Interlude – 11.c

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Tattletale adjusted the disc.  The screen buzzed, flickered, showed the blue silhouettes of Antares’s group frozen mid-run, and then stuttered.  A blue line made a circuit around the perimeter of the disc a few times, accelerating as it went, before the entire thing winked out.

The words that popped up in blue weren’t pointed in a direction that Darlene could see.

“Signal lost,” Tattletale said.  “I guess Parian’s group found Love Lost.”

“Foil sounded confident that she could deal with her,” Capricorn said, his voice muffled by his helmet.

“She is very good at what she does,” Tattletale said, fiddling to tune the disc to another setting.  It looked mostly like static.  “She said she can do it, and I believe her.”

Darlene wasn’t sure why Tattletale had to do that.  It sounded so insincere, but it was the backhanded kind of insincere where she could use an eye roll or a simple denial to shrug it off if ever called on it.  Back when Darlene had turned five, Papa had been in a black mood for a while.  From what Samuel had said, Papa had wanted to collect Sidney Saile, the girl from Vancouver, and he failed.  That had been when Cherie had left and with Darlene’s mom being gone, she had no immediate family except Papa.

And Papa had had the black mood.  More casually cruel than he’d ever been.  Tempestuous.  She only dimly remembered those days, like a bad dream, but she remembered some.  She’d spent a long time having to worry about getting unlucky and having her dad single her out, out of twenty or so people, and a handful of people being kind of shitty.  After the black mood, it had changed to the point that it wasn’t about getting unlucky and being that one person in twenty.  It had been about being one of the ones who got out of the way and escaped his attention.  Everyone had been scared and shitty.

Her sister and some older ‘cousins’ had gone to school.  Cherie had.  It had seemed like a fairy tale.  The girls on television and in movies had gone to school and dreamed of being princesses and singers, even Sidney Saile had. Darlene had just dreamed of going to school.  So she’d begged.  She’d fought and even went on a hunger strike, until her dad made her eat until she was sick.

The compromise had been a homeschooling network and the homeschooling network had been Darlene’s introduction to the backhanded statements, the fake smiles, the two-facedness.  Mostly it was the dads and moms, but some of the other boys and girls had learned it too.

She felt now like she’d felt then.  There were dangerous people out there who wanted to hurt her and people she cared about, a black mood spread out among a few people, and even in her happier place people were shitting in the drinking water.

Tattletale briefly met Darlene’s eyes, her fingers still busy tapping and clicking at the disc, to go through channels and adjust settings.

Darlene felt the swell of Aiden’s chest as he puffed up a fraction, the little lean forward and up, like he had to push himself and stand a little taller to speak, and her full attention was on him before he even got the first word out.  She felt his expression like she felt his own, even though his mask was blank, a circular disc with a conical beak, two beady eyes, and the cock’s comb.  Eyebrows drawn together and up.  Her own moved to match.

“Are they okay?” he asked.

“No signal.  We won’t know until they’re clear of whatever it is that’s jamming it.”

“Can I take a look?  I’m more familiar with Lookout’s tech.” Capricorn asked.

“Be my guest,” Tattletale said.  She unstrapped the shield-like disc from her forearm.  She passed it to Capricorn, who strapped it to his own arm.

Capricorn was pretty cool, but in a bit of a Chevalier way.  He’d been a hero for a while, relatively speaking, and he was still around.  She couldn’t see or feel his face because the only one she was connected to right now was Aiden, so he had a cool mystique, with an emphasis on the ‘cool’.  His personality felt like it would be painted with shades of Samuel and Juliette.

Tress probably wasn’t taking the disc because her arms were artificial.  Her body was encased in armor, and that armor had connections at the shoulders and back that had two large arms, half of a neck and half of a face extending from them.  It was like she had a giant robot version of her, but it was only a quarter of the way there, and she was living like someone who had been chopped into pieces, moving forward by crawling with the overlarge arms.  Darlene could see Tress’s face, but it was harder to get a sense of her than it was with the helmeted Capricorn.

In this moment, though, Tress was easier to read.  Worried.

“Should we check on them?” Tress asked.

“Define ‘we’,” Tattletale said.  “These kids are in my care.”

“I’d go,” Juliette said.  “I’m old enough.”

Juliette stood off to one side, wearing a Velo-brand coat and turtleneck sweater that matched the texture and color of the wool cap she wore, her hands in her pockets.  Her hair was straight, her eye shadow blue, and her expression deadpan cold.  Amias was sitting on her shoulders, leaning forward in a way that pushed the hat slightly askew.  The only thing keeping Amias perched where he was was Amias, because Juliette wasn’t putting in much effort.

Tattletale shrugged.  “Sure.  We do need to have a conversation sometime about how you want rides places, you want clothes bought for you, which is kid treatment, but you want to be considered ‘old enough’.”

“It’s the benefit of being a teenager,” Juliette said, deadpan.

“Benefit of being the not-your-mom adult in the room?  I can say no.”

“Does being really good at helping out with the cape stuff help?” Juliette asked.  “I can kill someone if you need someone dead.”

“I want to see less people dead, not more,” Tattletale replied.

“I can promise to try to kill less people if I can keep getting the best of both worlds.  Rides, clothes, and missions.”

“You’re supposed to be Imp’s headache, not mine.  Let’s just get through tonight.”  Tattletale said.  Weary, she said, “We’ll talk to Imp about it, another time.”

“We shouldn’t split up any more than we already have,” Capricorn said, his voice quiet.  “Not when they’d be happy to catch some of us alone.”

He was clicking through the channels.  It was only static and blank images.

“Mm hmm,” Tattletale made a noise.

Darlene clasped her hands together, staring down at them.  Her focus, though, was on Aiden.

“I could say I’m going no matter what,” Aiden said.

We could,” Darlene added.

Aiden put out his hand.  It took her a second to realize she was supposed to give him a fist bump.  She did, glancing his way, then turned her eyes back to Tattletale as the hands made contact.  She could feel his hand, feel her own hand, and as he continued to move his hand, moved hers to mirror.  Fist bump to high-five to finger-wiggles to backwards-high five.  Their hands flipped around to a brief hand hold, her idea, then pulled away, tips of their middle fingers brushing against palm, then middle finger, bent just enough that they caught at the tips.  A small songbird was already flying down, perching on the outstretched fingers.  It peeped, wings spreading as it flapped dramatically without taking off.

Ninety-five percent of it without looking at each other.  Darlene broke into the silliest smile, and there was nothing anyone could say to make it budge.

Tattletale folded her arms.  “I have to admit, that was cool.”

Aiden was smiling behind his mask.  He puffed up like he did, chest out and forward, trying to stand straighter.  The bird on their fingers took off.

“How many tries did that take to pull off?”

“That was the first try,” Aiden said.  Darlene wanted to bounce on the spot, but that would have bugged Aiden, so she just clasped her hands together and let the nervous energy jitter through one leg, toe of her boot on the ground, heel bobbing rapidly up and down.

“It’s cool, don’t get me wrong-”

“Very,” Tress said.

Darlene’s hands, still clasped together, thumped against her upper chest, pressing against her collarbone, arms hugged against her body.

“It doesn’t mean you’re not going to get hurt if you get into a fight,” Tattletale said.

“If someone’s going to get hurt, and my friends are there, I have to be there,” Aiden said.  “I have to.”

“Do you know if it’s a danger?” Capricorn asked, quiet.  He dropped his left arm, the disc strapped to it, dark, and held a phone to his ear instead.  He turned to Tattletale.  “What does your power say?”

“Nothing clear,” Tattletale said.  “And I’m not taking a leadership position.  I’m taking a looking-after-the-junior-members position.  My power isn’t at your beck and call.”

Capricorn raised his hands, surrendering.  His phone was in one hand.  “Sveta?  Thoughts?”

“We need to help them if there’s a possibility of trouble.”

“I’m not sure.  Some radio silence is normal.  With tinkerings especially.  Except there’s nothing on the phone either.”

“Phones being down sometimes is normal too,” Aiden said.  “In most places.”

“True,” Capricorn said.  “But you can see where I’m worried.”

“I’m worried too,” Aiden said.  “That’s Candy, Roman, and Lookout out there.  They’re some of my favorite people.”

“Tch,” Juliette made a small sound, because Aiden had mentioned Roman.

Capricorn blurred.  His entire body and the blue armor he wore became just a little bit bigger, and where his eyes were, she could see a glow.  The glow faded last, as the blurring went away.

He cleared his throat, a little louder in that than he’d just been, talking quietly.

“There’s another option.  They’re out there, thirty to forty-five minutes away, something like that.”

“Less,” Tattletale said.

“But still a trip.  We have to get there.  So think, which of them are getting into trouble where our arrival decides things?  Are they running, and we show up in the nick of time?  Or are they better off with us moving forward, possibly winning, and creating a negotiating position.”

“Hostages?” Darlene asked.

“Hostages only work if Love Lost or March even care about what we’re doing here,” Capricorn said.  “I’m thinking that they want answers or people or something else.  We can get that here and change things there.”

“I vote for that,” Juliette said.

“Mmmm.  You were just talking about killing people,” Capricorn pointed out.  His finger tapped against his forearm, where his arms were folded.  He looked at Tattletale, “Is she trustworthy?”

“There’s no way for me to answer that question without causing problems or having more headaches later.”

“That’s kind of an answer on its own, isn’t it?” Tress asked.

“Is she trustworthy?” Capricorn asked Aiden.  “Not just for this vote.  If we’re doing anything, my team needs to know.”

“Juliette’s good at cape stuff,” Aiden said.  “She says she likes watching people die.  I’d say listen to her unless people might die.”

Qué chingados…” Capricorn muttered, looking at Tattletale for confirmation, which she didn’t give.  “Can’t be simple.”

Can’t be simple with Tattletale either, Darlene thought.  Tattletale had wanted to separate her and Aiden like she was separating Aiden and Lookout, until Darlene had made her argument in the car.  Her power made Aiden safer.  If Candy was the only one with Aiden then that would be bad in its own way, because Candy egged him on.  If none of the young Heartbroken were with Aiden, then the older Heartbroken would be, and very few of them were good role models… and Aiden would be worse off in the future, because there wasn’t going to be a time anytime soon where he wasn’t surrounded by the Vasils.

Tattletale had agreed, points for that.  But she’d wanted to separate them and Darlene would remember that for a while.

“The benefit of this is it’s simpler,” Tress said.  “Mobilizing is hard, and what happens if we go all the way there, communications are dead, and we can’t find them?”

“Good point.  What about you?  Your votes?” Capricorn asked.  He turned toward the group.

“Mine?  Ours?” Aiden asked.

“Sure.”

Darlene felt Aiden blink.  Felt him make those small actions that prepared him to speak like an adult to adults.

“My birds are here.  This looks like the kind of place where I can use them.  I don’t know if it’ll work wherever we end up.”

Darlene looked around.  The university was a lot of large, spacious buildings, with sloped concrete overhangs covering walkways, outdoor ampitheaters with stone stairs instead of seats that were now covered in snow, and second-, third-, and fourth-floor aboveground tunnels that extended between buildings.  Right now, they were among the dorms.  Cradle was said to be active on the other end.

She could see how the birds would be useful.

“Let’s stay,” Darlene said.

Capricorn nodded.  “Let’s move to a better position then.”

Tattletale was looking around, taking in information.  Tress walked forward on her hands, her ‘body’ barely touching the ground, Capricorn beside her.

It was nice that they’d asked instead of telling, and it was the best thing ever that the handshake had been a thing and that everyone thought it was cool.

She felt Aiden shift how he was walking, drawing closer.  She half-turned, realizing what he was doing, and met his three-quarters of a hug with one of her own, the two of them still walking, just now with one arm around each other and their heads close together.  Her forehead touched his hard mask, and the physical contact was more of a squish than anything, because they were wearing extra layers for the cold weather.  She was connected to him and she could feel him there, the extra squeeze of the hug he attempted, even though she didn’t feel one hundred percent of it on her end.

She took in a deep breath, happy, and she could smell the shampoo he wore and the birds he spent so much time around.  There had been a time a year ago when she hadn’t talked to him much, and she was still, as Imp put it, ‘understandably fucked in the head about certain things’.  Her best ideas of how to go forward with the feelings she already had about Aiden were from raw instinct, because Cherie was a bad big sister to look up to for that stuff, and Papa and ‘the women’ were a worse adult examples.

During that time a year ago, in her ‘fucked in the head’ phase, raw instinct had been to quietly hold her breath and only breathe in if he was close, anytime she was in his company.  Smelling him had mingled with the rush of having oxygen again and the dizzying feelings that swam through her.  He hadn’t noticed, because as much as her education in things had been a flood of too much, his had been too little.  Tattletale didn’t like anyone, Imp was discreet, Bitch was too far away, and his parents had died when he was little, so he could barely remember them or their relationship.  He didn’t even like any of the shows that would teach him the little things.

Maybe that fucked up phase had been a good thing, as tragically lame as it had been, and as much as her cousins had teased her once they realized she was doing it, with Aroa and Juliette getting in her way and Candy playing on the other team, trying to get Aiden closer.  If she hadn’t needed to push herself to get closer so she could breathe and not pass out or die, she might never have started talking to him.

And then she wouldn’t be warm, her face this close to him.

“Good job on the handshake,” Aiden whispered in her ear.

“I was just thinking I was so happy with how that worked.”

“I need to focus on my birds.  But you’re awesome.”

Darlene nodded, smiling.

Aiden broke away, leaving her with only the warmth on the one side, leeching away in the cold.  He put his arm out, and a trio of birds landed on it, each with the camera collars.  With his other hand, he had his phone out, and he thumbed his way through until his phone was displaying the view through the camera.

The birds took off.  The image on the phone screen became a whole lot of darkness with occasional flecks of white.  As the birds changed course, buildings came into view.

He turned her way.  His mask was expressionless, but she felt him smile.  She smiled back.

Tattletale walked at a certain distance away from the group, her phone out.  She pressed it to her ear.

“Which building was it that had the high power draw that made you think tinker?” Capricorn asked, quiet.  He’d changed back to his blue self.

Tattletale pressed a finger to her lips, shushing him.  She pointed, and Aiden sent out his birds in that direction.  The camera showed the view, and each tap of the screen rotated to another camera.  The images were too jarring at the outset, but settled as each bird found its perch on a different building.  One to the north, one to the west, and one to the south, focused on a building with black tiles all across the exterior, and the yellow-tinted solar windows that didn’t have much color to them in the gloom.

“I need more,” Tattletale said, still on the phone.  “Details?”

There was a pause.

“Details I can use,” Tattletale said.  Her voice was tense now, which got everyone’s attention.  “That’s not the point.”

“What happened?” Tress asked.

Tattletale pressed her finger to her lips again, clearly annoyed.  “If you don’t feel comfortable going after them alone, come here.  I’ll send you the address, keep your phone handy.”

Capricorn folded his arms.  The metal made noise as it brushed against more metal, and Tattletale inarticulately waved her arm in that direction, trying to gesture for him to be still and stop.

“We’re twenty-three minutes away.”

There was a pause.

“It doesn’t work that way.  Twenty-three minutes is twenty-three minutes.  You can’t say ‘I’ll be there in fifteen’ and make it happen.”  Tattletale waited, shifting her weight from foot to foot, her breath fogging as she sighed, her eyes rolling.  “Then I’ll expect you to turn up in twenty-three minutes, irritable because you weren’t here in fifteen.”

“Aunt Rachel,” Chicken Little said.

“She turned up at the meeting place.  The team got taken down.  Love Lost was where March was supposed to be.  No sign of March.  Because she’s here.”

“She overheard?  Saw something?  How do you know that?” Capricorn asked.

“I know.  The good thing is that March isn’t where Foil and Parian are.  The bad is that someone else is, and the people we’re up against are confident in their abilities.”

“A trap?”

“Yeah,” Tattletale said  “Right now, we’re surrounded.  Nine to ten parahumans and three unpowered are here, already in position.  One to three more are on their way here as reinforcements.”

“Aunt Rachel’s on her way here too, right?”

“Yeah,” Tattletale said.  “Battle mode.”

“We’re choosing fight over flight?” Capricorn asked.

“They won’t let us fly,” Tattletale said.  “Battle mode, I am not joking.”

Blue lights began to appear around Capricorn.  Tress shifted position, dropping to all fours and bracing against the ground while the long arms with the slender hands moved.  One provided some light cover to Aiden, Darlene, Juliette and Amias.

Darlene reached into her coat, pulling out a mask.  Imp had supplied them, and they were all built around a theme.  Darlene didn’t even remember Jean Paul, but apparently that was the style that they were matching to.

It made Imp happy, at least.  Darlene looked at her mask, which had silver forming a kind of tiara shape, extending up the nose across the forehead, and down the temples, where they curled around to the cheekbones.  The lips on the mask were silver, the eyes of the mask black.  She fixed her hair around it.

“We should get inside,” Tattletale said.  “Can you, Tress?”

“Yeah.  I can’t do narrow hallways, but if it’s an emergency, I can ditch these arms.”

“Can you ditch them now?” Tattletale asked.

“Let’s wait until they get in the way or slow us down,” Tress answered.

Inside.  The building at this area of the university was a concrete fixture that had a lot of stuff underground, based on the way it almost immediately had a four-times-normal -width set of stairs that went down, with stairs on the far left and right that went up to a higher level.  Artwork was mounted on the walls, people that Darlene was pretty sure she was supposed to recognize – a male scholar and a female scholar.  There were people inside, standing or sitting on stairs, and they reacted with alarm as they saw the gathered group, with Tattletale, Chicken Little, Tress, and Capricorn all in costume.

She supposed she, Juliette and Amias had masks, but Darlene had a hard time calling it costumes.  They weren’t costumes any more than normal clothes were costumes.  She had her nice coat, her velvet dress with the extra layers underneath, padding out the skirt portion, and black tights with silver-leaf pattern printed onto them.  Her shoes were another thing Imp had provided her.

Juliette’s mask had four eyes, two smaller ones beneath the main ones, and spikes that could reach straight back from the masks’s edges.  The spikes were on hinges, and didn’t actually reach directly back because the shape of her head didn’t let them, but it formed a distinct look.  Amias had been lowered to the ground, he had slipped his mask on, black with gold flecks and veins at the edges, blending in with black hair and the black toque.

“You should network,” Aiden whispered.

“I can connect us,” Darlene said, loud enough for the others to hear.  “Who wants in?  It lets us coordinate.  You saw the handshake.”

“Me,” Juliette said.

Darlene reached out, connected to Juliette, and felt the sensations bubble into existence- it wasn’t quite immediate, because background noise didn’t fill in, so it was only the parts that Juliette intentionally moved and the things that received new, less usual sensations that registered the sensations.  The feeling of the cold metal railing as Juliette slid her gloved hand down the length.

It was that ‘had to be prompted’ thing that kept Darlene from feeling things like Aiden’s private areas.  If and when a sensation stirred into her awareness, she politely ignored it.

Juliette knew the routine, and she moved and flexed everything in order, clenching hands, then feet, then forearms, calves, thighs, stretching-  Darlene locked in the sensations.

“Anyone else?”

“It’s that easy to connect?” Capricorn asked.  “What’s the upside?”

“Coordination,” Darlene said.  “We know exactly where each other are and what and how we’re doing.”

“Drawback?”

“It’s weird at first,” Aiden replied, quiet.  “But if you’re going to ask me the same thing you asked about Juliette, I trust Darlene.  I’d trust her with my life.  I trust her with this.”

Darlene’s hands drew together, clasping, then broke apart a moment later.  She didn’t know what to do with herself, hearing that.  The emotions inside her were a mess, everything a jumble.  She imagined that if he’d said something a little more, then she could have teared up or felt as warm as she ever had, depending on what it was he said.

But that was all he said, leaving her… flummoxed.  That was the word.

“So easy for you to say, huh?” Capricorn asked.

“Trust is earned,” Aiden said, and though he didn’t move his head, Darlene could feel the eyeballs slide against eyelid, turning Tattletale’s direction.  “Darlene earned it.”

“Dumb,” Juliette said.

Darlene wheeled on her cousin.  Juliette’s face was hidden by her mask, but even without the mask, even with Darlene able to feel every inch of Juliette’s face, forcing the sensations into being, she couldn’t feel the slightest of twitches or movements.

They reached the bottom of the stairs.  The base level of the building had the aroma of sweat, like gyms and pools did, and past them, rows and columns of lockers.  The group stayed together as much as they were able, as they filtered between the columns.

“Fire alarm,” Capricorn said, as they reached a central area, with hallways extending in every direction.   “Assuming they know where we are or that they’ll find out as soon as someone friendly to them passes on word, it gets the civilians clear.”

“They know where we are, don’t worry about that.  Pulling the alarm lets them know we know.”

“It gets civilians clear,” Capricorn said.  “Yes?”

“Yes.”

“That has to be worth it.”

“If you say so.”

He started forward, hesitating like he expected her to tell him not to, then with more confidence, he strode toward the little red plate on the wall.  He hauled down on the switch.

The ear-splitting noise was immediate, worse because she heard it with three sets of ears and each was positioned in a slightly different place in the group, because the building was all poured concrete, and the sound bounced around violently.

The group hurried forward.  Deeper into the building’s underbelly.

“We’re getting further from my birds.”

“It’s the best way right now,” Tattletale said.  “It makes us harder to track with tinkertech, and there aren’t security cameras down here.  Only employees with instructions to watch out and radio if there’s trouble.”

Tress spoke up.  She was making her way down the stairs, her hands out to the sides, sliding down the railings.  “If you don’t think it’s going to be a problem, and if it doesn’t affect my movements or yours, you could try connecting to me.  Don’t be-”

Darlene connected, missing outright on her first attempt, then aiming for the face and finding the connection there.

The others had been gradual, a handful of sensations at a time, as each body part made contact with something.  Tress felt like a hundred sensations at once.  Limbs as thin as pencils and as strong as small caliber gunshots were fumbling, reaching, thumping against her shell, and groping blindly for rings and switches, hauling back on cords, gripping those cords, tracing the seams of the hollow metal shell, and straining against bondage where metal bands cinched them together into groups, leaving them to rustle faintly against each other.  The longest groupings were extended out to and through the metal arms, where they strained and worked, providing a lot of the mechanical movement for the added limbs.

She felt Tress’s lips part, the words barely audible over the screech of the alarm.  “Oh wow.”

“You okay?” Capricorn asked.

Tress nodded.  “It’s… nostalgic.  The sensations of a normal body.”

“Connect me?” Capricorn asked.

Darlene threw out a hand in his direction.

Her head twisted to one side, as she tried to take in the sensations.  She’d expected a two-dimensional image and she got a three-dimensional one.

She’d felt a boy’s body, with her brothers and Aiden.  Capricorn felt like a man’s body, in a way that even Samuel didn’t, and Samuel was close to the same age.  Strong, burdened by armor, breath hot inside his helmet.  That was the Capricorn who was walking down the stairs.

Another Capricorn was overlapping that, frozen like a robot with the power switch thrown off, suspended and moving along with the Capricorn she saw.  Frozen as it was, she could feel the heat of the brain against the skull.

Here and there, feet and legs were moved instead of moving on their own.  Always maintaining a workable footing.

“Oh.  Shit,” Capricorn said.  “So that’s a thing.”

He sensed it too.  Part of the network.

“And Sveta’s… wow.”

“Don’t get lost in the network,” Aiden said, quiet.  “As neat as this always is, it’s supposed to help, not distract.”

“Good advice,” Tattletale chimed in.

“This is weird,” Capricorn said.  “Even putting the fact that my brother’s there, and Sveta’s- I’m getting new insights into Sveta.”

“Yeah,” Tress said.

“If you want to stop-” Darlene offered.

“No.  It’s just weird.  Even if I ignore that stuff… weird for other reasons.”

“You shouldn’t feel anything too weird,” Darlene said, defensive.

“You get used to it,” Chicken Little said.  He was probably happy to get to be the expert for a while.  “I grew up around powers, so I’m good at adapting to the little things.”

“Grew up,” Juliette said.  “You barely started.”

Aiden huffed.  Juliette laughed without making a sound, body shaking.  Darlene glared at her.

“Cretan and Lionwing are standing guard that way, probably with someone else.  Nursery, Lord of Loss, Blindside, any other prominent merc,” Tattletale said, indicating off to the left.  “We’re going that way.”

Opposite direction.  They picked up the pace.  The danger felt more real now, in a way that the fire alarms hadn’t driven home.

They made it about thirty feet before Tattletale stopped in her tracks.

Tattletale held up a hand for silence, which seemed insane, because the fire alarm was loud.  Hearing anything that wasn’t from someone a few feet away was impossible.

Tattletale turned at a right angle, a course that would have carried them even further from the entrance and the stairs that had led them down.

She didn’t actually walk forward.

“Cretan and Lionwing,” she said, pointing left.  She pointed forward.  “Case fifty-three, case fifty-three, and Contender.”

“Vulturehawk and Thud,” Tress said.  “Weld’s sources say they’re not from our Earth.  There’s a language barrier.”

“They’re here, in the building?”

“Yeah,” Tattletale said.  She pointed right.  “Cradle, Operator Red, two of March’s underlings.  We don’t know what those underlings do, either.”

“What if we go the way we came?”

“The rest of March’s group,” Tattletale said.

“You picked a shitty way to go,” Tress told her.

“I picked a good way.  We pick and choose which group we want to bust through as we make a run for it.  How strong are Thud and Vulturehawk?”

“Strong,” Sveta said.

“And Contender’s in that group.  If he catches us, then there’s nothing we can do, unless we’re willing to abandon one of our own.”

“As the person most likely to be abandoned, I vote no,” Juliette said.

“Let’s avoid the guy with the assumed chop-people-up tech,” Tattletale said.  “Let’s avoid March.  We’ll throw ourselves at the trained, efficient killers.”

“We can make them less trained and less efficient,” Juliette said.

Tattletale hung back.  She looked at Capricorn and Tress.

The two nodded.

“Let’s go.”

“You good with this?” Capricorn asked, his head turned toward the other half of the group.

“Yeah.  Good,” Chicken Little said.

Darlene nodded her agreement.

The group broke apart as they ran past more rows of lockers, each seated in sloped concrete pads, then reunited on the far side.  The lights of the underground space were both too bright when looked at and insufficient to light the whole area.

The fire alarm shut off.  The ringing in Darlene’s ears continued, the only sound other than huffed breaths and running footsteps on hard floor.

Lionwing and Cretan were there.  White and black armor, hers modeled with a griffon aesthetic, his modified with a bull, but no clear or obvious horns.

Always amazing to see when Tattletale is accurate, Darlene thought.

Cradle was there too, wearing a tinker’s outfit with a jacket.  The entrance was blocked with Cradle’s mech.  A tall man in a flowing costume stood with a flickering line held between his fingers, like a dart or card made of black energy, visible from only the edge.

“Paris,” Capricorn said, under his breath.

Cradle audibly snarled on seeing them.  “There they are.  The job.”

“Not without being paid,” Lionwing said, not budging.

“You’re aware Tattletale is a mastermind?  Why would we pull your pay in the middle of the job?  Do the task and you will get paid.”

Paris nodded, stepping forward.  The others hung back.

“Go,” Capricorn said.  “Go!”

They turned and ran.

A dart flew past them.  It cut into the base of one row of lockers.  Where it hit, it disintegrated.  The end of the row began to tip to one side, and as it fell, it brought the rest down.  The group was forced to shift direction, to avoid putting themselves in the way of lockers toppling like dominoes.  With Capricorn leading the way, they ran on the partially collapsed shelf, which was now more horizontal where it had been vertical.

“What the hell happened?” Tress asked.  “Tattletale!

“Someone fucked with my reading.  Two someones.  Your brilliant leader called the bank or something and the mercenaries aren’t getting paid.  Good is they’re pissed and we have less to deal with, bad is it fucked with my reading.”

“She did what we wanted to do,” Capricorn said.  “Each team tries to do their job, do what they can from their end to support the other teams.  You can’t blame her.”

“I’m not blaming.  I’m stating facts.  I can’t give accurate information if certain things aren’t communicated to me.”

“Phones and discs are down,” Capricorn said.

“I know!” Tattletale shouted.  “Can-”

Something detonated off to the side.  Darlene shrieked, hands going to her ears.  Her eyes went wide as she saw the shelving unit beside them starting to fall.

Tress caught it.  Except Paris was coming right up behind.  He threw one dart, and it penetrated Tress’ arm.  Where the dart hit, the arm began dissolving, spraying off pellets that dinged and pocked the lockers where it hit.

She twisted around, aiming the spray toward Paris, who ducked low and pulled his hood down over his head.  Disappearing around a corner.

“Sidepiece is coming,” Tattletale said.

“Whoever said that is lying!” Sidepiece called out.  “I was faking it!  Do you want to see the real thing?  Let me show you!”

Capricorn was drawing out blue motes.  As he heard that, he shifted position, until his body was almost touching the motes.

They turned to sprays of water, and that water banked off of his armor, spraying hard up and out.

Tress’s one intact arm caught him, keeping him from being bowled over by the force of the spray.

There was another explosion, way off to the side.  It took a second for Darlene to realize what had happened.  The spray had caught whatever was being thrown at them.

Sidepiece cackled.

Tattletale reached back, grabbing Amias’s hand to help him run.  They passed the initial row of lockers, moving to the center of the crossroads- routes lined with lockers, benches, and places to study extended in all four directions.

Darlene felt Juliette spin around, then go stock still, trembling.

“Tress, Capricorn!” she tried to shout and it came out almost as a screech, pointing.  “Hit him!”

Paris, emerging from a row of lockers, was now frozen mid-step.

Capricorn started forward, jogging in Paris’s direction, unaware.

“He can’t move while Juliette doesn’t!”

Capricorn picked up speed.

With a gauntlet, he slammed his fist into Paris’s ribs.  Paris didn’t budge, except to sway.

Another hit to the same spot.

Then, realizing he didn’t need to be efficient, that it was about doing damage to an opponent that couldn’t defend themselves, an uppercut to the jaw, with a gauntlet around his hand.

“Pull down the lockers!” Darlene cried out.

Capricorn touched the lockers.  Then he looked at Paris, and he hesitated.

Why?

“Tress!” Darlene tried.  “Juliette can’t run until he’s dealt with!  If she starts moving now then he’ll be right back after us!”

“No,” Capricorn said.

If he was going to say anything else, he was interrupted before he could.

Another detonation.  This one came with a flare of orange light that didn’t seem to make the area brighter, because the smoke that came with it obscured as much light as the fire created.

“They’re closing in,” Tattletale said.

Aiden reached into his jacket, retrieving two birds.  “I hope you two are warm enough.  You’re all I’ve got for now.”

The birds took off, circling around the group.

There were more coming.

“Cretan and Lionwing struck a deal,” Tattletale said.

“Can you say anything that isn’t about how this is getting worse?”

“We can go that way or that way,” Tattletale pointed.  “Any way that isn’t to Cradle or March.  The lines will be thinner.”

Fire barred one of the available ways.

Toward Operator Red, then?

“There’ll be only one or two at these exits, probably,” Tattletale said.

Sidepiece, darting in and out of cover, hurled something.

A lump of something meaty that splashed on impact, the stuff that splashed igniting a second after settling.

She hopped up to a metal bench above the flame, fingers tearing at her middle, and then turned-

Again, Darlene felt Juliette freeze.

She bolted forward.

“Birds!”

The birds flew with her.  She had to pick where she stepped carefully, because the ground was on fire, which made this a game of ‘the floor is lava’.  There were bags left behind by students fleeing on hearing the fire alarm, which was ironically not making noise while there was actual fire.

‘Sidepiece’, now that Darlene could see, was a woman built like an apple that had been eaten to the core.  Her hair was styled and her mask scary.  She looked like a zombie, except she was supposedly explosive.

She was also frozen, standing on a bench above a sea of fire.

Some people were immune to powers.  Most of the Heartbroken had some resistances to being controlled or having their emotions messed with.  Darlene was hoping that Sidepiece wasn’t immune to her own fire.

Hopping up onto bench surrounding a pillar, she had to jump onto a melting plastic cart, then onto the bench that was part of the row that Sidepiece was balanced on.

One arm around her face, to keep from breathing in the smoke, she shoved Sidepiece, and Sidepiece toppled.  The woman landed at the edge of the fire, her feet in the flames.

Veins and tendons stood out, her body rigid now, while Juliette continued to refuse to let her move.

She hopped down onto Sidepiece, one more stepping stone in this game of ‘lava’.

“Come on!” she shouted, her voice high.  “This way!”

The others followed.  Capricorn lagged behind, creating water.  Paris was dodging the water until-

Juliette turned around, freezing him.  Which released Sidepiece, who shrieked like she was being burned alive.

Which… fair.

Darlene stared down at the woman, watched her thrash.  Seeing her get on hands and knees, trying to rise, Darlene kicked, heel toward head.

Sidepiece ducked her head low, the heel hitting the back of her head, but not seeming to do much.  She’d hoped it would put Sidepiece back in the fire.

“You’re so fucked.  I’m going to fuck you up, you little fucking fucker!”  Sidepiece shouted, her voice raw.  She was trying to pat out the flame.

The birds harassed her, pecking and swooping.  One got her ear, tearing at it.

And in the background, the others weren’t catching up.

No, because Lionwing and Cretan were catching up.  And the Case Fifty-Threes.  The group had tried to go one way and they’d stopped.  They started to come her way, and Cretan used his power.

It was a wave, a pulse that rippled over everything.  Where it passed, things were bent.  Rows of lockers now turned at right angles, ground bent up, requiring climbing up a two-and-a-half-foot ledge, and off to Darlene’s left, a hole in the wall showed a tunnel, with a tiny version of Cretan upside down on the far side.

That tiny Cretan turned toward her, then began charging down the tunnel, swiftly growing larger.

No no no

Water gushed, aimed down the complete wrong direction, and yet somehow it passed into the tunnel, gushing in spirals and throwing the bull-costume mercenary around inside the confined space.  Some water sloshed out on Darlene’s side.

“-clidean space,” Tattletale was saying.

“Come!” Darlene shouted.

In the tunnel, there was a splash, as Cretan brought his fist down on the ceiling of the tunnel.

Another pulse.  Another ripple.

This time, there were walls and bends that obscured Darlene’s view of her team.  She could feel them, though.  They felt a normal distance away, even if her last glimpse of them seemed to put them in weird places.

Leaving her alone.  Separating her from them.  From Sidepiece, thankfully.  From the birds.  She could only hear the shouts and the chaos.

She turned around.

A man in red, with a white handprint on his mask.  He held a knife.

She wished she wasn’t wearing her own mask.  Maybe if she wasn’t, she could say or do something, pretend to be innocent.

The man threw a pair of handcuffs her way.  They slid on the floor, traveling in a straight line until they hit a weird bend, then slid left a short distance.

She bent down to pick them up.

“Cuff yourself to that bench.  If you use a power, I cut you where it hurts,” the man in red said.

She opened the cuff, looking at the serrated metal edge that allowed for the handcuff’s adjustments.

“I can’t stand being tied up,” she said.  “It makes me want to barf.”

“It has to be better than being hurt or dead.”

She shook her head.

“Don’t make me be an asshole,” he said.

“I just want to go back to my friends,” she told him, her voice small.  She could feel Capricorn being kicked hard.  Felt Aiden’s back slide against a surface as he tried to make himself small.  “They need me.”

“That’s exactly why I can’t let you do it,” the man said.

“Life has really, really sucked for a long time,” she told him.  “I finally have good things.  I have a boy I like.”

“Cuff yourself, then.”

She shook her head.  She had to swallow gorge to keep from coughing or vomiting into her mouth.  Just the idea of it brought her to that point, made her breathing uneasy.  “I’d lose my mind.”

Aiden noticed, turned her way, touching the wall.

Not that it helped.

She broke the connection.  The absence was palpable.

The man approached, knife held out, until it touched her throat.  She breathed hard, her eyes wide.

Was there even help coming?  Someone coming through the wall?  Aiden’s Aunt Rachel?

No.  Not this soon.  Even if she came in fifteen minutes like she’d said.

She created a connection to Operator.  Connecting her body to his.

The knife moved, touching where her jaw met her neck, and pressing in enough to split the skin.  It stung, and she saw him jump at the feeling.

She pushed the knife hand away, cut the power and punched for the balls- and he blocked her hand.  He wrenched her arm to one side, so she bent over-

And she reactivated the connection.  Let him feel that pain of arm being twisted backward.

Her foot had always had a quirk, where if she curled it in a crescent shape as hard as she could, it cramped hard.  She did that.

There was an element to things where it was sympathetic, and while it was sympathetic, he felt compelled to adjust his balance, move his own foot, to do something about the cramp.

She shifted her weight, shoving into him with all her weight.  He stumbled, still holding her arm above her, shoulder socket twisted nearly as far as it would go.  She forced the twist, reasserted the connection so he could feel it just as much as she did.

He released her, catching her by the neck instead.  He had the knife-

And she had her hands free.  She grabbed her finger with the hand that still had the cuffs, and she bent it backward until something gave.

The knife didn’t reach her throat.  It clattered to the floor and she was able to push and pull free of the hand that had her neck, the injured finger flaring with a pain that lanced to her funny bone and up to her shoulder, close to her throat, where the pain magnified the barfy feeling that had accumualted there.

She threw herself at the knife, curling around it.

He kicked her, more to get her off the knife than to hurt.

“I was going to go easy on you because you’re a little kid, but-”

She bit her tongue, hard.

It shut him up, startled him.  An opportunity for her to take the knife she’d grabbed and swing it madly in his direction.

Except he knew what he was doing.  On her second swing, he slapped at her wrist, and her hand went numb.  The knife clattered from it.

A blow to the temple, and her vision went fuzzy in one eye, the other seeing double, like all the vision in one eye had been shoved into the other.

“I can do things other than hurt you,” he said, growling.

She brought the handcuffs down with her other hand, relying on her sense of him.  She was too slow to disable her power, so she felt the initial connection, where the blunt point and serrated edge caught him in the wrist, gouging.  She fell as much as she pulled down, and the thing was hauled in deeper.  A fishhook set.

With a hand with one broken or badly hurt finger, she hung onto the cuffs, the rest of her reaching own, groping for the blade.

He kicked her, along the lower half of her body, and the pain was immense, jolting through her.  He’d hit her in the back, near the spine.  She knew he felt it, just as much as she felt the injury at the wrist for as long as her power was active.

Her fingers found the knife, touched it, made it spin instead of grabbing it.

She kicked up, toward the balls.  He blocked it again, but took the momentum out of the kick more than he stopped it entirely.  It made him bend over slightly, and that gave her the chance to pick up the knife.

Still hanging down, pulling on the cuffs where they were embedded in flesh, because relaxing it would mean he could pull the cuffs out, she swung wildly with the knife, aiming at the only flesh in reach- the back of the arm she was pulling down on.  Four wild strokes, and she’d turned flesh there into thick ribbons, blood pouring down to the ground.

“You-”

She bit her tongue again, hard.  Every part of her was tense, rigid, trembling, straining, and her face mid-bite was no different.

He hurled his mass and her mass around in a quarter-circle, screaming as he did it, because he was pulling on the cuffs and making the damage worse, but in the doing, he created an opening where he could grab her hand and peel it away from the chain of the cuffs.

She reasserted the connection as she picked herself up.

She knew exactly what he was doing as he did it.  Her movements weren’t as eerily efficient as his, but they were informed.  On the occasions where it did look like he’d catch her, she used her power, so he felt it too.

She took an opportunity to cut him, and that was the point he stepped back, panting, bleeding, and drew two more knives.

She still couldn’t see in the one eye, one ear was ringing, the other eye was seeing double, and her back hurt, where he’d somehow hit her and made the organs hurt.  Not just one, but multiple ones, the pain radiating through.

He lunged, and she dodged.  He swung downward, and she reached up, both of her hands gripping the handle of her one knife, to provide the strength that, combined with the rush of danger, almost let her match the strength of a grown man using one arm.  Her knees bent as she tried to keep the knife from coming down, she felt him get ready to stab with the other knife, and let her hand slip.

The hand came away from the handle and found wrist.  She dug fingers into the wound, making him drop the knife, then brought her blade away from where it had been holding him at guard, matching his swing with hers.  The knife ran along knuckles.

She’d aimed for fingers, hoped to chop them off, but the knife wasn’t an extension of her or her power.  Had she used her fingernails, she knew she could have gotten them exactly where she wanted them, respective to her opponent.

This wasn’t the only time her mood had turned this black.

“Nobody’s taking them from me.  I have a family, a job, and things I want to do.”

“I’m-”

She bit her tongue.  She tasted blood.

“-mrg,” he said.  “Stop that.”

She lunged for him, scrambled to get away from one swung, lunged point-first for another.  On attack, her power was off.  On defense, it was on, ensuring that she knew his every move, she could deflect, absorb, reduce the impact, and when she felt anything, he did too.

She didn’t stop.  Her assault was on his legs and his footing.  Cutting his thighs.  Swiping for his groin.

A glancing blow, a knife sinking into her upper arm.  The sympathetic feeling of the pain weakened his grip on the weapon.  She twisted back, pulling it out of his reach.  When he reached again, she kept twisting.  Always keeping that horrible pain away from the fingertips she could feel just as much as she could feel her own.

He took a step back, and she felt the thigh muscle flare with pain and fail to provide the strength in the same moment he did.  She closed the distance, driving the knife into his belly.

Her face against his collarbone, she withdrew the knife and stabbed again and again, then dropped to her knees, just to get the knife handle to a place where he couldn’t grip it and pull it from her arm.  His fingertips touched the handle, but didn’t come close to gripping it.

He struck her across the face, instead.  This time, she was rendered entirely blind, her head full of noise and pain.

The Operator slumped to the ground, and she felt everything, felt the blood welling out, sticky between fabric and skin.  She knew he felt the pain and noise in the head that she experienced, and she felt it was fair.  Fair that he had to experience the kind of thing he’d done to others.

She wished she had a good quip.  The others were better at it.

“I’m Heartbreaker’s kid,” she said.  “I’m not as powerful, but I’m better, because he was horrible.  You shouldn’t have fought me.  That was stupid.”

He wore a mask, and she could feel him gasping and gawping, a fish on dry land, his hands at the portion of his stomach where he had multiple stab wounds.

She reached for his mask, to pull it off.  He shook his head, refusing.

She stabbed him a few more times, trying to hurry him along his way.  It didn’t really work.

She turned away, instead.

The others- she pushed out with her power, trying to get it through the wall.

Sidepiece.  Sitting with her back to a wall.  She banished the power as soon as she realized who it was.  Another direction.

Aiden.

She felt Aiden’s alarm and agitation as he realized she was hurt.  He touched his arm.

She cut off the connection and looked down at the knife at the spot he’d indicated.

Darlene had spent enough time around Roman to know the particulars about stabbing people.  Pulling things from stab wounds made it worse, not better.  Though she wasn’t sure it really was better, here.  There wasn’t much there at her upper arm, with it being as skinny as it was, and the knife kind of bobbed and dangled where she moved wrong.

“Darlene’s hurt!” Aiden called out.

She pushed out.  She found Capricorn, crawling across the floor.

Everyone was separated from everyone else.

“I’m sending birds!  I’m going to try to reach you!” Aiden called out.

She looked, groping for openings.  The floor had turned up at a right angle and nearly met the ceiling now.  She set to climbing up, as best as she could with two feet and one arm.  A bench had turned up at a right angle too.  Her starting point.

She reached over the top, where there was a foot of gap, and a bird touched her fingers.

“Take me to him,” she said, before she started squeezing herself through.  The English phrase ‘stick out like a sore thumb’ kind of applied, since she had a knife sticking out of her, and a narrow space to fit through.  She did her best, her arm draped across her front, right hand by her left hip, wriggling through, groping for handholds on the far side.

A labyrinth.  She felt out with her power.  Found the Cretan.  The Minotaur that was making this maze.  He moved so quickly through it that it seemed impossible, though it was possible he was undoing the effect as necessary.  His head turned her way.

The power that let her find people also let them find her.  She had to be careful.

Forward, forward-

Into the L-shaped space that Capricorn was in.  She dropped down, and her legs were so shaky she landed on her rear end.

“Creating handholds,” Capricorn said.

She nodded, tense.

“You’re hurt.”

“So are you,” she said.

He was in two pieces.  The legs were twitching.  The upper body, lying on its back, was creating orange lights.

He didn’t respond, didn’t elaborate.  Didn’t say he was okay or not okay.

She felt out with her power, establishing a connection.  She felt his body, in two pieces.  The other side of him was intact, waiting.

