a stack of construction materials and hurried to catch up as Tattletale headed straight for the neck of the alley.

So my guess was right.  She’d plotted that far ahead.  She’d looked to the future, but I didn’t have the sense now that she was focused on it now.  Her head turned periodically, and her eyes scanned windows and rooftops.

“What’s next?” Chicken Little asked.

“Big Picture,” Tattletale said.  “And while we’re on our way there, we’re shifting to a special kind of yellow alert.  I need you to reach out to your team.  They’re to contact the Undersiders, order an immediate blackout, phones off except for direct lines, no media, no radio, no internet, limit use of cameras, assume all systems are compromised and all outside information is untrustworthy.  Imp passes the message on to the Heartbroken, then goes to your headquarters and protects your team.  Foil and Parian pass it on to our intermediate contacts.  If they’re up for it, they should guard your headquarters too.  Once the message is sent, they blackout too.  That includes Lookout.”

Chicken Little looked my way.

I nodded.

“Why?” Chicken Little asked.

“It’s a vector of attack.  People can use those things to hurt any of us,” I told him.

“Okay.”

“Antares, do I need to state-”

“I’m calling Breakthrough,” I said.  I had my phone out already, and I started dialing as I finished the sentence.

We walked down the street, and with the flock of birds overhead, we were drawing some attention.  Whatever.  Past a certain point, I wasn’t sure it mattered.  Our enemies didn’t seem like they fit into that territory where they were confident enough to pull this off but so incapable of tracking us that the birds made the difference.

If this was Chicken Little’s normal pattern, then it was better if he acted normal.

The phone rang three times before it picked up.

“Sveta here.”

“Hey.  I’m with Tattletale, and something’s come up.  Any weirdness today?”

“Weirdness?  No.  Tristan’s coordinating with other big teams, Rain and I are in the middle of one of my control sessions.  Ashley’s bored so she went for a walk to buy some books.”

In the background, Chicken Little was talking on the phone.  He echoed my question about weirdness.

“Tattletale’s recommending a communications blackout.  In-person only,” I said.

“Master-stranger?” Sveta asked.

You go, Sveta.  You’ve been studying, woo!  “Yes, and you get big points for that one.  Avoid any electronic media or communications.  Keep an eye out for trouble.  Don’t trust anything that’s not face to face.”

“Should Tristan end his call?”

“As soon as is polite.”

“I’ll write him something,” Sveta said.  “I can write him things, I know this situation is serious, but I’m psyched.”

She sounded happy.

“Me too,” I said.  I was so glad she seemed happy and that just made me more worried.

“Fill us in soon,” Sveta said.

“Yeah.  We hope to have answers before dinnertime?” I made it a question, looking at Tattletale.  She nodded.  “Before dinner.  For now, just be safe.”

“What about Kenzie?”

“Chicken Little is calling her now.”

“Got it.”

I hung up.  Tattletale was studying me.

“What?”

She shook her head.

“Do you think the responses on the other end were faked?” I asked.

“I don’t think anything yet,” she said.  She glanced around.  “Nobody’s spying on us by usual means.  I’m wondering if it’s a machine.”

“A machine?”

Snuff reached the car first.  He pulled the door open for Tattletale, then for Chicken Little.  Me last.

“It feels like these gears turn slowly.  Inevitably.  If I was a person and I was putting together something this big and this dramatic, and if I was keeping an eye on the key players, I’d be taking action now, trying to ensure I was maintaining control.  I feel like a machine would be slower to process and adapt.  More sure of itself, maybe.”

Snuff pulled us out of the parking spot, as we were still belting in.

“Yes, uh huh, yep,” Chicken Little said.  He hung his head forward, as if he had no strength in his neck.  “Yep.  Got it.  Can I talk to Darlene?  You can make the calls.”

He paused.

“Hi,” he said.  “Look after her?  Keep her busy?  Maybe if she works in the workshop?”

Another pause.

“Thanks.  You’re the best.  Bye.”

He paused, then brought the phone down and found the button to hang up.

“Problem with Lookout?” I asked.

“Not a big thing,” he said.  “Was worried she’d freak out without the ability to stay in contact with everyone, so Darlene’s going to keep her company and keep her busy.”

“Makes sense,” I said.  “I know she has a few things she’s working on.”