“That’ll have to be good enough.  I’m not-” he groaned, a strangled sound.

He blurred, trying to change back.  It was a torturous thing, the blur reaching out, groping, trying to connect, to meet the two halves.

She reached for him, grabbing the lower half, and dragged it closer by inches.

Unnecessary.  It just took time.

Capricorn with the blue armor, now.  Intact.  With her power, she felt the two separated parts, floating superimposed around him.

“Climb.  I’ll follow.  I may have to lose my armor so this doesn’t break under my weight.”

She climbed.  She could follow orders when important.

“You kids are scary,” he said.

“Yes,” she murmured.  “We have to be.”

She climbed, one hand and two feet, the other hand more a guide to remind herself where she was.

On higher ground, she had a vantage point of more of the battlefield, below raised walls, around bends.  The tunnels that seemed to magnify and shrink.

The Cretan crashed down near Sveta.  She struck at him with a gauntlet.

And Tattletale-

She saw Tattletale backing up until she was out of sight and hurried forward.  Aiden was rarely far from Tattletale.

“I’m not a part of this.  I’m keeping half of an eye on the kids,” Tattletale was saying.  “You don’t want to go this far.”

Though unable to see Tattletale, Darlene could see Cradle, holding a glowing red whip.

“I have to,” was the response.

She heard the impact, a sound like the whole universe was gasping for breath.

Again, she heard the sound.  This time, it struck a wall, carved it away like it was butter.

The wall fell away, and Cradle advanced, head low, passing between the four segments of Tattletale,

“Cradle- the most intact part of Tattletale said.  “You have a mole.  Someone who tipped you off.”

“Learn your own lessons.  Mercenaries follow the highest bidder,” Cradle said.

Darlene pushed out, connecting herself to Tattletale- to someone who had been carved into quarters and felt it.  Then to Cradle.  To stop him, to stall.

But that was all she could do.  She watched as he found his bearings, straightened, and ended further discussion with a stomp of his boot vicious enough to mute out Darlene’s connection to Tattletale.

The whip flared as he cracked it, turning toward her.

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Interlude – 11.b

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Two Hours Ago

Colt winced as Love Lost threw a gun at Nailbiter with no apparent intent to make it a gentle or careful throw.  It wasn’t because of anger, but because she trusted Nailbiter to handle it.  Nailbiter extended a finger to thread the trigger-guard, before using an overlong finger to slap the gun into her waiting left hand.

Nailbiter seemed to consider for a moment, dark eyes catching all of the lights as she looked down at the lump of metal.  She gripped it by the barrel and held it out toward Nursery.

“Oh no,” Nursery said.  “I don’t believe in guns.  I have to be a good example, you know.”

Lord of Loss chuckled.

They were gathered outdoors, with members of the gang coming and going.  Some weapons, some food, multiple cars being loaded up, gassed up with plastic jugs.  Breath fogged in the air, except for those who didn’t apparently breathe.  Lord of Loss was one.

Colt, Love Lost, and Nailbiter were standing near the door, with Nailbiter taking things as they were handed to her, or pointing when someone held something up for her, designating a vehicle.  Lord of Loss, Spruce, Nursery, and Unbound were standing off to one side, the latter three wearing their winterized costumes.

The rest of the group was already by one vehicle.  The powered didn’t have to carry or haul.  Colt wasn’t being asked to carry or haul, but that wasn’t a good thing.

“Keep the peace at the Lyme Center,” Nailbiter addressed the mercenaries.  Colt barely noticed the whistling ‘s’ sounds anymore.  “One or two of you can wait there.  It won’t need attention unless someone gets stupid.  Picks a fight, gets drunk, doesn’t matter.”

“What kind of response do you want?” Lord of Loss asked.

Love Lost paused, meeting Nailbiter’s eyes.

Nailbiter supplied the answer.  “Dramatic, but not dramatically violent.  These people are ours.  If you act and use powers, mention our names.”

“Then we’ll put Spruce there.  He’s used to keeping order,” Lord of Loss said.

“And he’s bounding back from the flu, poor dear,” Nursery said.  “It’s good if he’s somewhere warm.”

“Don’t tell them that,” Spruce said.  “I’m well enough for whatever needs doing.  I can keep things calm, resolve disputes.  When you say mention your names, I should say, hm, ‘Love Lost wouldn’t want this’?”

Love Lost nodded, a firm motion.  Her heels clicked and scraped on the floor as she took something one of the henchmen had brought from upstairs.  A belt that sat askew on her hips.  A rigging of claw-work and thin metal bars that formed a half-circle around her upper arm, reaching almost to the shoulder.  It took a second of work to get the  rigging to attach to the existing work that reached her elbow.

She made a motion with her arm.  The claw that was attached to her hand swept in a half-circle, slapping into place at the upper arm, while the configuration of bars and blades at her bicep slapped into place over waiting forearm, hand, and fingers.  She made a backhand motion, and the new, smaller set of claws uncoiled like five slinkies, with a sound like a hundred tiny swords being drawn from their sheaths, then sheathed again as they returned to their normal claw shape.

Cool.  Scary but cool.

Or was it scary- cool but scary?  Colt wasn’t sure.  She wasn’t in Love Lost’s graces and that was a problem.  Love Lost disposed of problems.

“Only the one?” Nailbiter asked.

Love Lost tapped her wrist, claw-blade striking metal bars there.

“What’s she mean?” the mercenary in orange asked.

“No time to get the second one done,” Nailbiter told him, keeping her eyes on Love Lost.  No disagreement there, Colt noted.

But Love Lost did tap her wrist again.

“And we should go,” Nailbiter said.  Love Lost nodded, firm once again.  “Those of you who aren’t at the Lyme center, keep an eye on our place.  Cradle thinks they’ll come for us.  If they do, we want them to find you instead.  Protect our headquarters.  Don’t mess around there.  It’s trapped.”

“We can guard it,” the giant shell of a man said.

“I could add my own traps,” Nursery said.  “If they get close I’ll know where they are.  If they get too close, my baby can pacify them.”

Love Lost gave the go-ahead to Nailbiter.

“The stairwell,” Nailbiter said.

“Enclosed spaces.  Anything I can seal shut, without the power leaking out.  I was thinking of the refrigerator.”

“It’s a pantry under the stairs.  I’ll show you,” Nailbiter said.

Love Lost held the door open for Nursery, then followed her in.

“Or she will.  She knows where all of the traps are,” Nailbiter said.

Colt felt intimidated, surrounded by the people who were here.  Lord of Loss was huge, and had a big personality.  The other mercenary had quality, and the thugs they’d chosen to surround themselves with were big enforcer types, like they’d taken their pick of the largest five percent of guys from over in Earth N.

Colt’s dad had once said that he liked people who surrounded themselves with smart people, because they weren’t insecure.  It was the same thing here.  They surrounded themselves with big, strong guys and they didn’t look any less powerful in comparison, even though Spruce was a skinny guy and Nursery was barely any taller than Colt was.

It was uncomfortable, thinking about her dad.

On her side, Nailbiter was skinny, even rangy, and Colt liked that last word because it made her think of the range, of steer and cattle and that thought made her think of beef jerky.  Love Lost was lithe like a jungle cat, and some people were like that.  Beast of Burden had had that bullish quality to him, even when unarmored.  But Nailbiter?  Nailbiter was less beef and more jerky.  Salt and grit in personality and quality, everything in her condensed down, her hair dried up with bleach and her brown skin abraded here and there, lips chapped or scraped up with the nails, a cut on one eyelid.

“Sidepiece,” Nailbiter called out.  Sidepiece was sitting on the hood of a running car.  Disjoint leaned against the edge of the hood, feet on the ground and back to his girlfriend, and had Sidepiece’s legs pressed against his arms, knees by his shoulders, while she did something with his hair.  They were casual, even lovey-dovey, while Kitchen Sink and Hookline stood by, stiff and looking like kicked dogs.  Hookline had one hand at the elbow of his other arm, head down, while Kitchen Sink had his arms folded, shoulders drawn forward.

In the same doghouse as me, Colt reminded herself.

“What do you want?” Sidepiece asked.

“Show the mercenaries around.  Key areas.”

“There’s not much,” Sidepiece protested.

Nailbiter’s already hard expression took on a harder cast.

Rolling her eyes so hard that her head moved with it, Sidepiece disengaged from her boyfriend and hopped down.

“Thank you,” Nailbiter said, to Sidepiece and Disjoint.  Her smile was all nails and one screw.  Sidepiece gave her another eye roll.

Leaving Nailbiter and Colt alone.  Well, alone except for the people who were loading up trucks with basic supplies

Fuck, Colt thought.  That was on purpose.  It was cold, and the chill that came over her made her feel even colder.  Nailbiter still had the gun.

“What are you going to do?” Nailbiter asked.

“Do I even have a choice?” Colt asked.

“If you did, what would you do?” the woman asked her.

Colt shivered, jamming her hands in her pocket, ducking her head down.  “I don’t know.”

“You need to know,” Nailbiter said.  “I’m sure you can guess why Sidepiece isn’t asked to watch you.  You’re not that stupid.”

Colt shook her head.  Her hair was a mess and she couldn’t bring herself to fix it.

“Disjoint handles it sometimes.  Love Lost sometimes,” Nailbiter said.  “But it’s usually me.  Do you know why?”

“Because you’re the one who’s going to kill me, if she decides it needs to be done.  The others aren’t reliable for that kind of thing.”

There wasn’t an immediate response.  Trunks and car doors slammed.  Some men turned to give Nailbiter a thumbs up.  She responded with a motion of her hand.

“We talked about it,” Nailbiter said.  “She draws the line at a certain age.  You’re over it.  The question is if you’re a kid.”

Colt’s first attempt at speaking failed.  When she tried again, her voice was closer to being a whistle or hiss in Nailbiter’s voice than a normal person’s voice would be.  “And?”

“And I want to know what you’re doing right here, right now.  Are you coming here?  Are you staying behind, making sure the errands are done and dinner is made, being careful not to open the wrong cabinets?”

Colt swallowed hard, looking through the open door to where Nursery was crouched by the pantry under the stairs.

“Very careful,” Nailbiter said, amending her statement.  “Or are you going to run and try to go home?”

“I know too much.  You’d catch me.”

“If that wasn’t a consideration?” Nailbiter asked.  She turned her face toward Colt, her eyes dark, her teeth frozen from where moisture of her breath had gathered on nails and formed an ice coating.

“I don’t know.”

Nailbiter’s expression changed, a snarl without a sound to it, and Colt dropped her eyes.

“We were the bastard children, my sister and I,” Nailbiter said.  “Our daddies passed through town and they didn’t know it, but they left our ma with child.  School was a suggestion, and I fucking hated and hate it when people suggest I do anything.  You hear me?”

Colt nodded, not sure why this tangent had come up, but it was better than talking about execution.

“I was young enough that I’d just grown in my adult teeth when my face got caved in by a boy from town, five years older than me and he got most of those teeth.  He said I picked the fight with him, I fell and bit the curb by my own clumsiness.  They took his word for it.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You had nothing to do with it.  Thing is, times were changing.  Powers meant an awful lot of people with causes were getting the ability to make themselves heard.  My sister and I, we heard people were commemorating the anniversary of one of those people getting arrested.  Lustrum.  You know her?”

Colt shook her head.

“Kids aren’t getting educations in what’s important, these days.  She stood up for women when they needed it and she was put in a hole forever as punishment.  What her followers were saying sounded good, ‘cuz I was angry at my daddy that I’d never seen and would never know if I saw him, and I was angry at the boys in town, and the people who let those boys be the boys they were.  We joined up.  Not that different from this.  We had a good role model in Lustrum.  Nothing better than a martyr, you hear?”

“Did you get your teeth fixed?”

Nailbiter smirked, showing her teeth.  The smirk distorted slightly because her lips stuck to the metal where it was cold.  “Stupidest question I’ve heard from you yet.  You can see the fix.  Third go I’ve made at it.”

Colt swallowed and nodded.

“We split up.  I tried the sapphic shit and nah.  My sister had a relationship that turned into a ball of drama that was bleeding into everything else in the group, so we moved on.  Stayed with our friends in that group.  We were on the road, half the group making music and the rest of us robbing the occasional asshole to make ends meet.    We realized we were a stone’s throw away from our hometown.  Our mama was gone.  Dead.”

“I’m sor- that fucking sucks.”

“It did.  It does.  But the boy who caved my face in wasn’t dead or gone.  We tracked him down.  Caught him drunk and alone.  Decided we’d corner him, I’d fight him.  Get my own.”

“Did you?”

“I wasn’t strong enough.  I blame being vegan and eating a meal every other day, looking back, but I didn’t think about that then.  I just knew I was hitting him and he wasn’t hurting.”

“If he was drunk, that’d be part of it, right?”

“I didn’t know that either.  I thought it’d make him sloppy.  He managed to land a hit and it hurt me enough that the others all jumped to my side and he was able to run for it.  I came to, realized what was up, and couldn’t sort it out in my head.  A couple years then of thinking we were invincible, I was strong, we had the answers.  The thoughts in my head twisted up in my stomach and in all that twisting, I came out different.  I had a cause of my own and it was getting my brand of justice.  Him.  The people giving him pats on the back the same time my jaw was getting wired shut, because I was just a bastard fucking child with a slut mom…”

Nailbiter drew in a sharp breath, the sound hissing through teeth.

“I kept going after that.  I thought about pulling out his entrails.  Felt too tidy.  So I clawed out his eyes and lanced his eardrums.”

Colt couldn’t bring herself to answer.  Nailbiter was staring off into space.  Reminiscing.  There was no joy in the expression, no sadness.

Worse, Colt decided.

“I did what I’d dreamed of, and it wasn’t enough.  So I did similar things to people similar to Noah, then ‘similar’ started to mean less.  Sister pulled away, said it was too much.  One by one, the rest of the group fell away.  I had the cause, I had someone to look up to.”

“Lustrum?”

“Yeah.  When you go to the Birdcage, Colt, they sort you out.  Put birds of a feather together.  I was one of a few prisoners, and once I heard how they were putting certain people in certain blocks, I thought of her.  Of course I go there.  Of course.  But I ended up being Ingenue’s to look after.  Not just not Lustrum’s, but farthest from Lustrum’s cell block.”

“And you never got to see her?”

“I got to see her.  You can go this way or that.  You can even pack up your shit and move to another cell block, if the leader of that block allows it.  Moment I heard that, I knew what I was doing.”

“Okay?”

“I went to ask if I could.  Listened in.  I realized she wasn’t who I thought she was.  A hundred college campuses and a hundred more cities, and her face was printed on caps and smocks all over.  Meant different things to different people.  For most, being part of her following meant taking a stand.  Not even being criminal or protesting.”

“It sounds like it was big.”

“Yeah, well, there was no anger in her, she didn’t even like violence much.  Hated that what she’d put out there had been twisted around.  My type most of all.  I never did let her know.  You get ideas in your head, you decide who you want someone to be, and it’s you who disappoints yourself more than them who disappoints you.  Understand?”

“I think so.”

Understand?”

It was a question with more meaning to it.

“No,” Colt admitted.

Nailbiter’s expression shifted, that mute snarl again.

“I don’t know who it is you think I’m looking up to that’s going to disappoint me,” Colt said.

“You’re not looking up.  You’re looking down,” Nailbiter said, sounding as pissed off and exasperated as Colt had ever heard her.

Colt’s eyes darted this way and that.  If this was a test, she didn’t want to fail.

“You think I’m looking down on you?  On Love Lost?  The group?”

Nailbiter was silent.

“I… have a real choice?  You’d let me go?” Colt asked.

“Are you saying you want to go?” Nailbiter asked, and her voice was hard, the hisses and whistles sharper.

Again, that trap of a question.  If she said yes, she could be killed or punished as a traitor.

But that could be the ‘looking down’ part.

“I don’t want to go home.”

“Is that because you’re afraid to leave, or you’re afraid to go?”

“I want to stay,” Colt said, and by the time the sentence was done she wasn’t sure if she believed it.

Nailbiter didn’t budge.  No tells, no decisions.

“I don’t want to stay behind, but… I’m not sure I’m brave enough to be a soldier.  Fire a gun.”

There was noise at the door.  It opened, and Love Lost stepped through.  Seeing her face, Colt was reminded of the golden man’s face in the rare video footage of him.  Of the image that had been mass-printed, of an artist’s rendition of Scion, the man who would later end the world.

Not that Love Lost was capable of ending the world, but the expression was so similar.  Caught between anger and sadness, disappointment too light, too loaded a word in Colt’s mind now that Nailbiter had talked about it.   Crestfallen?  Why?

“You’re not a kid,” Nailbiter said.  “If you were, this would be easier.  But because you’re not a kid, I can give you options.  How would you like artificial courage?”

“Art-” Colt started.  She stopped as she saw the pill Nailbiter held between two extended fingers.

“We don’t trust you enough to leave you at headquarters alone,” Nailbiter said.  “If you can’t fight, you can’t be a soldier.  So either take the steps necessary or get lost.”

Going home meant facing her parents.  She’d attacked her mom to get her mom to let her go, while Nailbiter had watched it happen, not stepping in.  Nailbiter had claimed her, and now Nailbiter was saying she had things wrong?

She didn’t get it.

But as scary as these guys were, going home was scary in another way.

She reached out for the pill.  Nailbiter deposited it in her hand.

“Chew it, don’t swallow it.  It’s going to last for a bit whatever you do, and you don’t want it having to sit for too long to work.”

Colt put it between her teeth.  She bit hard, and it crumbled.  The acrid taste flooded her senses.

“That’s awful.  Ugh!” she cried out, doubling over.  “Is this that pill person’s stuff?”

She looked up, and she caught the very tail end of Love Lost and Nailbiter silently communicating something between them.

Having already taken a second or two longer than she usually did, Nailbiter answered her, “No.  Nothing tinker about it.  It’s an upper.  Some energy, some recklessness.  Courage, if you want to call it that.”

Love Lost looked even more upset than before, but she betrayed nothing and said nothing.  A clawed hand was gently laid on Nailbiter’s shoulder in passing.  It stayed there as Love Lost stood straight, chin rising.  Her claws and other tinker decoration glittered as she raised a hand, fingers moving in a swooping gesture.

The cars and trucks that had been idling to let the heaters run chugged to life, almost synchronized.

She wasn’t sure if it was the rush of fear and excitement or if it was the pill already working, but her heart was pounding now, with a hammering rhythm that paid no mind to her feelings or the circumstances.  The brights of the world seemed brighter, and the darks seemed darker, and in the moment, there was a hell of a lot more dark than light.

Nailbiter extended a hand.  She gripped the barrel of the pistol, handle out for Colt to hold.

“Don’t take this if you’re not willing to shoot to kill.”

Colt took the weapon.

Twenty Minutes Ago

“Go,” Nailbiter barked.  “You’re a liability.”

Liability?” Sidepiece asked.  “The liability is the q-tip down there.  Our good old Damsel of Distress needs to answer for betraying us, and I swear we’ll get that answer if I have to blow up everyone here to do it!”

Colt smiled, despite herself.  She felt a bit giddy with excitement.  She was ninety percent sure that Sidepiece was joking, but the idea that she might not be made her want to laugh.

Smiles were okay, she decided, but laughing was a problem.

“Go,” Nailbiter said.

“Never and fuck you!”

Love Lost pointed.

“Fuck!” Sidepiece shouted.

Colt’s hands shook as she held the binoculars.  It was enough that it was kind of hard to keep the binoculars focused on a target.

Which was a shame, because two of the targets was really, really nice to look at.

Damsel, Lookout, Imp, a young girl in a black dress with white lace frills beneath, a boy with wild blond hair, cute and older, but on the nerdy side, and another boy with black hair, moody, glowering, the same age or just a bit younger than Colt.  She’d liked boys in the past and she’d really liked some boys she’d gotten to know, but she’d never really really liked boys, and she’d definitely never really really liked boys she’d only ever known from a distance.

Hookline shifted his position, and Love Lost put an arm out.  The configuration at her arms broke apart, going through the swapping procedure, then stopped, only the bars extending out, an added foot of reach that blocked Hookline.

“What?” Hookline asked.

Nailbiter offered up the answer, “The blond one senses things at a distance.”

“The kid has cameras.”

“Not aimed our way, probably.  If they were, they’d be on alert.”

Love Lost held up a claw, tilting her head to one side.  She nodded.

“This is where March’s group has been hanging out, they’re after her?” Disjoint asked.

Love Lost nodded.

“We’re surprising the surprise attackers,” Disjoint said.

Love Lost shook her head.

There was a pause, then she typed out the words.  Colt reached for her phone before it even rang, still looking through binoculars.

Love Lost:
SURVEILLANCE.  NOT SURPRISE ATTACK.
THEY ARE SUPPORT TEAM FOR SOLO ASSASSIN.
IMP.

“Makes sense,” Nailbiter said.  “We don’t know the power level of the three without masks.”

Love Lost:
THE GROUP IS SCARED OF THE YOUNGEST GIRL.
UNPREDICTABLE AND POWERFUL.
FORMATION HAS BLOND BOY AT CENTER.  PROTECTED.
BLACK HAIRED BOY IN VANGUARD.

Black haired boy.  Colt looked again.  He walked with Damsel, not saying much.  Damsel was vanguard too, it seemed.  Made sense, based on what she knew.

“Can we take them?”

It took a second before Colt realized she’d asked the question.

Love Lost nodded.

She reached to one wrist, and adjusted the settings on the claw at the arm where there was only one configuration.  Colt watched warily.

Claw-tips glowed.  Where they moved, they cut lines into the air.

A circle was drawn around Hookline.  A line was drawn from it, as claws tapped at air.  Hookline’s phone lit up, and he held up the screen for others to see.

Love Lost:
SMALLEST GIRL.  INCAPACITATE.

More circles were drawn out.  Orders given by text to specific phones.  Each person dutifully held up their phones with the targets and orders, shifting position to be ready to take the courses given.  Some would attack the rear, others the front.

Disjoint to Lookout.

Kitchen Sink to the black haired and blond boys, whoever provided themselves as a target.

Nailbiter to the same pairing, dissuading Damsel where possible.

Love Lost to Imp and Damsel.

Then Colt.  A circle drawn around her and two other hired guns from the Lyme center.

The text appeared.

Love Lost:
SUPPORT ATTACK FROM REAR
PERMISSION TO KILL
EXCEPTION FOR TWO GIRLS.  LOOKOUT & YOUNGER.

Colt nodded.  Her heart continued its racing beat, not slowing, not speeding up.  It made the entire thing feel less real.  Easier.

Love Lost started forward.  She pointed, then the hand moved, fingers extending down.  She ‘walked’ the fingers through the air.

“Walk, don’t run?” Kitchen Sink asked.

“Until they notice us.  Save our strength and stamina until then,” Nailbiter said.

Love Lost nodded.

Their path was downhill.  Their target a city street with closed businesses all shuttered.  Some looked like they were permanently closed.  Ice made some footing treacherous, but different members of the group compensated.  Love Lost had her claw-feet.  Nailbiter had pointed tips to her fingers and toes.  Hookline dragged his hook against the pavement.  Disjoint was segmented, most of his body floating.

Kitchen Sink wasn’t so able.  The other mercenaries too.  Still.

“Gun tag,” Disjoint said.

“What?” Colt asked, startled.

“What we’re doing right now.  Playing tag with guns.  Get them before they get you and you win.  Other way around?  Lose.”

“Don’t lose,” Kitchen Sink said.  “Those are Heartbroken.  They don’t go easy on losers.”

Claw snapped against claw like a snap of a finger, but far more violent, and with the lights still left activated, the movement produced a small sparking of light.

Love Lost broke into a run.

Colt raised her binoculars to confirm, even as she started running too.  It was the pat-the-head-while-rubbing-your-tummy kind of coordination that would have been hard at any time, but the pill made it harder or the pill made it seem easier of a task.  She slipped and skidded on ice until her foot hit the crust of a snowbank.  A mercenary hauled her to her feet, then kept a hand on her shoulder as they ran.

They’d been noticed, so the attack was happening now.  Gun tag?

She had a gun.

“It’s not March!” she could hear one shouting.  The dorky-cute blond boy.

Shit,” was his companion’s response.  The broody-cute one.

They converged on the group, each set of Love Lost’s people rounding the corners and stepping out from cover in near concert.  The Undersiders-Breakthrough teamup had already formed battle lines, a loose ring protecting more vulnerable members.

Lookout already had her tinker weapons out.  A clawed tail or something and a white gun that she clasped in both hands.  Disjoint’s hand appeared and seized her wrist.  She pulled the other hand away, taking on a one-handed stance, aiming off to the side.  Another hand caught her.

The black haired boy was stepping forward, and Colt had to remind herself she had a job to do.  She aimed high and fired.

It didn’t slow him down or distract.  Fists clenched at either side of him, he roared, a fierce sound, veins standing out on his face.  Kitchen Sink reeled, then started sprinting forward.

“Don’t!” Hookline shouted.

There was no controlling it, apparently.  A headlong berserk rush, meeting the black haired boy, who was still roaring.

Kitchen Sink was all brawn, weapons appearing in his hands, slipping free as soon as he realized he couldn’t use them.  A metal stein became a thing he could grab and swing toward the black haired boy’s face.  In the other hand, the deciding fixture was a bit of piping with a showerhead fixed on the end.

The black haired boy fought with one arm extended, the other held back.  It was a fencer’s pose without a fencer’s foil, grace, timing, and keen reactions contrasting with the way his eyes were bloodshot and veins raised on his forehead.  He swayed back, slapped aside, and stepped in close, driving a knee into Kitchen Sink’s middle.

Faster than a normal person, maybe stronger.  Inflicting rage but suffering it too.  Forced duels.  If he kept doing that-

She raised her gun.

Before she could do anything, people were getting in her way.  Damsel was one, and Damsel was complicated, and that complication made her hesitate.

Damsel used her power.  Nailbiter swiped into the air at the same moment, predicting Damsel’s trajectory.  Her power made an explosion that looked like all of the light and all of the dark that Colt had noticed after taking the pill were being twisted together until they snapped, and it sent her flying into the air, toward the extended fingers.

She didn’t stop using her power, though.  Rather than end it abruptly, Damsel let it trail off, bringing her hands under her.  Her feet went up, and she stepped on the underside of the fingers, before bringing her hand up-

The fingers retreated.

Hookline had the little girl who wasn’t Lookout.  Hookline’s power was a chain and hook that couldn’t be destroyed, that he could telekinetically manipulate, and he’d encircled the girl with it, the hook secured on the chain that he was now hauling in with both hands and power.

The girl reached for Kitchen Sink as she passed him, and Hookline whipped the chain a bit, casting her a few feet to one side in the other direction.  Out of reach.

She screeched, like only a young girl could.  Colt was put in mind of Reese.  Her sister.  It jarred.  She hadn’t thought of Reese in a while.  She hadn’t gotten along with Reese in… ever.  But she still missed her.

Weird to think about in the now.

Damsel, landing, immediately sprung forward, toward Hookline.  Nailbiter produced a cage of interlocked fingers, barring the way, and Damsel avoided the cage, another burst of power to vault to one side, yet another to slide through the space between elongated wrist and ground.

“Fuck!” Hookline shouted.  “Fuck me!”

Nailbiter followed up.  Fingers drew in, a cage that now closed in around Damsel, and her teeth extended, a scattershot volley that aimed to fill the space.

Damsel used her power twice in quick succession before the kicked-up snow and dirt and the seemingly countless narrow spikes that filled the area caught up to her.

Two shots.  One to punch a hold into the ground, the other to reverse course and hurl herself into that hole.  The nails had passed overhead.

Colt saw movement.  She aimed, sighted her target, and recognized it as the blond boy.

“Samuel!” a girl shouted, not that far away- between Love Lost and Colt.

Reflexively, Colt pulled the trigger.  It felt like it had seemed to work with the black haired boy’s power.  His power had been rage, both inflicted and felt.  This was a horrible, jarring kick, and corresponding to that kick, the boy kicked back and flumped to the ground in a horrible, jarring way.

“You bitch!”

Colt turned toward the sound, then felt bewildered at the lack of a source.

The black haired teenager was trouncing Kitchen Sink, despite Kitchen Sink’s relative size and weaponry.  Sink’s swings were wide and reckless, and he almost seemed to forget he had the weapons in his haste to get in close and hurt the teen.

That changed in a flash.  One item fell into his hands, and he hurled it.  It produced a cloud as it hurtled through the air, and that cloud left the black haired boy coughing.

Kitchen Sink slammed his face into the boy’s.  Sink’s face had a heavy porcelain mask strapped to it.  The boy had nothing, and dropped to his knees, one hand to his face.  A second later, veins stood out across his face, more intense than before, and the blood loss accelerated.  He lunged forward, and didn’t quite manage to get off his knees before Sink started pressuring him down toward the ground.  Sink looked pretty affected, almost frothing at the mouth now.

Colt staggered back, an arm encircling her neck.  Her first thought was that it was one of Love Lost’s mercenaries, and that she’d somehow crossed a line or gotten her just desserts.

Her other thought was that Love Lost was stalking toward her.  Her right claw extended into whips with sharp metal caps at the end.

Colt tried to bring her gun up to shoot at the guy who had her.  When her hand raised, however, there was no weight in it and no gun.

She felt a gun press against her back.  Though it was a heavy, hairy man’s arm that held her, the voice in her ear was feminine.  “You just shot my friend, you fucking lunatic.”

Damsel was using her power more, skipping ahead, while Nailbiter was trying to catch up.  Forgetting the strangulation for a second, Colt twisted to try and see what was happening.

She was just in time to see Damsel arrive at the corner where Disjoint was waiting.  He had no arms by which to defend himself, so Damsel was free to use her power to deliver a flying knee-strike, as he doubled over, trying to shield himself with truncated arms.  When he flew back, he had hands again.

Which freed Lookout, who he had been restraining.

Colt screwed her eyes shut, saw Love Lost doing the same, as Lookout raised her gun.

The flash hurt, even with her eyes forced as shut as she could get, her face turned away.  It made her mind adjust light and dark in a funny way, as if she’d always scaled it from one to ten and she’d just found a new, higher bar for ten.

Her mom was always in the hospital for hip pain, she thought.  She’d heard a lot about pain scales, had heard her mother complain about how arbitrary a ten was.

Disjoint was knocked out.  Hookline- he gathered chains together into a loose wall in between himself and Damsel.  Doing so meant dragging the kid a little closer.

Colt found herself able to breathe again, unsure why she’d even stopped.  Love Lost shoved past her, and started whipping at the air.

“You need to help!” Colt shouted at Love Lost, her voice too high, tremulous.  The mercenaries that had been part of her flanking group were on the ground, and she couldn’t remember them getting beat.

Bending down, she picked up one of their guns.

Damsel crashed into the length of Nailbiter’s claws, then used her power again, forcing the claws to move with her, slamming into Hookline.  It meant the littlest kid was free.  Colt turned to look, and saw Lookout aiming.

She shielded her eyes, aimed blindly in the right direction, and fired, pulling the trigger again and again, in time with a heartbeat that was moving so fast she couldn’t count it if she tried.

Something hit her across the side of the face.  She fell.

It was Love Lost who picked her up again, her grip hard enough that metal claws threatened to pierce skin.  Love Lost’s claws were slick with blood.  Kitchen Sink was battered, Hookline rattled, but those two were up.  Disjoint and the other mercenaries still seemed to be unconscious, except or a guy or two at the far end.

They were outnumbered.

“Traitor,” Kitchen Sink said, to Damsel.

“Old news, that,” she said.  Her eyes were black from corner to corner, and they smoked faintly.  She’d been scratched at one shoulder by Nailbiters’s teeth.

“You shot a child,” Damsel said.  “You’re working with Cradle on that machine of his?  You’re a disappointment to yourselves and everyone who has to walk the same earth as you.”

Love Lost was silent, of course.  Colt made a small amused sound before she could stop herself.  Still a little giddy, loose around the edges.

The smile fell from her face as she noticed Love Lost staring her down.

Oh, this was worse than going to the doghouse.  This was fucking up and then doing it again.

And getting beat.  They were going to win.

And then- then she would have nowhere to go.

The thoughts that sprung from that were delirious, but they weren’t ‘upper’ thoughts, as far as she got that stuff.  They were a swell of darkness, pushed up from below.

“You alright, Roman?” Lookout asked.

“Peachy,” Roman said, his voice a growl.  He spat blood onto the snow.  “Samuel’s not peachy, and Flor’s bleeding.”

Love Lost and Nailbiter looked so confident, and Colt wasn’t sure why.

Confident and pissed.

In her daze, trying to make sense of things, Colt saw Kitchen Sink try to throw something.  Lookout’s claw-on-a-tail reached out to catch it, but that left her blind for Nailbiter to attack.  Damsel threw herself at Nailbiter’s real body, to throw off her trajectory.

Love Lost wheeled around, striking out with her whips, hitting empty air, then leaped backward, riggings on her legs snapping out as they fired like gun chambers, giving her a slight boost.  Her feet scraped against the wall, and she ran on the surface for five running steps.

She bounded down, toward Damsel, Nailbiter, and Lookout.

Everyone had something they were doing.  Except Colt…

…And Flor, the creepy little girl with the black dress decorated in white lace.  The girl smiled, showing a lot of small white teeth.  She limped with every step.

“You shot my brother,” the girl’s voice was quiet.  “Now if I do something extra horrible to you, they won’t blame me.  It’s great.  Thank you for shooting Samuel.”

Colt backed away as the girl advanced.  In the background, it looked like Love Lost was winning, propelling herself from Nailbiter’s claws to strike Damsel in the air.

The girl bolted forward.  Even with the limp, she was quick.

Colt turned to run.  If that girl wanted in close, then Colt wanted away.

She got three steps before she was caught.  In the confusion and daze, she thought it was two people.  Two different arms.

Imp.

No.

The arms thrust her back in the direction of the child.  She slipped on ice and skidded to a stop.  Where one of her gloves had ridden up, her hand had scraped on the hard ground.

Colt reached for something- anything she could do.  A plea- she had no ideas.  An anything?

She floundered, like she was in water and there was only water so disturbed and black that she couldn’t find any way up or out.

There were stars in that water, and it wasn’t the water churning, but sleek forms within it.

As the forms came nearer, they welled up in her vision.  Less like a person walking toward her, and more like a planet colliding with her own.

That form had a mouth, and that mouth yawned open wide, until it encapsulated her vision, and everything in every direction was this thing.  She moved her focus around, struggled, fought- but it was like being in quicksand.

She saw the heart of the thing.  She saw the small star of energy and how it was broken up into a thousand facets that were somehow all still aligned, even as the thing came to pieces.

And that star, that pit at the very belly of this thing, it burned so hot and so bright it began to eat at her consciousness.  Even the detachment she felt wasn’t any insulation against the consuming light.

But she wasn’t one to follow or obey.  She’d run away from- she couldn’t remember the word- her creators.  She was doing a shitty job here with this new group.  Hurting a child.

Hurting cute boys, but that was the drug talking.

The drug was an insulator.  A thing she could put between herself and the ownership of her being here.

The first step in a hundred thousand, all undertaken in a frame of completely different time.

She stood on the edge of that pit, and the power was there for the taking.

She stepped away from it, even in her desperation.

Into the real world, where the ground beneath her hands was cold.

She had a power, but just as she’d refused the greater body of power, she fought the urge to take hold of this.  To do so threatened to pull her into that pit.

For the time being, she stood, shaky.  Others had staggered, hands to their heads.  Powers had gone limp.

The scattered henchmen Love Lost had brought were here, hurrying forward.  Roman, the boy with black hair, was clubbed across the head with a baton.

Two of them were still close to Colt.  As soon as she grasped the fact, saw the decisive action on the part of the mercenaries, she pulled herself to her feet and kicked- catching the younger girl right in the midsection with her boot.

And Imp-

She wheeled around, saw Imp stagger forward, and struck out with the gun.  One blow to the throat, hard, leaving the woman sputtering.

It was only when they were down that she could reach for her power.

When she did, she felt herself teeter.  On the cusp of falling.  She swayed.

The so-called ‘ground’ solidified.

The fight resumed, hesitant at first, as people were still recovering.  But the actions of the unpowered henchmen were forcing the Undersiders and Breakthrough to react.

She had a power.  She drew in a deep breath, and she used it.

Now

Bags over their heads, hands bound behind their backs, several with poles attached to the bindings at the hands, so they could be managed from a distance.

Her nose was bloody, her hand and knee scraped, and the drugs were leaving her with a strangely disappointed feeling, out of tune with the reality before her- that she had a strong power.  Just the moods swinging in the opposite direction.

Her feelings jerked this way and that as she took it in.  Disjoint gave her a reassuring smile.  Love Lost, though, didn’t seem happy in the slightest.

Weird, considering they had this contingent captive.  Two of Breakthrough, one Undersider, three Heartbroken.  Two of those had been shot, one lacerated so badly by Love Lost’s whips that she couldn’t walk, and all three of those were now on the way to hospitals Love Lost had worked with before.  The medical care would be held hostage, as necessary.  Otherwise, they were all hostages now.

There was no going home again now, a small voice in her head said.  She’d crossed lines.  Even within this group.

Home had been destroyed two years ago, another said.  The concept had stopped meaning anything back then.

“Come on,” Disjoint told her, stirring her from dark thoughts.

Colt forced a smile to her face, and found her feet.

“We’re nearly done,” Nailbiter said.

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Blinding – 11.8

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“If you’re right then I’m a big fucking idiot,” Precipice said.  “That’s supposed to be a pick-me-up?  Good news?”

“No,” I said.  I was going to follow up, but I didn’t get a chance.

“That’s not right at all!  You have to look on the bright side!” Candy said, with enthusiasm, her eyes flitting this way and that as she took in the extended constructions of flesh that ringed the area.  There was an edge to her voice that betrayed her alarm at the situation.  “If she’s right, you’re a secret genius.”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” Precipice said.

“Very very secret,” Aroa muttered.  “The kind of secret that people might notice in a hundred years, if they cared enough to study you.  Which they don’t.”

“Closer,” Precipice said.

I shook my head, focusing more on the battlefield than anything.  Lord of Loss was pulling himself together, his thugs gathered around him.  Nursery had her own backup, but she wasn’t doing so well with them or at all.  Half my reason for hanging back in the now was to see if any cracks formed that we could exploit, there.

Then again, we had to keep the cracks from forming on our side too.  Foil was focused on Parian, the kids were scared.  Precipice was about as unsure of himself as any teenage boy would be, dealing with mercenaries hired by the woman who wanted to kill him, after having spent the latter part of the evening having his head screwed with by an attractive girl.  I tried to reach out, “Precipice, if you’re agreeing with Aroa, the girl who said she laughs when old people get hurt-”

“Babies or old people, really,” Candy supplied.  Aroa pointed a finger at her cousin without looking at her, nodding.

“-then you might be being a little hard on yourself,” I said.

“I’m an expert at being hard on myself,” Precipice said.  “It’s either that, or I’m the biggest asshole alive, and I’d rather hate myself than be an asshole.”

Well, not a lot I could say to that.

Chastity, though, was entirely on the ball when it came to rebuttals.  “Alternative, Precipice mon chou?  Find someone else and show them how hard you can be for them.  Having an external pressure release can be very nice.”

Precipice turned his head her way.

“I did not mean me, but I’m flattered,” she said, laying a hand over the triangle of cleavage she’d left strategically in place, with an amused tone that told me she’d wholly meant to imply herself.  “I meant our big man there, or the sea of horrific baby-makers that are waggling themselves at us as we speak.”

“Sorry,” Precipice said, apparently one hundred percent believing her.  “Yeah, that sounds like a good temporary plan.”

“It helps that Lord of Loss has a punchable face,” I said.  “Help me punch it.”

He created a silver blade in his hand.

“That’s part of it,” I told him.  “What we just talked about?  I need you to use your power.  We’ll try it out.”

“Are you fucking serious?” he asked.  “Now?”

“When else?”

“In a safe, controlled training environment?” he asked, with a tone like he was almost angry.  Incredulous.  A part of it was probably that I was reversing course on things I’d told him again and again.

“Fun fact,” I said.  “Powers don’t tend to jibe with safe and controlled environments.  For every cape that I know who picked up a trick in PRT labs or whatever, there are ten more who figured their tricks out because they had to.  You want to make it work?  Field test, be confident, be creative.”

“How many tried to pull something inventive and got their asses kicked?” Precipice asked.

Lots.  But our alternative is that if we don’t up our game then we get our asses kicked here, now.  The way this is going we’ll have to surrender or get captured, and we’ll have to deal with a woman who will probably impregnate us as an alternative to handcuffs and a guy who’s so unreasonable he thinks smileys should be appended to every sentence in an email.  Not even good ones.”

“If we surrender, they arrest us, not you,” Foil said, her voice low.  I hadn’t been sure she was with us at all, she’d been so quiet.  “You fly away, get help.”

I looked at her- I would have locked my eyes to hers to read her expression, but she wore a fencer-style opaque pane that covered her face.  Her costume was form-fitting, sleek and stylish because of course it had to be when she was partnered with a fashion designer, but that costume was normally adorned with a fanned-out array of spikes where the javelin-like bolts were in her quiver, darts mounted at her forearms, hips and thighs where she could grab them.  Most were empty now.

“How is she?”

Parian coughed, hoarse, and her shoulders and arm drew together at her upper body.  A length of cloth moved telekinetically, crossed under her mask, wiping her mouth, and came away bloody.

She gave me a thumbs up.  Foil, by contrast, was rigid, stricken.

“Foil.  We deny them what they want and what they want is you.  That’s the job.  You and the Heartbroken focus on finding an escape route.  Get clear.  If you can’t, you focus on keeping anyone else off of Precipice’s back, so he can help me.”

“Okay,” Foil said.  She gripped the handle of her rapier with both hands, even though it was a one-handed weapon.

She was in shock as much as Parian was, if not more, but she was pulling herself together in a visible way now that she had strict orders.  She wouldn’t be someone who had lived through six Endbringer encounters and the end of the world if she wasn’t.

“Do your best,” I told Precipice.

“Do my worst, you mean?”

“Yeah,” I said.

Nursery wasn’t accepting the help of her henchpeople, but getting to her wasn’t easy either, because her power was thickest closer to her.  Lord of Loss was hunched over, his outer body in a state of change where he was all over the place, half-falling apart.  It looked like as good a time as any, but appearances were deceptive.

My eye fell on the cabling that Lord of Loss had shucked off and left on the ground.

“I’ll be going where Lord of Loss is now.  Be ready.  We all move at the same time.”

Precipice nodded.

I took off, not flying for Lord of Loss, but at Nursery.  The group started running, the Heartbroken and Undersiders heading the opposite direction from Lord of Loss.  Precipice hung back a bit.

Nursery was aware of me, it seemed, and the wreath of moist appendages drew in closer to her in anticipation, spooking her henchpeople.  A loud noise to my right marked Lord of Loss taking action.

He emerged like a cannon shot.  Nursery-modified building skeletons crumbled as Lord of Loss scampered forward, almost running on the walls.  A wolf drawn out in a spindly, sleek way, a face like a spear-head, feet like spear-points. Bands were gathering out and unfolding, bulking him up as he ran.

Much as the bird had first appeared from the failing other form, Lord of Loss had been maintaining that in-the-works, haphazard construction as a feint, while forming a denser real body within.

That was fair.  I’d gone after Nursery as a feint, too.

I flew down, diving, to hit the ground hard, and the section of road that had turned to floorboards shattered beneath the Wretch as it hit.  Flesh beneath bruised and gouged, and it was that flesh that provided the real stopping power.

Hitting something hard provided the momentum for me to stop, so I could immediately fly the opposite direction, with an emphasis on immediate, because the gory impact was immediately followed by tongues and probosci trying to close in around me or latch on.

Even with the sleek form, Lord of Loss was slower to adapt, to turn.  It was similar to the bird, which had needed to take wide turns to fly.  It was still building in mass and scale, the spear-feet becoming paws as calcified metal strips folded and wrapped around.  He was aiming to win on the raw power front, and by outlasting me.

I landed at the safest point in the bloody mess around Lord of Loss’ landing spot, where flesh bulged and overlapped.  The primary threat I had to consider was a braid of umbilical cords with tiny faces peering out between the gaps.  I kept one eye on it, and almost missed the other, independent cords that were peeling up and away, trying to sneak their way to me.

The primary threat.  There were others.  Lord of Loss had moved quickly, escaping the remains of his prior form, but his soldiers had been gathered close and they hadn’t moved far.  Their focus had apparently been on getting clear of the worst of Nursery’s power, not on getting to a good place for stopping me or the others.

Problem: two had guns.

“Can’t be worth it!” I raised my voice.  “Throw down your weapons!”

They didn’t.  The only reaction I got for my trouble was from the umbilical tendrils, which seemed to hear the noise and turn my way.

I chose my course so the one large braided mass was between me and the gunman with the best angle to shoot at me.  Rather than fly around, I flew straight at it.  I hit it with the Wretch and struck it down with a direction in mind.  It slapped hard against the ground nearest one guy with a gun, shattering his footing.

I flew after him, ignoring my main objective for the moment.

The kind of shooting most people practiced was shooting while at the range.  Feet planted, shoulders square.  Not possible when three-quarters of that person’s footing and immediate surroundings were uneven fields of meat that wanted to pump them full of fast-gro mutant fetuses.

I hit the ground hard, just to the one gunman’s right.  They didn’t even pop off any shots as I made the approach, because they were focused on not getting sucked into the meat.  My landing broke more of the flooring.  If he’d been on an isolated section of ice in the middle of a frozen lake before, he was standing on ice cubes now.

“Drop it,” I told him, as his eyes widened and he realized his predicament.  I reached for his wrist and he didn’t fight me or try to get away.

The gun tumbled from his grasp.

Immediately, I took off, gripping him hard around the armpits with one hand, my other hand at his arm.  It was a precarious hold and he seemed to realize it, because he made a prolonged, frightened sound that wasn’t quite wail or whimper.  More of a ‘murrr’.

He was my human shield as I flew at the other gunman.  I let go of him, and I let him crash into the other guy.  Floorboards beneath them cracked but didn’t break like eggshells.  The building between this spot and Nursery had probably absorbed the worst of the mist.

I half-floated over to them, half-stalked.  With one stomp, I put the gun through the floor and into the meat.

“What the hell kind of money are you earning, that you’re willing to put up with this?” I asked.  “You know one of your buddies got a fetus stuck in their ear, right?”

“Not money,” one of them said, crawling backwards to get away from where the ground was bulging, a soft wet mass crowning at the aperture.  “Homes.”

Homes?

“On a safe world.  Big houses with two servants each.  Room for our families.”

I could hear Lord of Loss making his approach.  The building next to us shuddered, steel girders disintegrating and bending beneath Lord of Loss’s mass.

“Next time, throw down your weapons.  It’s not worth it.  Someone else would have killed you.”

“If we die, our families still get the homes.”

“If they get those homes-” I started.  Lord of Loss reached the edge of the building, metal screeching as it crumpled beneath him.  He looked down at me.  “-they’ll be living somewhere under the thumb of a guy who would throw away their loved ones without a second thought.”

“He has second thoughts,” one of the ex-gunmen said.  “He was clear about the rules.  The job comes first.”

“He’s better than others,” the other said.

Lord of Loss leaped down.  I flew back around the corner to where the braided umbilical thing had been.

I wanted to have a long, long discussion with them, but I wouldn’t get that chance.  When this was all over, we’d either be in Lord of Loss’s clutches or we’d be hurrying to help the other groups.

I really hoped for the latter.

In the lot, the braided umbilical thing was rousing, finding added length as it broke free of the container that had been Lord of Loss’s body.  A tendril with a draping of placental sacs was reaching in from the building Lord of Loss had damaged with his weight, and the ground was dissolving into a morass of reds, pinks, and layers of veiny translucent films.

I flew to the only area where the ground was semi-solid and the cable still aboveground, seizing up the length of metal in my gloved hands.  It jerked to a stop and the ice-crusted metal scraped against my gloves, tearing cloth.  I tapped into my super strength to get the power necessary to pull the rest of the cabling and hook free of the meat that had gripped it.

Lord of Loss prowled, hopping up to a nearby building to skip over the pool of crimson, past the groping sea of meat.

Alright, I thought, as I gripped the cable in my hands, feeling the Wretch periodically bat at it and grip it.  I clenched my jaw.  Hit me.

Lord of Loss chuckled, padding his way forward in the body of a burly wolf made up of overlapping strips of white.  The strips mingled at the spine, forming an uneven spiked ridge.  Where his feet set down, the ground broke and bled.

This is a stupid idea.

I cocked my head to one side.

Hi Rain, I thought.

I was aware of what he was doing, and instead of getting out of the area or getting angry, I kept my jaw clenched, and I endured it.  I made sure the Wretch had a grip on the crane’s cabling that we’d cut free, and then I spun, swinging the hook around.

Lord of Loss leaped, first up to the side of a building, then at me.  Aiming to get me before I could get the momentum sufficient to turn the hook into a means of real damage.

He was still confined to physical form, and bound by laws of physics.  Where his breaker form distorted rules was in allowing his sheer mass to stay functional, and in altering how he worked when he repeated actions.

I flew under the arc of his jump.  The timing was wrong to bring the hook to bear, but I could swat at him with the ends of the cables.  The hook had a pulley that was apparently locked, and four cables extended from it.  I had one cable firmly in my grasp, another in the Wretch’s grasp, but as the hook turned in its arc, the cables I wasn’t holding swung out on their own.

They’d been cut clean, and they were razor-like at the edges.  Sparks flew as they struck across his underbelly and back legs.

Not good enough.

Rain threw a silver blade, and it clipped Lord of Loss in the moment he landed.

I followed up, still spinning.  The hook came down, while Lord of Loss was still marked by the silver blade.

He hopped out of the way, and the hook carved a line through floorboards.  I saw the silver flare in the moment he finished his hop.  Slats began to extend and unfold, patching the injury.

He twisted, angling himself like he was going to leap to another building as a springboard to come at me again.  He didn’t.  He leaped sideways, twisting in the air, one shoulder partially unfurling to extend my way, claw breaking apart to be half as dense, the points twice as long.

I tried to bring the cable around, holding the midpoint and catching him with the cable-ends on the approach and the hook on the departure.  I only managed the former.  Too fast, too much momentum, and I had to get away from those extended claws.

The damage was less than minimal.  Too choked-up on the grip- like I was swinging a baseball bat at someone and trying to hit them with the end closest to my hands.

No.

He was building up the strength of his lunges faster than I was figuring out a means of attack.

This sucked.  Every bit of it sucked.  It sucked that Lord of Loss had more cachet with regular people than we did.  It sucked that this neighborhood was a nightmare, and someone was going to track the damage, blame all parahumans, and it would land in our laps before it even touched Lord of Loss.

Just like the community center.

Win the battle and lose the war?  It pissed me off that with this asshole, we didn’t even get to win the battles and we still lost the war.  He lucked out, he got a good power, and he leaned on consistency, doing jobs both small and big, building up a reputation, and never having cause to lose it.

Meanwhile, those of us who were trying to salvage things and manage a bad situation were getting kneecapped.  The public turned against us.

It was petty, it made me a smaller person, but I wanted to hurt his smug-ass face and knock him down a peg.  Take away that consistency and knock him down a peg.

And it galled me that it probably wouldn’t work.  At best we’d eke out a draw.

Momentum was key, so long as I was using the cable.  The Wretch was grabbing and plucking at the cable, which threw off the rotation a bit, but enough arms and teeth were holding on to keep my weapon firmly in my grip.

Anticipate the approach, assume he’ll time his attacks to avoid the hook-

He did.  I tried to maneuver myself in the air, to bring the hook around faster, so I could catch him, and I failed.

Not good enough.

I was starting to feel the accumulated effect of Precipice’s power.  It was like being on the basketball court, a thousand eyes watching me, and failing.  Failing in the eyes of my parents, failing in the eyes of my boyfriend, my sis-

Failing.

This wasn’t as simple as a hard shove in the direction of a second trigger.  I was pretty sure I didn’t qualify.  Second generation capes triggered ‘easier’, but there had never been a second generation cape who’d second triggered.  Whatever resources the power devoted to passing itself on seemed to rule it out, and I doubted the universe would be so kind as to let me be the first.  It would be too easy.

Multi-triggers were in the same boat.  Which might have been the universe being kind, given how many were lined up against us right now.

Lord of Loss was prowling below, changing himself in little ways.  He chuckled, a low sound that reached me up in the air.  Right.  I couldn’t retreat into cape geekery as the normal defense mechanism.

No, the only way to deal with this was to fucking deal.

I kept the hook spinning around me in loose circles, experimenting with passing it from hand to hand, with trying to find the balance between using my strength to keep it moving and maintain my grip and not having the Wretch in a position where it was hurting more than helping.  Here and there, the cable slipped against my hand, metal edges cutting at the fabric.  Tough fabric, but it was a lot of wear and tear.  Past a certain point and it would be cutting my hand.

This was a losing battle.  Every pounce and lunge he made was stronger than the last.  Because of his physical configuration, and because the power source he was drawing on as part of his breaker form was aligning to fire all engines in the right directions and ways.

For now, we were at an impasse.  If given the chance, I could go after Nursery.  If given the chance, he could go after the others.  With the way he grew, he would soon reach the point that he could catch up to them in one or two lunges, then be back here in a third in time to keep me from taking Nursery hostage.

They just weren’t making enough progress.  I wasn’t doing enough damage.  This whole fucking thing wasn’t enough.

The cable slipped in my hand.  It caught on the bandage at my burned hand, which pulled at yet-unhealed flesh.  Pain lunged up my arm, and I almost dropped the apparatus.

Layered injuries and stupid moments of failure.  I felt like I was under the watchful eyes of my mother, being treated with kid gloves by Uncle Neil, and having my moods tolerated by Dean at the same time I knew that mood was unreasonable, all at once.

I felt shitty.

You’re better than this, I told myself, and the voice in my head was my mom’s, my uncle’s, an Dean’s, all at their most critical and condescending.

I went on the offensive.  Lord of Loss hopped to one side, more nimble and quick than he’d been when he’d first emerged as a spear-throw of a wolf from the husk of the bird.  Throwing off my timing.

And my timing was thrown.  I tried to adapt, pulling back hard, strength active, to shift the arc of the hook.  He hopped again, easily avoiding it.

I didn’t let up this time.  If anything I had to break his momentum, force him to adopt a new form and a new course of action.  I flew in, kicking.

He pulled his head away from the kick, retreating.  I shifted my course, pulling the slack in the line taut, and let the current momentum of the hook finish its rotation.  It smashed him in the right shoulder and then carried on to hit the ground by his left forelimb.  He hopped, three-legged, to get back, already regenerating by morphing his form.

Still not good enough.

“I got advice once, that I should pick some forms and stick to them,” he boomed.  A man’s voice spoken from a body made of energy, at the heart of his form, magnified out by the shell he’d encased himself in.  “Then new advice, from your uncle, I think he is?  To experiment, diversify.  Think outside the box.”

Marquis.

He chuckled.  “I had a little help, to ease the learning curve.”

“Then you fucked up,” I told him.  “There isn’t a single person I can think of who could do that for you, that wouldn’t be a huge mistake.”

“You don’t know enough people,” he boomed.  Talking down to me.

Smug asshole.

“I like this.  Experimenting and testing out my new approach.  Thank you,” Lord of Loss uttered it with a chuckle.  Fucking gracious and fucking magnanimous.  “I’ll go easy on you in exchange.”

Well, if I’d wanted something to drive this sensation home, being condescended to would do it.  I built up the hook’s momentum again, passing cable from hand to hand.  Here and there, the little fuckups, that Precipice’s power drove home.  A loss of momentum.  A bad timing of the Wretch.  Better to do two sharper half-circles with a pause between them- a long ellipsis rather than a circle.  It let me switch the Wretch off and on.

I was sweating, my jaw hurt from clenching it.  This was hard, demanding focus while he did everything effortlessly.

This sucked.

I was a second or two away from feeling like I had the momentum necessary to deliver a good hit when he leaped in the direction of Precipice’s group.

I flew after him, and saw him veer to one side.  Claws latched onto the wall of a building.  Going up, gripping-

I shifted course.

-and he bounded off of the side of the building, collapsing a part of the construction as he sailed upside-down toward me.

Again, the hook struck him.  This time it was across the face.  The impact changed his orientation and gave me the opportunity to strike out, kicking.  I remembered the lessons I’d had learning to fight while airborne, and applied them.  Rotation was key, and my rotation was helped by the fact that the hook’s weight was pulling me one way.  Wretch active, heavy blow delivered.

The Wretch broke and I had to pull my hands away before the cable tore right past my hands and shredded them.  Wrong timing.   The only saving grace was that I’d just delivered a heavy hit, and all of the momentum was gone.  Cables swung through the air and the damaged hook and pulley combination tumbled end over end.

I caught it.  Not a great catch.

Rain had stopped for a second before resuming the use of his emotion field.  I wasn’t sure why.  I looked back, and saw he wasn’t that far from the building Lord of Loss had used as a springboard.  Dangerously close.

Lord of Loss wasted no time, lunging again, though he hadn’t fully healed.  Catching me before I could get my momentum.  I tried to hit him and I failed.

He caught my cable, forcing me to either go with him or lose my weapon.

I went with him.  I let him pull me down, then added my flight to the downward momentum.  The Wretch and I slammed into him, turning what had been a landing into a crash.

While the Wretch was inactive, I used the cable to bind one leg to snout.  The moment the Wretch was available, I hit him again.

Something seized my foot.  Beneath Lord of Loss was a pool of gore-slick floorboards and scattered pastel-painted furniture.  Reaching from that wreckage was another tongue, though this time without elbows.  Instead, it was covered in polyps.

Not polyps.  Tiny heads and limbs.  They had me by the calf, and groping fingers, hands, and gummy mouths were working at my boot.  One head bulged, swelling overlarge as another mass was pumped through the tongue and out the mouth, into the top of my boot.

I shook it free before it took root or whatever.  The mess in my boot was still wet, creeping down toward my toes, but the larger mass had fallen free.

I roped the tongue to Lord of Loss’s leg  with more cable, before delivering the heaviest hit to him I could.  The timing of the hit was off, as he lurched to an upright position.

You’re forgetting your lessons, I told myself.  You had this exact same sensation as you tried to spar with Uncle Neil, and he recovered too quickly.

You’re better than this, I told myself, with the voice of everyone I’d disappointed, and a dark, joyless feeling in my gut.  Swimming uphill, drowning.  Falling.  Suffocating under disappointment.

Timing, I thought, as I hit out.  Account for who I’m fighting.  Keep my grip on my weapon…

He reared up, limbs up in a flash, then coming down just as quickly, like a half-dozen guillotine blades with a truckload of weight driving them.  I flew under.

Remember the lessons Uncle Neil taught you about fighting, and stay inside their reach.

I flew to the underbelly.  Nursery’s growths reached up to me.  Slats like blades were above me.  To my left, the tongue, bound to one limb by cables.  He was shrugging off the cables.

I flew to the looser section of that cable, so I caught one at my shoulder.  The Wretch absorbed the impact as it pulled short, but it didn’t extricate me.  The cable pulled against my shoulder, and I spun in the air, hard.  My arm throbbed.

I’d killed the tongue, pulling the cable tight enough against it to cut it in two.

You’re better than this, I told myself, and it was a condemnation.  A feeling that had followed me all my life.  You have so much potential, my teachers had said.  But if I focused on friends my teachers would point it out, saying I needed to focus on my schoolwork.  If I focused on my school, I lost friends, got called stuck up.  If I was Glory Girl I was neglecting my life in the daylight hours and if I was Victoria then I was neglecting my dreams.  If I separated the two then I fell to pieces and if I commingled then I fucked that up too.  That was when I couldn’t be sure if my friends were with me because me or because I was a superheroine, and when my mom had to tell me to take my headphones off or correct how I dealt with the public.

A silver blade caught Lord of Loss.  He turned to go after Precipice, and he was strong enough in his bounding that I had trouble keeping up.  He got faster with every few paces.

So much fucking potential, I told myself.

There had been very few people who had apparently accepted me as me.  Two.  One had made me her plaything before discarding me, and-

Rain’s power enhanced that stab of guilt that came in the wake of a thought I knew was unfair, glossing over context for the sake of absorbing the brunt of the hurt.

-and the second was Dean, and I’d let him die.

I plunged, driving my foot toward Lord of Loss’s tailbone, to drive his hips down and break his stride.  He dodged me, and I shattered floorboards instead.

I flew straight for him.  He had lost momentum, as part of that change in direction.

The cable was still partially wrapped around him, caught on slats and ragged edges of his white metal strips.  I could see those parts moving, even pushing the cable out.

I pushed myself a little further, to reach that cable, to not allow him to so deftly dodge.  Expect it.

My hands caught the cable.  The Wretch gave those hands strength.

My hands at the cable  at lowest point of Wolf-form-Lord-of-Loss’s chest, I hit him with Wretch and pulled the cable taut.

He retaliated.  I hit him as he did it, before flying inside his effective reach.

I found the hook, dangling off the side of his neck.  I hauled on it.  It hadn’t worked with the bird, and I could remember Precipice’s power catching me as I’d failed to alter Lord of Loss’s flight course.  Failed to alter it enough.

This time, at least, I could haul his forelimbs off the ground, denying him leverage.

With back legs, he hopped.

I hit him while he was in the air, to throw him off course, and to alter the rotation of his body.  It was slight, but while the Wretch was gone, I could fly around, unwinding the cable.

Retrieving my weapon.

I didn’t use the full slack.  I wanted the ability to move tighter.  To bring the hook around faster.  I hurled it around me as I dove.

He landed, all four limbs back on the ground.  He wasn’t on the ground for a second before I hit him again.  The hook and pulley assembly came down as a dense fifty or sixty pounds of metal, a punch to follow up the diving kick.

“Nice!”

“Shut the fuck up!”

He started reconfiguring.  I saw parts that had been gradually moving around his exterior stop moving.

Timing, I thought.  I brought the hook around in another tight swing.  He leaned back, I flew in.  The distances and trajectory of the hook lined up.  A heavy blow to his neck.

He swung.  Dodge better.  I ducked under the sweep of the claw – now more of an arm.

It wasn’t a major factor.  It was a factor.  Making the lessons learned in the midst of the fight a little more pointed.  Driving them home.

Regret and shame were our mind’s way of teaching us, and Precipice instilled a kind of regret, a kind of shame.

A bitter, black kind of schooling.  One that could go awry so easily, because the things we felt shame over weren’t always the most accurate.

I hit him twice with the Wretch and twice with the crane hook before he got me.  He spiked me down into the ground, and floorboards shattered.  In an instant, I was mired in gore.

A hand slipped between my mask and my mouth, and it was moist, soft and boneless.  A tiny finger hooked at my eyelid, pulling down hard enough that my chin was hauled to my shoulder.

The hand at my mouth swelled, a thumb pressed against my lips, then a golf ball, swiftly and almost instantly becoming the size of a softball.  It burst, flooding my nose with fluid that tasted like sugar water mixed with urine.  The sensation, my head tilted back, fluid flowing straight into the sinuses and throat, it prompted a sudden, involuntary, whole-body reaction, my back arching.

Fierce enough that even though it was fleeting, it kept me from noticing the initial push of solid mass at my mouth.

Like containment foam, I thought, grasping for safety in the midst of horror.  Like taking a drink of water and finding a slug in it sliding right past the tongue, except not water, and the slug didn’t end- it branched, twisted around itself, and varied in texture.

Straight to the back of my nose, punching the soft flesh there, straight down my throat, like a slug followed by a fist followed by a knobby arm with too many elbows, all wreathed in slick, loose flesh.

All growing to a dangerous size in the time it took me process what was happening.  To process that another was at my fucking boot again, for some fucking reason.

I flew backward and away.  Using flight to give me the initial tug, to get things moving the opposite way.

Lord of Loss caught me in the air before the tug happened..  My head dangled, the growth still attached.

“Good effort,” he said.  “Let’s go find your friends.”

No!  Bad effort!  Fuck you!  Panic tinged my thoughts.  There was a growth just behind my collarbone, in the midway point of my throat, that I could feel growing to size and stretching things there.  I couldn’t breathe, I-

Air pushed into my lungs.  I could see openings in the growth that connected to me widening and closing as it sucked in air and supplied it to me by some column or tube in the midst of it all.

Which didn’t help the fact that it was still expanding inside my throat like it was going to tear everything internal to pieces.  I thought about using the Wretch in my panic, them remembered that if it tore the growth in half, then one half would be inside me, not retrievable without surgery.

I would not go to a hospital like that.  I would not see those looks on the faces of medical staff.  I wouldn’t be a sideshow.  Not again.  I’d sooner go out fighting.

In the distance, Rain created a blade of silver.  I saw him throw it.

Lord of Loss didn’t move, nor did the growth.  The blade sailed through the air, missing us completely.  It hit a distant building.

Fuck you, Rain!

I tried to pull away, which triggered my gag reflex.  The only effect was that gorge rose in my throat and squeezed into every gap, burning my throat where it rested.  The ‘breathing’ of the growth gurgled in that small amount of fluid.

Another two blades appeared.  Rain threw one- aimed at the growth this time.

Lord of Loss shifted position, putting his own body between the blade and the growth.  It hit him.

I hit him.  A kick, strength active.  It was enough to do damage, but the damage wasn’t enough to change things.

Rain threw for the third time.  A scythe cutting through the air, traveling end over end.

Lord of Loss took a step to the side, so it would miss.

With abdomen and flight, I kicked out, bringing my foot up, catching the growth and repositioning it.

The blade caught my leg and the growth.

The growth swelled in my throat again, and this time the swelling forced it down, moved the whole mass.  I brought the leg with the silver line on it back to kick-

Lord of Loss gripped the growth and pulled- enough to break it where the line had caught it.  I could feel some of the strength go out of it.  Slowing it down, reducing some of the immediate swelling, which also had the effect of causing the gorge in my throat to sink, not quite swallowed.  The gurgling was worse, and I couldn’t breathe in the moment, even with the apparatus inside me.

“Don’t be stupid,” he said.

Staring him down, I brought my leg back again, to kick him.

He caught me with another clawed hand, around the pelvis, limiting my movement.

I still had the chain in my hand, for all the good it did.  I had the growth in my throat, two hands gripping me awkwardly, simultaneously too gentle and too constricting, covering my body from shoulder to mid-thigh.

No choice.

I closed my eyes, trying to ignore the swelling at my nose, that felt like it was going to expand until my nose was just a hole a baseball could fall through.

I used the Wretch.  I felt it expand around me, pressing out, clawing at Lord of Loss.  I felt the grip loosen slightly.

I dropped, slipping free.

“Aha!” he said, almost happy.  “So that’s your forcefield.  I was having trouble putting it together.”

The Wretch grabbed and tore at the growth that was still jutting from my face, just as I’d feared it would.  In an instant, before I could react or realize just where and how fiercely it was gripping the appendage, flesh was torn away and I was left with four to six inches of raw, slippery flesh outside of my mouth, and what felt like three feet of flesh inside.

I flew up, twisting in the air to find an orientation that would let the thing fall out.  It didn’t.  Instead, there was only the sensation that when it came out, a sock of windpipe would be dangling past my teeth.  That was the grip it had, the expansion within my throat.

I still held the cable, and in an effort to hold onto it, I wrapped my legs around it.  I let cable slide through my fingers in fits and starts, the weight of the barely-intact hook pulling it down.

I found the end, and I had to fumble with fingers wrapped in bandages and gloves that had been shredded over the course of the fight.  I found the individual bands of metal that made up the cable, and I tore.

A thinner length.  Bendable.  I wrapped it around the stump of flesh.

Don’t tear.

The hook was too blunt to use.  But a tight binding of metal served to give me a grip where I wouldn’t have otherwise had one.

With a burst of strength, I pulled it partway out.

Don’t break.

I used more Wretch-strength, and pulled again.  Another two inches of progress.

Every pull threatened to see it go to pieces, or to have one piece drop off and settle somewhere inside me.

I hauled on it once more, and this time, the lump returned to my throat, impossibly large for how narrow the passage was.  I was forced to pull- and in doing so I stopped being able to breathe.

In the darkness and the cold, high above Nursery’s mist, where up and down no longer mattered, and the entirety of my reality was confined to a few feet of foreign flesh and the Victoria-flesh that surrounded it, I pulled it out by half-inches, now.

The gag reflex helped and hurt.  Because each retching was movement out, but the involuntary swallowing and the way my throat seemed to forget how to work, freezing up in the aftermath, it made it harder.

When the worst of it was past my teeth, there wasn’t one slug, but a hundred, of varying fatness and lengths.  Vomit followed.

Can’t ever do that again, I thought, and it was a lesson etched in a hair deeper than already fucking necessary by Rain’s power.  An aftertaste.  That black kind of lesson.

The thought was immediately followed by me getting a grip on the cable and dropping out of the air.  From hovering to falling to diving, being a projectile.

Straight back into the situation that the messy, bloody lesson was telling me I should stay clear of.

Because if I didn’t, I knew, I wouldn’t ever.  This was a potential ‘retire from costumes’ level of badness and bitterness.

There was no way this was okay.  Not by law, not by morals, not by regrets.

I caught Lord of Loss as he was shoving Rain head-first into more of Nursery’s power-stuff with one hand, and doing the same to Chastity with the other.  The ‘caught’ was more in the line of spear-fishing than net.  I was the spear.

I broke through his shoulder, slammed the hook in with all the downward momentum for some added punch, then flew back, relying on the hook to catch him and pull him off balance.

As he was pulled back and away, Rain was pulled up and out of the mess.  His mask had protected him, by the looks of it. Chastity had wrapped both arms around her face, protecting nose and mouth, but she had a growth at her ear.  She hurried to pull it out.  Precipice helped her.

Another at her cleavage- less urgent, and Precipice didn’t help her with that one.  Instead, he sat on the ground, one eye on nearby appendages, and the other on me .

I started to speak, then coughed.

That didn’t work.  Instead, I gestured.  A ‘come hither’.

He started to rise to his feet.

I shook my head.

Another ‘come hither’.  I punched at my chest with a fist.

This time he got it.  He hit me with his emotion power.

I rolled my head around, my throat burning like fire, yet somehow too fluid.  My neck was all tension.

My feelings were black loathing.

I took the fight to Lord of Loss again.  Timing, as I brought the hook around.  Evasion.  More evasion this time.  I couldn’t trust my forcefield to take a hit if that hit was going to deliver me to Nursery’s babies.

Baby, I reconsidered.  I could see enough of the battlefield where floorboards had broken that I could see that it was all one continuous mass.

Last time, I’d scored two hits with my own hands and feet, two more hits with the crane-hook.

This time, lessons etched in a little more, I landed three and two.  He swung at me, and I flew back and out of the way.

Not again.  That didn’t need Precipice’s power to etch it in, but I had it regardless.

I’d been good at fighting from a young age, courtesy of good instructors.  I’d learned to fight big threats, and I’d learned to fight the ones who didn’t go down.  Lord of Loss was both of those things, and he was reasonably quick.  I didn’t give him a chance to rest, returning immediately to the fight, and I could tell how he was deflecting my hits, bringing fists up to block, and blocking just a bit more aggressively each time.

I threw.  The hook sailed over him.  I pulled back, and the chain slid between neck and shoulder.  If the hook caught-

He batted it away.

The hook did catch his hand.  I used my strength for a bit more oomph, and it it pulled him slightly off balance.  I was immediately on top of him.

He elbowed me aside.  An eyeblink later, and he might have hit me without the wretch protecting me.

Can’t let him do that, I thought.  Another lesson to etch in.

Can’t let him blockTime the hook-swings now that the hook is free again.  Can’t let him hit me.

My senses were just a little bit sharper, my focus at its limits because anything less than perfect meant he got the upper hand, and it meant feeling that pit-of-the-stomach self-loathing and disappointment.  It meant feeling like I had once upon a time, not measuring up to a family that was superhuman, just for a simple missed swing.

Somewhere in the midst of it, I felt like I had his number.  He swung hard and blocked harder and I didn’t care because I could hit him low while he was defending himself up-top.  I hit him with strength that I could have used to lift up a truck, and then I did it a few more times.

I created an opening , drove him onto uneven footing where there was only flesh beneath him, and then flew to the opening.  The Wretch expanded in the opening, tearing it wide.  He reached up and I flew away before he could grab me.

Precipice was throwing out blades, catching Lord of Loss in the legs.  One stumble severed a leg, and it gave me an opportunity to redouble my efforts, focusing on the offense, sacrificing defense.

Finally, the villain toppled.  Finally, the hand fell away and I could access that opening I had created, that he had only partially repaired.

Into the cavity, to where the glowing figure was protected by a spider web of slats and segments.  Some were threading out, repairing the shell.  Others turned inward.  I was the girl in the box, as the magician thrust swords inside.

The first one cut me.  No.

The second glanced off of my armor at my chest.  The third did  much the same, at my leg.

The third, too, cut me.  No!

The fourth, I avoided.

I flew in, punching past a webwork of calcified steel slats, losing ground as they constricted around me.  As I felt my forcefield return, I pushed out with the Wretch, to expand the slats around me and give myself a way out.  I reached the glowing figure.

As I grabbed him by the neck, the body that was Lord of Loss stopped.  The life went out of it, and the light of the body in the center dimmed.

It all crumbled.  The man in my grip was thirty or so.  He had a nice haircut, if a bit young for his age, an earring in one ear, a coat, a gray shirt, and black slacks.  If he was wearing anything but that gray shirt past the coat, I couldn’t see it.

Nice clothes, but ones that lacked nuance.  The kind of outfit that Dean had once described to me, where a person with a bit of money walked into a store, insecure, pointed to a mannequin, and bought the outfit the mannequin was wearing.

“Good fight,” Lord of Loss told me.

I punched him in the mouth.  No Wretch.  Just the mild brass-knuckle effect that came with having four metal rings, each with a spike sweeping backward over the knuckle.

“I might deserve that,” he said.

“S-” I started.  I coughed.  No blood, at least.  “Start talking, Loss.”

My voice still sounded a hair too low.  I hoped I hadn’t permanently fucked up my vocal chords.

“What if I don’t?” he asked.

I looked over at the nearest appendage of Nursery’s power.  The area was diminishing by the looks of things – it seemed she’d made a break for it.

“I could throw you in,” I said.

“Would you really?” he asked.  He smiled.  “You’re too noble.”

I pulled off my mask and pulled down my hood.  I waited, staring him down.  As his eyes studied my face, his expression faltered.

Did we get through?

“I don’t normally see people’s faces while I’m changed,” he said.

“That doesn’t excuse anything,”

“Didn’t want it to,” he said.  “I’m only commenting.”

“What are your employers up to?”

“I don’t know.  Didn’t ask, didn’t care.  You might have a better idea than I do.”

“Just following orders,” Precipice said.

“Rule, not order,” Lord of Loss said.  “Rules help.  Before- before I was Lord of Loss, I was just this man you see here.  He was broken, before he had rules.”

“You’re still broken now,” I said.  “Whatever made you make those rules in the first place, you need to go all the way back to square fucking one and revisit it.  Because this?  Not remotely fucking cool.  Someone else might have killed you for it.”

He smiled.  I resisted the urge to punch him in the face again.

Chastity, though, was on her feet, striding forward.  She backhanded him across the face, and he went down hard.

“Others are awake,” Chastity said.

“Okay,” I said.  “You’re going to have to drag him.”

She made a face.

“Your fault,” I said.  My voice caught, a burr or frog in it that wouldn’t go away.

Fuck, my skin crawled.  I couldn’t even be sure my system was clear.  I wondered what I could drink that was caustic enough to discourage those things from growing.

Maybe alcohol.  A lot of really strong alcohol.

“He wanted to delay us,” Precipice said.  “He succeeded.”

An utter fucking disaster, I thought.

I paused.

“You can turn your power off,” I told Rain.

He did.

That could have been better, I thought.  But at least we got him.

I almost didn’t want to check.  I brought up the disc, and found it out of position, pushed to one side.  A click unfolded it, a tap at the rim once it was unfolded brought it to life.

“Are they okay?” Foil asked.

I clicked through, my heart sinking.

“No,” I said.

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Blinding – 11.7

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“Make you a deal,” I said.

Lord of Loss shook his head, his ‘face’ a smiling collection of metal strips.  It was overlarge, looming as much as the rest of him.

“We’ve got a big, big bag of money,” I said.  “We want to buy your services.  You’ll get more than you will working for Love Lost, you get to keep your hands clean, and you can steer clear of the clusterfuck surrounding that group.”

“No,” Lord of Loss said.  “That’s not how we operate.”

“You’re mercenaries,” Chastity said.

“We are.”

“That’s the number one thing about mercenaries, you’ll do anything for money!”

“We work for money.  Rules are necessary.”

“Being able to switch sides and do the crazy betrayal thing while getting paid for it has got to be the best part of being a mercenary, and you’re giving that up!?” Chastity asked, aghast, the tension of the small army that was lined up against us adding to the extremes and modulation of her voice.

All around us, the landscape was changing.  Snow was melting, heaps of it by the sides of the road that had been cleared for construction toppling and folding into itself.  The wind continued to whip around us, and the air that carried that air to us made me aware of how stale it was, with something mixed into it, like an oppressive haze of baby powder or shampoos.

“We get hired, we do the job, we do it well.  Rinse, repeat,” Lord of Loss intoned the words, his voice low in the way only Brutes could manage.  “We keep up the rules of the game, we don’t make enemies we don’t have to.”

Others in that mob were looking ready to throw themselves at us.  Nursery in particular looked ready to draw blood.

To stall, I decided to try something.  “I’ll make you another deal.  Talk with us.  Let’s make sure we’re on the same page.  If you still think that this is okay when we’re done, then we pick up where we left off.  In-”

“No,” Lord of Loss said.

“In exchange,” I said.  “We pay you for your time.  We pass you money hand over fist to buy your time.  Nursery gets more control over her area, we get nothing except your consideration.”

“Not your money to give away,” Aroa said, under her breath.

“I’m guessing it’s not yours either,” Lord of Loss said, talking past me to address Aroa.  He chuckled as much as anything as he uttered, “No.”

“Did you hear what happened to the Navigators?” I asked Lord of Loss.  To Nursery, I said, “Are you aware they’re putting kids in the line of fire?”

“If we talk, it’s going to be after we’ve captured you,” Lord of Loss said.

He shifted position, which prompted me to look back.  Past the ground floor of the house, past kitchen, living room, and back stairwell, I could see the rear door, and I could see his bodily mass planted down there.  Whatever form he wore, it was extended enough that he could cover two exits at once, and his oversized head was mobile, free to move where he needed it.

Foil, quiet up until this point, started shooting the crossbow, launching her augmented bolts.  I’d known her as Flechette, back in the days when I’d thought my boyfriend, Eric, and Uncle Neil dying at the hands of an unstoppable giant lizard was the worst life was going to get.  Back then, she’d had something elegant.  Now she had something big.

The skewers were about as long my arm was from elbow to fingertip, tapered at both sides.  They punched through Lord of Loss’ digits, where a hand or clawed foot had just touched ground to give him leverage.

He didn’t react to the pain.  He did try to lift his hand up, only to jerk to a halt.

Our cue to go.  I covered the rear flank as the others charged for the door.  The headless spider with the crossbow strapped to its body was Foil’s mount.  Parian slumped between Foil and the crossbow, leaning hard into Foil.  She was, at least, managing the spider, despite her condition.

“Cut through buildings!” I told them.  “Lord of Loss never seems to go indoors at any point!”

I heard crumbling and looked back.  Through the narrow aperture of the front door, I could see Lord raising an oversized, clawed extremity, shedding debris.  He hadn’t managed to un-impale himself or pull the needles from the stones, but he had managed to pull up the pavement.

Someone ducked underneath the hand, skidding on the ground.  A cape, dressed in an all-covering orange bodysuit, who ran fast enough that they clipped the edge of the doorframe in their crazed run.

I raised my forcefield as I saw them fix their attention on me.  I could fly backward without worrying too much about bumping into anything, so I kept the majority of my focus on them.

I saw them glance to one side.  They aimed to go around me.

Half right.  They leaped, power activating, to throw themselves at the wall.  They collided in a shower of orange and amber light and sparks, and rebounded, no longer human.  A swirling mass of energy.

The impact when he hit the Wretch was violent, the impact carrying through the air to scatter papers, money we hadn’t grabbed, and the washed and dried silverware that had been laid at the edge of the kitchen’s counter.

He recovered, momentum lost, clearly startled that what he’d planned hadn’t worked.

Reminded me of mom, just… bigger and spikier.  Aggressive instead of defensive.

My focus was on him, so I didn’t get to see what was happening at the exit here.  Precipice was stepping in, at the least.

I stared down my opponent.  They were dressed like a hero from one of the old Japanese superteams, covered head to toe, hard helmet with full face coverage, a bodysuit with stretchy material with light decoration.  They did have some padding, though.  Elbow and knee pads-

“Need help, Antares?” Candy interrupted my observations.

“Save your juice,” I said.

Elbow and knee pads, and some chest protection that made it ambiguous if they were flat or if they had pronounced pecs.  Whatever the case, armor could indicate vulnerability, either to bait, as was my case, or by accident.  Theirs was too light, too built for things other than deflecting bullets or stopping knives.

They acted again.  Again, a sharp, high-speed lunge, not aimed at me or at the others, but at a wall.  Again, the impact, sparks and light.  Post-impact, as they rebounded off, they’d become a large, whirling death ball formed of hard energy.

A stray arm of the Wretch blocked the way, deflecting them.  They landed hard, sliding on the floor and bumping into a table.  They wasted no time in using their power again, holding to the pattern, but glancing off of the ceiling instead.  Blocking it meant flying back to get myself thoroughly in the way put me perilously close to the Heartbroken.

They were an air hockey puck.  Not well suited for the direct strike, always bouncing off of something sufficiently hard and flat.

I was ten invisible people superimposed over one another, each wildly swinging sledgehammers around.

The thought, as casual as it was, threw me off.  The natural hazard.  It had made taking care of me at the asylum that much harder, and I hadn’t made it easier.

I drew in a deep breath, throwing myself to one side to intercept again.

The pit of despair was there, waiting for me to get too close before I had that stomach-sinking feeling that anyone felt if standing on a ledge, provided they were unable to fly.  It was easier to deal with and wholly recontextualized now that I didn’t feel like someone was lurking nearby, ready to give me a shove or hem me in.  But easier was different from easy.

The others hadn’t slipped through.

“What’s the holdup?” I called back.

“Spider’s too big for the door!  Moving over to snake, dealing with the big guy!”

I would have provided some assistance, but I couldn’t take my attention off of the air hockey puck.

The puck leaped forward, but dropped like they were tripping over their own feet.  The goal, though, was to make as straight a shot as he was capable of, lunging while close to the ground, striking the floor at a shallow angle and then going directly for our team.

I’d kind of expected it, though.  My mom had done that a few times in sparring, trying to roll between my feet.

Pads meant vulnerability.  The hard bit of plastic or metal at the wrist was meant to help him when post-power, skidding to a stop.  I blocked the impact, mindful that I wasn’t too close to heartbroken, then followed up, chasing.

They weren’t fully recovered when I crashed into them.  I wrapped my arm around them, gathering them up into a full nelson.

They stomped the ground, propelling us both into a lunge, straight for the ceiling.  I used my flight to reorient us in the air, denying them the follow-up contact.  Then I used my aura, my chest pressed hard against their back, the feeling emanating from me and into them point blank.

I wanted to break them, to make their efforts less strategic and more flailing.  I could feel it in how they jerked and kicked, now.

They grazed furniture with a kicking toe, and again, we were propelled away, hard.  I twisted us in the air so it was my back that slid across the ceiling.  The paint and the ceiling’s surface cracked badly with the contact, and something on the other side pushed back.  It was meaty, broader across than my back was, and it slurped.

I didn’t break through that thin layer of ceiling, and neither did the thing on the other side.  Not until my enemy reached up to hit it.  Paint broke, cracks spread out, and we were boosted away from it, the boost no doubt being the original intent.

I was glad it wasn’t a death-ball boost, at least.

Their power had two components.  The dash, the boost, the ‘kick-off’, where they moved four or five times as fast.  If they could bounce off of a solid surface as they did it, then they went full death ball, becoming a whirling sphere as tall as I was.

My goal in the now was to pump them full of emotion without saturating my own team, and to keep them from achieving their move.  I kept us away from the spreading break in the ceiling, with red membrane-covered flesh pressing down against the hole, too wide to penetrate.

“Bring him here!” Chastity called out.

Him, then.  She did say she had a body sense.

Bringing him closer to the ground came with a danger, though.  If he touched the ground, he could kick off of it.  I tangled my legs with his, moving us in the air so those tangled feet weren’t anywhere near the floor.

Chastity stalked closer.  She raised her right hand up over her left shoulder as she advanced, and it glowed nebulously with a dark blue energy.  She had to make a small hop to give herself the height to make contact- a backhand swing that caught the air hockey puck across the face of the helmet.

He was torn from my arms, slapped down against the ground.  He didn’t bounce or rebound.  The floor cracked beneath him, far more fragile than it should have been

My foe groaned, as he slumped down to the ground, hands going to his helmet, so he could hold his head up.  The sound he made was a long groan like every single involuntary utterance I’d made while cringing about middle school me, except with the duration and volume dialed to the maximum.

Chastity raised her hand up near her face, covering the smile she wore.  One of her fingernails was glowing, and a ring at one of her other fingers was catching that light in a way more intense than normal.  “Bitch slap delivered.”

“Not the reaction I expected,” I said, as I floated away from the air hockey puck.  “Distilled defeat, you said?”

“It looks different for everyone, but everyone reaches a point where their body can’t take anymore and shuts down, whatever the mind thinks it wants.  I hurry things along,” she said.  She gave the ceiling a dubious look.  “Let’s get outside.  Outside has to be better.”

I nodded.

“You’re going to need to protect me,” she said, waggling her hand in my general direction, the glowing fingernail in focus.  Then, like she was just now remembering, “And I’m going to need to protect Precipice.”

She hurried back toward Precipice with a kind of urgency.  The bitch slap target was ignored, assumed out of commission.  She had a body sense, too, which apparently mapped out to anyone she’d used her power on, while also helping her aim her attacks by keeping her aware of where her potential slap targets were.

Her ‘bitch slap’ was a dangerous weapon, but a fragile one.  One shot, and if the target wasn’t immune or resistant to emotion powers, then they were out of the fight.  If she was more confident or powerful in her target’s eyes, it hit harder and lasted longer.  The fragility, though, was that the second she was taken down a peg, the effects all broke, everyone she’d slapped down was back in play, and she ate some of the backlash.

It wouldn’t be too bad so long as she only had one foe she’d slapped down.

The others were outside, with only Candy at the door, watching and waiting for her sister’s return.

I flew outside and up to a point where I still had the house to my back but I could see over the others’ heads.  We were surrounded, but they were managing.  Parian had threads going out in every direction, hampering the potential attackers, Lord of Loss was having to pull a clawed extremity from the side of the house where it had been nailed down, and it looked like he was reconfiguring into a form- three giant heads and multiple arms were drawing back into a central mass.

“I wasted juice,” Candy was telling Chastity.  “Lord of Loss doesn’t feel it.”

I could have told you that, I thought.  That was a shame.  “Nursery.  If you can hit Nursery, do it.  Just- nothing permanent.”

Candy looked up at me, then nodded.

As horrifying as that woman is, I thought.  Foil was still assisting Parian, who was hunched over atop a spider.  Her being there made using the large crossbow difficult, but Foil did her best.

The Heartbroken hurried toward Parian and Foil.  Aroa got tangled in threads that Parian was manipulating, and Parian had to devote attention to maneuvering the spider, rotating it so she could see Aroa, and then disentangling her.

With the damage to her throat, it was apparently easier to use cosmic power to telekinetically fill a spider made of fabric, then manipulate that spider to turn around, than it was to twist herself around.

Lord of Loss reached out with a clawed extremity, spikes still embedded in it.  Closer to his main body, that limb was unfurling, but there was still enough anchoring for it to move and manipulate things.

The claw reached, and I flew to put myself between the others and the hand.  I’d block and fend it off-

The length of the arm hid a lance within it.  It passed through a gap in the palm of the claw, thrusting toward me and toward the others.  I used the Wretch to grab it, but the banding of white stone-like or metal-like strips ran along the length from tip to base, twisting it to give it a kind of rifling.  Not something I or the Wretch could get a hold on.

Instead, while it skidded past me, scraping by the Wretch and numerous invisible, super-strong hands, I pushed it off course.

The lance dissolved.  I had to maneuver to keep the strips from catching or slicing at me as they withdrew.

I couldn’t get in close, because that put me in reach of another three claws.  Five claws if I considered the dissolving ones.

He’d been a mass of large faces, thin arms, and large claws.  Everything about reach and perception.  Or I was assuming the extra faces were for perception.  It was possible it was the equivalent of a man in the jungle wearing a mask on the back of his head to confuse the tigers that wanted to pounce on him from behind.