“When I said I wanted to talk before, it’s kind of this.  Um.  If that’s okay?”

“Sure,” I said.

He reached up to his mask and undid clasps.  He lowered the round mask to his lap.  His face had bent bars molded to run along his face to his cheekbone and forehead, with parts jutting out where it connected to the mask.  He looked just a bit older than I’d been imagining him, his forehead creased in worry.  He folded his hands over his mask, and I shifted position to better face him, both of my hands at one of my knees.

Tattletale glanced back at the back seat of the car, noting the unmasking, but didn’t say anything.

“She’s a little… um, much,” Chicken Little said.

“She can be,” I said.

“And I say that when I hang out with the Heartbroken and a lot of them are much.  Different kinds.”

“Yep,” I said.

“It’s like… when I’m on the phone, there’s never a chance to hang up.  So I have to interrupt and hang up, and then I feel like the bad guy.  Or I ask for Darlene and I worry I’m being a manipulative bad guy.”

“She doesn’t see you as the bad guy, if that helps.”

“I know.  I mean, I know but I don’t feel, you know?”

“I feel you.  Yeah, absolutely.”

“And if I want to spend a while doing my own thing then she’s there, looking over my shoulder or sending me a message or saying hi.  And I like her but-”

“You resent her at the same time?”

“No,” Chicken Little said.  “But I see where I might be starting to or I might, soon, when the fun of everything being new with our team wears off.  And I don’t want to be that person who pushes her away too hard.  I don’t want to be that kind of person.”

“Most people don’t think about who they want to be except in the broadest strokes until they’re a bit older,” I said.  A teenager, but let’s not drive home how young you really are.  “Before that, it’s… big goals like wanting to be a superhero, or wanting to be an athlete.”

“I’ve had people bugging me about who I want to be and how I want to act since years ago, when I got my power,” Chicken Little said.  He rolled his eyes in an overdramatic way, before coming to a stop, looking at the back of Tattletale’s seat.

“Bugging you.  I’m glad my hard work is appreciated,” Tattletale said.  She was wearing sunglasses that lined up pretty well with the eyeholes of her mask.

“It is!  But it was a lot.  And can I talk to Antares like this?”

“Sure, sure,” Tattletale said.  She reached up and put earbuds in.  “Let’s not pretend you didn’t want me to hear that.”

“You too, Snuff?” I asked.

Chicken Little waited until Tattletale settled, listening to whatever it was she listened to.  Snuff had his headphones on, now, worn over his hood.  It made me nervous that I wasn’t sure how easily our driver could see or hear what was going on, but… better.

“I’ve been working with Darlene and Candy,” Chicken Little admitted.  “We take turns if she’s overwhelming us.  But Candy went to Aunt Rachel’s and it’s the two of us, and I dunno.  Is that manipulative?  Because I don’t want to be the manipulative kind of person either.”

“Does it come from a good place?” I asked.  “Or a hostile, bad place?”

“Good, I think?  But like, if she comes up to me and stands next to me then I feel like… no, stand a little further away?  And that’s not so good a place.”

“You’re wanting more space.”

“I feel greedy because I want a lot.  I’m a Master, right, you know how that works?”

“Yes,” I said, very seriously.  “I know that.”

“And we get our powers mostly from being alone or cut off or losing people.  And I lost everyone… and then I was taken in by Skitter way back in the day, and I barely remember those days, and I grew up with orphans, and we were total birds of a feather, you know?  That’s what we joked, after I had my trigger.”

“Makes sense.”

“And they left, and I got powers.  And after that, I was messed up, and Gold Morning messed me up more, with everyone moving in different directions, and Regent died before that, and he was fun, Skitter died during Gold Morning, even though she was kinda important to everyone, and Aunt Rachel is living way out in the middle of nowhere again, and… I was messed up.”

“All of us were, but I get what you mean.  Hit where it hurts?”

He nodded.  His forehead creased.  It reminded me a bit of Natalie.  “I kind of found my way to getting less messed up, and I grew up fast.  I’m a lot more mature than other boys my age.  It’s why I can mostly manage the Heartbroken.  That and experience.”

You’re not grown up all the way yet.

“Yeah.  You’re uniquely equipped,” I told him.  “You grew up with having them around.”