He’d improved over the last little while.  I could remember him being limited to forms.  He’d spent time with Marquis, hadn’t he?  And Marquis was a top tier changer, with inventive, by-the-moment adaptations.

Lord of Loss seemed intent on taking a few lessons from that playbook.  I kept a wary eye out.  This was brute-against-brute standard playbook, unfortunately.

I raised my voice.  “They tore people to pieces and those pieces are still alive!  They took pieces so those people can’t even be put back together!”

“You pulverized Valefor’s jaw,” Lord of Loss said.

“If you don’t see the distinction between Valefor and a plucky band of heroes who made it their life’s mission to stop human trafficking, then something’s really fucking wrong with you, Lord of Loss.”

“I think there are lines,” Lord of Loss said, as he dissolved into more narrow lengths.  Two claws with morasses of white strips joining them to his main body gripped the house to hold him aloft.  “Between Valefor and those heroes, yes.  But playing fair and destroying others?  That’s a clear line too.”

“He’s a monster, Loss, and if that’s what you think, why the fuck are you helping people who butchered heroes?  They crossed your line!”

“My line gets drawn when I’m hired,” he said.  “I can’t quit a job partway through.  I’ll consider things after.”

“The damage is being done now!  They’ll use that weapon or power again!”

“You think,” he said.

I grit my teeth.

I saw the silver blades appear.  Precipice’s power- slicing through the air, to cut at the thickest portion of Lord of Loss’s supports.

I flew, maximum speed, to capitalize on it before the opportunity was lost.  Precipice had to have decided to do it to capitalize on Lord of Loss being distracted with conversation.

Lengths of Lord of Loss’ mummy-wrapped-in-iron-bandages form extended out, encasing the parts that had been marked out with silver lines.  External support.

A clawed extremity reached my way.  I slammed into the palm, hoping to throw him off enough that the silver would snap and the limbs would give way.

No effect.  He didn’t topple.  Clawed digits of a hand larger than I was closed in around me.  I spun, relying on the spinning force combined with the reach of the Wretch to ensure I had enough of a gap to get out.

He laughed.

The music box tune was plinking all around us, and as Precipice and the heartbroken hurried to stay in rough formation with the spider, I could see tracks of footprints where the snow had been pressed down, and the thin red of bodily fluids was leeching up into the compacted snow, through the slats in the road-turned-flooring.

Crimson footprints in white snow.

Snowbanks were moving, not just because they were crumpling to become misty building interior, but because they acted as suitable containers, and Nursery’s power worked by filling up containers.  That included filling up living, people containers, throats, sinuses, ear canals…

Chastity had her whip out, and was using it to repel soldiers.  The cracks were audible and distracting as she cleared a path for the spider to move forward.  The soldiers that weren’t powered were dealing with being tugged and limited in their movements by a thousand fine pieces of thread.

The ones that were powered were the focus of Foil’s crossbow and darts.  One shot aimed at a man wearing armor bands that hugged his muscular physique, with each band connected to the next with short chains.  The bolt passed through armor by the ‘penetrate anything’ effect, grazed the skin, then came back into reality through use of Foil’s enhanced timing.  The bolt was effectively fused to the armor it had been passing through, it retained its momentum, and it threw the the man off balance.  His hand touched the road, and another bolt passed through armor to secure the armor of the forearm and armor of the gauntlet to the floorboards below.

Lord of Loss shifted position on his perch.  He was making himself into the heavy-hitting centaur form, but for now the four legs and one arm were spindly, drawn overlong, to the point it didn’t look like he could support himself.  The arm that wasn’t formed was expanding into a shield to protect him.  At the top of his head, strips were hardening into a position where they formed a crown of braided antlers.

Where one spindle-leg punched through the roof, I could see the red mist rising.  Meaty squelches and growths reached up and wound around his leg, only to break away as he shifted his footing.  Umbilical cord growths reached out, groping for potential targets.

I considered striking at someone else while Lord of Loss was finishing.  How long did I have?  Ten seconds?  Twenty?  How much time to get to another point on the battlefield, eliminate the biggest problem, and still be here if I was needed to protect the others?

He might have read my mind, because he proved why I couldn’t just leave him to his own devices- he reached out with a hand, as if to point.  Again, the lance emerged from within, stabbing out, rotating as it emerged this time.  A hundred feet long, and the tapering point closest to me was still thick enough I could have wrapped my arms around it, if I didn’t have the Wretch to do it for me.

Again, to much less effect than the last time, I deflected the point.  With the Wretch doing the heavy lifting, I was free to look back, seeing what he was aiming for.

The cloth snake flanked our group and kept a good five or six of Lord of Loss’ soldiers from approaching.  It was winding through and among cars.  If I were him, I would have speared the snake and flicked the cars to put them in the others’ way.

For now, I could keep it from being accurate.  It struck ground close to the snake, then swiped to one side.  Cloth tangled around the lance’s point, and the snake tore, losing a quarter of its total length.  The thing started to deflate, and then the tail section twisted itself together, tight enough to offer a seal.

In the movies or comics, sparks would have flown as the Wretch fought the rotation and force of the lance.  Here, it was only movements of cold air, some collected ice and snow shedding and falling as a deceptively gentle rain to the street below.

He drew back, his entire body pulling away to help bring his lance far enough away that I wasn’t embracing its length anymore.

He laughed.  My expression behind my mask could have been stone.

I couldn’t stop it.  The next one would strike home.  Every time he repeated himself, he was more forceful, more consistent.

Fuck, fuck, fuck.

That he was being such a gloating asshole about it made me feel worse.

Options.  What are my options?

If I couldn’t deflect, catch, or otherwise influence the hit- predict the target and move them?  Or something else?

Just thinking about my options helped matters, my confidence surging back… and in the wake of that, I was aware that my emotions were jumping all over the place.

Precipice.  Fucking Rain.

He’d hit me with his power, after being explicitly asked not to.  Why?

To signal.  There was no visual indicator he was using his power.

He wanted me to act… and I had an idea what he wanted me to do.  I flew at Lord of Loss.  Another hit, like the one I’d delivered before, only the silver blades weren’t in place.

Even if this didn’t work, it might delay the next telescoping lance from coming out.

I slammed into Lord of Loss, and this time there was an effect.  Far below, two forelegs of his centaur form were breaking.  I was slower than the thrown silver blades, so Precipice had signaled me, then timed the throws to connect just before I did.

Lord of Loss lurched forward, his forward tilt and the falling legs damaging the house as they toppled.  His shield came forward, the end slamming into the ground, which allowed him to avoid a faceplant.  Already, his legs were reforming.

Silver blades hit the shield, and I hit Lord of Loss.  The shield broke, and the broken end skidded on the ground.  Where it skidded, floorboards broke and shattered, and masses beneath the floorboards began to move, disturbing them further.

It was taking two of us just to keep an Endbringer-sized breaker from getting fully put together and building up his momentum.  Our team wasn’t getting away because forward progress was a slog, hampered by Nursery’s power and the soldiers that had to be dealt with one by one.

My ears rang in the wake of a blast somewhere down on the battlefield.  It was one of three shots- lasers that hurt to listen to.  The cape was one of Lord of Loss’s underlings, it seemed, and they were slinging blasts like nobody’s business.  A flaming lob high overhead that forced our guys to scatter, then a volley of green and black spheres, that cracked like eggs and leaked out acid.  Foil turned the spider-mounted crossbow around to fire, and the blaster threw something to their feet- crystal encased them, freezing them immobile within for less than a second.  It was less than a second because Foil’s shot hit the crystal and both the bolt and the crystal shattered.  The cape was free to fire off some more artillery-like lobs.

Foil was running out of ammunition.

Lord of Loss advanced, two of his legs unsteady, forcing him to use the end of the lance or the shield to support his weight.  I circled over his head like a vulture, ready to act, and he was keeping an eye out for me.  The lance moved, swiping out.

The movement of the lance produced a shockwave that threw my flying off course.

Have to be careful, I told myself.  Can’t- can’t repeat the Crawler situation.

With the force that lance was swinging around with, a good hit could destroy the Wretch and produce a residual flurry of wind that would slam me into a hard surface.

Mood, I thought.

Self-doubt and regret was Precipice.  Another signal.

I took the signal for what it was and engaged Lord of Loss.  Again, the lance swiped past me.  The aftermath was worse than it had been, pulling me into the eddy of air that followed after the lance.

I closed the distance, and I landed a solid blow.  Lord of Loss began to crumble.

One-two punches.  I wasn’t even sure it was possible to take Lord of Loss out of commission, but if we could slow him down enough…

The crumbling continued.

Did we kill him?

With each piece that hit the ground, more of the ‘floor’ broke, where the floor was just something interdimensional, a landscape rewrite that produced floorboards about as durable as popsicle sticks, with a whole lot of fertile meat things beneath that surface.

He emerged, a phoenix from its egg.  Bird-form, built like a hawk, but with elaborate, extensive wings, and ‘streamers’ of metal strips that were more rigid than not, with sharp edges.  Each pump of the wings was slow, barely matching the downward pull of gravity.  Each pump was stronger than the last.

He turned human, shedding his breaker exterior, then went breaker again.

I flew to intercept, while it was still largely immobile.  He didn’t try to dodge, and he didn’t fight me.  With the Wretch active, I punched in, and I broke through the exterior.

I saw Lord of Loss himself.  A figure, not that tall for someone who made such chronically large breaker forms.  He wasn’t human, but existed instead as a nimbus of glowing strips that formed a vaguely human silhouette where they intersected most and were brightest.  Where they pulled away, they became solid.

The loose strips and broken ends began to close in around me, like I was now standing in the midst of an giant’s open mouth, fangs on either side of me, fingers curling in to keep me from escaping.  It was still flying, if lopsided, but that wasn’t my immediate concern.

I had to pull away.  He got to keep flying.

Aroa and Chastity were dealing with the blaster of infinite variety.  Aroa’s power was a blast of her own, but not the kind that was easily dodged.  It was as instantaneous as lightning, and it left afterimages more than actual images, and those after images curled instead of zig-zagging, peeled off instead of forking.

She wasn’t one of the strongest Heartbroken, based on what I’d been told.  Not in this kind of situation.  Not with relatively short range.  Her power stung people, whole-body, and it adjusted the pain response to make them like pain, whether it was from her or another source.

In another circumstance, I imagined she could be like Regent, insidious and very dangerous.  Here, it was a way to distract, unnerve, and even condition an unwary foe to not want to get out of the way of danger.

Lord of Loss’s bird form took evasive action to avoid Precipice’s power. One good hit could buy me the chance to get in and take him down, since he would be unable to flap his wings, but he wasn’t inclined to allow that.

As I closed him, I saw his head turn, noting me.  He veered to one side, crashing through the skeleton of a building that was only beams and girders dusted with snow and covered in sheets of ice.  As pieces toppled, I was forced to back off.

We were getting bogged down.  The blaster had been doing something strategic in lobbing that fire and spreading that acid.  The ground had been broken, and one mass had sprouted, less of a tongue and more like a woman stretched out to ten feet in length, hairless and skinny, and wrapped up in a layered straightjacket of her own flesh and translucent, veiny flesh.  Her toothless mouth yawned open as she jerked one way and the other, her attention on Candy.

Escape routes were lost to mist and Nursery’s power.  The enemy’s soldiers that were still in the fight were putting up a good fight.  One had a Foil bolt through the barrel of his gun, but was holding the gun by the barrel with the bolt used as a spear.

I changed direction, swooping in to go after the problem elements.  Broken legs would have to do.

As I veered off, so did Lord of Loss.  One could have seen it as us flying in formation, but it was the opposite.  I made a sharp right turn, Lord of Loss made a sharp left.

I knew what he’d do- there were only so many destinations for him.  I was faster, but he could hit harder and bigger.

He’d flown through the construction sites that littered Love Lost’s neighborhood.  I did the same.

Come on, Wretch.  Don’t fuck with me.  If you go from grabbing shit to refusing to grab anything here, I’m going to be pissed.

The first attempt failed, as I skimmed past a stack of what looked like solar glass panels, rigged up with chains so the crane could lift them up.  The Wretch didn’t touch any of it.

On the second attempt, I veered too close to the mist.  The tarp I grabbed with both my real hands and the Wretch broke away.  Nursery’s power had turned some of it to curtain or some shit like that, and the connection between the two halves wasn’t strong.

I could see something writhing beneath the curtain that fell aside now that the tarp was no longer attached.

My teeth grit, I circled around.  The others were winning their fights but losing the war.  Candy wasn’t using her power, Aroa wasn’t a gamechanger, Chastity had a tightrope to walk, and Foil was doing a damn good job considering she was preoccupied with the injured Parian, but she was still running out of ammunition.

And then there was Precipice.  Rain.  I looked at him, and he turned from looking at Lord of Loss, who was tracing a loose u-turn, to look up at me.

To be sure he could see me, I used my arm to point at the nearby crane.

He fired, striking at the neck of the crane itself.

Again, still flying toward my target, I indicated.

Come on, I thought.  Get this right, and please, don’t let the wind jar the crane and make the neck split, because that’s not what I need.

The silver blade cut into the cable, this time.

I flew into the hook, grabbing it, activated my strength and tore it free.  Multiple cables thinner than my wrist trailed behind me.

Lord of Loss was diving.  He skimmed damaged buildings on his way down, and the ones touched by Nursery’s power broke apart.  More holes in the ground, more meat rising up.

But he was drawing nearer and nearer to the ground now.  He wasn’t going to crush anyone in the group, slamming into them with a bird form the size of a large truck.  He was going to destroy the landscape and let Nursery’s things out.

A loop in the air let me catch the midpoint of the cabling.  From there, it was a question of catching up.  I’d turned right, hit the construction site, and now was charging in.  Lord of Loss was bigger, more ungainly, but powerful, and he’d needed more time and room to turn around.  Now we were roughly the same distance from the group, both flying in like jousting knights, and my teammate and allies were hunkered down near the point where Lord of Loss and I were likely to clash.

Parian was knitting her snake and spider together, forming something else.  Chastity and Aroa fended off the others nearby, with whipcracks and blasts.

Precipice hit Lord of Loss across the wing, and Lord of Loss froze.  He glided, not flapping, not moving, and continued his steady, inexorable descent.  With his course being what it was, he would hit the edge of the road and slide alongside the group, carving out a trench.

That trench would mean no escape.

Precipice’s silver line wore off.  Fresh silver blades hit.  One at the head.  Another at the body.

By virtue of being faster, I passed over the group, veering to one side so I didn’t brain or slash any of them with the trailing ends of the cabling, and flew straight at Lord of Loss.

The giant bird made of calcified metal strips laughed, a booming sound.  Like he was having fucking fun.

I crashed into him, the loops and cabling catching him at the neck- but he wasn’t rigid.  I tried to steer his whole body up, but he angled his wings to force the dive.

Futile.

Leaving the loops where they were, I grabbed the hook.  I had a split second to decide what to do with it, and… there wasn’t a building or landscape feature in reach that I could latch onto.  Given scale and momentum, I doubted it would have mattered.

Instead, using my strength, I impaled the one wing and hauled on it.  He fought me, and it was an arm wrestling contest, with the distinction that neither of us were using our own strength.

I almost faltered, feeling the doubt creep in, knowing that a particularly violent crash with steel cabling whipping around everywhere would be worse.  Then the feeling disappeared.

It wasn’t enough to steer Lord of Loss far enough away to matter.  But Parian had her combined animal, almost shaped like a hand planted on the ground, with the arm extending up and out.  Akin to a spear planted in the ground to stop a charging horse.  Lord of Loss rammed into it and the vibration that ran through him rattled my brain, shaking my senses to the point that I momentarily lost touch with everything.

We spiraled out, and a combination of jarring impact and a cable looped around my arm kept me from flying up and away from the crash site.

I lay where I was, cold and hurting from head to toe, a steel cable draped behind me and two uncomfortably beneath me, and I thought about how I’d need to kick Precipice’s ass, after this.  I knew he was trying to make Lord of Loss hesitate, that I’d caught only the edge of the effect, but he needed to put one and one together.  If the heartbroken’s power wouldn’t work, why would his?

Lord of Loss was pulling himself together.  I was just about as fast as he was, which wasn’t fast at all.

A silver blade hit Lord of Loss in one wing.  He’d been leaning on it for support and balance, and it broke with the pressure.

I backed up, skirting the hole that Parian’s stuffed spidersnake had made as the impact had driven it into the ground.  Mass was rising up, but it was enough competing parts that they were getting jammed up in the hole.

“How’s Parian?” I asked.

“Not good.  We’ve been trying to get out, stick to shaker protocols-”

“Don’t fight them on their turf,” I said.

“But she covers so much ground with that power.”

I nodded, my jaw set.  Fuck, I hurt all over.

There weren’t any good escape routes on foot, and I didn’t trust carrying a whole team by air.  It was one thing if I carried Kenzie’s projection cube with straps.  Another thing if it was a team of people, some injured.

Aroa had a bloody nose, but her eyes glittered.  Chastity had three glowing fingernails.  Candy-

“I still have a shot.  I’m saving it for Nursery, right?”

I nodded.  “Might not end the effect.”

“You could let us be taken prisoner,” Foil said.  “Fly away, get help.”

I shook my head.

“Keep it in mind as a last resort.”

“Last we saw, Nursery was pissed.  If I leave you, you all get the Nursery treatment.”

Chastity’s voice was low, dangerous.  “I told myself I’d never have a baby.  I’ve changed too many diapers, given too many baths, fed smelly food to smellier cousins and whatever.  I’d sooner die.”

“Let’s not let it come to that,” I said.  “And while we’re assessing what to do and what not to do…  Precipice.”

“Sorry,” he said.  “Panic.”

“If it was a gun or a toy I’d take it away from you,” I said.  “It almost fucked me up when I tried to lasso him.”

“Sorry,” he said.

The bulge where the stuffed doll had been driven into the floorboards was opening up now.  The bits of flesh that had been competing for space at the edge of the hole were now rising tall.  One reached out to start pumping seeds into the ear of one of Lord of Loss’s soldiers.  Another started trying to feed on the stuffed animal.  Futile.  The stuffed creation fought and smashed until it was pulled down.

Others were creeping out, trying to seize on fallen soldiers.  All together, they stopped, leaving those soldiers alone.

“She’s here,” I said.  They’ll be controlled instead of acting animal.

“She’s there,” Aroa said.  She grabbed Candy by the shoulders, spinning her around.

Candy blew a kiss.

I couldn’t see a result, aside from a stagger on the distant Nursery’s part, where she stood by a building.  But I felt a general change in the movements of Nursery’s creations.  Some started groping for unconscious and injured soldiers again.

“Two out of ten,” Aroa said.

“I don’t trust your reviews,” Candy said.

“If you want to pose while using your ability you have to do way better than that.”

“You’d lie just to make me feel bad because you get your-”

Focus,” Chastity said.

“Okay.  But I’m out of power, just so you know.  I hit her with a quarter tank of happiness oversaturation.”

The battlefield was Nursery’s, even if she wasn’t in control; she was keeping one hand on her head and looking around in alarm, but she was still creating mist.  Any hard impacts broke the ground and released monsters.

Lord of Loss, immune to those monsters, was stomping around, tearing everything up.  Some of his soldiers were still there at the edges.

I had to digest the flow of events, scouring my brain to think of how we were supposed to get out of this.

I surveyed the battlefield, where Lord of Loss was near the center, standing tall again, not any worse for wear.  The ground was room temperature with stale air, the air above cold, and the two combined to make something that was the worst of both worlds, reeking of blood and bile.  Tentacles, tongues, and skin-straightjacket women were standing out from the ruined landscape, others were moving beneath the cracked floorboards to the point that those floorboards bulged or oozed with meat.  The stuffed animal that was losing its fight against the meat.

“I think I get how your power is really supposed to work,” I said.

“Mine?” Rain asked.

“Who else?” I asked.  “Listen carefully, because whether I’m right or wrong, this is going to suck.”

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Blinding – 11.6

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It had been a long, long time since I’d fought with any musical accompaniment.  Glory Girl had worn headphones for a little while, to fill the silence while she patrolled, and because she hadn’t been one to have a back and forth with the small fries she was taking down.

Mom had put a stop to that.  Situational awareness was too important, she’d said.

Now, the music box chiming came from nowhere, and the dull heartbeat thud was a percussive element overlapping that.  Other sounds creeped in, but it sounded like they were mostly aboveground.  It didn’t quite come together as a complete musical piece, but that gave it more effect, not less.

Situational awareness was in full effect now.

“Don’t touch the walls,” I said, as we hurried down the storm drain’s tunnel.  About two hundred feet ahead of us, there was a section that was open to the air, where the upper half of the drain hadn’t been laid in yet.  The mist that Nursery’s power generated was coming in hard, rose-tinted and distorting the surroundings.  Where it was heaviest, especially around that open air, it was rewriting things.  Curved walls became hallways with straight walls perpendicular to floor.  Water with a paper-thin sheet of ice atop it simply terminated, not flowing into the lower ground where there was no water.  Just stopping.

“It’s not an illusion?” Parian asked.

“No.  Localized reality overwrite.  Reality works differently in her nursery-space.  Don’t touch the walls, don’t touch the floor where it’s fully changed.  And if we run into her, remember that area-effect powers don’t tend to work in the rewritten area.”

“I don’t know if my powers are area-effect,” Precipice said.

“Mine either,” Candy said.

“Let’s not fight her on her turf and hope we don’t have to test it.  Parian, can your snake be a bridge where the effect is most intense?”

“Yeah.  I can handle that… but I’m really wondering what happens if we touch the walls or floor?” Parian asked.

“Hopefully nothing.  But I’ve read reports of bad things happening when people got stuck in her shaker effect when it’s most intense.”

Like?

I looked back at Candy and Aroa.  “I don’t want to scare you guys.”

“Our daddy gave us fear for breakfast,” Candy said.  “I was so young I’m not sure I would have even been in school then-”

“You would have.  Definitely,” Chastity cut in.

“Okay, but I don’t remember much from those days, and I remember getting chocolate frosted fear bombs for breakfast-”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Aroa cut in.

“Stop interrupting!  Sacrament!  It’s metaphor!”

“It’s dumb,” Aroa said.

“What are you saying, and is it important?” I asked.

“Daddy made me scared when he wanted me to stay out of his room, he made me as happy as a little girl getting a puppy on Christmas morning when he needed me to clean up some baby barf tout de suite…”

My skin crawled.

“…I don’t remember much, but I remember those moments.  Don’t look down on me,” the girl finished.  She was still jogging along the side of the column, periodically slipping where the sloped wall on either side of the water was icier or slimy.  Chastity was fully in the water, and whatever contention the sisters had, Chastity was there to support her younger sister and keep her from outright falling into the damp.

“Fine.  As the power saturates a place, containers will fill with her power.  If containers don’t exist, they’ll appear on their own.  One thing that can happen is that you touch a wall and your hand goes through it like it would go through wet paper, and there’s something living on the other side.”

“Or the floor.  You said we have to watch the floor,” Parian said.

“Yeah, but there isn’t much we can do about that,” I said.  “The way powers tend to prioritize things, walls will be a problem before floors are.”

“How do you know that?” Parian asked.

“Studies,” I said.  “PRT research.  Classes.  There’s a whole mess of research into why people like Shadow Stalker from our hometown didn’t fall through the floor to the planet’s core.”

Precipice was typing on his phone while using it for light.  He aimed it at the floor, nearly tripping as he kicked a bit of ice crust on the top of the water that others hadn’t already broken up.  Chastity caught him.

Before straightening, he aimed his phone at the ground.  I could see that he’d modified it, with a chunk of what looked like battery with wire wrapped around it mounted on the top.

“Scanning?” I asked, quiet.

“Trying.  I used Lookout’s numbers as a model.  Our- that other tinker’s scanner we found earlier, I looked at that too.  But it’s mostly noise, I don’t know how to use it yet.”

“Okay,” I said.

“You’re right,” he said.  “Walls are more intense than floor.”

“Good to know,” I said, my expression serious.  I put a hand on Parian’s shoulder as I passed her.  “It’s probably going to be a little while before we need to worry about stepping into a hole.  Let’s get out of here before it’s a real problem.”

“Good plan,” she said.

I nodded.  I flew ahead.  As tense and borderline sick as I felt, my gorge not in my throat but definitely ready to go there, I felt a bit happy that my little bit of cape knowledge from a paper I’d skimmed years ago had been relevant and validated here.

Feeling sick with mixed feelings did provoke another thought.

“Candy talking about emotions is reminding me,” I said, fibbing about the source.  “Precipice?  We need to figure out how you’re handling your power in a fight.  Friendly fire.”

“Ah.  Shit.”

“Last few times, it’s been a problem.  Nothing big enough it’s changed the outcome, but it came close.  Sorry to bring it up here, but-”

“But if you didn’t you might forget, or it might change things now.  It’s fine.”

“Sorry,” I said.

“I can take my lumps.  It’s about all I’m good for, a lot of the time.”

“You’ve got a lot of good points,” I said.  “Don’t undersell yourself.”

“What’s the power?” Chastity asked.

“Shame and regret thing.  I’ve been meaning to figure it out, so I’ve been trying to use it more often.”

The music box sounds were fading, but the thudding was heavier.  I wasn’t sure how to interpret it, but there was enough of a distinction in play that I was pretty sure there was a pattern to be deciphered.

“You used it at the hospital,” Candy said.

“Yeah, on its lowest setting.  I thought it might help make you guys go away,” he said.  He was holding his phone up to the wall as he jogged by it, the top and bottom thirds of the screen filled with numbers, the middle section showing a graph.  “Sorry.”

“Apologize when your power actually does something.  You used that emotion power on us.”

“I’m trying to figure it out,” he said.

“Let’s stay focused,” I said.  “We’re close to the hole, so keep your voices down.”

“Right,” Precipice said.

“We’ll figure your thing out,” I told Precipice.  “When things are calmer.”

“I’m happy to help,” Chastity said.

“Uh, sure.  Thank you,” he replied.

We edged closer to the place where the drain was empty.  The mist was flowing down from the street above, and the entire area had changed.  No ice, no water, just walls with peeling wallpaper, floor that might have been hardwood, and scattered children’s blocks.

Parian’s snake slithered past us, the knotted material sloshing through water and ice on its way to the area, then scraping against the floor, depositing moisture on the surface.

As we drew nearer, ready to move across it, the walls pressed in.  They were wallpapered, but there wasn’t any wall behind the wallpaper.  Something fat and wet like a tongue pressed in, moisture blotting out to color the surface as it bulged.  The thudding from behind the walls was evident in how the fleshy bulge throbbed.

All with one singular heartbeat.

Foil had her rapier out, pointed at it but not penetrating, while the others hurried forward.  Precipice was one of the last to cross.  He held up his scanner, aimed at the bulge, then passed his hand between scanner and bulge.  He startled a bit.

“Go,” I hissed the word.

He wasted no time.

The thudding from behind was mixed up with added impacts as Lord of Loss touched down somewhere not too far away.

We hurried down the drain tunnel, putting the effect behind us.

“Lord of Loss is close,” I whispered, as I floated to catch up with the group  I saw Foil and Chastity look back at me.  “Familiar with him?”

“Shapeshifting breaker,” Foil said.  “Big, brutish.”

“Repeated motions are more effective,” I said.

“That’s always the case,” Chastity said.  “Find what works and keep doing that.”

“It’s more the case for him, I assume,” Precipice said.

“He’s got size on his side too,” Chastity said.

Precipice turned his head, giving her a long look.  Chastity’s face was barely visible, with none of the flashlights aimed directly at it, but I could see the smile.

“We’re close to the first building that we thought might be theirs,” Precipice said.  “If we’re going aboveground, we should do it further down the street here.  There might be a side tunnel.”

“Good,” I said.  “Nice work, keeping an eye on that.”

“Lookout’s stuff, not mine,” he said.

“You did figure something out with your stuff, didn’t you?” I asked.  “Your scanner picked something up.”

He turned to look at me.  He nearly tripped a second later, but Chastity put a hand to his shoulder.

“Yeah,” he said.  He raised his phone, and tapped the screen with his thumb.  The feed of numbers and movement of the graph changed, changing from red on a black background to yellow, instead.  He scrolled, and the readings went backward in time, flowing the opposite way, tinted green as they did.

“Means nothing to me,” I said.

“There’s something haptic in there.  Sense-sharing, binding biology, not all that different from what I do with the tactile feedback pads.”

“Yeah.  Parasites.”

“The tongue in the wall infects you?” he asked, with a note of alarm in his voice.

“Oh my god,” Parian said.

“Yuck,” Candy said.

“Basically infection,” I said, trying to sound as casual as ‘infection’ warranted. “Sure.”

“She’s lying,” Candy said.

Fucking fucker emotion readers.  The ones who weren’t Dean sucked.  I shot Candy a look, and Precipice noticed.

“What the hell, Antares?” Precipice asked.  “I need accurate info for my scans.”

“Fine.  We’ll talk about it later.  Your scans don’t matter until we get back to your workshop anyway, right?  It’s not like you’re calibrating anything in the field.”

He was a grim kind of silent as he jogged along.

The tinkling music box chimes had come to an outright stop.  The thudding persisted, but it was more general and dull than it had been.  Less of a sound like someone banging against the walls, less of a heartbeat, and more of a distant pounding.

Not that we had walls here, per se.  The storm drain was a concrete tube with iced-over water in the bottom tenth of it, and a whole lot of dirt and pavement in the area immediately around it.

“Assimilation?” Precipice asked.

“No,” I said.  “Can we drop it?  Let’s hide out, figure out what we’re doing, figure out which of the teams is being targeted, and then mobilize.  Hopefully without ever having to deal with Nursery again.”

“Is it a lotophage thing?  Pulling people into a specific, themed dream state?”

“Fuck me, Precipice,” I said.  “You can’t let it go?”

“I’m stubborn.  It’s the only thing I really have going for me.  Knowing would help me interpret my scans.  I can potentially use this!”

“Then, again, I’ll explain when we’re back at your workshop.”

Foil cleared her throat.  “I’d like to know.”

“It would help to counter it,” Parian said.

I didn’t want to talk about it because it bothered me.  I didn’t want to picture what it involved.  That gorge was closer to being in my throat now, to the point it hurt to swallow.

“Not assimilate, not exactly infect.  Not… whatever you just said.”

“Lotophage.  Lotus Eaters?  The Odyssey?”  Precipice suggested.

“I never read the Odyssey.  Only got what came up in adaptations,” I said.  I paused.  “Impregnate.”

“Uh what the fuck?” Precipice asked.

“That’s the theme,” I said.  “Close to infect, really, but-”

What the fuck?” he asked.

“I”m not good with the ick,” Foil said.  “The Dolltown victims were almost too much for me.  Parian knows.  I’d always prefer riding Parian’s dolls instead of Bitch’s dogs.”

“Wouldn’t anyone?” I asked.

“Not Bitch.  Not a few other people, believe it or not.”

“You asked, now you know,” I said.  “We won’t let it get that far.”

“How far does it get, worst case?” Precipice asked.

“Surgery,” I said.  “To stop the cycle.  Get everything out of your system.  But she doesn’t like taking things that far so she holds back, I think.  Authorities came after her in her apartment at one point and one guy got it bad.  She got away because people were trying to help him.”

“Fuck me,” Precipice said.

“Absolument,” Chastity added.

“I’m a little scared now, not going to lie,” Candy said.

“We’ll stay clear,” I said.

“We’re close to the house,” Precipice said.  He pointed.

He paused, after pointing, then created a blade of silvery light.

“Problem?”

“No,” he said.  “Just realizing I’m an idiot.  Just realized my blades shed more light than my phone.”

“Not idiotic,” I said.  “There’s always a learning curve.  And you’ve got more powers to figure out than most.”

Precipice led the way, venturing down a side-tunnel with a much steeper incline.  There was no water or ice on the underside of the tunnel, which was a nice upside, but I did have to position myself to keep others from sliding or falling.

Precipice checked his phone, then looked back at me, his blade a hair away from the wall.

Quiet, I asked, “Chastity, can your body sense detect people?”

“Not much further away from arm’s reach,” Chastity whispered.

“Okay,” I said.  “Candy, the lie sense, that doesn’t have any application here, figuring out if anyone’s above us?”

Candy snorted.

“She doesn’t have a lie sense,” Chastity said.  “She has a hallucination power.  We went over our powers.”

“I just called you a liar,” Candy said, gleefully.  “You seemed a bit hesitant so I tried it, and it totally worked.”

Aroa put out a hand and Candy slapped it in a little high five.

I clenched a fist.

“Roll with it,” Foil said.  “You won’t win, it’s not worth the fight.  You can’t discipline them, you just… guide.”

Chastity was nodding, even though she was one of them.

“You got me,” I said.

“Yep,” Candy said.

“Emotion powers usually have some feedback aspect to them, or emotion reading.”

“Often,” she said.  “Not me.”

“Okay.  Because you said yours was emotionally charged hallucinations, if I remember right.”

“I have a certain amount of juice that refills over time.  I can push it into people… can’t dodge it, can’t stop it.  Makes you see, hear, feel, taste what you like most in the world, except it maps to everything.  Makes you sick of it, really fast.  If I push in a lot of juice then it’s a lot of seeing things and hearing things, tasting things and feeling things, and it takes forever to go away.  By the time it does, you’ll never go back to liking that thing.”

“Or person,” Aroa said.  “Or food, or experience.”

“Nathan wouldn’t let me play with his game consoles, said they weren’t for girls and girls should stick to fucking, having babies, cooking, and cleaning.  I hit him with a full tank of juice because.  For five days he was living his video games, and now, after, he can’t even look at a screen or touch a control, even for tv and tv remotes.”

“He can’t do much now,” Aroa said.

“That’s his own fault, and it’s not all me.  But I don’t get to see whatever it is.  I just know they’re juiced and I can tell where they are because I can feel the ‘juice’ while it’s stirring in someone else.”

“Which isn’t actually juice,” Chastity said.  “Energy.”

“Yeah,” Candy said.  “Alien too-much-happy stuff.”

“Don’t use a full tank on anyone here, okay?  No matter how dire the situation is.  No permanent effects,” I said.

“Can’t anyway.  If I’m full up then I start brimming over and affecting people around me.  I wouldn’t do that to my cousins or anyone like Chicken Little or Lookout,” Candy said.  “I find people to dose.”

“Okay,” I said.  I didn’t want to think too much about what that would look like.  “You couldn’t push some juice up into the space above us and see if it hits anyone?”

“Good idea, but no.”

I pulled up the disc, then turned it on.  The distortion wasn’t what it had been.  Less bad.  People were intact and moving.  Both groups were in a hurry.  The image distorted here and there, fluctuating.

My phone had no service.  We checked with Precipice sending me a text.  Again, there was too much distortion.

“Nursery’s effect is still here.  I think that’s why we’re having trouble connecting to the rest of the world,” Precipice said.

“She was here earlier, then,” Foil said.

“Or close by.”  I drew in a breath.  “I can’t imagine them staying put here while the others are on the move.  Three active teams converging on one point.  Let’s get up there and see if there’s anything.  It could be an empty house, the occupants could be out there looking for us.  Let’s go  Let’s make a hole and be ready for a fight.”

“Got it,” Precipice said.

The blade touched the wall.  A square of silver light was marked out.

I punched it, Wretch active, then flew to the side.

It came down in pieces, the concrete pipe wall, then the gravel and compacted dirt above it.  I could see the wood and plastic-covered insulation where the exterior wall of the house was.

I signaled, made sure the other heroes were with me, then flew forward, busting through.  I moved quickly, as soon as I was through.  To wall, then another wall, floor.  Hallway, another room.

The place was occupied.  I saw sleeping bags.  I saw food.  A pile of construction supplies had been made into a makeshift desk.

Footsteps behind me.  Foil.  Precipice was right by her, heading another direction, blades glowing in his hands.

We fanned out through the house.  Empty.

Precipice, Foil and I found ourselves in an upstairs room that had most likely intended to be an office.  We chose it not because it was central, but because it was undeniably Love Lost’s space.

On one of the desks, a series of bars, rods, and blades were arranged, laid out on paper with lines scratched out in something that looked halfway between an engineering blueprint and calligraphy.  The layout made it clear what the assembled package would be.  One of Love Lost’s claws.  It looked like the claws were meant to extend into whips, which would go from razor thin to being fifty or a hundred ring-shaped razor segments compacted together into a covering over each finger.

There were computers, I noted.  There were planners.  I paged through one planner.

“Careful,” Foil said, as Precipice opened one laptop.  “Tinker means traps.”

“It’s true,” I said.

“I can scan,” he said.  “No guarantees, but it might turn up something.”

I nodded.

He slid the laptop closer to me, pulling out his phone.  He attached the bulky scanner over the open socket where the camera had been torn out.

He swept it over the computer.  I watched as he went over the entire room, periodically going back to Love Lost’s gauntlet.  He typed something out, then held out the phone.  It beeped as it swept over the gauntlet.

“How do you distinguish a trap from regular tech?” I asked.

“She’s working from a similar starting place to me,” Precipice said.  “If I see something like what she makes, it should stand out like… a word in English in a jumble of random characters.”

“Traps can be mundane,” Foil said.  She used a dart to penetrate a locked cabinet that was part of the desk, then stood as far away as possible, using her sword to open it.

Empty.

She approached the area with the laptop.  Precipice put out a hand.

He brought his phone to the computer.  As he did, it beeped.

He rummaged for a bit before finding an attachment at the side.  A fake side panel.  When he pulled it away, needles spilled out.  I wasn’t sure exactly how it was supposed to work, but it looked ominous.  They were barbed.

“Oh,” Foil said.

“Seems like the kind of thing she would protect,” he said.

He gave the room a once-over.  Foil fidgeted.

“Let us work here,” Precipice said.  “You focus on downstairs.  Take my phone?  Check for traps.  If it beeps, call me.”

Foil nodded.

I let the laptop Precipice had opened boot up.  It showed a login screen.

“Password protected,” I said.  “Do you have a hacking thing like Lookout does?”

“No,” Precipice said.  “Try… Father’s daughter two-zero-closing parentheses-number-sign.  Chevron instead of space, no apostrophe, capital F, capital D, capitalize all vowels.”

I typed it out.

FAthErs^DAUghtEr20)#

I showed him.  He nodded.  I hit enter… and nothing.

“A checkered scarf for Ever.  Capitalize each word, all vowels.  No spaces this time-”

“Are you sure you don’t want to do this?”

“Let me finish the sweep.  Try in the meantime, if that’s ok.  Or leave it, and I’ll get to the computer.”

“I think this OS sends an alert to your phone if you get a certain number wrong.”

“She sets it to alert her phone if someone gets one wrong.  It’s fine.  If we pull her away from whatever she’s doing and get lost before she turns up, that’s good, right?”

I nodded.

He walked me through the next password.

AChEckErEdScArf4EVER_/#/#/#/=

The computer hung.

The OS came up.  Immediately, I set to work.  I brought up the wheel menu, went to the browser, and opened it up.

“There’s a password vault,” I said.  “I need a single password to get things to auto-fill.”

Rain took over.

“I saw her on this computer in some of the dreams.   Before our trigger.  She still has it.  She doesn’t look at her hands while typing, but I can feel what she types.  After a couple of days of doing research with Erin and getting practice typing myself, it started clicking,” he said.

“Muscle memory.”

“Her muscles.  Kind of.  I could figure out what she was typing, the characters came into my head.  She likes the long ones for things she wants to keep secure.  The checkered scarf one is long, so this might be even longer.  We could bring it with us instead of stumbling through.”

I pointed at the bottom-layer wheel.  There was an icon.

“Location tracker.  That can be worked around,” Precipice said.  “Flip some switches, wrap it in tinfoil…”

“I’d feel better just not worrying about it,” I told him.  “Can you?”

“I can try.”

He tried four variants, using no spaces, then chevrons instead of spaces, then moving on to another phrase.

While he worked, I checked the disc.  The scenes were distorted, but it wasn’t as bad as before.  I could make out figures reasonably well, enough to tell something from body language.

Yellow team was scrambling, but they didn’t look like they were running for their lives.  Nobody limped, nobody was shouting, and when they came to a stop, they did so collectively.  They would be the ones closest to Cradle, if things weren’t more mixed up than I was assuming.  Tattletale was talking, and Chicken Little was nodding, hanging on her every word.  They set to running again.

Red team was looking more stressed out, but they were doing less.  They weren’t running.  If anything, I imagined them hunkered down in a fortified area.  Swansong turned her head to shout something.

The issue was that it was a thirty minute trip to get to either of the other groups, assuming my team drove.  I could fly there in a shorter time.  The question was what I could do to help in the now, that might help them enough that they could last another thirty minutes.

The password manager lit up.  There was a list of everything the password manager had unlocked, except Love Lost used code or a shorthand only she understood.  Leather, leash, quartz, catclaw, pitch, pigeon.

Quartz drew my attention, because it looked like there were six quartzes, running from Quartz00 to Quartz05.

I right-clicked it and found a ‘go to location’ option.  I hit it.

The folder it took me to had a ‘read first’ file, describing the program it was meant to be used with.  The six quartz files were six halves of encryption keys for six drives that were supposed to be plugged in.

I rummaged and I found them.  A case beneath a set of screwdrivers.  Opening it up, I saw a set of small storage drives, each in a brushed aluminum case, with a single cord laid out in the middle of the package, for connecting the drives to a computer.

That wasn’t what was especially important right now.  I put it aside.  Leather… family albums.  Photos.  I didn’t want to browse, this wasn’t a priority either, but I saw one photo highlighted because there was a preview in the sidebar.  A red haired woman with a red haired daughter, an Asian man with a shaved head and a cigarette perched in his mouth.  There were others of her with friends or family members.  Of her on a beach.  Of her in a uniform, receiving an award.

A real person.  A person with a past.  I shivered.

It bothered me more than it should have.  I didn’t want to betray secret identities quite like this.  But lives were at risk.  People were crossing lines, chopping human beings to pieces and letting them suffer.

Leash was the location tracker.  Having the admin password let me open it.  While it was on, I could see where Love Lost’s other tech was.  Her phone was on her person, and her person was… very close to Ashley’s group.

I sent a warning.

“We could pack up,” Precipice said.  “Disable it.”

“It looks like disabling the location tracker means neither device knows where the other is.  There’s no way to control it so we’re off but we can watch her.”

“Still.”

“Let me work a second more.  There has to be something we can do to alleviate the pressure on the others,” I said.

“I trust you,” he said.

Catclaw: tinker notes, scans, files, images.  Villain stuff.  There were communiques there.  Nothing we could use for the current situation.

Pitch.  An online wallet.  Thirteen thousand dollars sat in the account.  A transaction list showed a long list of transactions with nothing identifying the recipients or reasons.  Only amounts.

Just a matter of hours ago, sixty thousand had been moved from her account elsewhere.  Twelve thousand to one account.  Twenty-eight thousand to another.  Ten thousand to one account, ten thousand to the same account the twenty-eight had gone to.

Each entry had a set of options by them.

I moused over, looked over my shoulder, and saw that Foil and Precipice were behind me looking over my shoulder.

“Yes?” I asked.  “Any objection?”

“I don’t know if it’s going to do what you think it will,” Foil said.  “But sure.”

I hit ‘contest’.  A bubble came up with a list of options around the radial.

“Service not rendered,” I said, as I selected the option.

“You think it’s the mercenaries she paid for?” Precipice asked.

“And I’m guessing escrow,” I said.  “To go through when the job is confirmed done.”

“That makes sense,” he said.  He looked at the numbers.  “Being a villain pays.”

“Considering it?” I asked, trying to sound casual, as tense as the overall situation was, as not-casual as the possibility of him turning to the wrong side might be.

“No,” he said.  “It costs too.”

I nodded.

I went down the page and contested everything.  I was twelve options down before I was redirected to another page.

Account suspended.

“That might tie up her ability to act for a bit,” I said.  “And maybe it’ll give mercenaries out there in the field second thoughts.”

“Scary,” Foil said.  “I’m going to go check on Parian and the Heartbroken.  I came up to tell you we already found cash and weapons.”

“Good,” I said, but she was already leaving.  I looked at Precipice.  “I have a guess what pigeon is.”

I opened it up.

An encrypted email client.

There were already three warnings in the inbox about the online wallet.  I looked at the most recent exchanges.

“Ryan,” I said.  I opened it.

A back and forth about mercenaries, apportioning cash.  Who paid what ratio.  Love Lost had done the fundraising, ‘Ryan’ was doing other things behind the scenes.  A ‘Jonathan’ was mentioned in passing.

A lot of talk of ‘nights’.  Whose night it was.  A room.  Precipice.

I looked over at Precipice.

“Yeah,” he said.

Communiques with Lord of Loss.

I am happy to do this level of work because I trust you. A job done is reputation.  \ ._. /
Get the job done get the pay build rapport. (E >_<)E   ~(L o L ~)
My thinker has a good feeling about this :->D

“Wow,” I whispered.  “That’s more horrifying than Nursery’s power.”

“No kidding,” Precipice said.

Nursery was at least somewhat sane.

I sent Lord of Loss and Nursery messages.  I had to check Love Lost’s typing style before crafting it.

JOB COMPLETE.  PAY WITHHELD FOR NOW.  WILL DISCUSS.  VACATE LYME AS WARDENS ARE INVESTIGATING VILLAIN PRESENCE.

There was a pause.

If they called, demanding answers, then there wasn’t much we could do.  But if they didn’t, it was a potential chance to take two capes out of the equation.

There were already two angry emails from mercenaries.  One was Lionwing.  The other was an encrypted handle.  Apparently their accounts had been frozen by my interference with Love Lost’s.

That seemed like an oversight to me, but the economy was a fragile and nascent, and what they were working with looked like a system built upon layers of trust.

A third angry email.  Contender.  My enemy with his personalized, no-powers arena.

I paged through quickly.  I had to go back a week to find it – the anti-parahuman group.  Love Lost had correspondence with them, setting up a meeting.  Twice, she asked them to meet in person, and she was rebuffed.  They didn’t want to meet a dangerous parahuman, even if they were armed.

Which meant the Lyme center, the anti-parahumans having weapons, and a few other terms.

It meant Love Lost told them her objectives.

I HAVE TWO ENEMIES WHO NEED TO DIE.
BOTH PARAHUMANS. THEN I GO.
BORDER WORLD.  WE ARE AT YOUR DISPOSAL IN
TIME OF NEED BUT WE DO NOT INTERFERE.  I REST.
YOU KNOW MY STORY.  WHEN THE FLAME OF MY REVENGE
BURNS OUT I REST.

“She can’t,” Precipice said.  “I don’t see it.  I can’t envision her if she isn’t brimming with rage.”

“Who’s the second parahuman who needs to die?” I asked.

Precipice shook his head, but he didn’t respond.

“Cradle?”

“It’s possible.”

I scrolled down.  From Driskey_Whinker@GIMELNET, a simple question:

How can we trust you will go?

THERE IS NOTHING I CAN SAY TO CONVINCE YOU.
YOU KNOW ME & MY FACE
THE CITY IS LOST ALREADY
IF YOU WANT IT YOU CAN HAVE IT
IF YOU WANT HELP I WILL GRANT IT AT ANY TIME
GIVE ME ARMS TO HOLD AND CLAIM MY CORNER.  TO SECURE MY REST.  I WILL GIVE AND I WILL GRANT IN EXCHANGE
ARMS, AMMUNITION, I SLIT TWO THROATS
THEN YOU ARE RID OF THE WORST OF US

“The city is lost,” I said.  “She said this four days ago?”

Another message from ‘Driskey’.

Why do you think the city is lost?  You sound mad.

MAD AND MADDENED.  YES.
BUT MY PARTNER SNAG TRIES TO COMMUNICATE
I LISTEN
HE IS FAR AWAY AND HE IS CLOSE.  DEAD AND ALIVE
HE SHOUTS AT ME FROM THE BOTTOM OF A WELL FILLED WITH
THE POWER OF A DESTROYED ALIEN WORLD AND I HEAR ECHOES OF WHISPERS
HE SAYS THE CITY IS DOOMED AND HE TRIES TO EXPLAIN WHY AND
I KNOW IT IS TRUE
IS THIS MAD YOU CAN WORK WITH?  WE MEET AND WE TALK.  YOU BRING ALL THE SOLDIERS YOU WANT.  I WILL GIVE YOU NO TROUBLE.  THIS I GUARANTEE.  PHONE ME.

That was all there was.

“Fuck me,” Precipice said.

“You’re saying that a lot.”

“Fuck a lot of this.”

I nodded.

Nothing I could use.  No sign the anti-parahuman groups were  in play – if they were, we’d have to deal with them.

But it was something.

I looked around and I found paper.  I scribbled down a note.

“What are you doing?” Precipice asked.

“A note.  We have her family photos on this computer.  I know you and her are at odds.  I know she’s threatened your life.  But I don’t want to play it that way.  Take illicit money?  Screw up her deals with murderous mercenaries?  Fine.  But if she wants the photos, I’ll send them to her.  They aren’t hostage.  They aren’t part of a deal.”

There was a pause while I scribbled it out.  Precipice was silent.  I underlined ‘not hostage’ on my note.

“Is that okay?” I asked.

Precipice nodded.

I penned out a final line.  I said it out loud as I wrote it, “We want… to talk.  Breakthrough.”

I underlined it.  The willingness to talk, to communicate.  If we couldn’t get there, then there was a very real possibility that Love Lost was on our shortlist of people to trap in an alternate world, not disclosing to anyone what we’d done with her.

Just… too angry.  Too violent.  Even in talking about rest, she talked about guns and claiming her corner.  She talked about being mad.  She thought she could take thugs like Sidepiece and Kitchen Sink and drag them off to a corner world, where they wouldn’t bother anyone, and she could wrangle them there?

I just… didn’t see it.  We’d have to talk it over with others.  Try talking to her first, to see if any middle ground was possible.

I closed the laptop and took the cords.  There was a messenger bag that we could slide it into, along with the other things, including the storage drives.  Precipice took the claw-whip framework that was meant to fit over a hand.

“It’s not set up with location detection?”

“Nothing my scanner sensed.  Maybe there’s a ping it responds to, but for right now I think we’re okay to bring it.  It’ll be useful.”

I nodded.  I’d trust him in this.  This thing with Love Lost, the cluster, and the dynamic, I knew he was well versed in it.

“Are we good to go?” I asked, as we headed down the stairs.  I paused as I saw the cash that was gathered in bags.  The pile covered a countertop that could have had three medium-sized microwaves set side by side.  A mix of currencies.

There were, I noted, three traps. Two had the barbed needles.  The other had something like a spring-coiled version of the claw-lash that Precipice had stolen.  All three had been demolished.  Foil’s power, it looked like, stabbed through and fusing to the internal components, before the shelf or drawer was removed.

“Fuck me, being a villain pays,” Precipice said.

“It really does,” Chastity said, winking at him.

“There are villains who build rep by doing something big,” I said.  “Go after a big hero and win, pull off a major job.  They have ups and downs, but the ups are big.  The Undersiders are an example.”

“Fair,” Parian said.  She was in the kitchen, rooting through cabinets.  There were bricks of drugs wrapped in plastic, most no bigger than a clenched fist.

“Heartbreaker would be one of those,” Chastity said.  She packed up the cash, filling bags.  Precipice went to help her.  “He had some low lows.”

“Yeah,” I answered.  “The other kind of rep is the kind that comes with the record.  Having done fifty jobs and not having any losses under your belt.  Lord of Loss is one of those.  He doesn’t take big jobs, but he doesn’t have anything he’s done that counts as a fuck up.”

“Why not make him fuck up?” Aroa asked.

“Because not everyone can make people do things, hon,” Chastity said.  “We’re kind of unique because most of us can do that.”

“Some heroes specialize in that,” I told Aroa.  “Mouse Protector was an early one that I think stuck in people’s memories.  Ruining perfect records, humiliating villains, knocking them down a peg.  Making their reputation the thing that gets hurt.  She was a good one.”

“Dead?” Candy asked.  I couldn’t even see where she was.

“Disappeared… for a good while.  Turned out the Slaughterhouse Nine got her.”

“Love Lost has that reputation.  She’s good,” Precipice said.  “Commands more pay, I’m guessing.”

“Yeah.  Are we taking all of this?”

“Free money,” Candy said, peering over the pile of cash to look at me.  “And I finally get to try… cocaine?”

“Something opiate,” Chastity said.  “The plastic isn’t like our plastic, either.”

“I get to try opium!”

I looked at Parian, who shook her head.

“Don’t take the bait,” she said.  She was using a roll of cloth at her back as an overlarge arm, raising herself up, moving around, and checking cabinets.  She was finding a good quantity of stuff that had been stored on top shelves, all the way at the back.

Taking the cash and taking the drugs was a way of gutting Love Lost’s revenue stream.

I backed off, pulling up the disc to check the status of the other groups.

Bodies in pieces.  It still made my heart skip a beat.

It was… oddly intense, as far as distortion went.  Why?

As the others worked, I held out my arm, the disc mounted on it like a buckler.  The projected image of team yellow was visible over top, everyone drawn in miniature.

I floated back, and the distortion eased up a fraction.  I could see where disparate pieces were drawing together into something more coherent, between flickers.  I tried to find the place where the signal strength was best.

The others seemed okay, at least.

I heard a beep.  Foil moved Precipice’s phone in front of cabinets, trying to figure out where the trap was.

“Careful,” Precipice said.

Foil raised her rapier, then pointed it at the cabinet.  She let Precipice take his phone and move it around.  When he’d confirmed her target was in the right location, she thrust her sword through.

Five spikes punched through the wood of the cabinet, each a foot long.

Foil’s sword shimmered slightly as she tugged it free.  With a few short swipes up and down, left and right, she demolished the trap.  Spikes that were four feet long tumbled to the counter, then the ground.

The cabinet was open.  There was a miniature filing cabinet inside, partially damaged by the rapier’s swipes.  While Chastity helped Foil take it down, Parian took the phone and started sweeping over the fridge.

I don’t think I’d be comfortable stealing food, I thought.

I was even less comfortable with the distortion.

“Is the distortion in this image not Nursery?” I asked.  I indicated the projected images.

“I thought it was,” Precipice said.

I shook my head.

I moved the disc around more.  This time, my aim was on finding the area with the most distortion.

A triangular closet beneath the stairs.

“Quiet!” I hissed.

All of the rustling and packing up stopped.

There it was.  A dull thud.  Like the heartbeat of someone catatonic, as large as the house.

Precipice raised a hand, touching his ear.  I nodded.

He heard it too.

“Didn’t realize there was a closet there,” Foil said.  “Suddenly glad I didn’t, because I might have opened it.”

“Is she here?” Candy whispered.

No mist, no rose color, no changes to the environment I could see.

“Can’t be,” I said, whispering so I wouldn’t disturb what was inside.  “No, as near as I can figure, the chiming means she’s doing her work, setting her power into an area.  The dull thuds mean the power’s there, active.”

I backed away from the closet.

“So long after she left?” Foil asked.

The door was shut.  Nothing leaked out- no gas, no fluids.

“It’s sealed tight.  The seal is keeping the power inside the containing space,” I said.  “Don’t-”

The fridge door, ajar, opened with enough force that it banged into the wall.  What lunged out was far larger than the space that contained it.  A tongue but with elbows segmenting it.  A length was covered in transparent skin, and the contents looked like a collection of babies, visible as shadows through a translucent skin.

Parian fended it off with cloth.  It grabbed the cloth, then surged- not moving forward, but by growing new segments in a strategic way.  It caught her around the face.

“No!” Foil shrieked.  She leaped over the counter, rapier in hand.  She was slower than Chastity.

Chastity’s hand glowed as she slapped the base of the tongue, close to the fridge.  Nothing.

“It doesn’t feel anything!”

“Then get back!”

I flew in, keeping to the ceiling so I didn’t get in anyone’s way.  Parian was pressed against the wall, her legs kicking, heels skidding against painted surface.  Her cloth and hands found no purchase, pulling away loose tissues like layers of placental sac.

Foil’s weapon severed the creature.  I caught Parian, one arm around her body, the other hand seizing her jaw, hard, because there had to be three hundred pounds of mass latched on, and if that fell to the ground in the wrong way, it would have snapped her neck.

Either way, the landing was violent enough that a trap in a cabinet we hadn’t yet reached snapped to life, punching spikes through a door.

My grip shifted to a two-handed grip on Parian’s head, fighting as the Nursery-beast flopped around violently, like a snake with its head cut off.  It maintained its grip, and Parian’s body was arching under me, fighting violently.

I could have thrown up, just being near this, knowing what was happening.  The fact I couldn’t bring myself to inhale or exhale, or to do anything except strain was maybe the only thing that kept me from vomiting.

Foil slashed the thing that was flopping around, cutting it in half, meaning I no longer had to worry about one wrong flop snapping Parian’s neck or tearing her head off.

I allowed myself to look.  What had Foil been doing?  Dealing with the stump that had been trying to crawl from the fridge.  Rain had that now.

The task at hand changed.  I made room for Rain as we gathered around Parian.  It took two of us to pry it away from her face.  Three to heave it back, to pull out the strings and knots of flesh that filled Parian’s nose and mouth.

At her ear, a tiny umbilical cord threaded to a calloused, quarter-sized lump of flesh with a nascent leg attached.  At her nose, a hand was extended from a nostril, fingers twitching.

Parian’s fingers went to her throat.  Gesturing.  I couldn’t even see her eyes because her mask had been pulled ajar.  I couldn’t use a hand to move, because I barely had a grip on the fleshy growth as it was.

Braided and branching umbilical cords.  Parian gagged as Foil and I pulled.

“I can cut it,” Foil said.

Don’t.  What’s left inside will set root,” I told her.

The gagging got worse.  Parian’s fingers at her own throat curled into claws, and the efforts to pull were getting harder.

There was blood.  We were tearing her throat.

The grub we pulled out had to be four pounds.  Proportioned like a baby.

The others came easier.  A string, seemingly endless.  The children apparently set to grow to size in turn, to emerge in a steady cycle.  Once we had the three largest free, Parian could breathe again.

There was a heavy thud outside.

Lord of Loss.

The tiny hand at Parian’s nostril tried to maintain a grip before it was pulled backward, inside.  Down through sinuses, to the back of her mouth, and out the mouth.  One of the last parts to come out.

Parian flopped over, so her face was aimed at the ground.  Foil held her, fumbling for a short bit of bandage from her belt that Parian could hold to her nose- blood was streaming out.  Every breath came with gags.

She was breathing, but I could barely bring myself to.

“We’d better leave,” Aroa said, weirdly casual and disconnected.

“I can carry her,” I said.

Foil shook her head.  She got in position, and with me giving her a helping hand, lifted up Parian, holding her in both hands.

Around us, the area was filling with the dusky rose gas.  Intense, now.  More than I’d seen it before.

She’d sensed us cutting it up.

Chastity and Precipice hefted bags.  Money and drugs.

“Drop them if they slow us down,” I said.

Precipice nodded.

We hurried to the back door.  We stopped as Lord of Loss touched a limb of overlapping white strips down by the surface.

Other door.

An impact marked him touching down there too.  It was followed by him clawing at the door, pulling it free of the frame.

We backed away, past the closet door.  Toward the center of the house.

“She’s not paying you, you know,” I said.  “Matter of principle for a mercenary, not to work for free.”

He smiled, not giving me a response.  Nothing in him faltered or showed any sign he was second guessing things.  There was only resolve.  Professionalism.

His parahuman allies, that were standing in the background?  From Earth N?  They would follow him.  Nothing there would hesitate.

Nor Nursery, who stood in the background with the other soldiers.  She stared at us from behind the holes in her cloth mask, and the music box plinked the most intense tune I’d heard of it, the dusky rose gas filling our neighborhood.

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Blinding – 11.5

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The ‘joints’ of the spider’s limbs were higher off the ground than I was, the body headless and featureless, an uneven, almost potato-like form in the center.  It was all black, and it moved with a fluidness that stood in stark contrast to the jerky, twitchy way that spiders normally moved.

It flowed more than it walked as it moved to the base of a building, found purchase on windowsills and gutter.  As it carried itself off the ground, Foil skipped up, stepping onto one of the eight limbs, walking up to the next.  She had no handholds, not even the ones another person might have if they were there, because both of her hands were full carrying her crossbow- an entirely different make and model than the one I’d known her to use, once upon a time.  Bigger, heavier, and it would have to be mounted on a surface to be set up and then fired.

Spider legs appeared and disappeared beneath her feet, in what should have been something a third of the way to being stairs and a third of the way to being a ladder, not all of the way to being anything.  The distance between Foil and the ground grew.

“You’re hesitating,” Foil called out.  “If you pause I’m going to miss a step and fall!”

“You’re making me nervous!” Parian called back.  “Talking about you falling makes it worse, not better!”

Trust me!” Foil replied.

“I trust you!  I don’t trust powers!  Not mine, not yours,” Parian answered, but the third utterance wasn’t at a volume meant to reach Foil.

Foil ascended to the roof of a three-story building ducking as the cloth-and-knots spider passed over her head.  Parian visibly relaxed as soon as Foil was on solid ground again.  Past the eyehole of the cracked doll mask, Parian’s eye focused on the spider as it restricted its movements to the visible edge of the building.  What little focus wasn’t for the spider was for Foil.

“The funny thing is, you guys got off easy,” Candy said.  “For trustable powers.”

“None of us got off easy,” Parian said.  “Powers are meant to hurt, cause harm, and foment chaos, according to Tattletale.  The things that handed out the powers wanted to put us in situations where we’d have to use them on each other.  Even the tamer sets, like Foil’s.”

Shots that could penetrate anything, enhanced accuracy, and enhanced timing.

“Foil’s powers did come with a March attached,” I remarked.

Parian nodded, pausing to look around before returning her focus to the rooftop.  “It’s never easy.  There’s always complications.”

“Some got off easier than others, though,” Precipice said.

“True.  Undeniably true,” Parian said.  “But easier still isn’t easy.”

“I like that distinction,” I said.

“If you want easy, you don’t have to look any further than my sister,” Candy said.  “I mean it in the most affectionate way possible.”

“So long as it’s coming from a place of sisterly love,” Chastity said, reaching out for Candy’s cheek to pinch it.  Candy fended her off.

We were walking at a brisk pace.  We’d broken up the groups, and the reasoning for why we’d broken it up had me thinking about my early thoughts in the days of Breakthrough.  Wolves, corn, and chickens.  A man who needed to take all three things across the river, but the wolves couldn’t be left alone with the chickens and the chickens couldn’t be left with the corn.

We’d had concerns that the Undersiders would act in good faith.  Having some of our team in each group meant we could keep an eye on everything.  Breakthrough was a six member team, and we had three bases to cover.  Two Breakthrough members were assigned to each team.

The Heartbroken were more volatile as more of them were gathered into a single unit.  Heartbroken were thus split into three groups, and family dynamics seemed to factor in there.  Siblings were separated and kept together, depending.

From there, it was a series of rules and complicating factors.  Tattletale was insistent that Chicken Little was grounded and shouldn’t be allowed to enjoy hanging out with his new friend Lookout.  That meant Lookout was assigned to another team.  Swansong went with Lookout by apparent default, and the feral child Florence went with Swansong.  Imp went with Florence, because she was the best at handling her, and initial attempts at negotiating this had met with stubbornness.

It was a team with far too many wolves, but those wolves seemed content with the status quo.  That was despite the fact that Swansong was on a team with Imp and pretty goddamn resentful of the fact that her nice home now smelled like gasoline – a smell had soaked into floorboards and furniture.

They’d wanted to go after Love Lost, working on the assumptions that Love Lost didn’t like hurting kids and it was a squad with a lot of kids on it.  Swansong knew the people Love Lost liked to associate with, and Imp had the ability to resolve problems before they started.  The problem was that when things went wrong, they stood to go very wrong.  A single rage scream that hit Swansong was too much of a problem.  Cradle was too much of an unknown, and the Undersiders had wanted Tattletale on that particular unknown, for her limited involvement.

I had a projector disc with me.  I brought it up, tapping on the side.  A group of small holographic figures appeared above the disc, tinted yellow from head to toe.  An arrow at the disc’s edge indicated the direction to them, with a number showing distance.  They were gathered in vehicles, but the vehicles weren’t drawn as thoroughly as the people who sat in them, much like the mercenaries that accompanied them.  Three heartbroken, Chicken Little, Sveta, and Capricorn, with Tattletale along to gather some intel and make sure the kids were alright.  They were tracking down Cradle.

They were mostly silhouettes, but I could make out details like how one of the Heartbroken was resting a head on Chicken Little’s shoulder, apparently asleep.  Chicken Little was moving his hands like there was something in them.  A bird, I assumed.

I ran my finger along the disc’s edge.  The image shifted, and the group of people were tinted red.  Many of them were small.  Imp, ‘Florence’, two heartbroken, Lookout, and Swansong.  They’d watch March, gather surveillance and maybe have Imp take action but they wouldn’t take any direct moves until Hellhound caught up with them.

“They okay?” Parian asked.

“Looks like it,” I said.  The images were stable.  Different groups were talking.  “Calm, no fighting.”

“If you’re talking about my cousins, they’re never ‘okay’,” Chastity said.  She was seventeen or so, with wavy black hair and makeup fully on point.  I’d noticed Precipice noticing her cleavage.  It seemed wholly intentional with her wardrobe choices, a low-cut top worn with a scarf and coat, unzipped enough that a strategic triangle was visible.

Had to be cold, but she endured with an unwavering, teasing smile that made me uncomfortable.

“Relatively,” Parian said, still watching Foil and the spider.

“Relatively?  It’s because they’re relatives that I know they aren’t okay,” Chastity said.

“Such a dork,” Candy said, before switching to French to better articulate that lameness.  Candy was a smaller version of her older sister.  She had a similar teasing demeanor, from what I could tell, but without the flirting aspect.

Chastity retorted with something else, so rapid-fire that I couldn’t even tell where the words started or stopped.

The Kenzie-aged Candy’s response was sharp, and sounded weirdly religious- I wasn’t sure if my mind was seeing faces in clouds, putting meanings to foreign words that weren’t there.

There was enough violence in the words and enough of a glittering look in the young girl’s eye that I felt the need to say something.  “Do we need to step in?”

“Don’t even try,” Parian muttered under her breath.

“No,” Chastity said.  “Not unless you want to wash my sister’s mouth out with soap.”

“Please do,” Aroa said, from the sidelines.  She was similar in appearance to the others, but her hair was straight, and there was no smile on her face- no particular frowning or coldness either.  Her eyes were animated, her glances always sidelong, never direct.  “It would be funny.”

“You can help,” Candy said.  “My dork of a sister needs to get laid.”

“Can’t help you there,” I said, trying not to sound as uncomfortable as I felt.

“Your teammate can.  Precipice!” Candy raised her voice.

“Uh.”

“Please.  She gets more annoying and immature every minute she doesn’t have anyone, and I’m the one who has to deal with it.”

“Uh,” Precipice said, again.  He looked at Chastity.  “Sorry.”

“No need to say sorry,” Chastity said, touching his arm.  “My sister put you on the spot.  But if you did want to say yes, you could count on my discretion and a complete lack of any strings.”

“Just don’t fall in love with her,” Candy said.

“Yeah, don’t fall in love with me,” Chastity said.

“It’s… weird, getting this offer,” Precipice said. “Knowing who you guys are.”

Heartbroken.  Heartbreaker’s.

“I would have thought you were sympathetic, coming from a bad place,” Candy said.

I looked down at Candy.  “Tattletale told you?”

“Uh huh.”

“That’s not great,” I said.

“We don’t mingle with society or have a lot of civilian friends,” Aroa said.  “We aren’t going to leak your secrets because we stick to our own.”

“You haven’t even seen my face,” Precipice was telling Chastity.

“Back out, Precipice,” Parian said.  “Drop the topic, walk away.”

“If she has advice, it’s good to take it,” I advised him, giving him an elbow to the arm.  I bumped the metal under his sleeve.

Precipice nodded.

“I get a sense of people around me,” Chastity told him.  “It’s clear enough for me to know proportions, and I like your proportions.”

I sighed, loud enough to be sure he heard it.  My breath fogged in front of my face.

“Now it’s weirder.  I’m flattered, I think, but also very weirded out,” Precipice said.

“Okay,” Chastity said, sounding like she was having fun, even while being turned down.  “I can tell how flattered you are, same way.  It even makes me stronger.  So this teasing, it’s good battle strategy, you know.”

“Maybe, but just so you know, I have someone I like,” Precipice said.

“Precipice,” Parian said, warning.  She started to turn around, then her spider slipped.  She twisted around and caught it at the building’s edge.

“Someone you like?” Chastity asked, edging in closer, her arm touching his.  They were wearing jackets, but still.

“Love.  I think.”

“Precipice,” I said.  “Don’t tell them that.  Don’t share that information.  Especially when Parian is warning you.”

“Trying to keep my partner from falling off a building,” Parian said, absently.  “You might be in more danger, Precipice.”

“Uh, noted.”

“What if I said that made me more interested?” Chastity asked Precipice, nudging him.  “What if I said I was intrigued, now that you already have someone you like?”

“Sorry,” he said, in a vain attempt to disengage.

“Does that mean sorry, no, or does it mean something completely different?” Chastity asked.

“Can you leave him alone?” I asked her.

“I could, but I’m going to wonder what he meant, and I’m going to end up assuming the worst.”

“Safest bet,” Aroa said.  “Men.”

Precipice, against all sense and sanity, opened his mouth to explain, “I’m flattered, but even if it wasn’t really weird, even though she and I aren’t together and might never be-”

“Stop sharing information about your love life with people who call themselves Heartbroken,” I said.  I turned to the younger Heartbroken.  “No offense.”

“No, no.  You’re totally right,” Candy said.

“-Yeah,” Precipice said.  He managed to stay silent for two fucking seconds before telling Chastity, “I can’t mess around.  At least for now, I’m not doing anything in that neighborhood.”

“Oh.”  Chastity squared her shoulders, eyes forward, in the direction we were walking.

“Sorry.”

“If you’d given me another answer, saying you were willing to betray her or betray those feelings you have for her, then I would have found a way for you to be hurt in any upcoming fights,” Chastity said, her tone still light.  “Really badly hurt.”

I looked at Parian.  She shrugged and nodded.

Great.

“Good to know,” Precipice said, awkwardly.

I fucking told you not to engage.

“Now I’m disappointed,” Aroa said.  “Chastity’s one of the last family members on my bucket list to see go all out.”

Candy poked her cousin.  “You’re such a Juliette.  Wanting our mouths washed out with soap, wanting poor Precipice to get all four arms and both legs mangled, or whatever it is Chastity has in mind…”

“Juliette wouldn’t want anyone’s mouth washed out with soap.  She’d want your mouth washed out with bleach,” Aroa said.

“I don’t think that’s as big a difference as you’re pretending.”

“It’s the biggest difference,” Aroa said, with maximum condescension.  “On and off.  What’s the fun in kicking someone in the tits, pushing them down or setting them on fire if they‘re cold and dead, or if you kill them and that’s the end of it with no potential for the future?”

“True,” Candy responded.

“I’ve got your back,” Chastity was telling Precipice.  “Whatever happens, I’m going to protect you and protect those feelings, now.  We’ll get you back to this girl you like.”

“I don’t know if anything’s going to happen there.  It’s complicated.”

I rolled my eyes.  Maybe he needed to get stuff off his chest, and for some reason was deciding on this venue.

“Unrequited or complicated sorts of love are still love and love is the most important thing,” Chastity said.  “Without it there’s no point to anything.”

It was dawning on me just why Tattletale had looked so damn exhausted when I’d seen her, the last few times.

Above us, Foil whistled.  Parian was making the spider form a bridge.  Foil was halfway across that bridge.  Very deliberately, she put the folded-up crossbow down on top of the spider.  She pointed at it.

The crossbow disappeared as cloth wrapped around it.  Attaching it to the spider.

Foil bowed, flourishing, before skipping up the spider-bridge to the next rooftop.

“She’s such a ham sometimes,” Parian said.

“Ham can be nice,” I said.  I was glad to get away from the other discussion.  “Ham can work.”

“I think she’s happy, hanging around with heroes again.  Old teammates.”

“Good,” I said.

“We need to do this more often.”

“Why not always?  What keeps you with the Undersiders?”

“Resources.  I still have family who need medical attention,” Parian said, quieter.

“Ah.  I remember.  I’m sorry.”

“Sometimes you make deals with the devil because the alternative is not dealing at all,” Parian said.

“You’ve been with them for how many years, now?”

“Four and a half.”

“And you still refer to them as the devil, huh?” I asked.

Parian snorted or sniffed behind her mask – the material distorted the sound and I couldn’t see her face to know which it was.

“Don’t try to convert me,” she said.  “Life’s too complicated as it is.”

“Okay.  No conversion.”

We walked in silence for a minute.  Chastity was still engaging with Precipice, but it seemed a bit safer than before now.  More normal than I’d seen her act, now that she wasn’t aggressively teasing and flirting.

“I like your costume,” Parian said.

“High praise, considering who it’s coming from.”

“I’m nobody special.  Who made it?” she asked.

“Me, teammates.  Weld did the metal decorations.”

There was a pause.  Her head turned, caught between watching out for Foil on the rooftops, managing her spider, and looking at the metalwork.

“Do you think he’d do work for pay?”

“I can always pass on a message if you want to ask.”

“I might.  It would be nice to stay in touch.  Look how much fun she’s having.”

I couldn’t quite read into body language or see what Parian meant.  Maybe if I’d known Foil for longer, I could have seen a difference.  As it was, Foil crouched on the corner of a rooftop.  She held her hand out.

“Stop,” Parian said, quiet.

We collectively stopped.

Foil moved her hand, sweeping motions.  Directing us to one side of the street, until we were at the base of one building, Foil one building ahead of us and five stories up, barely visible in the gloom.

We weren’t that far from Lyme.  In the midst of a criss-crossing of new roads and multiple buildings in progress, there was an area that wasn’t accessible by car.  This was the result putting together the reports we had from other heroes and Tattletale’s knowledge to hone in on the area Love Lost was working from.

“I’m going to talk to Foil,” I said.  When Parian nodded, I flew up to the roof.

“Are the Heartbroken behaving?” Foil asked me.

“Precipice is getting a lot of attention,” I said.  “He can’t keep his mouth shut.  Is that a power one of them is using?”

“Yeah,” Foil said.

“Fuck,” I said.

“Chastity’s pretty,” Foil said.  “He’s red blooded.  That’s the power I mean.”

“Seemed like more than that,” I said.  When that didn’t get me much of a response from Foil, who was scanning the area with her eyes, I asked, “Why did we stop?”

“No man’s land,” Foil indicated.  “See what I mean?”

I did.  We were inside the perimeter where ongoing construction, parked vehicles, and unfinished roads were limiting our access, and within that vague territory, there was a swathe where the buildings were girder and beam, surrounded by fenced-in lots.

“It’s all open space,” I said.  There wasn’t much in the way of cover.  No way to get from A to B without being seen from a block away.  Even the scant lighting to illuminate the road seemed more like it was meant to help highlight any incoming cars or catch people trying to sneak across the road in one of the five to ten times they’d need to do so, to get to the center.

“Three… maybe four buildings that they could be camping out in.”

Foil indicated, a dart in hand, the gleaming point serving to point.

“Do any of the Heartbroken here have the ability to sense emotions?”

“No.  Chastity senses bodies, but not at a distance that helps us.  Aroa has to engage.  Candy doesn’t get anything.”

“Keep an eye out?  I’ll be right back.”

Foil nodded.  I had a glimpse of her face in profile, as she surveyed the area, and I could see an enviable kind of focus and calm there.  Jaw set, eyes slightly narrowed and alert as she looked for hints in a collection of half-built neighborhoods.

I dropped to the ground.

The others were very still and somber, except for Aroa, who looked pleased, and Chastity, who had a hand firmly on Aroa’s shoulder.

“What happened?”

“Aroa happened,” Chastity said.

“I told the truth.  It’s not fair if you’re getting only half the picture.  Love is the most important thing.”

I looked at Precipice, then at Parian.

It was Parian who supplied the details.  “She said the reason Love Lost is so upset is because Precipice killed someone she loved.”

Fuck me.  These girls were such nightmares to wrangle.  I was now in full agreement that having all of the Heartbroken in one place would have been too much.

“It eats me up inside,” Precipice said.  “I didn’t kill them by acting.  I killed them by not acting.”

“Growing up with Fallen?” Chastity asked.  “Do you think that absolves you?”

“No.”

“Good,” she said.  “It doesn’t.  I’ve killed someone by not acting too.  I think.”

“A lot of people, probably,” Candy said.

“The one I’m thinking about is when you were young.  Too young to remember,” Chastity said.

“Mom?”

Chastity nodded.  “Daddy was tired of her, and he thought I was old enough to look after you and Revere.  He pushed feelings into her head.  He didn’t want her sharing evidence, so he made her scared of people.  Any people at all, she wouldn’t be able to speak because she was so freaked out.  He said he made it so she’d be happy so long as she was totally alone and there was no civilization nearby.  I’m not sure if Daddy was saying it to get us to stop crying.”

“Probably,” Aroa said.

“Yeah, and you wouldn’t just say that, right?” Chastity asked Aroa.  “I’ve told you, if you want to nettle people, you have to give them hope once in a while.”

“He probably wasn’t lying,” Candy said.  “He didn’t need to go that far to make us stop crying.  He’d just… make us stop.”

“Yeah,” Chastity said.  To Precipice, she said, “I could have said something or stopped it, I think.  To save my mom from being sent away like some dog in the movies that’s driven out to the wilderness and then left behind while the car speeds off.”

“I remember that day,” Candy said.  “It wasn’t like that.”

“It’s a simile, little sister.”

Candy shrugged.

“My thing was different,” Precipice said.  “I was older, and it was a lot of-”

“Don’t,” I interrupted him.  “Don’t work to convince them to hate you.”

He folded all four of his arms.  Two flesh, and two mechanical.  Was he so reflexive in trying to own up for his mistakes that he’d make enemies by admitting to them?

I wasn’t even sure what the right decision to make there was.

“We’ve got a wide area out there that we won’t be able to cross without being spotted.  Not if we go across.”

“Over?” Precipice guessed.

“Or under,” I said.  “If you look, you can see where the piping is being laid out where the road doesn’t cover it all yet.”

“I see it,” Precipice said.  “I’ll make a hole, then.”

Silver blades appeared in his hands.

“Wait.  We should coordinate,” I said.  “Call first.”

Precipice checked his phone.

I checked the disc with representations of each team.  Tattletale’s team was hunkered down, apparently working on tracking down Cradle.  Tattletale was also supposed to be able to keep an eye out for any pointed dangers or incoming attacks, which meant Capricorn and Sveta should be safe or safer for as long as that activity took.

I really wished I knew the particulars of her power.

A glint caught my eye.

Foil’s dart, embedded on a piece of paper.  There wasn’t anything on the side of the paper I could see, but it was yellow.

“Danger,” Parian said.

“Aroa, Candy,” Chastity said.  “Get back.  Be good until you absolutely need to step in.

Another dart, another slip of paper.  This one was red, so close to the first dart that the two squares of paper that were embedded on the dart seemed to line up.

No need to clarify.

I flew up.  The others dashed to where there was cover nearby- we were only at the fringes of the no-man’s-land, and the buildings here had fences, backyards, and piles of broken-down crating tied together with twine.  The crates had packaged food from offworld.

Below, headlights illuminated the street.  The noise the car’s tires made changed as it shifted from squeaking on contact with snow to grinding against salt and gravel, then near-silence as it touched ice, moving smoothly over the surface the winter tires gripped.

They paused in the street and people inside the car shone flashlights out the windows.

Here we were.  The patrol.

On the rooftop, ten feet from where I floated, Foil was at the spider’s side, setting up the large crossbow so it was mounted on the spider’s back.

“Did they spot us?” she asked.

“Looks like a routine patrol.”

Foil was silent, leaving the crossbow where it was, and heading to the edge of the rooftop to look down.

Below, the car went on its way.

I drew my phone from my pocket.  “I’m going to have them go underground, approach the buildings you pointed.  Give me a minute to text them.”

“Wait,” Foil said.

I waited.

The car that had passed returned.  It stopped somewhere close to where it had the first time.  Again, flashlights shone out the windows.  I could see someone leaning out.

“That’s not a patrol,” Foil said.  “Most people who are doing a perimeter check don’t check and recheck themselves.  They do the bare minimum and then they get on with their nights.  Applies to some heroes that patrol.  Learned that when I overheard some villains, a year back.”

“Doing a single loop, so as soon as the hero has come and gone, the criminals can come out of the woodwork?  That’s really dumb,” I said.

“It really is,” Foil said.  “Back when I was with the New York Wards, we’d mix it up every night, doubling back, doing loops… it helped that we had the bikes and it was an excuse to ride down subway tunnels and around any place without cars.”

I smiled.  “I fly, so… same idea.  It’s easy to cover the same ground if you move fast.”

“Gonna give my spider a pet, so Parian knows I’m alright,” Foil said, backing away from the rooftop’s edge.

I kept an eye out.  Keeping my arm and the glowing projections out of sight of the ground, I checked the others.

Both of the other teams were staying put and doing things, but it didn’t look like they were fighting.

Below, a shift in the light’s movement caught my eye.  I let my fingers drop away from the projection disc and focused on what was happening.  Or in this case, what wasn’t happening.  One beam had stopped moving.

I heard raised voices.

Fuck.  They got caught.

“What’s going on?” Foil whispered.

I mimed for silence.

A car door opened.  A man stood on the seat of the car to better look over the top of the vehicle and into the avenue between two buildings- one of which was the building Foil and I were standing on.  He added the light of his own flashlight.

A woman, the driver, was saying something.  I tried to hear, and I couldn’t make it out.  I could have flown down, but I didn’t want to risk being spotted.

I tapped one ear, while glancing at Foil.  She shook her head.

Below, the car drove away.  The man who was standing on the seat swung back inside.  I could see the gun he held as he did.  The door shut as the car rounded a corner.

The spider helped Foil drop to the street level.  I watched to ensure the coast was clear while she started, then dropped down, getting to the group’s hiding spot at the same time she did.

“He saw Candy,” Precipice said.

“I thought the coast was clear.  Why did they come back?” Candy asked.

“They had some sense that we were here already.  It could be a device or power,” I said.  “Love Lost can detect emotions, but it’s not that long a range, I don’t think.”

“And if he saw me, why didn’t he do something about it then?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “He could have decided to play it safe.  For now, let’s do the same.  We didn’t plan to pick a fight this soon.  The other teams need intel and time to get where they’re going.”

“We run,” Precipice said.  “We can stick to the same plan.  I make a hole, we use the drains and sewers.”

“Ew,” Candy said.

“Once we’re down there, we can decide if we want to go to one of those houses to investigate and see if we can’t spy on Love Lost,” Precipice said.

“Hurry,” I said.

Precipice created silver blades, and drew out a five-sided hole in the ground.  I flew up to make sure there weren’t any more cars full of armed men and women, then flew down, slamming into the pentagon.  Water splashed below.

“Ew,” Candy said.

In the distance, I heard a thud, then a laugh.

Hurry,” I told them.  I had a sense of who that thud belonged to.  “They were willing to pass the buck because they have enforcers.  They’re coming after us with powers.”

They hopped down into the tunnel, Chastity and Precipice helping.

Another thud.

A jovial bellow.

“That’s not Love Lost’s group,” I said, keeping my voice quiet as I talked to the others in the hole.  I moved aside so the spider could slip down beneath.

“Mercenaries,” Precipice said.  “Villains banding together because the heroes are.”

High above us, a shape moved through the air with enough force that it made the air shudder and cheap windows rattle in their frames.

“Lord of Loss,” I said.

I ducked down into the hole.  The Heartbroken already had their phones out, screens glowing and flashes on.  Foil and Parian had flashights they could clip to their costumes.

Precipice’s mask glowed, the red illuminating to become pink.

“That does not work nearly as well as I hoped it would,” he said, and he sounded pissed.  The glow died and he pulled out his phone, doing what the Heartbroken were doing.

Behind us, Parian’s cloth snake slipped into the hole.

“Come on,” I urged.  “Toward the houses.”

To find us, Lord of Loss would have to spot the hole in between two house lots- not impossible, not easy either, given the lighting and the glare of snow contrasted with dark pavement everywhere.  Then he would have to find which way we’d gone.  I was betting he would assume we’d headed away, not deeper into the territory in question, toward Love Lost.

The cloth spider and my flight kept the group from having to wade in freezing, ankle deep drainwater.  We covered good ground too.  There were surprising amounts of materials and piece of construction material to trip up anyone who moved fast enough that they couldn’t react to the fleeting glimpses of whatever the flashlight illuminated.  There weren’t many things that got in our way or that the spider had to slow down for.  A wheelbarrow with a broken handle, a collection of what looked like curtain rods or wooden poles.

I checked the disc.

No whole figures.  Body parts everywhere.  Scattered into air, into terrain.  All tinted yellow.  Tattletale, Sveta, Tristan, Chicken Little.

“What?” I breathed the word.

I checked the other team.

More scattered parts.  Suspended in air, unmoving, flickering like the hologram couldn’t track them.  Imp.  Ashley.  Lookout.

No, it wasn’t possible like that.

Not two teams at once, not so easily or instantaneously.

I checked my phone.  The display was flickering slightly.  I thumbed for a message to Precipice, the alarming picture on the disc still hanging off of the disc at my forearm, mounted like a buckler.

“Check your phone,” I told Precipice.

“A text?” he asked.

“From me,” I said.

He shook his head.

I tried two more times.  I heard the one go through.

He held it up for me.  Gibberish.

“We’re being scrambled.”

“Shit,” he muttered.  Even with the word being scarcely a whisper, the drain carried the sound.  “Could be tinkertech defenses.  Keeping Lookout’s cameras out of it.”

“Maybe,” I said.

Candy’s phone flickered, and then both screen and flash went dark.  The other two phones died simultaneously, plunging us into the darkness.

It was only because of that darkness that we could see the faint hue of pink.  A glow, like light through a curtain, and the sides of the drain were curtains.

In the silence, as none of us spoke, I could hear a dull sound, a hum with no source, and I could hear chiming, discordant, struggling to find its rhythm.

Nursery.

The images on the disc were getting scattered further, blinking in and out, each reiteration putting body parts further and further from the source.  The mode switched, and I could see that there were symbols, large and blunt, that Lookout was trying to transmit.

The noises of Nursery’s power effect were getting louder, and they reverberated down the drain.  The effect was taking hold too, distorting the tunnel.

No slurps and wet noises yet.

On the disc, there was one last projected image I could make out.  Three large arrows, pointing at a single dot.

Three forces converging on one?  I had the impression that it wasn’t the signal to mount our coordinated attack.  No, this was too ’emergency alert’ with the big bold symbols.

The humming and chiming swelled, the chiming finding it stride with more coordination, less discordant, now more disconcerting because the off-notes were spaced far enough away to catch the ear off guard.

One of our teams was being attacked, and we were stuck against a brute strong enough he wouldn’t go down unless he was permanently put down, and a shaker-master nightmare I most definitely did not want to fight on her turf.

The disc was flickering to the point that it was off nine seconds out of every ten, and nonsense the last second.  Even with that, the broken-up models that put heads twenty feet from the associated bodies were an ominous warning of what was at stake.  I had to assume the worst hadn’t happened, because the distorted images I was getting from the disc put body parts in mid-air, and had a computer-glitch kind of logic or arrangement to them.

They knew we were here, they had prepared with stalling tactics and organized assault against one of our groups, they had the device responsible for the Navigators incident, and they had the willingness to use it.

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Blinding – 11.4

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The schism remained.  The Shepherds, Advance Guard, Wayfarers and Kings were absent.  The room would have felt crowded if everyone was present and it felt too empty with the more aggressive heroes gone.

I wondered if there was ever a group size that would feel natural.

We’d wanted to gather information.  We’d asked for six hours, admittedly, and it was well past that deadline, but information was why we were here.

‘Here’ was a room in a library where the lights were off because the grid had failed and power was being conserved, and the morning light from outside was obscured by snow that had piled up against the window, with frost cluttering every inch snow didn’t touch.  The light that came through was diffuse and mottled, dimmed and slightly blue, because the glass was solar glass that reflected the yellow and gold hues.

Relay, Cinereal, Weld, Aleph Wolf from the Lone Wolf Pack, Lark from Auzure, and Caryatid from the Malfunctions were all gathered around the room.  I had Precipice at my right, and Foil to my left.

Mayor Jeanne Wynn was also present.  Her presence in the room felt like a shadow when the room was already dark.  The yellow of her shirt under her suit jacket was more striking than some of the costumes present.

Foil’s hand rested on the table, fingers at the file folder with pictures.  My pictures.  The gasoline had saturated my office to the point that even the copies of my original files had a lingering smell to them.