“Kind of.  But the thing is, I got advice and we decided figuring myself out meant figuring out how to be okay on my own.  Because if I couldn’t do that, then I’d always worry that I’d lose people and I’d be messed up again.”

“And you don’t feel like you can be okay on your own anymore?”

“It got backwards, and I feel like I can’t be alone to find my okay anymore.  And that’s not to say it isn’t nice to have them around and hang out, but it’s like it… there’s never the middle ground of okay in the middle.  Not with them, and especially not with Lookout.”

“It could be that you don’t find that tranquil sort of okay when you’re with people.  Sometimes I need to go do my thing and read or sort through files, or research, to find my okay.  Sometimes I can do that with people around, especially Tress or Swansong, sometimes I do it alone.”

“Tress or Swansong, but not Lookout?”

“No.  I adore Lookout, I respect her, but… it’s a rare moment.”

“What do I do?  Because she sends me like two hundred messages a day and she sends me messages last thing at night and first thing when she wakes up, and I feel like I could spend every minute of every day with her and she’d want more, and Darlene has told me she feels the same way, and-”

“I’ll talk to her.”

Chicken Little stopped.

“I’ll try.”

He deflated, apparently in relief.

The car passed through a tunnel.  Everything inside the vehicle went dark.  When we emerged, Chicken Little was putting his mask back on.

Somehow, I thought.  I have no idea how I’ll do this.

“She’s really cool,” he said.

“Yeah.  She really is.”

“She’s really stylish, in a very different way from the Heartbroken, and really fun, and when she gets excited about something I get excited too.”

“I’m really glad she’s connected with you guys.”

“I am too, but I feel like if things keep going like this, after she connected, I’m going to be the one to unconnect.  Or Darlene is, and I keep hearing about Darlene’s bad side but I’ve never seen it.  Or Candy is, and I feel like Candy would treat the problem like she treats a lot of things, like she’d use her power and try to fix it in one big obvious move that doesn’t really work.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

He nodded.

“She does this thing, you know, where she doesn’t smile when she’s happy.”

“Yeah,” I said, quiet.

“I had to tell Darlene that.  And Darlene went from giving her hugs when she smiled because she wanted to share that happiness to giving her hugs when she smiled because she needed a hug.”

“Perfect,” I said.

“Except we’re not sure what to do, now, so she’s been hugging her less and I’ve been thinking about taking a day off… and I was glad to be on a mission like this to get away, if I’m being super honest.”

“Yeah.”

“I know all the Heartbroken have rules and weirdness about how they behave, but I can either figure them out or I can deal.  But Kenz-Lookout is maybe the worst possible thing for my rules and weirdness, despite the fact I really like her a ton.”

I put a hand out, rubbing his shoulder.  “I’ll do what I can.”

“She talks about you guys a lot.  She misses you.  You, Ashley, and Chris.”

I nodded.

Tattletale cleared her throat.  Forewarning for the fact she was pulling an earbud out.  “We’re close.”

“Okay,” Chicken Little said.  “Thank you.”

There was a pause, as Tattletale put her earbud back in, then to me, he repeated, “Thank you.”

“Sure thing, C.L., thanks for being cool to my friend.”

The street didn’t have any parking, which delayed us.  The spot we did find was in an alley, without much room to maneuver.

While Chicken Little squeezed himself and his hawks out of the spot, Tattletale approached me, showing me her phone.

Messages with the address, and a follow up.  After a back and forth to hammer out the particulars of the meeting, the response from Countenance was that Big Picture was inviting us to his office, apparently, and he wouldn’t be wearing his mask or gear.

Downside: we had a very limited time when he was free and willing to talk.  If we wanted to talk to him later, we had to do it when he had free time around seven o’clock.  Which was past Tattletale’s self-imposed deadline.

Despite the fact the building was tall, the ride on the rickety low-cost, fast-install elevator with the chain running through a column in the center was a short one.  Up to the third floor, out of eight.

Big Picture’s studio was one without walls, barring the single closet and the entrance to the bathroom, which was disproportionately large and, as I passed it, riddled with bars, hangers, and clothes for both men and women.

Doubling as a change room, it seemed.

Big Picture was a photographer, and in his civilian guise, he was a tall, broad shouldered guy in a nice teal dress shirt, black slacks, and shined shoes.  His beard stubble was intentional and trimmed, and his gaze penetrating.