She turned the file so people could see.  A distant image of Cradle, taken by way of flying camera, saved to a computer.  I’d printed it out when trials had been happening.

“Tattletale says she’s seventy percent confident that the attacks on the Navigators were Cradle, who slipped custody when the prison was emptied,” Foil said.  “He had an unknown hireling use the device by proxy, and that hireling worked alongside Lionwing and two Case Fifty-threes.”

“Those two aren’t ex-Irregulars,” Weld said.  “But they’re tied into the community.  People have seen them.  I’ve put out some feelers, but I can’t promise results.”

“Seventy percent certainty that Cradle is responsible isn’t a hundred percent,” Cinereal said.

“It isn’t,” Foil admitted.

“Can we trust what she’s saying?” Relay asked.

“Are you asking if we can trust Foil or are you asking if we can trust Tattletale?” Weld asked.

“I was asking about Foil, but I’d like to hear your thoughts on both,” Relay said.

Relay was standing in for Foresight, after Brio had caught a bullet and while Countenance was leading elsewhere.  Brio hadn’t gotten back up.  I was a little worried that Relay was closer to the leadership, which was about twenty-five percent personal bias, and twenty-five percent that he knew I had my doubts.  The rest was a blurrier mixture of my not knowing him and my instinct that Relay was driven more by emotion than logic.

If Relay had made the call when the hero teams had split off into two groups, would they have stayed?

I could see Relay’s eyes move, studying me briefly before looking back to Weld.  Foil and Tattletale – where did we stand, and what answer could we give that didn’t cross Relay’s crude mind reading?

“I was her teammate for a short while,” I said.  “I like her.”

The nicest, only truly honest thing I could say.  I had reservations and questions about someone who had heel-turned like she had.

Foil nodded, dropping her eyes, as if to acknowledge what I was thinking.  “Thank you.”

“Antares and Foil were on my team when I was first leading the Wards in Brockton Bay.  I hold Foil in high esteem,” Weld said.

“Thank you,” Foil said, stoic, standing up straight, no longer with a hand at the files.

“Can I ask you why you’re here, Foil?” Relay asked, head tilted so he was looking up at Foil more than at her, his tone the sort that was best suited for quietly asking someone if they had a gun and if they planned to use it.

“The Undersiders felt that if we were sharing information, we should have a representative here.”

“That’s not what I’m asking,” Relay said.

Foil frowned.  Her mask covered most of her face, but the shift in her lips was unmistakable.

“He wants a read on you,” I said.

Relay met my eyes without moving his head, then looked back to Foil.

“I want to help,” Foil said.

“You believe Tattletale’s information is good?”

“Yes,” Foil said.

“But you have doubts… not about the information?” Relay asked.  “About your team.”

“If I was a hundred percent certain, I think that would be more concerning,” Foil said.

“If you were a hundred percent clear you were on the right side, you’d be a Fallen-” Relay retorted.

Precipice didn’t move a muscle at that, but Relay looked at him all the same.

“-But if your head is full of noise and contradiction when it comes to your team, that’s almost as bad,” Relay finished.

“I can do the most good where I am, with the Undersiders,” Foil said.

Relay, head still unmoving, looked down at his hand, where it rested on the table.

“Do we move forward on seventy percent confidence?” Relay asked, without looking up.

“Cradle is a danger and he’s done nothing to earn trust,” Cinereal said.

“He’s done nothing wrong that we can say for certain either,” Relay pointed out.

“He likes to bide his time,” Precipice said.  “But there have been hints that he’s doing business.  I believe it.”

“You’re biased,” Relay said.

“I definitely am,” Precipice replied.

Relay nodded at that, as if it was entirely okay now that the bias was out in front of things.

“He’s cold and focused right now.  I won’t get into how I know, but I have a sense of him, like he probably has a sense of me and how I’m doing.  He’s dangerous.  I could see a world where he’s doing this.  Using tech to torture people like that.”

I cleared my throat.  I had all eyes on me.

“The activities of Cradle seem to be only half of it,” I said.  “It’s a half I’d like to ask you all to please let us tackle.”

“Us being who?” Relay asked.

“What’s the other half?” Weld asked, before I had a chance to answer.

I drew in a deep breath.  “The Undersiders and Breakthrough will tackle the situation with Cradle.  I think we have some sense of his motivations.  Love Lost too.  We plan to keep them separated if we can.  In exchange, we’re helping the Undersiders with a related problem.  But the mercenaries are up to something else and we’d like to ask you to focus some attention on that.”

Cinereal still had that dangerous, intimidating thing going.  She leaned back, looking very casual and very ominous, and she asked, “How bad is this else?”

“We don’t know,” Foil said.  “But Tattletale is pretty certain that their focus is on the time stasis effects in Earth Bet’s Brockton Bay.”

“Tameka Schooley.  Lee Pemberton.  Tom Kahn.  Bakuda’s test run and one use when she was terrorizing the city,” Jeanne Wynne spoke up for the first time.  “Alabaster, Jotun, and Dauntless… Leviathan hurled them into a time stop effect when defenders tried to use one of Bakuda’s leftover tinker weapons to stop him.  Wanda Fowler, Sarah and Patty Martin.  Henry Holmes.  They tried to break into what locals termed ‘The Scar’, an ongoing cataclysm from a bombing run that had been made using more of Bakuda’s leftover technology.  They entered because someone had told them that The Scar had veins of diamond, gold, and other rare materials inside it, where matter had transmuted to different forms.”

“Did it?” Aleph Wolf asked.  “That someone was right?”

“Yes.  Rumors got out while barriers to contain the effect were being put up.  The workers saw things.  Unfortunately, that area also had a lot of active dangers that hadn’t gone off, settled, or stopped.  The four risk-takers tripped an inactive weapon and were trapped by a fourth time-stop effect.”

“Maybe they’re still after that stuff,” Aleph Wolf said.  “Times are tight.  A big chunk of precious metals could go to some other dimension and pay for… a lot of things.  Get a whole city or the city through the winter.”

The Lone Wolf pack was a band of heroes that were taking an especially wild west approach, patrolling the periphery of the city and the surrounding worlds.  They answered problems where problems came up, they teamed up when absolutely essential, which was mainly if there was a bounty to share, but they were otherwise independent.

Aleph Wolf was exemplifying the ‘stick to the basics’ mentality, as well as the group’s ‘heroic mercenary’ streak.

“I think it’s more worrying than a cash grab,” I said.  “Teacher and his mercenaries parted ways.  If it was a question of cash in a really dangerous area… Teacher would put his thinkers and tinkers to solving the problem, he’d succeed, and he’d be in good shape.  I can’t see why he’d back off.”

“The Wardens were looking into those effects, as well as the ongoing Gray Boy loops,” Jeanne said.  “They researched it and decided no.  The same people who petitioned the Wardens then petitioned the government.  It crossed my desk, but I already had some faint knowledge of what it was about.  I considered, researched, and came to the decision that yes, I know a way to undo the effect.  No, I won’t actually do it.”

Using her power, I thought.  She could free people from perpetual torment and she says no.

“Why no?” I asked.

It wasn’t Jeanne who answered.  Cinereal gave me my reply.  “Thinkers say no.  They’re either drawing blanks or they don’t like what they see.”

“Nothing specific?  No details?”

“No,” Cinereal said.  “But if you look at some of the other major thinker blind spots, you’re going to find yourself running into topics like Eidolon, Sleeper, the Endbringers, Valkyrie, the Island-state, the Pastor incident…”

“Concentrations of power,” I said.

Jeanne shook her head.  “Complexity of power, most often.  Whatever thinker powers come into play, with these cases, there’s often too many variables to fully consider, thinkers report that their powers are fuzzy, inconsistent, or blacked out.”

“And it’s not just the time-stop bubbles in Brockton Bay that are an issue?” I asked.

Jeanne shook her head.  “But Brockton Bay is one of the largest collections.  Keep that in mind.”

“And you don’t know why?  The thinkers can’t shed any light on this?” I asked.

“Little.”

“You’re saying you checked, you’re saying no, risky for reasons you can’t disclose.  The Wardens checked, and they’re saying no, the thinkers think it’s volatile somehow…”

“Yes,” Cinereal said.  “Volatile is a good way to put it.  It might not explode.  It might be devastating.”

“Okay,” I said.  “And for the record, I want to stress that Teacher said no.  He broke with his mercenaries from Cheit because they wanted to go after this.  Are the mercenaries after it because so many people are afraid to touch it, or do they know something we don’t?”

“I couldn’t tell you,” Jeanne said.

“Can you send me information on the victims?”

“I will.  Bakuda’s victims, the three heroes-”

“Not all heroes,” I said.  “Alabaster and Jotun were white supremacists.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.  Files on those two groups, and the group in the bubble caught the group that snuck into The Scar.  I’ll send you what others sent to me.”

Trying to wrap our heads around a problem that apparently even thinker powers couldn’t tackle without running into blind spots.

Daunting.

I turned to the heroes, my eye mainly on Cinereal and Relay.  This wasn’t an easy ask.  “We can’t get directly involved until we’ve tackled Cradle, Love Lost, or some other peripheral things.  If we can make headway in solving any of those issues, we should be able to converge on the mercenary problem from multiple angles.  In an ideal world, we’ll catch up with them from the flanks while you’re approaching from the front.”

“We’ll do what we can,” Cinereal said.  “But we don’t have many resources.”

More crime and incidents than we had heroes to send to them.  The city was still on fire, and we didn’t have the means to put every single fire out.

“When you say resources, you mean heroes,” Foil spoke up.

“Yes,” Cinereal said.

“Do you have money?”

“Are you hiring yourself out?”

“No,” Foil said.  “But there are a lot of capes out there who are worried about the winter.  Most costumed stuff doesn’t pay.  The guys you’re dealing with are hiring mercenaries.  This Order of Four, the Case Fifty-Threes.  If you’re really pressed for manpower, we can send you a list of people.”

“A mercenary we hire is someone the other guys can’t,” Lark said.  “I can look into that.”

“We’ll send you the list, then.  I can send copies to anyone else who asks.  You can tell us if you know something about the potential hires that means they can solve a problem we have or if they’re going to be a problem.”

“I’ll talk things over with Countenance,” Relay said.  “My gut feeling is that I’m worried you’re getting mired in something personal, while we’re sticking our necks out with something that thinkers can’t vet.”

“If you have any suggestions or alternatives-” I started.

“I’ll talk to Countenance,” Relay stated.  Firm, final.  He did with me what he’d done to Foil, angling his head so he looked up at me more than he looked at me.  The brow and a partial view of his eyes dominated his expression, as a result.  He took notes on the pad in front of him, as if he was leaning forward to write.

But he still studied me.

Nobody else was willing to commit, with the largest and most influential hero team in our group that wasn’t the Wardens being unwilling to do more without checking with the boss.  The Wardens were too caught up in other things to dedicate themselves unless it was something on the scale of the prison or the Fallen camp, but I was reserving hope that Cinereal would talk to others about the time bubbles.

“We’ll touch base again soon?” Weld asked.  “If you’re approaching the same problem from two directions, you’ll want to compare notes.”

I looked at Relay, who nodded.

If we’re getting involved in the time bubble issue,” Relay said.  “But we’ll meet soon regardless.”

“Capricorn Red will represent us for the next meeting,” I said.

That was it.  For lack of a better word, the room dissolved, with everyone shuffling around, splitting up, or leaving the area.

Weld signaled for my attention.

“You good?” I asked Precipice.

He nodded.

“Foil?”

Foil glanced at Jeanne, who was walking toward her.

“You want backup?”

“No.  I know what this is about.  Old alliances and favors owed.  Tattletale told me to expect her to show up and to expect this.  I’m just the middleman.”

“I’ll stick around,” Precipice said.

I had to wonder if Foil was happy like this.  Having to go out of her way to even collaborate with the heroes, and then being questioned when she did.

I kept an eye on her up until I caught up with Weld, who had retreated to a far corner of the room, mostly out of earshot of others.  He seemed mindful of the other people in the room, his mouth shut.

Relay was already gone, teleporting out.  Aleph Wolf was just leaving.  The moment Aleph Wolf was out of the room, Weld finally spoke.

“What do you think?”

“I think if Alabaster is potentially a part of this, it’s worth reaching out to the Shepherds.  Victor and Rune from the Empire are in the Shepherds now, under new names.  They knew Alabaster and they might know something about Jotun.  He was small-time.”

“Okay.”

“Can you handle that?” I asked.  “The Wardens are neutral, so you can talk to the other group without issues, right?”

Weld nodded.

“I hope the division between the heroes isn’t straining things with Sveta.”

“With different bosses it might,” he said.  “We’ve been together for about three years, depending on how you define ‘together’.  You were a big part in that.”

I smiled.

“I think we’re okay there.  Nobody’s demanding that I make any hard decisions yet.”

“Good,” I said.

“I did want to ask something though,” he said.  “I don’t-”

He stopped himself there.  He stood with his back to the wall, the window beside him, and the texture and material of his ‘skin’ made for a striking image.

“What’s going on?”

“I don’t have a lot of friends that I can talk to about certain things,” he said.  “I have teammates, but few who have spent any amount of time around Case Fifty-Threes.”

“Is it about the Fifty-Threes who were doing mercenary work?”

“No.  No- it’s not that.  It’s more awkward.”

With that, I knew just what he was talking about.

“Ah.  I get it now,” I said.

He didn’t reply, and I didn’t press.  More of the heroes filtered out.  Jeanne was talking to Foil, with Precipice standing beside Foil, not really joining in.

“She welcomed me home from my mission away with… affection.  I’m assuming she talked to you about it.”

“Yeah.”

“She brought it up after?”

“She seemed really happy.  I didn’t get details.”

“Can I-” he started.  “I don’t want to put you in an awkward position, but I don’t know who to bring it up with.”

“Ask, or share,” I said.  “I get the feeling it’ll do more harm if you don’t.”

“It wasn’t good,” Weld said.

My heart sank.

“I love her, don’t get me wrong.  I was game to experiment and find something that worked.  But none of it worked.  None of it.”

“Fuck,” I said, under my breath.  My fingers dug into my arms.  “Damn it.

“Well put,” Weld told me, sounding just as miserable.

“Can you communicate?  Find a way…?”

I saw Weld already shaking his head.

“I thought I’d play along to make her happy.  Like I do when she wants to experiment with food.  We’ve had some small, tiny successes there.  Maybe there could be a success to be found here.”

“Of course.”

“I spent a while thinking about it.  I think I was wrong, thinking I could do that.  I think each time I try to play along, it’s only pushing me away.  It takes what we can’t have and pushes it into my face.”

I snapped my head around, looking at him.

His forehead was creased, brow knit.  Quicksilver eyes looked back at me.

“I know it’s a fucked thing to say, but I like girls and part of that is liking girls’ bodies.  Sorry if that’s TMI.  I haven’t had one of these conversations with anyone.”

I shook my head.  My heart was pounding in my chest, as calm as I was trying to appear.

“I feel like a traitor, even saying it.  Saying I’ve entertained thoughts about breaking up with-”

I stabbed my finger at his shoulder, using the Wretch to give that finger the power to push his heavy metal body.  I pushed his shoulder into the window’s frame, indenting the metal and damaging the wood.

“Ow,” he said.  He blinked, metal closing over those liquid silver eyes with etched irises.  “Actually pretty close to feeling pain there.  Ow.  That registered.”

“Breaking up?” I asked him, my voice hard.

“It crossed my mind, after the other night.  And the nights since.  I know that makes me the scummiest hypocrite, saying I’m not sure I can date a Case Fifty-Three when that would disqualify me in a lot of people’s eyes.”

I dropped my finger.

“No,” I said.  “You’re not.”

“You don’t have to lie,” he said.

“I’m not.  You don’t have to date a Case Fifty-Three anymore than a black person would have to date another black person.  That’s a screwed-up mentality.”

“It’s different,” Weld said.  “Being black is the most normal thing in the world.  Being me, being Sveta, being Chantilly or Gentle Giant, it comes with complications.”

“If you were disabled, you would not be obligated to only date disabled people.”

Weld shrugged.  With his broad shoulders, decorated with melted fragments of metal, it was a pretty dramatic movement.  “You can say that, but I still feel like a hypocritical scumbag.”

“I don’t think you’re a hypocrite.  I do think you’re a bit of a scumbag, talking about dumping my best friend.”

Weld nodded, with enough fervor that I felt bad for being hard on him.   “I want to do right by her.  I mean it when I say I love her.  But that love gets confused.”

“Confused?”

“It’s there.  But I don’t know if it’s the love I feel for the woman I’m going to marry, a girlfriend, a best friend, or even a-”

He didn’t finish the sentence.

He was being really open.  Maybe more open than he’d been with anyone except Director Armstrong, at least with this stuff.  But he didn’t finish the sentence.

“It’s like trying to compose something and skipping out on the vocals or the strings.”

“Percussion would be a better metaphor,” I said.

I didn’t smile as I said it, and Weld didn’t smile as he heard it.

“There’s no workable physical aspect, and I want that aspect.”

I folded my arms.  Weld did much the same.

Fuck.  Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck.  Fuck.

At the other corner of the long conference room, Jeanne was leaving.  Precipice and Foil hung back, talking with one another.

Fuck it all.  Fuck.  Fucking why did this have to be so hard?

Precipice shot me a curious look.  Foil walked past him, and for a second I thought she was walking around the table to approach us, interrupting the conversation.  She was walking to the window though, still at the far end of the library’s conference room, looking down toward the parking lot, then out at the city.  Precipice indicated a portal in the distance, cutting into the sky.

“I’ll make you a deal,” I told Weld.

“Please.  Anything you can offer.  If I could feel sick, I think I actually would feel sick over this.”

“You tell me before you do anything.  You promise me you will, and you keep that promise.  Because if you do something like break up with her on impulse it’s going to be worse.”

Weld nodded.

“And I swear, if you tell her the actual reason why, I will tear your arms off.”

“How do I do that?” Weld asked.  “I want to communicate, be honest that it’s not all that great, and try more avenues before claiming defeat.  Not that there’s many more, but she’s not stupid.  She can connect dots, if that’s the big issue we’re wrestling with and then I break up with her without explanation.”

He’d talked about feeling sick, but I was the one who felt that way now.

Poor fucking Sveta.

“The deal,” I said, because I couldn’t answer the question that easily if addressing it directly.  “Is that you warn me in advance if you make a decision.  I’ll be there for her with ice cream and my shoulders ready to cry on.”

“Okay,” Weld said.  “I’m not sure I’m there yet.  The decision, I mean.”

“Second part of the deal?  Figure out a way that explains it, okay?  That makes it not about her lack of a body or physical incompatibility.  Because that will annihilate her.”

“Yeah,” Weld said.

“For that, you need to take time, and you need to give me time.  Let me research.  Let me ask questions.”

“We’ve looked at a lot of options and possible power interactions,” Weld said.

“Let me research,” I said, my voice terse to the point that it was almost hostile.

“Then I will,” Weld said.  “Okay.  How long?”

“A month.  Two.”

“Month and a half?”

I shrugged.  Already, I felt more like I was buying time to stave off devastation than I felt any hope that I’d stumble on a solution.

“Victoria,” Precipice called out from the other end of the room.  “We’ll be outside!”

I twisted around, looking down at the parking lot.  “Trouble?”

He shook his head.  “Getting organized.  I’m going to load some stuff into the car.”

“I should go,” I said.

“Thanks for being a friend,” Weld said.

“You know, if you break up with Sveta, meet a gorgeous girl and break Sveta’s heart again, I’m obligated to throw you into the center of the Atlantic Ocean.”

Weld winced.  “Sveta’s dished on my weaknesses, I guess?”

“Hm?  Not really.”

“Fear of mine.”

“Through the stratosphere then, so long as it’s ignorance and not maliciousness, but I don’t think you’re that kind of guy.”

Weld shook his head.

“What you do is your choice.  You don’t have to stay with her.  But you have to be gentle.”

“I don’t even know if I will go through with it,” Weld said.  “It’s just… thinking.  The idea of making her genuinely happy makes me happier than anything.  Even imagining that I might make her sad is making me more miserable than I’ve been in a long time.”

I put my hand on his shoulder.

“Go,” he said.  “I’ll go after the Shepherds, distract myself by talking to some vaguely familiar and probably hostile faces.”

Victor and Rune.

I slid the window open, then flew through, heading for the lot.  I shut the window behind me, and floated down.

Fuck fuck fuck fuck…

Precipice and Foil were just now reaching the ground floor.  I waited for them.  Rain indicated the dumpster at the edge of the street.  Metal for roofs, fencing, and power tools that had been thrown out, because they’d been made cheap in a time of need and they hadn’t been made to last.  He’d spotted all of it when we’d pulled up to the library.

We loaded as much as we could fit into the trunk.  Foil used her power to slice some pieces of corrugated metal into smaller chunks.

We climbed into the car.  The driver turned on the engine, but he didn’t pull out of the parking spot.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

He held up a note.  There was still tape at the top.

I didn’t even get a chance to read it when the passenger door opened.

“Scoot.”

I turned to look.  Rain was shifting to the middle seat.  At the open door, Imp was climbing into the car.

“What were you doing?” I asked, trying to sound more casual than suspicious and unsure if I was succeeding.  I was usually better at that, but- conversation with Weld.

“Went with Mrs. Wynn.  When she was done talking to us, she got on her phone to talk to her hubby and some guy called Balminder.”

“And?”

“This Balminder guy has Cauldron vials.  We talked about how Tats said there were Case-53s at the attacks.  Mercenaries, right?”

“Yes,” Tattletale said.

Both groups were assembled in the hideout, with only Rachel absent.  They’d decided it was time to call her.

Sveta sat beside me, very still as she watched Imp.

“They were talking out loud about whether their vials could be responsible for the new cases.”

“And?” Sveta asked, her voice tight.

“And they think no.”

Both teams and a collection of the Heartbroken were assembled at our headquarters.

I’d thought earlier about how the conference room had felt too empty, but how it would feel too full if everyone was present.

This was that weird middle ground, I decided.  Not a middle ground where the porridge was just right, but one where it was both too hot and too cold.  Fucking uncomfortable.

Chicken Little had a pigeon in his hands, and Kenzie was fitting something around its neck and chest.  One of the Heartbroken- Candy, I was pretty sure, was sitting on the edge of Kenzie’s desk, feet propped up on the back and front edge of Chicken Little’s chair.  Dark hair, braided close to the scalp at one side, the rest left as a tumble.  Darlene knelt on the floor by Chicken Little, holding the cage with more birds inside.

Others were scattered around the room.  Some boys were in Chris’ old corner, having found and started up some of his old games.  One had been given to Kenzie- it wasn’t a video game player, but a scanner.  She would dismantle it later.

Older Heartbroken were scattered in with a trio of mercenaries, and were managing some of the remaining Heartbroken.  A seventeen or eighteen year old with really long, wavy hair was stepping on a leather whip she’d wound around one girl’s hands, keeping the hands pressed to the floor.

Eerie, to think about where they came from and how very dangerous they were.

A hell of a lot of emotional firepower.

On the topic of firepower, Ashley was present, sitting on the floor with her legs tucked under her.  When we hadn’t been sharing info as a group, she had been talking quietly to the little girl that was Kenzie’s age who had her hands bound by the whip.

Parian and Foil sat on plastic cases with perishable foods inside.  Tattletale stood off to one side, a healthy distance from the dangerous little ones, looking at various screens.

“New Cauldron, same as the old Cauldron,” Sveta said.

“They have less resources.  And they rule Gimel,” Tattletale said.  “Different mission statement now.  From getting through the end of the world to surviving the aftermath.”

“When you put it that way, you make it sound like they’re on our side,” Precipice said.

“New Cauldron, same as the old Cauldron,” Tattletale said, indicating Sveta, who she’d borrowed the line from.  “Doing things that everyone should be unambiguously on board for and making every enemy possible along the way.”

“Great,” I said.  “Countenance and I exchanged a few texts while we drove back.  Relay gave him a quick recap and he reached out.  He sounds…”

“Undecided?” Byron-as-Capricorn asked.

“On the positive side of undecided.  Agreeable but yet to say he’s sure he’ll do it.  They’ll try to look after and stall any plans for the mercenaries and what they’re planning with the time bubbles.  If we catch up or figure out why while we’re dealing with the mercenaries’ allies, we use that info to help them wrap up.”

“We can’t focus on the mercenaries and stop whatever it is they’re doing?” Foil asked.

“We don’t have leads on them.  We do have some loose leads on Cradle’s business dealings, places Love Lost’s people have been seen, people they’ve hurt, and some last known whereabouts of March.”

“We go after them, then,” Byron-as-Capricorn said.  “All at once, after one target?”

“Coordinated strikes,” Ashley said.

“I dunno,” I said.  “I like the focused attack better.  Our goal is to keep them from achieving their goals or our worst case scenario.  A focused attack guarantees we take the most problematic person out of the picture.”

“March,” Foil said, definitively.

I drew in a slight breath.

“You don’t think so,” she said.  Again, a statement, firm.

“We’re supposed to be cooperating,” I said.  “The best order to remove threats would be to remove one of ours, one of yours, another one of ours.  It gives the best odds that we see this through.”

“Or we coordinate,” Ashley said.  The kid on the ground was inching closer to her while she focused on us, wriggling and twisting until her arms threatened to dislocate, just to get closer, gnashing teeth.  “No need to worry about order if we’re going after all of them at once.”

Capricorn shifted.  From Byron to Tristan.

“I think coordinated,” he said.  “It’s faster, and it means we can support the other groups.  Even if we fail on one front, we have better odds of keeping them from uniting.  Doing what you say, Victoria, and keeping them from achieving any goals and meeting up.”

I glanced at Tattletale.

“Don’t look at me,” she said.  “I’m here to collect information, because it’s warm, and we needed another place to go while March is hunting us.  You have some of my mercenaries.  You can ask me one favor.  I may refuse it.  But I’m not getting involved personally.  I need to conserve strength.”

“You can be-” Foil started.  Parian pulled her back down to her seat.

“I can be such a bitch sometimes?” Tattletale asked.  “At least I’m upfront about it.”

“I think we should split up,” Imp said.  “Coordinate.”

I had my reservations.  Still, sometimes with groups, a mediocre plan that everyone was on board with was much better than a fantastic plan with disgruntled people and people who had no idea what they were doing or why.

I nodded.

“Let’s get organized to hit them all at once, then,” I said.  “Three groups, three raids on March and the two members of the cluster.”

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Interlude – 11.a

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“Ahahahaha,” she fake-laughed.  “My sides!  Oh wait.”

“You need new material, ‘Piece.”

“If I didn’t repeat myself once in a while, I wouldn’t get to hear your dulcet tones telling me how unfunny I am.”

“Ha ha.”

They hiked through the snow and underbrush so thick that it was oftentimes easier to walk on, instead of walking through.

Sidepiece reached out for D.J.’s arm, gripping the forearm, ducked under a branch, and then stepped down to lower ground.

Thirty feet away, he was using a stick to prop himself up.  He only had the one hand, but he could lean heavily on the stick for added balance.  He spared her a glance, withdrew his arm, rotated the forearm, and then flung it out instead of teleporting it.

The hand gripped a branch, and the forearm stuck out at a convenient height and angle for her to grip.

“Masks or no?” D.J. asked.

“Sure.  Can’t hurt.”

“We’re going to be near people.”

“We’ll be lurking in the trees like creeps.  We might as well wear masks.”

“Uh huh.”

She put on her mask, a new one that had been provided by Love Lost.  It was in the shape of a skull, but limited to a cut that only covered the middle third of her face.  The mask attached with glue and stayed stuck where it was.  A mouth portion covered the portion of her face between lips and chin.  The teeth of the mask were modified, as were the shapes of the eye sockets, but it worked.

Damsel had fucked up and bailed when it mattered, but she’d had other things on point.  Sidepiece had a compact filled with black grease paint.  With her thumbs, she applied it to upper and lower lids, with a little curl up at the edges, like exaggerated eyelashes.  Nothing so delicate as Damsel had been, but Sidepiece didn’t consider herself delicate.

D.J. had a similar mask, but it was limited to the lower half of his face, broken into two parts, which he exaggerated by breaking his head into two parts, the upper half suspended over the lower.  He had his own greasepaint, white to contrast with his black skin.  He used his one hand to draw horizontal lines and highlight other gaps he created with his power.

She gave him a thumbs up, smiling.

The lights of civilization glowed beyond the trees, but the footing didn’t get any easier to manage.  The divide between pain-in-the-taint nature and snow-covered concrete was a harsh one, with bushes and piled-up branches standing high enough that she could stand three feet above solid ground with parking lot two paces in front of her.

D.J.’s hand once again provided a hand-hold as she navigated the wood underfoot.  She settled in, leaning against a tree, and tapped on his wrist with one finger.  “Let go for me.”

He let go.  She retained her grip on his arm, cradling his arm in hers.

“I want you to know you’re a proper fucking gentleman, ‘Joint.  It warms a lady’s heart.”

She punctuated the statement by taking his hand and laying it down flat against her chest, where her coat didn’t cover her.

“That’s not your heart, ‘Piece.”

“Is so.”

“I’m not complaining,” he said.  “Not about that.  Keeps my hand warm.”

She laid her hand down over top of his, sandwiching it there, and then pulled her coat around, to cover both of their hands.

“I don’t want to tell you to stop, but can you keep it where I can see it?” he asked.  “I might need it.”

“I’ve got us covered,” she said.  She used her free hand to move her jacket, which was open, showing off her midsection.  There was enough missing that she’d been able to position two holsters so they were strapped around her spine and each other, the guns angled so she could reach down and draw one.  Even when her coat was pulled tight around her body, the matched pistols wouldn’t show.

“Come on,” he said.

“If there’s trouble, I’ll give you back your arm.  Yeah?”

“Fine.”

Considering, she shifted the coat, buckling it at the top, still allowing for both of their arms and hands to be inside the coat, and left the lower half unbuckled, her midsection and the two pistols exposed and in reach.

“This shit is risky,” Disjoint said.

“Aw, buddy.  Are you scared?”

“Aren’t you?” he retorted.

“Nah.  I’m mostly worried we hiked this way for nothing.  What are the odds that they see us in a car while driving here?  If they even show up?  It’s so fuggin’ stupid.  If I’m scared of fucking anything I’m scared of being set up to do fucking stupid things for no fucking good reason.”

“Love hasn’t wronged us once.  She’s smart.”

“Isn’t smarts,” Sidepiece said.  “Smarts is what you learn from a book or teacher.  Street smarts from a street teacher.”

“You don’t need to lecture me about street smarts.”

“I’m more street than you, anyway, I don’t think that’s what she’s about.  She used to be law, before she was lawless.  She’s got a good eye for things, and that’s where she shines, ‘Joint.”

“A good eye even when she’s not looking, which makes me worry.”

“She’s looking.  She’s not telling us about all of it, but she’s looking.  What we’re doing right now?  It’s so she can look.  We’re trustworthy eyes.”

“Uh huh.  Trustworthy.”

“Mostly trustworthy.  But a week ago I saw her talk to this skank, woman was making booze in her bathtub and definitely not using the bathtub for its usual purposes.  She was hanging around Love’s turf, trying to pawn off her bathtub booze, scaring off anyone who had a sense of smell.  Right?”

“Uh huh.”

“Most people would tell the skank queen of stank to take a hike.  Love turned her into an asset.  She still hangs around, she still pawns, but the product’s a bit better, the skank showers once a week now, and she reports in.  Things she’s heard.  Things she’s seen.”

“That’s usually the way it works.”

“Nuh uh.  I’ve known people who ran a neighborhood, expected people to tell them if there was any news, but didn’t care otherwise.  My family was like that.  I’ve known people who ran their blocks like a business, with rules like how you take fifty percent of what you get and reinvest it back into the business.  I’ve even known ones who paid people for information.  But the goal was profit.  Maximizing money in their pockets at the end of the day.”

“She’s different?”

“Her goal is information, ‘Joint.  If you look for it, you’ll see it.  But she’s willing to break even on the business side of things to buy unreliable information.  She’d be willing to send us on a wild goose chase that could go nowhere, and that bothers me.”

Disjoint shook his head.  “You’re off.”

“I think she would, and if she will, that means we’re lower in her eyes.  There’s a class system here, like castes in India or whatever, and stank skank with the bathtub booze is bottom tier.  I don’t want to be at the mothersucking stank skank level.  If this is a shit job then it means she’s not all that and it means I’m not all that to her.”

“Not what I’m saying.  I don’t agree about the information part.”

Really?  You’ve got to pay attention and look, D.J..  See what she’s fucking organizing.”

“I’m looking.  Not always at the same things you are, but I’m looking.  I see the people she’s putting in place, but I don’t think the point is information.  The point is emotional.  She knows that information gets her what she wants.”

Sidepiece considered, then shrugged.  She wasn’t sure he could see her in the gloom, but his hand was in place to feel the shrug.  She smiled at the thought, and spoke through the smile.  “Revenge.”

“Hate and rage.  Revenge means there’s something that can be done and once it’s done then that’s the end of it.  I guarantee you, ‘Piece, she’s going to get what she wants and those emotions she’s feeling won’t change a bit.”

Sidepiece felt uncomfortable, hearing that and kind of agreeing with it.  The playful smile dropped away, and she found herself staring out across the dark parking lot.  There were only six cars in a lot that could have held a hundred, and it wasn’t because the mall was closed- the lights were on, signs lit, and store interiors illuminated.

“She’s still classy as shit,” she decided.

“She is.”

“And pure sex.  If she gave me a clear signal, I’d go to town and I’m only a bit into women.”

He drew in a deep breath, then like a robot, recited the practiced line, “I decline to comment on the grounds that it would self-incriminate.”

“Baby,” she cooed.  She stumbled along the heaped branches and rocks to get close enough, and he caught her, the hand at her front going rigid and providing some of the leverage to keep her from falling.  She leaned hard into the hand and reached up to touch his face.  “There’s no criminating here.  No discrimination, no incrimination, no cremation.  You’re safe from me.”

She felt his hand at her chest move reflexively at the line.

She’d never known a guy like Disjoint, and she had known a lot of guys.  When she had been fourteen she’d dated sixteen year olds.  They’d wanted one thing.  That hadn’t changed when she’d been sixteen and dating eighteen year olds.

It might have continued as a pattern, except shit had gone down when she was eighteen, and she hadn’t come away in one piece.  It had taken her a while to try again.  When she had, she’d been twenty, offering herself to thirty year olds to see if they’d bite.  Some bit.

She hadn’t realized what she’d been looking for until she stumbled into it.  A guy her age, who’d been hurt when she’d been hurt.  She could offer him the sort of thing that other guys wanted, and he liked it, but it wasn’t why he stuck by her.

No.  It was fucked up, but he stuck by her because he liked it when she was nice to him.  It revved his engines and it made him happy in a day to day way.

She wasn’t good at being nice.

“Headlights.”

She saw.  Across the parking lot, vehicles were convening.

“I brought binoculars if you want ’em,” D.J. said.

“I trust you.”

D.J. brought his hand to his face, two fingers at each eye.  He pulled his hand away, and his eyes were each between two fingers.  His own eye sockets were black pits, rimmed with red flesh and the horizontal ‘blindfold’ of white grease paint that he’d applied.

He stuck that hand out in the direction of the headlights.  The eyes fritzed like a bad video tape, then disappeared.

“Breakthrough,” he said.  “Some of them.  No Damsel.  Nobody else.  I’m going to have to put my ears over there to catch what they’re saying.”

“I’ve got you.”

She drew closer to him, supporting him with her body.  He reached up to remove his ears, which was a little more involved than simply removing the exterior portion, then he cast them out as he had the eyeballs.

When he did this, he was blind and deaf, but he also lacked balance.  Sending eyes or ears one at a time while keeping one close by only served to further disorient him, and the eyeballs didn’t come with eyelids, so he couldn’t close his eyes to filter what he was seeing.

This was the dangerous part.  If the ‘heroes’ realized they were being watched, they could retaliate.  If it came to that, D.J. would have to bring back his eyes and ears, and they would have to scram.  A fighting retreat, against people who could fly, do the retractable doll-limb thing, and that shit with the silver blades that had killed Snag from Love’s cluster.

She’d told herself a long time ago she would face danger with a smile.  As her heart beat faster, she told herself it was excitement.  This shit was neat.

She rose up on her tiptoes and kissed his mouth.

He broke the kiss, muttering, “Keep an eye out.”

“I will,” she said, before tracing the letters on his stomach, spelling out what she was saying.

There were more headlights.

Another car, beat from bumper to bumper.  It parked in an empty spot at the edge of the trees, as far away from the mall’s door as was possible.  It put the driver fifty or so feet away from Sidepiece and Disjoint.

An employee of the mall.

Sidepiece drew D.J. in for another kiss.

“You’re distract-” he started.  Her finger on his lips silenced him.

She maintained the kiss while the person walked by, apparently choosing a course where the snow and ice wasn’t as pronounced, which meant walking beneath the overhanging branches of trees, and walking within ten feet of the pair.

Sidepiece watched with one eye, hoping that if the person did see, they’d think it was two people having a ‘snog’, as she’d heard characters in a tv show say.  The masks were a drawback when it came to camouflage, but she could hide some of that with her hand up by D.J.’s face.

“Hello!?” the person called out.

She sighed into D.J.’s face as she broke the kiss.

She looked at the employee, someone wearing an orange shirt with a big blue button featuring a cartoon computer chip with eyes, mouth, arms and legs.  She’d seen it on television.

D.J., too, was looking in the employee’s direction.  An androgyne figure, short-haired and cute despite having lines around the eyes suggesting they were closer to thirty than twenty.

And very wide-eyed, seeing a man without eyes and with cavities instead of ears standing at the wood’s edge.

Sidepiece turned, giving the employee a view of her midsection.  She started to draw her gun, and the person bolted.

She reached past the gun and up into her ribs, digging for the liver and digging into the liver.  Pointed fingernails helped her to sever the connective tissue, and to get her fingernails in and around just enough that she could get a grip on it.  When she tore it out, she felt the damage to nearby parts that were still connected by tatters and webbings of tissue.

A second later, the wounds were puckering up, the liver drawing into itself to close up the damage, hardening around where the damage was worst.

With a practiced throwing motion, she cast the gallbladder out and over the employee’s head.

It exploded outward without much noise, but with a visible puff of smoke and a spray of fluid, with a volume far exceeding what the tiny organ should have held within it spreading out over pavement and ice.

That D.J. didn’t seem to notice suggested it was quiet enough that Breakthrough hadn’t heard.

The person stopped running before she ran into the caustic acid.  They looked back to see what was happening, and Sidepiece aimed a pistol at them.

“Listen carefully,” Sidepiece said.  “That acid’s nothing compared to what I can do to you if I hurl something bigger at you.  And I will.  I’ll throw something at you that will make you a greasy smear.  The only way you live is if you listen.  Nod if you understand.”

The person nodded.

“Take your phone out, drop it.”

The electronics employee did as instructed, pulling the phone from an inner coat pocket.  The phone bounced instead of breaking.  A protective case.

“Kick it into the acid there.”

“Please.”

“Now.”

The person kicked, but the traction of the case was enough that it barely traveled.

“Don’t be fucking stupid,” Sidepiece warned.

“I tried- I’ll…”

It took two more kicks to get it into the puddle.

“You’re going to reach into your car and move very slowly.  You’re going to drop the keys.  You can kick them under the car.  I’m being real fucking nice, because the alternative is to destroy your keys and leave you without your car.”

The person obeyed.

“You’re going to sit.  All lights and engine off.  You put your hands on the dash, and you don’t move until we give the say-so.”

Sidepiece made sure the employee obeyed.

“If you have to piss, piss yourself.  You don’t move a muscle.”

It was another few minutes and another six cars -the new ones parking much closer to the mall- before any cars joined the cluster that were parked in the corner of the lot.

“It’s the Undersiders,” D.J. reported.  “Bunch of kids ran off.  Going shopping I guess.  Adults stayed to talk.”

“Figured,” Sidepiece murmured.

“It’s a meeting about fire… the Undersiders set a fire to burn intel.  Hm.”

Sidepiece waited.

“Tattletale wants to protect sources.  Antares is threatening to leak intel.”

“Sounds like Love’s thing,” Sidepiece murmured.

“They’re sharing info.  Love Lost is going to love this.”

Love Lost screamed.  The scream hit Nailbiter and several members of the Patrol.  That it hit Nailbiter didn’t really matter.  Nails was filled with piss, vinegar, and rabies, and having the dial set to ten on ‘rage’ didn’t change a lot.  It made her more intense, aggressive, and focused, and far less likely to choose any option that wasn’t ‘fight more’.  It did the same to her enemies, but they weren’t going to win that fucking fight.

When they’d reported the meeting over, Sidepiece had messaged Love Lost.  The response had been an address.  This intersection.

No elaboration.  If she’d known it would be a fight like this, she would have hurried.

Sidepiece adjusted her coat, pulling it open so the buckles came undone.  She ran toward the thickest part of the fighting, raising her voice to a harsh pitch, “Give me the word!”

“Get ’em!” Nailbiter shouted.

“That’s two words!”

Nailbiter’s fingers elongated, narrowing into rigid, sharp lengths, which scuffed the road near Sidepiece’s feet.  Sidepiece cackled.

A patrol soldier whipped around, gun raised, and kept spinning, as Disjoint’s hand gripped him and shoved him.  A judo move at long range.  The guy stumbled into another soldier’s way, nearly getting shot.

Sidepiece reached into her coat and reached for another organ, her fingers sliding on slick tissue and the fluids that periodically dripped down from the upper half of her torso to the bottom.  Her kidney- not her right kidney.  That one was still growing back.  Her left kidney was ripe, and the faint, sharp pains told her it was loaded.

The sharp pains became something pronounced as she gripped the kidney and set to tearing it away.  There was a sound like wet cardboard ripping, audible snapping as the congealed and hardened parts around old injuries broke away.  Her right knee trembled with the effort and the pain, to the point she almost fell to the street, but then the last attachments broke, and she had her kidney in hand.

She even gave it a brief shake for good measure, feeling the reactions stirring within, like the fluids within the kidney were coming to a boil, the bubbles pushing out through the solid matter.

“Run!” someone gave the order.  A captain, who twisted around and aimed to open fire with their assault rifle.  Disjoint fucked with their aim.

They were already running, but they were running on a battlefield obstructed by their rage-filled allies, with parked vehicles here and there, and all of the other normal obstacles of a sidewalk, like mailboxes, trash cans, and trees.  Those things funneled them.

It was a question of waiting until they were caught, then aiming for the concentrated mass, favoring the side with captain that had just tried to shoot her.  Aiming wasn’t a guarantee, but her throwing arm was well practiced.

She lobbed it, and her timing was perfect, because it went off while over the heads of the crowd.  On any ordinary day, the kidneys produced a chemical blast, concussive, congealed, and activated- like napalm with something more noxious instead of fire.

That was on an ordinary day.  Her kidneys were packed with kidney stones, which would have better been described as sea urchins that chose to dwell in the kidneys.

Her power translated that quality into a kind of aggressive shrapnel.  Ten people were cut down.  Three of them hadn’t even been in the radius of the initial detonation.

Even on an ordinary day, most of her organs had another effect.  The blood they shed and the bits of flesh they carved out were activated, much like her kidney had been.

A smattering of smaller explosions followed the first detonation.  Where blood had sprayed, it ignited, burning like oil that had been touched with a lighter, brief but hot enough to hurt.

“You assholes are a mess!” she cried out.

“No,” Disjoint said.  “You’re hurting us more than them if you say it.”

“You need to get organ-ized!”

Muscle came away in strips.  Pulling at the stomach muscle near the spine made her thigh tremble.  She flicked the strip out in the direction of a pair of people who were finding their feet.  The explosion was smaller, localized, and put them down.  Muscle was clean- too concussive to tear away chunks and cause a chain reaction.

Nailbiter swatted at the stragglers, sending them sprawling.  Sidepiece quickly pulled away another segment of muscle, nearly losing her footing as nerves got to her, and then flung it out, as best as she could.  Straight into the mass.

“Can’t stomach what I’m dishing out?” she asked.

Stop, please, mercy,” Disjoint cried out, from the distant rear of the fracas.

She smirked.

Three more patrol soldiers remained.  They looked like leadership, and two of them had riot shields.  Nailbiter was playing with her food now that the rage had subsided.  A prod here, a poke, trying to get over, under, and force a continual retreat that put the patrol leaders further from their fallen friends.

Nail-fingers and feet that had been sharpened down into singular points stabbed the ground near the fallen, but by careful positioning or sheer luck, Nailbiter didn’t stab anyone who was lying on icy pavement.

She tugged out a knob of fat, from between organ structures.  Fat burned like blood did.

With index finger and thumb, and a bit of the enhanced strength that her hands and forearms had, to help with the tearing, and throwing, Sidepiece flicked the glob of fat.

The fat made a sharp sound and splatted out into a thin slime, which promptly ignited.  One plexiglass riot shield was on fire now.

She kept one eye out for D.J.’s hands.  She counted both wrestling with the commander’s own hand and foot, a targeted attack that was aimed at the one person without the riot shield.  It served to separate him from the others, which exposed him to Nailbiter.

But Disjoint was occupied, which meant he couldn’t do much as one of the men with the riot shields raised his rifle, aiming it around the shield.  Sidepiece had to run for it, hurling herself to the ground.  There wasn’t much cover there, she was a sitting duck, and she knew she made a better target than some, given her proportions.

But she was near some of the wounded patrol officers, and the man with the rifle wasn’t willing to risk hitting them.

She hadn’t even seen Love Lost start moving, but she saw the middle and end of the movement- a shape along the wall, hair and dress flapping, claws sparking as they hit stone and brick, and then the plunging descent, feet planted squarely on the captain’s shoulders, driving him to the ground.

She leaped forward from there, and her claws scraped the plexiglass riot shields as she slipped between them.

Without turning around, she reached back to scratch both men.  Ragged cuts- one at the side of the leg, the other from thigh to armpit.

Love Lost panted as she turned around, surveying the fallen, her mask dangling with one side attached at the right side of her jaw, the other unclasped.  The pants weren’t normal ones, either- there was a note of something in them.

Almost a whimper, or the pained intake of breath between screams, except the screams had been a minute or two ago, not a second ago.

With the attachment of the mask, she composed herself in posture, straightening to her full height.  Her claws ran through hair, a stroke of the back of the hand smoothed out the dress.

The look in her eyes took longer.  Wild, almost crazed.

Then calmer.  A perpetual glare.

“Would it make your evening better to know we got some really fucking good intel?” Sidepiece asked.

Love Lost pointed a claw at one of the guns that lay on the ground.  She held up a finger.

“That first.  Got it.”

Sidepiece bent down to grab some of the guns off of the men.  Seeing Nailbiter extend an index finger, threading through multiple rifles by the trigger guards, Sidepiece picked up an assault rifle and flung it into the air.

Nailbiter stabbed out with two fingers.  She caught the gun between them, like she was holding it with chopsticks.

“Don’t be a pain,” Nailbiter said.

Sidepiece winked.

Nailbiter’s index shortened until it could pass through the trigger guard, and then the two elongated ‘chopstick’ fingers withdrew.

“We should call for an ambulance,” D.J. said.  “I’m not sure if you all killed any.”

Love Lost made a motion with one hand, claws glinting where they were mounted on her fingers.

“Calling,” D.J. reported, hesitating as he turned to the others, “what do you think?  Three ambulances?”

“More than that,” Sidepiece replied.  “What happened?”

“They came after us.  We came back at them harder,” Nailbiter said.

“Good thing D.J. and I showed up when we did,” Sidepiece said.

Nailbiter gave her a look.

It wasn’t that Nailbiter disliked her or she disliked Nailbiter, but Nailbiter was a veteran.  Almost a decade under her belt, being a villain.  That shit hardened a woman.  Nailbiter wasn’t one to relax, play around or laugh at jokes until she’d had drinks.

By contrast, D.J. wasn’t hardened enough.  He was here because she was here and if pushed he sometimes collapsed.  He was figuring her out and she was figuring him out.  They made a good team, because she could deal with numbers and he could trip up any one enemy.  But even this shit with gunfire, or shit like the Fallen, it wasn’t as big as some of the shit they could end up getting stuck in.  She wasn’t absolutely sure he was fucked enough in the head to have her back when it counted.

She missed Damsel.  Damsel had been willing to let the facade crack to fucking smile now and then.  Sidepiece had started to think it was all an act, part of the undercover op, but during the interrogation in the shed, she’d still seen those small smiles.

Shit like that fueled Sidepiece.  It was rare she could meet someone and feel like she could take on the world with them at her side.

She kept picking up guns.

She wasn’t done with Damsel, she decided.  If the princess wanted to act proper and heroic, then Sidepiece would find a way to drag her into the muck.  There was a kind of romance in the mental picture of the two of them too beat up to move, bloody and dirty, and the facades cracking.  Emotion pouring out.

There was a romance to the scene, but a purely platonic intent, she decided.   Damsel’s ass was far too skinny for Sidepiece’s tastes.

Speaking of.  They had a report to make.

“How did you know that Tattletale wouldn’t pick up on us?” Sidepiece asked.

Love Lost looked over one shoulder, peering through red hair at Sidepiece.  The hair had been dyed at one point, when Love Lost had been doing covert missions and had sought something more subtle, and it still lacked its brighter tones as some of the dye was still there.  Blood red, if anything.

Love Lost’s claw moved, tapping out something in the air.  She slashed it to one side, as if it was a kind of punctuation.

Sidepiece’s phone blared with the refrain from an angst pop song as the message came in, “Follow you, follow you, into the rage…”

Other phones went off simultaneously, throughout the group.

Love Lost (is the muthafuckin baws):
SURVEILLANCE.  HER HEAD IS BOWED AND POSTURE STOOPED IF HER POWER IS EXHAUSTED

“Thinker headaches,” Nailbiter said.

Love Lost nodded, slightly shrugging one shoulder, still walking at the head of the pack, still without looking back.

“What’s that?” Sidepiece asked.

“If a person with brainy powers uses her powers too much…” Nailbiter hissed the words, lisping the ‘s’s.  “Suffers for it.  Saw it in the Birdcage.  Thinkers can’t get the privacy to hide when they’re hurting, and can’t not use their powers, when they need to hold their own.”

“A weak point,” D.J. said.

Love Lost’s claw moved.

“Follow you, follow you, into the rage…”  The phones rang.

Love Lost (is the muthafuckin baws):
SHE WILL FAKE IT TO FEINT WHEN SHE REALIZES WE KNOW
FOR NOW WE TIME OUR MOVES

“We weren’t in that much danger, then, surveilling?”

Love Lost made a so-so gesture.  Her claws tapped at the air, poking at an invisible keyboard.

“Follow you, follow you, into the rage…” the phone’s ring tone sounded.

“Put that on vibrate,” Disjoint said.

Sidepiece snorted.

Love Lost (is the muthafuckin baws):
CAMERA TINKER A DANGER
WHAT IS NEW INTEL?

“Camera tinker wasn’t moving around much, or using much tech,” Sidepiece said.

Disjoint elaborated, “Half of what they were talking about was smoothing things over between some of the kids.  Either fighting or getting along too well.  Chicken Little and Lookout.”

“Look out, the sky is falling,” Sidepiece said.

Love Lost’s expression had changed.  It always did when kids were involved.  She even changed her attitude when it came to Colt.

“They talked about where the major players are, and who’s involved.  They have a good guess about the attacks that took the Navigators and some of the Advance Globs out, thanks to Tattletale.”

Love Lost nodded, very cavalier about that fact.

“Matter of time, huh?” Sidepiece asked.

Love Lost nodded again.

Love Lost didn’t like using the phones to communicate, which meant that half the time she was leaving things up for others to infer or guess.  If someone could fill in the blanks, then Love Lost allowed it.  Screw up too many times or put the wrong words in her mouth, and that someone would get sent to do a shit errand and kept out of the way.

The inner circle mostly had it figured out, now.  Disjoint stayed quiet rather than guess.  Nailbiter only guessed in the middle of a fight.  She worked well with Love Lost in an all-out fight.

“They’ve been working out who’s who.  Shin’s quiet, Teacher overreached and some of his mercs from Chiet are rebelling, doing their own thing.  Apparently, Bitter Pill isn’t leading the thinkers from the Point,” Disjoint said.

Love Lost typed in the air.

“Follow you, follow you, into the rage…”

Nailbiter’s fingers extended into points, perilously close to Sidepiece’s throat.

The scene remained utterly still for a few seconds.

The phone started up its ringtone again.  “Follow you, Foll-“

The points of Nailbiter’s fingers touched skin.  Sidepiece set her phone to vibrate.

“Yeah,” Disjoint said, looking at his phone.  “That’s their best guess.  Pill is the face, or a partner in leadership.”

Sidepiece looked at the phone to see what the guess was.

Love Lost (is the muthafuckin baws):
BLUESTOCKING

Love Lost nodded.  She drew to a stop, then looked around.

“Trouble?” Disjoint asked.

“No, not trouble,” Nailbiter said.

Love Lost pressed a claw to the fanged mouth that was molded to her lower face, covering nose, mouth, and cheeks.  A single finger to mime ‘silence’.  Her other claw went up in a ‘stop’ position.

The group was quiet and still as Love Lost extended a claw point skyward.  Love Lost tilted her head.

The hand came down, pointing, then motioned again, quick.

Hurry, was the intent.

The group hurried.  Sidepiece’s legs hurt from all the walking, especially the uneven walking through the forest, their shortcut to avoid being seen as they made their way to their vantage point at the edge of the mall parking lot.

“New security measures.  Extending her sensory ranges, and feeling out for tech.  It takes a minute,” Nailbiter hissed.

They entered the hideout.  Love Lost activated the door’s locks, both mechanical and mundane.

“Breakthrough knows you won’t deal with them, so they asked the Undersiders to.   Undersiders know March is prepared for them, so they’re asking Breakthrough to alleviate the pressure.”

Love Lost typed at the air.  Sidepiece couldn’t look at her phone, as she was busy taking off her winter clothes.

Love Lost (is the muthafuckin baws):
WHAT ARE THE UNDERSIDERS GOING TO SAY TO ME?

“Nothing useful, since we know what they’re doing and who they’re working with,” Sidepiece quipped.

Love Lost shrugged slightly, her head moving in acknowledgement of that simple truth.  Even distant friends of the Fallen kid were off limits for alliances.

“They’re supposed to tell you that Cradle is dangerous, he wants to kill you and take your power, and-”

Love Lost moved her hand.

“I know.  They said it before.  They’ll be more insistent, try deals.  They said the worst case scenario is that Cradle allies with March and then takes you out of commission.  Second worst case scenario is you ally with March, Tattletale seemed pretty sure you wouldn’t go after Cradle.”

Love Lost stepped into the living room, claws clicking against the floor- three at the toes, one stabbing down from the heel, her feet encased in thermal stockings that extended up her legs.  The moisture didn’t seem to stick to any of it, wicking off immediately.

Colt was lying on the couch, and sprung to her feet as Love Lost entered.  Love Lost gently pushed her back into her seat.

A knife-finger pointed at Colt, a warning.

“Sorry,” Colt said.  “I tried.”

Disjoint continued, “There was other stuff, Cheit’s mercenaries and some follow-up to the portal or something that they’re planning, but they didn’t talk much about that.  Mostly their focus was on teaming up and trading enemies.  Making sure March doesn’t get in contact with any member of your cluster, and making sure Cradle-”

“-Doesn’t steal the powers of another member of the cluster,” was the response.

Cradle stepped out of the kitchen.

Sidepiece met Disjoint’s eyes.  Her hand moved closer to her midsection.  Shit.  Shitty shit shit shit.

“They don’t understand the most basic and fundamental truth when it comes to the Mall Stampede Cluster,” Cradle said.

Love Lost visibly winced at the mention of the mall.

“Sorry, L.L.  But the fact is, if we were going to kill any member of the cluster, it’s going to be the kid,” Cradle said.  “You don’t need to worry.”

Love Lost nodded.

Cradle, tousle-haired, wearing tinted goggles and a mask, looked as much like a kid as anyone, Sidepiece observed.

But as irreverent as she tried to be in the face of an unjust, grisly world, she could read the tension in the air.  She could shut up when absolutely necessary.

Her stomach was doing flip-flops.  Her pancreas was at that stage in its growth where each tiny growth made it twitch and flip up, then flop down, slapping lightly against the raw meat around it.

“I’m ninety percent done our second version,” Cradle told Love Lost.  “I got peckish, I decided to use the kitchen.  I told your henchman there to sit on the couch and let me tinker together some snacks.  So take that claw away from her throat.”

Love Lost withdrew the claw.  Her eyes narrowed.  She started to type.

“Ninety percent because I want another scan,” Cradle said.  “You gave me one of… his, I think it was.”

He was pointing at Disjoint.

Love Lost nodded.

“I’ll get one of my own.  The data you collect is slightly different from what I get.  Differences in focus.”

Love Lost looked at Disjoint.

“So long as it doesn’t hurt me any,” Disjoint said.

“It won’t,” Cradle said.  His smile was thin, hollow.

Are we pretending that we weren’t just talking about Cradle hurting Love Lost?  He says he won’t and we believe him?  Sidepiece wondered.

“They suspect you, I don’t know if you heard that part,” Disjoint said.  “Hurting the Navigators.”

“Okay,” Cradle said.  “All the more reason to get version two up and running.  And a bit more manpower.”

Love Lost walked over to the coffee table.  Rather than pick up the files there, she speared them with claws, so each file was on a different claw-point.

She planted them on the counter-island that sat in the middle of the kitchen, where Cradle could easily see.

“Kitchen Sink and Hookline.  It’s a start.  Are they forgiven?”

“They can prove themselves worthy of rejoining us,” Nailbiter said.

“Ah.”

“Love Lost and I talked about it before,” Nailbiter clarified.

“It’s a start,” Cradle said.  “The mercenaries we hired before-”

“Money’s tied up,” Nailbiter said.

“I’ll put some forward,” Cradle said.  “It always bugged me in the cartoons, when the villains had a plan that almost worked, and when the next Saturday morning rolled around, they tried something completely new, instead of refining the old idea.”

“Are you a villain, then?” Colt asked, from the couch.

“I’m a planner.  We’ll hire the same people who did the job last time, and we’ll use version two of the weapon.”

Love Lost started typing in the air, claws stabbing at an invisible keyboard.

Cradle seemed to know what was being typed before any phones rang, because he added Love Lost’s line, “And if they don’t want us getting in contact with March… I think that’s exactly what we need to do.”

Love Lost nodded, claws touching her hair to brush it aside as she stood straighter.

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Blinding – 11.3

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“I’ve got it,” Natalie told me.  She squeezed past me to get to the door, took the keys I had in the flat of my hand and opened it, stepping inside to hold it open.

I had Kenzie in my arms.  She was skinny, but her clothes for the cold weather were puffy, and it meant my arms had to go around more.  My arm still twinged from the gunshot wound in the left bicep, and my right hand had bandages around it, inside the glove though the skin was on its way to healing.

Kenzie, meanwhile, was resting her face against my shoulder.  When the cold weather had blustered, she had ducked her head down, and she hadn’t lifted her head back up.

The kettle was already starting to boil in the other room as we kicked off boots and got ourselves sorted in the front hallway.  Ashley took her boots off and stalked off into the kitchen with her coat still on.

Kenzie and I couldn’t take our coats off either, since I was carrying her.  Natalie did help me remove her hat and boots, though.

“Hold on,” Ashley said, as I entered the living room.  She had a sheet in hand.

The couch was quickly stripped of the backing cushions and then made up with a bottom sheet.  It took Ashley, Natalie and me to ease Kenzie down to a sitting position on the couch.  Kenzie had been shot twice and had undergone three surgeries in a thirty-six hour span.

“I’m a bit embarrassed,” Kenzie said.

“You’re fine,” Ashley told her.

“It’s going to change how you guys all see me.”

“We already know you,” Ashley said.  “Nothing to change.”

“It’s one thing if I talk about how I used to be, but if you actually see it then it’s worse.”

“Was that how you used to be?” I asked.

“See!?”

“Volume down.  Keep it at a two or three on the volume knob,” Ashley said.

“See?”

“I’m not saying anything’s changed.  I’m trying to give you a chance to expand on your thoughts there,” I said.

“I remember feeling like I did tonight.  Except it was all the time, and it ended up with me going to the hospital because nobody could get me to stop, even me.”

“You stopped,” Ashley said.  “You aren’t who you are then.”

“But I feel like I did then.”

“We all backslide.  Tomorrow we’ll return to business as usual.  Some people will say apologies.  If it makes you feel better, you can say yours.”

“Apologies are for the other person.”

“We can agree to disagree on that,” Ashley told Kenzie.  “For now, do you want a snack?”

“Yes please,” Kenzie said.

“Some tea to help you get to sleep?”

“Okay.  Whatever works.  I don’t know about that.”

“Get comfortable.  I’ll bring snacks, then I’ll get the rest of your blankets.”

Ashley stepped into the kitchen, past Natalie, who was warily watching Damsel, and then past Damsel, who loomed at the doorway, shadowy, with claws at the frame.

From my vantage point, more used to this kind of scene, I could see Kenzie raise a hand to give Damsel a little wave, and I could see Damsel smile.  When Damsel turned to go help Ashley, I saw the bed-head, a lick of hair at the back and the side that was pressed down.

I was pretty sure Natalie didn’t see that.  That Natalie saw Damsel reach out for Ashley with knife-fingers, touching them to Ashley’s back, and leaned in close- but didn’t see that Ashley was putting away the tea bags that Damsel had taken out of the cupboard, instead getting out the little jars of loose leaf teas and the tea infuser.

“This wasn’t what I expected, when I thought about having a sleepover,” Kenzie admitted.  She smiled.  “I thought it would feel happier.”

“Tomorrow will be brighter,” I said.

“I feel weird, not having my tech.  You said to leave it behind, but I’m used to falling asleep to the glow of the screen.”

“It’ll be good to try and sleep normally,” I told her.  “No late-night tinkering.  Eat, drink, sleep, enjoy your time with Ashley.  Recharge.”

“I recharge by plugging in, though.”

“You’re human.  You’re a mammal.  As much as any dog, cat, mouse or elephant, you should be able to enjoy a good nap, warmth, companionship, and treats.  They’re universal.”

Kenzie drew in a deep breath, then huffed.  “Are you staying, Natalie?”

“I don’t think so.  Even if I was welcome, I think I should really be back at my apartment, getting organized for going back to work.  I’ll stay long enough to make sure you’re comfortable, and then I’ll be by first thing in the morning to pick you up.”

“Okay.”

“I’ll be right back,” I said.

I checked on the Ashleys in the kitchen, and they seemed to be fine.  Ashley had her arms folded while she leaned against the counter, and was inaudible as she talked to her sister.

“Does she need something?” Ashley asked, as she saw me.  “Do you?”

“I’m just going to get sheets and blankets to make up her bed.”

“There’s a nice throw in the drawer under the coffee table.  When you go to the closet for sheets, get the ones from the top shelf.  Someone lacerated the nicer sheets.”

“I bought the nicer sheets,” was the response.

“With our shared money.  If you refuse to fix your hands, you get to sleep in rags like a peasant.”

I rolled my eyes, and headed toward the closet door.  Natalie was talking to Kenzie in a quiet voice, while Kenzie was lying down with her head on a throw pillow.  I stopped to watch for a second.

In the other room, I heard the continued dialogue.  “The hands are not changing, my dear whitewashed clone.  I’m happy with them.  They’ll be needed when I go.”

“Go?  So you’ve decided?”

“It’s crowded.  I’ve deigned to give you free reign, let you have your guests-”

“Guests you like.  Also, this is my apartment.  Paid for with money they gave me for my help in research.”

“That I contributed to as well.  I earned my due, and you’d have nothing without my share of it.”

“I’d have something.  I’m disappointed either way.  You’re better than this.”

“I’m better than this.  This is all very cute.  Your friends are… cute.  But they’re yours.  I’m restless, and you know what this restlessness feels like.”

“I know what it is and what it becomes.”

“I’ve agreed to be good, little clone, because I didn’t want to bring trouble down on your head, and I’m willing to play along with the rules.  I committed crimes, they got me, they were taking care of me, and I didn’t want to spend any more winters hungry.  Fine.  I’ll stay in prison, even if I could easily escape.”

“Of course.”

“But there are no rules, there is no prison, and they’ve forgotten about me.  I’ll make my mark.  I’ll carve out a place for myself, and I’ll build a citadel that makes this cute little hovel feel paltry.”

“You can’t build anything if the energy you’re using is pure ‘restlessness’, if you want to call it that.  You definitely can’t if your judgment is so clouded that you think this apartment is anything but great.”

I stopped eavesdropping and left them to their bickering, relatively confident they’d stop when the tea was done steeping.  I might not have listened in at another time, but the two were volatile on their own and there was that one in a hundred chance that they could be explosively volatile if they clashed.  It was better if I could step in before they got heated enough to disturb Kenzie.

I gathered up the blankets from the closet, stole a pillow from a bed, then took it all to the couch.

Kenzie was already asleep, without blankets or pillow, dozing off to the background noise of Ashley and her clone sniping at each other.

“Are they aware we can hear them?” Natalie asked.  She was sitting by the couch, Kenzie’s colorful backpack resting against her lap.

“Doesn’t matter,” I said.

“Isn’t it concerning if the scary version of your teammate is talking about leaving to be a villain?”

“She makes noise about this now and then.  I’ve tried to convince her and she doesn’t tend to listen.  She’s gradually working her way up to it, but…”

I paused to listen to the back-and-forth.  I couldn’t make out all of the words, but I could definitely make out the tension.

“…Not tonight.  Probably.”

“Okay,” Natalie said.  Her forehead creased with lines.

“Something to worry about another day, if our Ashley doesn’t have input or ideas.  For today, I think we’ve worried enough.  Give me a hand?”

Kenzie roused only a bit as we set the sheet and heavier blanket down over top, with the folded throw blanket over her feet.  Her lifting her head up was a chance for me to get the couch pillow out from under her head and put a real pillow there instead.  Somewhere in the midst of it, the Ashleys noticed that Natalie had turned off some of the lights and went quiet.

I said my goodbye to Natalie, collected my tea and crackers, and headed to my room, leaving Ashley watching a television on mute while she had her tea, Kenzie sleeping on the couch behind her, a crossword or something in her lap.  Damsel had gone to her room, or their room.

Glowing screen after all, I supposed.

Kenzie had been too upset to go back to her place, and it wouldn’t have been fair to the staff at the institution to put that on their shoulders.  Ashley and Kenzie balanced out some of the most troubling aspects of each other, and after some debate and some phone calls, we’d agreed that this made the most sense.

I’d spent the last few nights researching, focusing and thinking about the group, and bracing myself for what I knew would be a tough conversation to have.  Now Kenzie was having her turn at the same things, with a bit less research, but she was figuring things out.

In line with that role reversal, I was now taking on the task of building something, putting off sleep and focusing on bigger things.  I flicked the row of switches for my computer, monitor, and peripherals to boot up.

Kenzie’s source had given us some information.  Photos of bulletin boards, with some more photos of notecards, all with Tattletale as the dubious source, I had the PRT data from Dragon, I had my notes from the Patrol, and I had my own notes.

Noontide was the one name I had to work off of, and from there, I could go to Tattletale’s notes to find out a bit more.

Noontide Demon – reference to apathy?
Partners with The Orders, Contender, Griph/Glyph (see 1104.aud)
1104.aud convo partner Griph could be one of Orders
Contender partners with 3rd G post-prison. ?Romantic?

Names to throw around.  I checked The Orders against everything I had.  PRT stuff from before Gold Morning, Patrol notes, and the listings in a ‘who’s who’ subscription that had come out in 2008 that had attempted to track every cape and where they were.  It had been a phone book of information that required far too much effort to maintain and had commanded a niche market of interested people.  At best, it had been the next best thing to an online search to figure out if a cape name or team name was taken.

Three issues had come out.  I had a tattered copy with pages starting to come free of the spine.

No ‘Orders’ under the team names.  While I was looking, I didn’t find a Contender.

Noontide, though.  There had been one, and the name was both in my ‘who’s who’ phone book and available with an online search.  The internet being what it was, my search turned up a positive search result, but clicking through returned a ‘page not found’ result.

The truncated description and single portrait of a mask that the search engine had coughed up from its servers was enough to tell me that they weren’t the same person.  Noontide had had brown skin, and her aesthetic had been entirely different from the woman in the picture that I’d found with the search.

That, and with a second glance, I realized that there was a termination to the old Noontide’s date in the date provided for activity.  Born 1985, dead 2008.

The old Noontide was almost certainly not the one we’d run into.  That was a tidbit of info, because it suggested things about how she’d gone about picking out a name, that she hadn’t used our internet, because she hadn’t been able, or she hadn’t cared enough to.

‘3rd G’ was the next thing that caught my eye.  My first instinct was to think of third generation capes.  Capes with parents that had been the kids of capes.  My second instinct was inspired by the mention of the prison.  Goddess.  I was left with the niggling feeling that more people had disappeared after Goddess had attacked the prison, and very few people had appeared.

Who was involved that hadn’t wanted to go back to Shin?  The third member of Goddess’ cluster, potentially?

If so… the Patrol was working with the Wardens to keep tabs on a limited suite of parahumans.  Because of the danger Goddess had posed, and because her cluster was paranoid about being targets and about being weak, her cluster had asked for protection.  The Wardens hadn’t been able to provide a safehouse and around-the-clock bodyguard, but they had provided some guidance.  Three members of the cluster were gone, Goddess included.  Two had joined the Wardens, becoming employees.  Two more had slipped through the cracks, maintaining a stipend if they would call in or visit on a regular basis.

Just to let the Wardens check that nothing too ugly was happening.

I could search them up, and with the search and the database access I’d been given, I could see some of the notes on the files.

Tori Heflin, NONE (109c)
Classify: Shaker
Power: Telekinetic reel-in, push-out, straight lines only, max 20 lb. weight.
Dispo: NON (Victim)
Age: 25
Appearance: Aboriginal, West Continent, Shin, round face, thick black hair, glasses.  Tattoos, neck, dotwork triangles.
Notes: 109c Sought asylum and refugee status, victimized by Goddess.  Claimed nonaffiliation, no interest in using powers or parahuman activities, but has been contacting other capes.  See MER_CONTENDER, MER_LIONWING, MER_CRETAN.  See attached files 109c_D and 109c_E.
To be monitored further.

I checked the profiles for each of the names.  The link to ‘Contender’ gave me the image of the guy who had sealed me in his personal fighting arena.

Bingo.

The attached images took a minute to come up.  ‘Tori Heflin’ was at a venue too dark to be a bar, sitting with a trio of people in civilian clothes.  Each had a label highlighting them- the extra metadata and labeling was part of why it had taken a minute.  I could click on each to bring up their respective files.

Tori was brown-skinned and round faced, small and of a build that someone might term cute, but she had a mean look on her face in each of the attached files.  The others at the table drank, but Tori didn’t- instead, she apparently smoked up a storm, favoring cigarettes with blue paper and a blue glow at the end.  I’d seen them before- blue flames or something.

In the time it had taken her buddies to finish several beers, she had downed an equivalent number of cigarettes.  Her unlabeled friend was mixing drinks and smoking, coming just shy of her in smoking and a bit shy of his friends in drinking, if I had to judge by the glasses beside him and the butts he’d stubbed out in the ashtray among Tori’s blue flames.  He was unlabeled, but I knew him.  I’d seen him as a civilian in past shoots with the time camera, and I’d fought him.

Kingdom Come.

The light-haired woman next to her was leaning heavily into her personal space, and Tori didn’t seem to either welcome it or hate it.  One photo where the blonde sat with her tattooed arm pressing hard into Tori’s shoulder, and another photo where the woman had an arm around Tori’s shoulders, half leaning into Tori and half onto the table, clearly tipsy.

The woman was Lionwing.  And she, too, had cropped up on the time camera.  When we’d first seen the Pharmacist, Kingdom Come had been there, and so had a strawberry blonde woman with a tattooed arm and cat mask.

I clicked the label, and I brought up a page.  Lionwing, in varying costumes.  She had light armor she wore when in the field, along with a sword and a triangular shield that had decorative arrangements of spikes at each corner.  A bit of a ‘gladiator’ look.

The last person sitting at the table was Cretan.  Muscular, with a shaved head and goatee.  Clicking through produced a blurry picture of him standing in the midst of fires.  He had a helmet with a bull motif, but didn’t even use the bull’s horns as part of the aesthetic- the helmet hugged his head pretty close, and the ‘bull’ arched over top like a mohawk, its eyes lining up with his.  His armor was similar, hugging his body pretty close, with the design etched in or marked out in white metal.

Okay.

Making sense of this- the pharmacist had been allied with Teacher.  Teacher was connected to the hyper-religious nuts from Earth Cheit, with some Fallen and Kingdom Come roped into that.

They or Teacher had hired six mercenaries.  Contender, the one who had created an arena, Noontide, who had tried to put Sveta and I to sleep, and the Order, a quartet of capes we hadn’t seen yet, with only two of them in my pictures here.  Attention had been drawn to them only because Tori had claimed to be a victim in the Goddess debacle, had asked for help as a non-threat, and had then started hanging out with people who hurt others for money.

Why come after us or send the mercenaries after us?  Because… they’d already been caught on camera, and someone had told them they’d need to keep it from happening again?

Noontide’s lack of research for her name was odd, but it made more sense if I reconsidered things from the angle that she wasn’t from Bet.

I looked into her file, and found a series of jobs she had done.  It was stock work for a mercenary, with bodyguard work for a celebrity, theft, and teaming up with another team to rescue a girl that had apparently been kidnapped by some people from the construction worker’s riot that hadn’t been willing to let things go.  She was a mercenary- there hadn’t been any lying about that.  Was this dry resume a cover?  Was she up to something else?

Contender, at least, wasn’t Cheit or Cheit in disguise.  He had a history and had gone by another name before.  He’d been ‘The Pug’, short for Pugilist, and had taken bids on sites to pick fights with capes, prior to Gold Morning.  He’d evolved toward the tail end of that embarrassing debacle, taking more serious money and going after Kill Orders, all the while refining his skill set.  He’d had a break, Gold Morning had happened, and a few months afterward, he’d emerged as Contender.

Then, as I turned my focus to the Order, I found them to be ghosts.  Some jobs, but they hadn’t existed a month ago, and they apparently worked together and socialized as a tight-knit team.  That didn’t happen; not with people who’d appeared so spontaneously and simultaneously.

Cheit, again?

Insidious, if it was the case.  Foreign agents operating as mercenaries, maybe picking and choosing the jobs they did, meeting other capes, sounding them out, and manipulating the ones they saw as vulnerable.

No, it was worse than that.

They’d permanently scarred our horizons, torn up a chunk of our city, and killed a lot of people.  People we cared about.  Jessica was gone.  The cracks that radiated out from that wound and the loss of some of our best Wardens and Warden staff had laid the groundwork for Goddess to take the prison.

They’d done that, and then they’d fucking insinuated themselves into the background of our cape scene, foreign agents acting as mercenaries.

I was left to wonder if Tori was among the scared and vulnerable that they’d positioned themselves to snap up.  A cluster-mate of the Lady in Blue?

I began looking into other jobs they’d done, going back to Noontide’s record, then extrapolating to people she’d worked with.  The patchy notes meant that even if Contender wasn’t listed as being on a job, I could find a note where Cretan was listed as being on that job, with Contender helping.

I was in the middle of a frustration-induced note that I was planning to send to the Wardens about cross-referencing when I heard Ashley using her power.

A sound like ripping, a sound like nails on chalkboards, and a sound like thunder, all rolled into one.

I flew to the living room, narrowly avoiding a collision on the way.  Damsel was exiting her bedroom, and she ducked low as I adjusted by flying high.

The window to the outside was broken, and cold air blew into the living room.  Kenzie was propped up, one hand on her stomach, and Ashley stood in the center of the room.

“What happened?”

Ashley was silent, looking around the room.

“Ashley!”

“Someone grabbed me.”

“Kenz?” I asked.

“I don’t know.  I was sleeping and I got a huge wake-up call.”

The wind whistled as it blew in through the broken glass door.

“This wasn’t a dream thing?” I asked.

Ashley shook her head.

“How sure are you?”

“Seventy.”

“Leaving a thirty percent chance you put a hole in the window for no reason,” Damsel said.  “Scared your little friend, and scared Kenzie too.”

I gave her a roll of my eyes.

“You got scared,” Damsel told Ashley.  “You’ve gotten soft.”

I’m a little scared,” Kenzie said.

“Shh, you’re fine.  All of us are here watching over you,” Damsel replied.  “We won’t let anything happen to you.  Ashley’s imagined monsters won’t hurt you.”

“You’ve become less funny and more of a bully in the time I’ve been in the hospital,” Ashley observed.

She was still turning slowly, checking the room.

“What was it?” I asked.

“A man.  He made noise, I woke up, and he grabbed me before I could react.  I was prepared to use my power to throw us both into the wall, but I didn’t get a chance.  He threw me from the chair, I used my power, and I didn’t connect.”

“Where did he go?”

“I didn’t see.”

I looked at Kenzie.  She shook her head.

“Powers?” I asked.

“Possible,” Kenzie said, her eyes wide.

I drew my phone from my pocket.  The contact screen had different icons by different names.  Most had ‘Zzz’ beside them.

Rain was awake.  Working late on Sveta’s arm- as much as was possible when his tinker power was in its wane period.

Me:
Trouble.  We might need help.

There was a pause.

Rain:
That not good.

Me:
Can you make your way to us if we need backup?

Rain:
No.
No – I have no transpo and time is wrong.  13 minutes until my power knocks me out automatically.  Then I sleep like dead.

I looked at the clock.

Rain:
What is trouble?

Me:
Ashley was grabbed, thrown from bed.  She broke a window.  No idea where the attacker is.

Rain:
Weirdness here too.  K’s projector box is sweating.

“Rain says your projector box is sweating?”

What?

“Is that dangerous?”

“No.  No, it just doesn’t make any sense.”

“Talk to our guy,” I told her, putting my phone on the coffee table and sliding it to her.  “I’m going to check the building.”

Ashley stayed with Kenzie, while Damsel came with me.

Front hall clear.  The door was locked.

The kitchen was fine.

Bathroom, first bedroom that included my office with the papers strewn everywhere, the second bedroom that belonged to Ashley, the storage room that still had Ashley’s furniture in it, from where I’d moved it in to make room for my things… all clear.

“Um,” Kenzie said, as Damsel and I returned from the hallway that led to the bedrooms.  “So it’s not just that my projector box  and computer are sitting in a giant puddle.”

“Spit it out,” Damsel said.

“The door was left ajar, so it almost froze.  Rain was hogging space heaters, so it took him a while to notice.

“Didn’t you waterproof it?” I asked, “because you knew Capricorn would be using his power around it?”

Kenzie nodded.

“And proofed it against cold weather?”

“Best as I could, but that has nothing to do with anything, except it means they probably survived the flooding.”

“Why?  How?  Did it malfunction?”

“It wouldn’t ever malfunction like that.  That’s like saying your barbecue is broken, it keeps making salad.”

“Kenzie, please.  Simple answers.”

“It’s the simplest answer!  It’s wet because someone put the water there,” Kenzie said.  “Then, according to Rain, this theoretical person left the door partially open on the way out.”

Why put water on a computer?  Attempted sabotage?  How did one put water on a computer without alerting the guy who was working late on his tinkering?

And if they were active there, and we had strangeness here

“Shit,” I said.  “My computer.”

I took flight, cutting a path through the hallways.

The door to my room and office was closed when I got there- and it had been open when I’d left it a minute ago.  I pushed the door open, and a blast of cold air mingled with choking, blinding fumes to dash my senses.  I couldn’t see, couldn’t smell, and couldn’t taste, and the only noise was the wind from the open window.

My files.  Months and months of effort, of back-and-forth, five hour round trips, to scrounge up papers from the remains of our house.  To dry papers, separate the mildewy and moldy from that which could be preserved, and typing out new versions of any pages that couldn’t be saved, even trying to keep the formatting intact.

The smell was gasoline.  He was setting fire to everything that was mine, from clothes to computer to files.  To the space that was mine.  To Ashley’s apartment.

The others caught up to find me standing there in shock, covering my mouth and trying to avoid the kind of coughing that prompted more coughing.

What the hell?

“He took my feathers.”

I turned back to look at Kenzie.

“They’re important, and they’re not on the coffee table.”

Important.  Priorities.  I shook off the shock and took stock.  The fumes filled my room to the point that it was hard to enter.

“Get to safety!” I called out to the others.  Then I covered my mouth and flew through.

If he went after the projector computer, he’d go after my computer too.  I had to rescue it.  If he was after fire or torching any and all evidence, then I had to deny him that.

A contest of parahuman against parahuman broke down to a game of denial and control.  Even if the power was strength.  When my mom stepped onto the battlefield, her ability to succeed was dependent on getting to where she could hold her weapon near her opponent’s vitals, and her opponents couldn’t respond or react.  That was the endstate.

For Crystal, it was about getting high, dropping forcefields in the right places or using them to protect herself and deny her opponents the ability to hurt her.  So long as she held that high vantage point, any place that was in her field of vision was a place her enemies couldn’t go.

For my dad, a thrown grenade created a radius around it where enemies could do nothing but get away, if they were even afforded the time.  Failing to do so meant they were concussed at the very least.  He essentially maintained a broader circle around him where he could quickly deposit grenades, and the only way to fight him without facing an endless onslaught of light-grenades was to stay out of his range, which extended about far as a strong man could throw a head-sized rubber ball.

For me… especially now, it involved doing a lot of damage, and measuring out how much.

Little things could be fixed or handled later.  I flew up, grabbed a bookcase, and used a pulse of my strength to haul it over.  It crashed down with enough force to create gaps between floorboards where there hadn’t been any.  There were books and papers on it, but the bookcase was metal, and with any luck it would interrupt the flow of fire across the accelerant. It might buy time, if the fire came from the hallway, or if the fire was traveling from here to the hallway.

I flew to the window, my mouth still covered.

No sign of anyone outside, no flame, no lighter being used or match being struck.

I flew to the bookcase.  I’d be sealing myself inside, but if worst came to worst, flying through a wall wouldn’t be making the damage that much worse.

A hand seized me by the throat from behind.  A sharp blow across the back of the head disabled the Wretch before it could even unfold, and I was pulled away from the bookcase.

He’d never even left the room.

I tumbled head over heels, disoriented.  The rush of cold air mingled with the odor of the gasoline vapor.  I found ‘down’ and flew straight to it.  We crashed to the hard floorboards, gasoline soaking the papers that had been scattered across the floor.

MineMine, and you ruined it!

In the wrestling match, each of us exchanged places, one of us on top, the other with back to ground.  I was getting gasoline on me, but so was my shadowy attacker.

I saw the hand reach for a weapon and grabbed his wrist.  A taser.

As quickly as it had been grabbed, it was dropped.  The spark would be a mistake, given our current battlefield.

The computers- black screens.

Hopefully the breaker switch for this room was down or the connection was otherwise a failure.  Because those computers being on meant any number of infinitesimally small ways to ignite the gas.

The computers.  I had to remember my goals.  Even though our attacker was in my hands, it was better to deny the control of the situation, as I’d done before.

I forced my way out of his grip, then barreled straight for the desktop tower that was my at-home computer.  Cables were all still plugged in, keyboard, mouse, and monitor were plugged or even screwed in.

I tore at them, letting the easier ones fall free, forcing the remainder.

The aura was affecting my attacker.  Where he might have swung a meaty fist at me before, he was holding on tight, as if trying to wait out heavy weather in a bad storm.

As I tried to fly away, he clung to me.

There were too many things to focus on, between the computer tower, the damage to property, the gasoline that could easily see the neighborhood go up in smoke, and my own well being.

I shoved my assailant off me, then flew closer to the ceiling, holding the computer tower with its stray wires dangling down.  Winning the fight wasn’t important.  Coming out ahead was.

My notes were everything.

Flying out of reach, near the ceiling, I had a view of the entire room.

Was it over?  Had I won?

Well, won insofar as I’d denied him what he wanted.

I shut the window.

“Two bullets to the back of the head.  The first will take out your forcefield.  The other will end you.  Drop the computer.  Fly away.”

I turned around slowly.

A girl in a black leather bodysuit with a black leather jacket and a scarf around her lower face.  The face I could see was covered in a gray mask, with eyes slanted to match the angle and slant of a woodland animal, each lens an opaque black.

“That’s not flying away,” Imp told me.  “That’s standing your ground.”

She was holding up a lighter.  I was very worried the vapor in the air would ignite.

“Put that out.  We can talk,” I told her.

The lighter flicked closed.  “I’m not here to talk.”

“We had a good working relationship a couple of days ago.”

“That was then,” she said.  “Put the computer down.  You’re going to tear out the hard drive.”

I drew in a deep breath.

“No games,” she said.  “I’ve got to protect the kid I’m looking after.  Your kid baited him into sharing secrets.  In the course of sharing those secrets, he used mundane networks, no encryption.  People have seen.  Some of those people are mentioned in the pictures.”

“Sounds like a failure on your part.”

“It’s a problem for all of us, Glory Girl.  But the kids are most important.”

My volume raised, “It’s a failure on your end, and our home has to burn to the ground?  Fuck that.

“The people who were alerted are going to pay more attention to you, G.G..  If they think you got nothing, if you avoid making specific searches about names, and if there’s a nice fire to assure them that all evidence stops here, the buck stops there.”

“It’s never as simple as that.  This isn’t about protecting us.  This is about protecting you.”

“Us, not me,” Imp said.  “I’m armed, you’re not.  Let go of the computer.  Let it fall to the floor.”

“If it sparks-”

“Just do it,” she said.

I did.  It clunked on landing.  There wasn’t quite enough accelerant or anything on the floor here to allow for a splash.

“I’ve been really nice,” Imp said.  “I could have humiliated you.  Instead, I’m sticking to nonlethal weapons and careful use of fire.”

“Uh huh.”

“Stay where you are,” she said, keeping the pistol on me.

I could use the Wretch, I knew.  It had reach, it was invisible, and if it got her, it would pull her in close and tear her to pieces.

Except I didn’t want to be that kind of person, and the computer by my feet was in the Wretch’s reach too.  I could trust an invisible hand to probably seize her outstretched hand, but I couldn’t trust anything else.

The gender confusion from earlier was resolved as I glanced back and saw how one of her arms was altered.  It was hairy, veins running down the back of the arm, and it was a little longer than her usual arm.  The bodysuit’s fabric didn’t roll past the thickest part of the bicep, so she had rigged some other kind of detachable sleeve to pull over and up to the shoulder.

Her power hadn’t effectively covered it, so it regularly figured into my processing of the scenes, and it lingered in my head even as the rest of her threatened to disappear while my focus was entirely on her.

“I’m going to need you to move the bookcase, G.G.”

I locked eyes with her.  She motioned with the gun, tilting her head so the lenses of her mask caught the light in a different way.

I used flight and a bit of strength to move the thing.  It screeched loudly with the motion.  I wasn’t even done  moving it when Imp pushed the door open.

She immediately leaped back.  I could hear Ashley’s power, almost entirely hidden by the raggedd sound of the bookcase moving over hardwood.

Ashley or Damsel was approaching, and I could hear the sound of it.  The power shredded the door and the surrounding frame as she stalked forward.  It was Damsel, and her claws contained a large sphere of destruction, annihilating everything in front of her, flickering and storming as power ran through it.

“Move a hair,” Imp whispered in Damsel’s ear, “And you’re going to get a bullet in your throat to match the one your sister got.  Except yours will be the last body mod you ever get.”

I wheeled around.  Imp had her gun to Damsel’s throat, her man-hand wrapped in a death-lock around Damsel’s front, pulling her off balance.  Damsel had her hands out to her sides, no power active.

“Pick up the computer, Glory Girl.”

“It’s not my name anymore.”

“I don’t care.  People change names too often.  It’s better to have one good one that you stick to.”

“Imp was taken, you know,” I told her.

“I don’t care.”

“You don’t really have it.”

I don’t care.  Pick up the computer.  Fly it to the ground outside the window.  No games.”

I pushed out with my aura again, but I kept it subtle.  Barely noticeable, like Rain’s often was.  I began feeding it to Imp, with Damsel as an incidental target.

“Now.”

I picked up the computer, stepped over to the open window, and flew down.  I planted the computer case on a stack of firewood.

“If you have any freaky porn that you’re embarrassed about, I promise I’ll only make a little bit of fun of you over it,” Imp said, from the window.  “I’ll only share your browser history with a thousand people tops.”

She beckoned, and I flew over.

I was flying, and I had someone in my arms.

The nose of the gun jabbed into the soft flesh beneath my jaw, forcing my chin up.

I was still tempted to drop her.  Instead, aware I was outputting a bit of my aura, I slowly ramped it up.  If I could do the ‘boiling a frog’ trick…

“Down by the red cloth.  I know it’s hard to see in the dark, but do your best.”