Walls and floor were poured concrete, and the livability of the space, which doubled as his apartment, was limited to a third of the bathroom, a counter with some kitchen appliances and a single oven burner, and a bed that jutted out from the wall above the desk, supported by two concrete pillars.  Each of the windows had three curtains, to allow varying levels of light.

That wasn’t really what caught my eye, so much.  There were high-quality pictures on every surface, and the expansive, expensive apartment had lots of surfaces.  All were large-scale, high resolution portraits, most of them full-body, some nude in the tasteful sense.  One of the pictures was Brio’s, the very same stylized image that would have been hung on the wall of Foresight’s headquarters.  This would be the guy who had taken those pictures for them to hang in their headquarters.

Roughly a quarter of the pictures were civilians or capes out of costume, a quarter were capes in costume, like Brio’s, and a full half of the people on the walls were case-fifty-threes.

“I know her,” Chicken Little said, pointing.

Chantilly.  The young Case Fifty-Three with skin cut like lace, forming a fabric around her, the intricately cut holes in her skin revealing raw flesh beneath.  She had been part of Faultline’s crew.

And I know of him, I thought, looking at Big Picture.

“I don’t have long, but if there’s information I can give, I’m happy to help,” he said.  He extended a hand to shake, and Tattletale shook it.  Chicken Little reached out to shake as well.  “I’m fine if you want to skip pleasantries and cut right to the chase.  You can call me L.J.”

I pretended not to notice the handshakes, and turned to look at the artwork, standing with my hands clasped behind my back, doing my best to deflect as innocently as I could without picking a fight or having to shake his hand.  Skipping pleasantries, in a way.

My eye found the ‘L.J.M.’ embossed in the corner of each.

Big Picture was the guy who’d admitted to Foresight that he’d done what he was accused of, so the character assassination angle seemed like it had flopped or… had gone by a route even more subtle than mine or Ratcatcher’s.

“You were going to be recruited by Foresight,” Tattletale said.

“I was.”

“What happened?”

“I was hired to help bring in Orchard.  I posed as a would-be customer.”

The name drew my attention, turned my head.

“You know them?” he asked.

“Yes,” Tattletale said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “They’ve come up in passing.”

“I don’t,” Chicken Little said, raising a hand.  Tattletale put a hand on his shoulder, and he lowered the hand.

“They made an art of turning people into… people of another kind of aesthetic.  Foresight and other teams are handling the remainder of the Orchard business,” he said.

“You posed as a customer, and… something went wrong?” Tattletale asked.

“I posed too well,” Big Picture said.  “Because of my work as a civilian and rogue, internet circles I traveled in, I knew the language, I knew names, I knew the kinds of people they associate with or the kinds of people who would associate with them.  It raised questions.  I brushed it off as having to do with my power.”

“But it wasn’t,” I said.  “You do associate with those people.  The kind of people who really, really like Case Fifty-Threes.”

I was being polite because Chicken Little was in the room.

I very much appreciate the beauty of Case Fifty-Threes, and other people with altered forms,” he said.  “Unique shapes, appearances, traces of memories or accents from worlds we may never discover.  But I want to stress that I think you’re putting me in the same category as people like Orchard’s customers, and that is not me.”

“But?” Tattletale asked.

No, not ‘but’, I thought.  That was not the follow-up I would have used.

“But I’d researched Orchard on my own, for reasons having nothing to do with wanting to take away another individual’s choice.  Because there was a period where I wanted to be one of them.”

He indicated with one hand, at where a print was mounted on the wall, of Gully, one of the west-coast Wards, if I was remembering right.  Hunched back, overbite, and muscles that seemed to weigh her down until she could barely stand.  In the art, she peered through dreadlocks with an eye that was framed to be bright and striking.

An old picture.  Sveta had remarked that Gully wasn’t around anymore.

“But you didn’t,” Tattletale said.

“I couldn’t come to terms with the risks.”

“They brainwashed people.  You were worried they’d brainwash you while you were at their mercy.”

“More or less,” he said, meeting Tattletale’s gaze with a level stare.

Fuck, this guy creeped me out.

“Foresight found out?”  Tattletale asked.

“They were tipped off.  They asked, and I was honest.  There was a brief misunderstanding where I was taken as a photographer of an… adult sort.  But that was never a focus.”