There was a red cloth tied to a post.  I flew to it.

She hopped down the last ten or so feet to the snow.  I chose that opportunity to push out harder with my aura.

“This was fun,” she said.  “We should never ever do it again, understand?  If someone slips you information that’s supposed to be ours, you hand it straight back over, or you’ll run into problems like your house burning down and you not being all the way sure why.”

“The feathers.  You need to give them back.”

“No I do not.  The feathers were a gift from a member of our team to a member of yours.  They don’t need to hang out any longer.  Normally I would encourage friendships, but I’ve read the horror stories, and it’ll just get messy when we’re all on opposite sides.  Trust me, I did that back in Brockton Bay for a bit.  Kid hero and me, bit of romance?  Got awkward when it ended.”

Really.  Who?”

“Not kissing, not telling.  Instead, I am…” she drew a flare gun out of her pocket, and with pistol in her right hand and flare gun in her left, kept the former trained on me and the latter aimed at the window.

“…Delivering my coup de grace,” she said, sounding tired.   Her flare gun was in her right hand.  “And I’ll do it on my first try, like a badass.”

“Damsel is up there.  It’s not badass to kill people.  That’s complete and utter failure for anyone civilized.”

“She’s not up there, not anymore,” Imp said, sounding even more tired.  “She’s at the side, trying to flank me.  Still.”

Imp indicated a corner of the building, about forty feet away.

I ramped up my aura.

“Stop,” she said.

So that was her limit for tolerance.  I pushed harder and I set my jaw.

“If you think that’s going to mess up my aim, you should know I thrive under pressure.”

I heard Damsel using her power.

“Stupid,” Imp muttered.

I heard Ashley using her power.  A little more oomph, more of an eruption of power than a jetting out.  Unpredictable, uneven, but it gave her momentum.

Those forty feet of distance closed fast.  Multiple blasts, and each one carried one of the two in a different direction.

They zig-zagged through the air, one pale shape and one dark one, and converged on Imp with the same timing, each set to collide with her in the same instant.

The two Ashleys landed, one of them clipping a branch from the overhanging foliage on her way down.  They didn’t fly so much as they propelled.

“Are you okay?” Ashley asked me.

I nodded, my eyes searching the battlefield.

Kenzie was still vulnerable, but as I groped for what the threat was, I drew a blank.

Fuck.

“Put up with this if you can,” I said.

I increased the push on my aura until it was at its worst.

“That’s nothing,” Damsel said, even as her face’s microexpressions betrayed what was going on behind the surface.

“Let’s hope our attacker doesn’t think so,” I said.

I closed my eyes, focusing.

I couldn’t sense through my aura, but my aura made it hard to deal.  Ashley and Damsel had talked about restlessness.  I was creating a sort of restlessness in this moment, of a very different sort.

The snow muffled sound, and with this area of the city being where it was and with everything being after hours, I could hear noise.  I started toward it.

We were moving in a direction, and with the weather being what it was, and me not having a coat, it was easier to keep moving.  When I hit my limit, I would loop back.

Just to be sure, I cast a glance backward, and spotted the computer case.

Wouldn’t do to lose track of that and let our enemy run away with it.

The Ashleys were advancing on either side of me, and as we heard a pant, we started forward with more vigor.

“You’re being irritating,” Imp whispered in my ear.

I blinked.

The Ashleys had fanned out a bit more to either side… and Imp had me.  Gun to my throat again.

“I’m trying to be nice.  I’ve been avoiding murder.”

“Me too.”

She whispered, “You try anything, I double-tap you.  And while we’re on the subject of doubling… we’re doubling back.”

From the woods behind Ashley’s place back toward the rows of buildings.

The Ashleys had noticed and were approaching cautiously.  For every one pace Imp and I advanced, they advanced two.

She’d called herself a wolf earlier, and I could see it now.  Pack hunting, stalking, dead serious, and very dangerous.

We found the computer once more.  Imp drew her flare gun.

She stopped when Kenzie stepped out from behind  a tree, wearing all winter clothing, including coat, hat, and earmuffs.

“You’re outnumbered.”

“Doesn’t matter when number one is super awesome,” Imp retorted.  “And when she has a hostage.”

Kenzie drew a gun and pointed it.  It looked like a toy weapon.

Imp shook her head slowly.  “No.  You don’t want to do that.  Hostage.  Use your common sense, kiddo.”

“I spent it all on figuring out my tinkering.  I’ve just got a big empty loneliness inside me right now, with some mad scientist vibes.”

Kenzie smiled, and then she pulled the trigger of her Flash Gun, blinding everyone present that wasn’t her.

Snuff held the door open for Tattletale.  The kids climbed out too, but they weren’t part of the show of force- not directly.  The Heartbroken kids ran around, and headed toward the mall that was at the far end of the parking lot, the older kids who were apparently in charge of them hurrying after.

Herding cats.

Tattletale remained, and so did the two members of Palanquin who were guarding her.  Imp was with her, but Imp was still blind.

It had been a few hours.  I’d had the presence of mind to fly away before more shots could land, so it had been about twenty-five minutes for me, where I hadn’t been able to see anything except hot white spots.

Rain and an unhappily awoken Tristan and Sveta were with me.

Not bringing backup just hadn’t been an option.

Chicken Little seemed to want to go with the Heartbroken, but instead Snuff positioned him at Tattletale’s side.  He had a hangdog look, for someone with a hard full face mask.

A few of the Heartbroken lingered.  Chicken Little’s age.

Parian and Foil lingered too.  I gave Foil a nod, and she nodded back.

Kenzie was with me too, in a sense; she didn’t get out of the vehicle.  She sat in the passenger seat, feet swung out over the side.  She had her costume on.

“Let’s try this again,” Tattletale said.

“Are you sure?  Because your approach of burning everything we cherish and love to ash to protect your info is a great plan.”

“Works for me,” Tattletale said.

I shook my head slowly.

“You gotta scrub it all.  You didn’t get it fair and square, and some of that is stuff only I and my sources know, that the kids don’t pay much attention to.  When people start blabbing about details that only I’m supposed to know, it makes my sources jittery.  Some of them are in very dangerous places.”

“Sounds like you got sloppy,” Tristan said.

“Having a thinker hunting us down and forcing us to relocate regularly is what makes us sloppy, as it would for anyone.  Now, you don’t want to be casualties of that sloppiness.”

“Work with us,” I said.  “I don’t like you, you don’t like me- but I could help you figure something out.”

“You’re making too many enemies.  Profitability-”

Fuck profit,” I interrupted.  “Fuck that.”

“And simple logic!” Tattletale raised her voice.  She stabbed a pointed, painted fingernail in my direction.  “If we spend too much time around you, your enemies become our enemies.  If you have a lot of enemies, which you do, then that fucks us.”

“And if you refuse to cooperate with us and play ball, then we let your intel leak, including that information about sources, and your allies become your enemies.”

“You’re really willing to play hardball?” Tattletale asked.

“Give Kenzie her feathers back.  Let the kids talk.”

“You realize what a monster she is, don’t you?”

I glanced back at Kenzie.  “Nothing resembling a monster, and I’m an expert.”

“Because you spent two years as one.  Of course.”

I looked back at Tristan, who held out my bag for me.  I put it down, and as I reached for it, Snuff tensed.  The Palanquin mercenary who looked like an ordinary person  tensed as well.

“Files,” I said.  I moved slowly as I drew the paperwork from the bag.

Tristan was the one who took the files and handed them out.  Some for Parian, some for Foil, and some for Tattletale.

All of the information on the Order and the mercenaries I’d picked up.  The PRT files.

“Your files are more up to date than mine,” Tattletale said, as she read.  “You found a central network server?”

“I was led to one.  Bargained.”

“The details on ‘Pug’?”

“Old collection of paper files.  Which you guys doused in gasoline but didn’t set on fire.”

“Do you have more?”

“There’s a bit more in there.  We’d have even more if we hadn’t been interrupted.  Again, your teammate tried to set us on fire.”

“You’re building a narrative here,” Tattletale observed.  “It all ties back to Teacher, I see.”

“Yeah,” I replied.  “An awful lot of it.  Fallen, the baiting of Goddess, the portal attacks.”

“I’ll provide you a tidbit of information then.  If we’re going to deal-”

“If we’re going to deal, the feathers first.  They’re important.”

“Fine.  I’ll agree to that.  But Chicken Little is still grounded.  He can’t talk to his friends on the phone.”

Some conversation.”

“I’ll cut twenty percent off his sentence of being grounded forever,” Tattletale said.  She glanced back at Chicken Little, who ducked his head.

“Seriously,” I said.  “At limited times per day.  Or a limited number of messages,” I suggested.

I heard Kenzie groan behind me.

“That would be workable,” Chicken Little muttered, barely audible.

“Feathers and chat.  Some meetings allowed if they’re both on good behavior.  I’ve read her rap sheet, and I want to make sure he’s protected.”

I looked at Tristan, then at Rain.

They looked so exhausted I doubted they were processing.

I looked at Kenzie, who nodded.

“Sure.”

“We’ll negotiate.  You want in bed with us, you’re in bed with us.  Congratulations.  We’ll share resources.”

I nodded.

“Fine,” Tattletale said.  “Let it be known I’m immensely unhappy with this.”

“That’s allowed,” I said.

Behind Tattletale, I saw Chicken Little’s leg jiggle slightly.  Surreptitiously, after he looked left, looked right, and checked that nobody on his team was looking, he turned his hand to one side, extending the smallest of thumbs-ups.

I looked back at Kenzie, who nodded.

Tattletale heaved out a sigh.  She waved Imp forward.

Imp met Rain halfway.  She handed over two feathers, and he took them back to hand to Kenzie.

Important to do this.  She needed a friend.

And I supposed we needed the intel.

“You’re wrong, though,” Tattletale said.

“Wrong?”

“These mercenaries you’re looking at… they’re Cheit, your notes are right.  The Order is a reference to a verse in their texts.  The thousand-eyed beasts, front and back.  Lion, that’s your drunk girl.  The ox.  Your bull guy.  You’ve also got the beast with the face of a man, and the eagle.  They’re tied up in the fours that run through the texts.  Four apostles, four virtues, four whatevers.”

“I think I know the verse,” Rain said.  “We have it too.”

“Good,” Tattletale said.

“Why is that important?” I asked.

“Because it means they’re hardcore Cheit, which you guessed.  You were mostly on the right track and you might have stumbled on the right answer… if you weren’t keeping your eye out for the wrong destination.”

“The wrong destination?”

“Teacher,” Tattletale said.  “He doesn’t have control of his group, so he’s not pulling their strings.  He’s happy doing the prison thing, fucking with Goddess, tearing open holes in reality like the one across Brockton Bay and the ones in the heart of the city, but his people turned their attention to people caught in time loops, stasis, other fuckery like that… and Teacher drew the line there.  These guys here?”

She tapped the paper before continuing, “The mercenaries from another world?  They split from Teacher over it.”

“Are they after Jack?” I asked.  “Worst case scenario.”

Tattletale shook her head.  “They’re not that reckless.  No.  One of the names raised was closer to home than Jack.  And while the shit with March is going on, the Undersiders can’t go home.”

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Blinding – 11.2

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Rain and I worked together to remove Sveta’s rigging.  One attachment to her suit served as a mounting for two arms; she had the larger arm with the feminine hand on the end, and another ‘arm’ with an elbow joint that had the fragment of mask, like a small shield that could pull close to the face or move away.

There was a single second of danger where her tendrils were capable of reaching out into the world, but Sveta was concentrating and the situation was calm.  The metal of her suit’s arm and chest pulled together, and she stood straighter.

The weight of it, as odd as it was, wasn’t a concern to her.  The balance issue, however, was apparently a hassle.

The headquarters felt dark, even with all of the lights on and monitors glowing.  It might have had to do with the weather outside and the late hour, and it might have had to do with the fact that I was bracing myself to deliver hard news.

I’d ridden with the others in an effort to stay connected and keep a thumb on the pulse of the group.  Going from a dark car with only the light of headlights on the road ahead of us to our headquarters, where the light felt insufficient left me feeling like I was underwater and the surface was a ways off.  The world beyond the headquarters and car gave me an ominous vibe.

“I don’t know how long it’s going to be before I have another good tinkering day,” Rain said.  “I can try taking notes, if you have immediate feedback.”

“It works like this,” Sveta said.  “If I had to bring up any issues…”

She didn’t finish the sentence, and as Rain took off his mask and raised his eyebrows, motioning for her to continue, she remained quiet.

“Why are you trailing off?” Rain asked.  “I want to know.”

“Sorry.  I’m already asking for a lot and saying ‘no’ to ideas.  It’s stronger but it doesn’t feel as strong as I’d expect a hand of this size to feel, but I’m not sure if I’m using it at its full strength so that might be bad feedback.  When I use my regular body, I’m pretty strong if I want to be, but I end up holding back because I don’t want to break it.  I might be doing the same thing here.”

“We can’t know until you test its limits and break it,” Rain said.

“Except I can’t do that while I’m in the field.  If I screw something up I have a hundred pounds of dead weight to drag around.”

“Can you do it here?”

I could see the hesitation on Sveta’s face as she turned around, looking at the hand that was planted on the floor, the arm extending up, and over, to where the ‘shoulder’ now rested on a table.

“I get it,” I told her.  “My mom sent me to clinics for testing my powers.  It’s kind of rare that you ever get to get an exact reading on your power’s strength.  Especially when it’s durability.”

“Yeah,” Sveta told me.

“Except one of those things is Victoria talking about her flesh and blood body,” Rain said.  “And- I’m suddenly realizing I sound like an insensitive asshole.”

Sveta swatted his shoulder.  “You’re fine.”

“The arm can be fixed more easily, is what I wanted to say,” he said.

“I dunno,” she said.

“You’re used to holding back,” I observed.

I could see the realization cross her face.  The connecting of two dots.  I could relate it to a lot of moments where I’d missed something that seemed objectively obvious.

We weren’t always obvious.

“That’s true,” she finally said.

“I could try putting together a gauge,” Rain said.  “Something like a visual indicator or audio indicator that measures what you’re putting in, with a max limit if you get to the point that metal starts bending or snapping.”

“That might work.”

“What else?” Rain asked.

“Well, um, this is a really obvious one, but I’d love it if it was more complete.”

I left them to the discussion.  I stopped by the table by my whiteboard and collected my bag and some spare clothes.

In the bathroom, I stripped down and rinsed off, aware of the blood that came away from my hair and skin; I hadn’t been aware it was there.  Not mine.  There was smoke, there was sweat, and there was grime.  My skin was still bruised from my fight with the arena man two days ago, and as much as adrenaline pushed pain into the background, the pain came back.  I ached.

All of that was secondary to the problem of figuring out how to deliver the bad news.

I’d been focused enough on the present and the future that I hadn’t been paying as many visits to memory lane.  I felt unwelcome nostalgia welling now as I pulled on a t-shirt, faced myself in the mirror, and took on the rituals necessary to arm myself.  Damp hair fixed and sorted, combed out and braided.  Teeth brushed, some makeup to take the shine out of my skin, to minimize the dark circles under my eyes, and some tinted chapstick because the cold weather would shred my lips if I let it.

Some of the nostalgia lay in how I was doing up my makeup at a late hour.  The Victoria that had been Glory Girl had done that, knowing that in another few hours she would be taking it all off and going to bed.

That Victoria had, just as I was doing, found injuries she hadn’t been aware of while going through the routine.  Hiding injuries had been important to cultivate the illusion of complete and total invulnerability.

The Victoria of the present put a bandaid on a cut, between jaw and ear.  If I had cause to go out in costume anytime soon, I’d remove the bandage and cover the injury up.

There was another side to the nostalgia.  Darker.  After being turned from Wretch to a Victoria made of stray animals, of rats and dogs, I’d stumbled through the days.  My skin hadn’t felt like my own, and it hadn’t really been my own.  The layers I put over that skin were in my control, and even the most basic of makeup could be the outer layer that worked with the inner turmoil and found reconciliation with the skin and meat in between.

It calmed me, to have something I’d chosen at a store and pull that on over my t-shirt.  In tonight’s case, it was black jeans, and then a sweater, light gray and ribbed, with white laces at the ‘v’ of the collar, pulled through gold-ringed eyelets.  Whatever the crisis, whatever anxieties plagued me, it was important to me that I be able to tell myself that my appearance wasn’t cause for further anxiety.  It had been critical back in those dazed and lost days when I’d been recovering, post-Gold Morning, but it had always been a thing for me.

I could have called it a casualty of growing up with my mom, but even Aunt Sarah, as nice as she was, had made remarks to me as a child when I hadn’t dressed for an occasion, or when I’d tried and failed to dye my hair, or when I’d been ten pounds overweight.  Couched, hinting, even being nice about it, or not saying it to my face, but remarking on it to my mom or dad with me overhearing by chance.  My dad, my uncles, my teachers, my friends… everyone had at one point made remarks that reminded me it was a thing I was supposed to pay attention to.

Even Dean.  I’d thought he was safe, that he got me because he sensed my emotions in a limited way, and that he’d figured out things most others hadn’t because he’d seen the hurt or embarrassment from the sidelines.  Then he’d said something, I couldn’t even remember what it was now, and I’d gone off on him – I’d even stopped talking to him for two weeks, over  a comment that would have probably passed without mention had he said it to a friend.  Had I been asked then, I wouldn’t have been able to put my finger on why.  Poor Dean definitely wouldn’t have.

Easier to be bulletproof.  To figure things out and take care of it.  To make it as much a part of my routine as making sure I had my phone in my right pocket, keys in the little sub-pocket at my left, and wallet in the front pouch of my bag.

Tonight, the anxieties I was wrestling with had little to do with the Wretch.

I could hear noise outside.  I set my jaw, looked at myself in the mirror, and felt that pang of dark nostalgia once more as I forced my eyes away from the reflection, aware of how things weren’t as they should be.

I left the bathroom, collecting my things on the way.  Sveta sat at Rain’s table, while Rain was at the window by the door.

“They’re back from the hospital,” he reported.

I took a look for myself.  There was a taxi below, and Ashley, Kenzie, Natalie, and Tristan were getting out.  Kenzie shuffled more than she walked.  I snatched up my gloves and hat, skipping my coat to be quicker, and stepped outside into the bluster of early winter.

The taxi pulled away as I reached the bottom of the fire escape.

“Hi!”

“Hi Kenzie,” I said.  “Hey Natalie, it’s been a while.”

“I’ve missed a lot,” Natalie admitted.  “A little bit on purpose.”

“It’s fine,” I said.  “You read the emails?”

“I did.  That’s completely different from being here, participating.”

“Nah,” Tristan said.  “It’s not like we needed the legal know-how, exactly.  We haven’t been arresting as much as we’ve been controlling the damage.  Most jails aren’t taking new people.”

“That’s only part of my job, isn’t it?” Natalie asked.

“I guess so,” Tristan said.

“How’s the neck?” I asked him.

“I popped stitches, is all.  No arterial bleed.”

“It looked like an arterial bleed.”

“Doctors said it was probably bleeding for a minute before I realized.”

“Glad you’re okay,” I told him.

He smiled, before heading to the fire escape.

Kenzie and Natalie walked to the fire escape as well, Natalie supporting Kenzie.  I offered a hand, but because the fire escape was only wide enough for two people, I flew at the side, my hand at Kenzie’s armpit to stabilize and support.

“How are you?” I asked Ashley, looking back.

“I’ve been bored out of my skull.  How has it been, living with our roommate without me there?”

“Surreal.  Fine.  We’ve been ignoring each other, except I brought food home a couple of times, and she brings me tea.”

“Perfect,” Ashley said.

“Speaking of,” I said.  “Are you hungry?  I know-”

“Yes,” Tristan cut in, from the top of the fire escape.

“-it’s late, but I figured you might be eager for something better than hospital food.”

“Yes,” he said, again.

“I could eat,” Ashley said.

“You two want to come with?  There’s something I want to bring up.  Natalie, your input would be appreciated too.  That second role of yours you mentioned.”

“I was going to stick with Kenzie and make sure she’s okay.  I don’t know if I’m still a de-facto guardian, because things are so hairy and she’s at the children’s place now, but nobody’s told me to stop.”

“You should go,” Kenzie told her.  “Catch up with the others.  You need a break from me, and I’m going to sit down and spend fifteen minutes getting caught up on my tech and all the data that’s rolled in while I’ve been gone.  I won’t be doing anything.”

“I don’t want you bending over or crawling under the desk,” Natalie warned.

“I won’t.  I’ll make Rain do it.”

“Be nice to Rain,” Tristan said, sounding like a stern mom.

“I am!  He enjoys helping as much as I do.”

Tristan put a hand on the back of Kenzie’s head, steering her inside.  She had two feathers stuck through the single ponytail at the back of her head.  No hairpin, either.

I grabbed my coat, and we got ourselves sorted, with the others changing or organizing their things while I made sure I took down all orders on paper.  Ashley was in for our walk, even though she still hadn’t fully mended.

S.P.I.N.E.  A plan for going about this.  I was pulling from lessons imparted by my family again.  This particular lesson had been from Uncle Neil, and my heart was heavy with the memory of how he’d died, and how it tied into the acronym.

‘S’ stood for schedule, setting the context for the discussion.  It was what I’d spent the most time wrestling with over the past few days.  How to approach this.  All at once?  One at a time?  What was the best venue for it?  Schedule mattered the most because I could do everything else right and screw up here, and group dynamics, interruptions, or the tone of things could spoil it all.

“How was your vacation with your boy?” Tristan asked.  He was asking Natalie.

“He’s not ‘my boy’.  It was nice.”

“Did you tour the sights?” Tristan asked.  “I guess there aren’t many sights, with the city being new.”

“We hung out.  We drank, we completed a one thousand piece puzzle.”

“I hope you did more than that,” Ashley remarked.

“I don’t think I’m going to talk about that, thank you.”

“It sure sounds to me like he’s your boy,” Tristan said.

“Victoriaaa,” Natalie said.

“Yeahhh?” I asked, drawing my voice out in the same way.

“Did you ask me along just so you could throw me to the wolves?”

“I’m not a wolf,” Tristan said.

“A wolf in sheep’s clothing,” Ashley said.

“Goat, not sheep, and it’s not clothing.”

“Keep deluding yourself.  I’m happy to admit to being a wolf.  I’m under no illusions.”

The streets were empty, the snow coming down in drifts as the wind blew it from the rooftops.  A dense sheet or collection here, then another there.

“You said you wanted me here for the other part of my job,” Natalie said, cutting in while there was still room in the back and forth between Ashley and Tristan.  “Is it Kenzie?”

“I was assuming it was,” Ashley said.  “Except you brought Tristan, and he doesn’t connect to Kenzie.”

“I chime in for leadership decisions and things,” Tristan replied.  He looked annoyed.  “Kenzie and I don’t not get along.”

“But you haven’t figured her out,” Ashley said.

“It’s not Kenzie,” I said, before things got any further.  “Not exactly.”

I had their full attention now.

We still walked, but they were quiet, all of them watching me.  Ashley had a reddish tint to her nose and cheekbones, her only headwear was a pair of earmuffs.  Tristan was better bundled up, while Natalie was best prepared, wearing her puffy jacket that was primarily for function.

“Kenzie,” I said.  “If you’re listening in, I’d really appreciate it if you’d stop.  I’m going to talk with these guys and if everything’s good, I’ll talk to the rest of you about it now.”

There was a pause where nobody spoke.

“It’s worrying that you have to do that,” Natalie said.

“What’s going on?” Tristan asked.

“I got the files from Dragon.  I got some other information too.”

“And it impacts the team,” Tristan said.  “Kenzie in particular?”

“Yeah, the team,” I said.  “We talked about this before, back when we were all shopping, but I should go back to it.  What do you know about Chris?”

“Chris,” Tristan said, with a bit of surprise.

P.  Following the scheduling, ‘S’, was perception.  See where others were at, restate the known, and get them in the right frame of mind to think and talk about it.  Forgetting ‘P’ was to risk dropping something on someone right away.

“Nothing we didn’t cover in the shopping trip,” Ashley said.  “He wants to be close to powerful people.  He’s secretive to a fault.  His power is destroying him.  Kenzie defends him fiercely.”

“I don’t know much,” Natalie said.  “I tried to give him some of the same kind of support and help we’ve been trying to give to Kenzie and he refused it.”

“He’s an asshole, but he was our asshole,” Tristan said.  “Then he wasn’t, and it’s getting to me that we don’t know why.  Did you figure out why?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I figured out why.  I think you guys need to know, and I guess the question is how you want to know.  I can dish it all out here, or I can tell you enough that you can give some input on how we approach the others.”

Tristan asking like he had helped to shortcut things.  I didn’t have to figure out how to approach ‘I’ in the acronym.  Invitation.  Asking if they want the information, empowering them to handle the situation.

“This is serious?” Natalie asked.

“Yeah,” I said.  “This fills in a lot of the blanks, and it’s not pretty.”

“Tell us,” Ashley said.

Okay.  I took a deep breath.  My breath fogged as I exhaled.

“The file was Ms. Yamada’s.  She wrote about Chris.  A message for colleagues, in case she couldn’t carry on her duties.  For Chris Elman, the very first line was a statement.  Chris lies.”

“No surprise there,” Tristan said.

“I barely talked to him and I’m not exactly shocked,” Natalie said.

No response from Ashley.

In the S.P.I.N.E. acronym, the ‘N’ was for ‘necessary information’.  The meat of things.  Uncle Neil had told me to stick to the facts, to be blunt.

I wasn’t as blunt as I could’ve been, but I was still blunt.

“He’s not a changer,” I said.  “And he didn’t trigger after Gold Morning.  He has a long history.”

“How long?” Tristan asked.

“It goes back a decade,” I said.

“He’s thirteen,” Tristan stated, voice firm, like he could say it with enough authority to make it so.  Then, in a one-eighty in every respect, he said, “He’s not thirteen.”

“No.”

“If he’s not a changer then that thing about him being experimented on…”

Tristan trailed off.  Natalie picked up where he left off.  “…I never heard about him being experimented on.”

“It was the story,” Ashley said, and there was no positivity or humor visible on her face or in her body language.  “A sob story that ensured we wouldn’t push too hard or ask too many questions.”

“He lied about everything,” Tristan spoke the realization aloud.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “Something happened.  But it may have been self-inflicted, in a way.  I could get into the nitty-gritty of it, what we know, who he was, and the dots we can connect between the two of those, but I want to leave it up to you guys.”

“Who was he?” Ashley asked.

“Lab Rat,” I said.

“Oh no,” Natalie said.

“That’s a reason to be secretive if I’ve ever heard one,” Ashley said.

I looked at Tristan.  He was frowning, not looking at any of us.

“If you need a refresher on who Lab Rat is, I could go over the bullet points,” I said.

“Fucking asshole,” Tristan said.  He clenched his fist, shaking his head.

“Don’t pop your stitches again,” I warned him.

Tristan shook his head, then winced, reaching up to touch the bandage at the side of his neck.  “Let me think on this.  Bring me out when you have food and things have settled.”

“You’re not going to immediately unsettle things, are you?” I asked.

“Nah,” he said.

He switched, blurring with his eyes flashing.  The blue of the eyes faded, and Tristan became Byron.

Byron’s eyes turned down, looking at the ground as he walked.

“Is he dangerous?” Natalie asked.

“Can’t say anything for sure,” I told her.  “But he disemboweled a tyrant and as far as we can tell, he’s taking over a portion of her world.  If we go by past history, and if we assume nothing’s changed, he’s dangerous.”

“Everyone’s supposed to get a second chance,” Ashley said.

“Yeah,” I agreed.  “But if it was offered and he didn’t take it, if he decided to hide and operate in secret, does he really get that benefit?”

“I’d say it depends,” Byron said, barely audible.

“Yeah,” I said.

The last letter in ‘S.P.I.N.E.’ was E.  Empathize.  Leave room for others to feel, to process.

We weren’t far from the dingy little restaurant, which had a rotund Japanese-style ogre at the side of the sign, a cow tucked under one arm, beside the stylized letters stating simply, ‘BEEF BOWL’.

Nobody went in, not right away.  I’d taken two days to wrap my head around it, to equip myself with information, and decide on how to go about approaching the others.  I could stand in the cold for five, ten, or twenty minutes while they digested the facts.  I was prepared to answer their questions, if they had any.

“This isn’t easy,” I said, to give them an excuse to express any feelings they were holding back.

They didn’t have questions, and they didn’t want to express whatever it was they were so clearly feeling.  Ashley had gone cold, distant.  Natalie was thinking.  There was only a single quiet comment from Byron.

“This is going to do a number on the others.”

He wasn’t wrong.  Uncle Neil had taught me about the S.P.I.N.E. acronym because as heroes, we were often on the front line for tragedy.  It was a tool for delivering the worst kind of news, and for preparing people to grieve.

The Chris we knew was gone.

The chatter as we got back to the hideout was happy.  I put the paper bag down on the table by the door.

“Victoria!  Hey!” Kenzie greeted me.  She’d shucked off all of the outdoor clothing and was sitting in her chair, everything illuminated.  She wore a new sweatshirt that was at least two sizes too big for her, purple, over a blue shirt with a monster on the front.  Her skirt came down past her knees and she wore leggings beneath.  She’d put on slippers rather than shoes.  She’d also, I noted, put on her hairpin, and tucked the two feathers into it so they swept along the side of her head.

“Hey, good news!  Is everyone back?”

I cracked the door open to poke my head out and check.  “Yeah.  They’ll be here in a second.”

“I got intel,” she said, her eyes glittering.  “I can’t name my source, and the intel comes with stipulations.”

I looked at the feathers in her hair.  “What stipulations?”

Sveta answered me.  “We can’t use the information against the Undersiders, and we need to be discreet.”

“Is that so?” I asked.  I heard the others at the fire escape and opened the door.

“And I agreed to certain special favors,” Kenzie said.

“Don’t say it like that,” Rain told her.  “They want to see your tech.”

“Kind of like how the speedrunners showed Rain’s cluster their tech, except not evil and-”

“And not like that situation at all, really,” he finished.

“I’m showing off my tech, and people are interested,” Kenzie said, legs kicking.

“He sent the information without even bargaining first,” Sveta said.  “The pictures and the requests.  It shows a lot of faith in you.”

“Or he’s an idiot,” Ashley said.

Kenzie spun her chair around, glaring.

“Let’s hope it’s the former,” Ashley said.

“It is the former,” Kenzie replied, trying to sound dangerous.

The others came inside and the door mercifully shut.  Space heaters were buzzing throughout the open space, producing the faint smell of burned dust.

Byron changed out, allowing Tristan free.  I saw Tristan’s expression, the seriousness, and what simmered beneath the surface.

“Do you want to see?” Kenzie asked.  “I was counting the seconds until you guys got back.”

“She wasn’t,” Rain clarified.  “But she is excited.  You guys were gone for longer than usual.  What were you talking about?”

“Heavy stuff,” Tristan said.  He tore open the brown paper bag, taking a bowl of ginger beef and some chopsticks.  “I’m so glad we have food if we’re going to discuss this.  I skipped dinner and I’m running on empty.”

“You have me worried now,” Sveta said.

I got other things out.  I passed Sveta a bowl, then put Kenzie’s request on the table next to her.  Some peanut chicken, a small tray of salad with dressing in packets, and far too many fortune cookies.  She reached for a fortune cookie, and I grabbed her hand, moving it to the salad.

“Is this what you’ve been stewing on?” Sveta asked me.

“Yeah,” I answered.

“How bad, on a scale of one to ten?” Rain asked.

“What’s a ten?” Tristan asked.  He was already eating.

“Gold Morning,” Rain said, dead serious.

“Seven, then,” I said.

“I would have called the Goddess situation a seven, with what happened to the prison,” Rain said.  He was entirely serious now.

I’d wanted to handle this better.  I returned to the acronym.

“Where do you guys stand on the subject of Chris?” I asked.

“Oh,” Rain said.  He looked a little crestfallen at the name.  “That’s ominous.”

“Is he okay?” Kenzie asked.

“I don’t know.  We don’t have any updates on what he’s doing right now, or how he is, but we do have information about him.”

“I always had a bad feeling,” Sveta said.  “It started as a small discomfort when he was in the group.  I could sympathize, turning into a monster, not having control, but… it was always a bad feeling and the little things only added to it, never really making that feeling less intense.”

“I really don’t want to spoil a reuniting of the team with us dumping on Chris,” Kenzie said.

“I’m not,” Sveta said.

“You really kinda are,” Kenzie said.  “And I understand why, he left and that sucks.  It’s easier to deal with if you get angry instead of sad.”

“Kenzie,” Sveta said, and her voice was lower, “I understand that you want to respect Chris and his feelings-”

“And you should want to too!”

“-But please respect me and don’t minimize my feelings to protect his.”

“He’s not here to defend himself, so if I’m being forced to take a side then I’m going to take his.  I’m sorry.”

“Me too,” Sveta said.  “I’m sorry too.”

Ashley approached her, sitting on the desk beside Kenzie’s keyboard, a bowl and chopsticks in hand.  She didn’t look like she was having an easy time with the chopsticks.

“We’re not dumping,” I said.  “At least, that’s not the intent.  I respect that Sveta’s instincts were to be uncomfortable around Chris.”

“I don’t like the word instincts,” Sveta said.

“Fair.  Feelings?” I offered.

“Feelings,” Sveta said.

“And I don’t want to condemn him either,” I said.  “But what I’ve found out looks pretty bad.  It’s up to you guys if you want to tackle this in one way or another.  We could raise the subject tomorrow.”

“I won’t sleep all night if I’m busy imagining the worst outcomes,” Rain said.

“I want to know,” Kenzie said, looking stubborn.

“I’m not sure you do,” Ashley told her.

“I do.”

I looked at Sveta.

“You told the others?” Sveta asked.

“A little less loaded.  Easier to bring up,” I replied.

“I’m trusting you on this.  I’m going to be pretty stung if you didn’t have good reasons.”

I nodded.

“What is it?” she asked.

That brought us to the ‘I’ of the S.P.I.N.E., this time around.

“He lied to us,” Tristan said.

My breath caught in my throat.  “Hold up.”

“What did he lie about?” Kenzie asked.

“Everything except his first name, apparently,” Tristan said.  “Everything.

“Tristan,” I said.  “Hold up, okay?  Stop.”

He looked like he was going to say something, then stopped.  He put the bowl down hard, chopsticks laid on top.  Only about half was eaten.

“Sure,” he said.

“Everything?” Rain asked.

I opened my mouth to try to formulate a reply, then closed it and nodded instead.  No way to sum it up.

“Why?” Sveta asked.

“Because he wanted to keep it a secret that he’s a villain with a lot of enemies.”

“A lot?” Kenzie asked.

“He was in the Birdcage,” Ashley said.

“What did he do?” Sveta asked.  “What was so bad that he couldn’t use his old identity, when Bonesaw was walking around free?”

“Semi-free,” Ashley said.

“My point stands.  Valkyrie used to be a dangerous villain,” Sveta said.  She looked at me, and the statement that didn’t follow was telling.

“My sister, too.  She was dangerous,” I said.

“What did he do?” Sveta asked.

“Can I ask that we gloss over that?  We can get into the details tomorrow, after we’ve absorbed the basic info tonight.”

“You know where he is right now, don’t you?  How pressing this is?  He’s on an island in Earth Shin, near their equivalent of New Zealand, with other parahumans and people.  I’m really sorry to bring this up, but your sister and her dad, they’re on an island nearby, they’re having all parahumans come to them.  They’re negotiating with governments.  That’s a lot of people potentially under his thumb.  If he’s dangerous-”

“He’s Chris,” Kenzie said.  She looked to me for her validation, which broke my heart a little.  The smile on her face broke it a bit more; she wore an expression which would read to others like she thought this whole thing was a joke.

“Except he isn’t,” Rain said.  “He has a history?  Who is he?”

“He’s Lab Rat,” I said.

I could see everything go out of Sveta, as she heard that.  I saw Kenzie’s eyes widen just a bit- she recognized the name.

Rain, by contrast, seemed baffled.

“He’s a tinker?” Kenzie asked.  She laughed, a smile creeping across her face.  “That’s hilarious.”

“Who the hell is Lab Rat?” Rain asked.  “Keep in mind, I spent half my life in places without radio and television.  He went to the Birdcage, so it sounds bad, he’s a tinker, so that’s a lot of options for bad, but that’s all I’ve got.”

“He made mutagenic serums.  The transformations,” Sveta said.  “He was dosing himself?  Or did his power change?”

“Dosing himself.  The medicine he kept with him.”

Kenzie banged the table.  “I feel so dumb!”

“Easy,” Ashley told her.

“I didn’t even think!  He asked me not to record him changing and I didn’t because I knew he’d be naked at one part of it, and I’m absolutely not allowed to take those kinds of pictures, accidentally or on purpose.”

“Easy,” Ashley said, again.  “Count to ten.”

“That’s your thing, not mine.”

“Count.”

“He experimented on a lot of people,” Sveta said.  “He turned them into monsters.  Freaks.  You’ve seen the kind of transformations he can manage, except- the ones we saw were uglier.”

She met my eyes as she said it.

I nodded.

“You’ve seen them?” Natalie asked.

“At the hospital,” Sveta said.  “The asylum.  Parahumans who can’t control their powers and victims of parahuman powers get sent there to be taken care of.”

“You’ve talked about it,” Tristan said, uncharacteristically gentle.

“I was there for a month and a half, so I could talk to a therapist every day without worrying about rotations or anything,” Kenzie added.  “I didn’t really see many others.”

“We’ve all- most of us have seen or been the victims of powers,” Sveta said.  “I’m one.  There were a few Case Fifty-Threes there.  Um.  People who lost their minds, one way or another, or who were already struggling with something and who had powers that made it worse.  People who were hurt by tinker experiments, in ways that conventional medicine couldn’t help.”

“Bad situations,” I supplied.

“In the few years that Lab Rat was active, for every one person who went to the Asylum for one reason or another, there was a Lab Rat victim.  He tested his serums on people and not every single one changed all the way back.”

“Did anyone ever ask him why?” Kenzie asked.

Kenzie,” Sveta said, her voice hard.  “Don’t.”

“I’m just saying!  Maybe there was a really important reason, or maybe he couldn’t help it.”

“Kenzie,” I said, before Sveta could get riled up and say something regrettable.  “This is a no-fly zone.”

She giggled in a nervous, bewildered way, “What does that even mean?”

“I hear what you’re saying, but… we can’t extend the benefit of a doubt.  Not about this.  Not until we have a reason to.”

“If we have to have a reason it’s not the benefit of a doubt,” Kenzie replied.

“It’s too close to home,” I said.  I tried to keep my voice level.  “For me, for Sveta.  You can’t make apologies for his actions until we have more information, not when some of us here are unable to forgive people who did the exact same thing to us.”

“But you guys-” Kenzie started.  Ashley put a hand on Kenzie’s shoulder, and Kenzie slumped back into her seat.  She pulled her feet up onto her seat and hugged her knees.  “Okay.”

“Did they get better?” Rain asked.

I was already shaking my head when Sveta said, “No.  You know how his Screaming Anxiety form kept screaming?  There was a woman like that.  Her mind didn’t exit that state, and she roared out cuss words nonstop.  All day, every day, without ever sleeping.  She had surges of strength that meant she couldn’t be in a regular hospital.  There was a man who boiled alive.  The bubbles would swell-”

“I don’t- I don’t need details,” Rain said.

“They were still there when I arrived at the Asylum, along with a few others that had survived,” Sveta said.  There was a hard edge to her voice, like she could’ve been angry or burst into tears in the same breath.  “When Victoria did.  They were probably still there on Gold Morning.”

“He was my friend,” Rain said.

“Yeah,” I said.

“I know he was younger, or-”

“He wasn’t younger,” I said.  “Twice your age.”

“Ah,” Rain said, and he huffed out the word like it had hit him straight in the solar plexus.

“Sorry.”

“It doesn’t matter any to me,” Kenzie said, stubborn.  “It doesn’t change anything.  In fact, I kind of feel validated, because it fits everything in super neat with my seating chart-”

“It should matter,” Ashley said.  “And let’s just let the others talk a moment, no commentary.  Please?”

“I didn’t have many friends, when I first came to group therapy,” Rain said.  “I didn’t even know Erin properly then, everyone at the compound had turned on me.”

“He gave you games and comics,” Tristan said.

Rain nodded.  “And we talked online, whenever I was online.  He helped me research clusters and find details on Love Lost, Cradle, and Snag.  And he’s a complete and utter monster?”

“Apparently,” Sveta said.

“We can’t know one hundred percent,” I said.  “He’s apparently an experiment.  Not a clone, but a malleable housing for the DNA signature for the agent to hook into, I’d have to reread the notes.”

“Ashley was a clone and she turned out okay,” Kenzie said.  “Better than her former self.”

“That’s true,” I said.

“The malleable house stuff,” Rain said.  “That was why he was falling apart?  He was trying to fix something by creating permanent changes?”

I hesitated.

“He lied about that too?”

“He was apparently doing the exact opposite of what he was saying.  Trying to weaken the ‘Chris’ in him to make the changes stick longer.  Intentionally creating changes to break down his old self.”

Rain rose to his feet, and in the same motion, pushed on the table in front of him, sending scrap, food, and his tools to the ground.  The table followed a second later, everything crashing in a sharp, deafening noise, with a short yelp from Natalie.

Natalie, who had been watching from the sidelines.

The bowl rolled around on the floor for a second, the only sound.  The sound wound down as it lost momentum.

Where the sound faded, I heard another.  Kenzie’s nervous giggling.

“Please don’t,” Rain said.

“I can’t help it.”

“Come,” Ashley said.  She winced as she picked Kenzie up out of the chair.  “Slippers off.  We’re going for a walk.  You and me.”

The giggling stopped and started in the minute or so it took for Ashley to get Kenzie to the door and make her put her boots on.  I helped, getting the coat, hat and gloves, with Swansong’s stuff in my other arm.

Rather than put those things on, Ashley just opened the door, stepping out onto the fire escape without winter clothes.  I handed everything over, and she shut the door.  They’d get dressed for the outdoors outdoors.

The door closing mercifully shut out the sound of the nervous giggling.

Rain stood with his eyes up toward the ceiling, fingers knit together behind his head, forearms pressed against his ears.

“I fucked this up,” I said.

“I don’t think there was a good way to do it.”

“I was considering one-on-one, once I’d briefed people I thought were safe,” I said.  “I was seventy-five percent on Ashley, I thought that if she did have an outburst, it would be okay so long as she was away from Kenzie.  She surprised me.”

“She once said her default for every person she meets is to be disappointed in them,” Tristan said.  “There’s never any surprises if they live up to that disappointment.”

Rain was only just now relaxing, lowering his arms.  He looked down at the table he’d overturned.  “I’ll clean up.  I’m sorry.”

“I’ll get it,” Natalie said.  “Please.  It’ll help if I can do something.”

“If you bring the stuff, I’ll help,” Rain said.  “I told myself a long time ago I didn’t want anyone cleaning up for me.  It’s a rule.”

“Okay,” Natalie said.  She was on the other end of the room, so I barely heard her.

“If you’d done Kenzie last, she would have gotten curious and found out, and she would have been hurt,” Sveta told me.  “If you told her first, we would have realized something was wrong, and I would have had a pretty hard time knowing I was last on your list of people to tell.”

“Is it okay that I told you after-” I started.

I stopped because she was already nodding.

Off to the side, Tristan had pulled Rain into a hug.  I looked away.  Rain was kneeling by the mess, separating things from the ginger beef and rice.  I would’ve helped, but I had the instinct that he wanted space.

Sveta- her arms were folded, her head bowed.  Her expression as angry as I’d seen it, as she looked at nothing in particular.

I’d known Sveta would take it hard.  Rain had caught me by surprise.  Kenzie had too, in a way.  I’d prepared myself for the mindset that the others would want to grieve, and I hadn’t anticipated the abject denial, even though it was one of the classic stages of grief.

I didn’t trust myself to approach any of them, so I turned toward the screen that Kenzie had left live.

The images were there on the monitor.  Bulletin boards with notecards stuck to them.  Not so different from what we had in our hideout.

I pretty quickly realized what they were.

Tattletale’s notes.

Scary notes.  They had some starting points on the people who’d attacked us, notes on the portal, and some theorizing on the greater threats in play.

Almost casually, figures like the Bogeyman were name-dropped and discarded.  Amy and Chris were a footnote.

Fucking dangerous information for us to so casually have, and dangerous information to be sending out.

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