Sveta thinks you are, I thought.  And so do I.  I’ve seen pictures.

The only pictures that showed any excessive amount of skin were adults, both normal people and Case Fifty Threes, but I could see the darkness in Gully’s eye, and I could see the defensiveness in the lace-girl Chantilly’s picture.  Arms folded, body turned partially away, neck rigid and chin set.  It wasn’t a smiling picture.  Not a lot of them were.  There were a lot of dark, grainy backgrounds.

Gentle Giant was an adult, and the picture had him stand with his back to the camera, and by the look of it, he wasn’t standing tall, but bent forward, head ducked down slightly, his eye glancing over his shoulder in a wary or uncomfortable way.  Mottled, mossy skin, with bare back, buttocks, and the backs of his thighs.

Or was I seeing those things only because Sveta hated him so much that I felt obligated to?  Because the pictures, when they’d first come up on the scene and started popping up wherever Case Fifty-Threes were involved, were ones that Sveta had dissected while hanging out in the hospital room with me?

That Sveta had seen the feedback from people in her small, insular community, that they’d been paid handsomely for the photos, many of them desperately in need of that money, that the photographer hadn’t done anything wrong that they could put their finger on, and they’d still walked away uncomfortable and unhappy, then been unhappier still when the pictures started circulating in certain circles, and in some select cases, outraged when one picture in particular had taken off and saw the photographer indulging in his fifteen minutes of fame and his weeks of gallery showings.  There had been campaigns and outreach to other Case Fifty-Threes to warn them off.  But the money drew them in.

The discomfort and outrage had even extended to the way the tame, clothed images like Gully’s had been used.  Chantilly’s image being on the wall suggested he’d carried on after getting set up again, because it looked too recent to be pre-Gold-Morning.

I was trying to be fair, to extend a benefit of a doubt.  And I was groping beyond the point that there was a logical, empathetic, human rationale for what he did.  I was reaching more into the territory that pegged him as stupid, incapable of understanding that he’d wronged people, because the wrong could be the sort that was hard to grasp.

When in doubt, assume circumstances beyond their control, assume context.  When that failed, assume ignorance.  And even there, seeing how he’d done well, how he didn’t seem stupid or incapable, I couldn’t apply that label.  When that failed… I wasn’t sure.

He was exploitative.  The fact he wasn’t acknowledging the truly scummy side of Orchard was bothering me more.  Brainwashing?  The victims hadn’t been willing.

“Who tipped them off, and how?” Tattletale asked.

“I assumed it came from within, from internal background checks,” Big Picture said.  “It didn’t?”

“No.  I don’t think so.  You might have enemies,” Tattletale said.

“Oh, I definitely do.  It’s a very dramatic world, art,” he said.  He smiled, eyes crinkling a bit.

“If we go back to Foresight and ask, are you okay with them sharing?”  I asked.

“I’m not bothered.  I’m upfront about my art and where I come from.  We parted amicably, as I saw it.”

“Great,” I said.  My eyes scanned the pictures.  Even the innocent ones with warm smiles -mostly civilians or capes out of costume- left me feeling uncomfortable in my own skin.  I turned to Tattletale.  “We should go.”

“Is there a rush?” she asked, with a tenor or vibe that made me feel like she was jabbing at my jugular because I’d exposed too much throat.  Putting me on the spot.

I turned to Chicken Little, “Want to go wait outside?”

“Sure,” he said.

“Dirty move,” Tattletale said.  But she didn’t stop Chicken.

Chicken Little paused before leaving.  “Thank you for inviting us in.  They’re really good pictures.”

“Thank you,” Big Picture said.

“They’re dark, though.”

“They can be,” Big Picture said, turning to look at Gully’s picture, her head, face, and dreads seeming to emerge from the picture, out of darkness and into light.

“Do you want that darkness, along with wanting to be them?” Tattletale asked.

I was spared the continuation of the conversation by the ringing of my phone.  I put a hand on Chicken Little’s shoulder to guide him to the door of the studio as I put the phone to my ear.

Rain.

“What happened to the communication blackout?” I asked.

“Emergency,” he said.  “Weld came by to check in, I don’t even know what’s going on, but Tristan’s trying to handle it and he’s not having any luck, and now all hell is breaking loose.”

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