Torch – 7.3

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Chris cackled as we jerked to an abrupt stop.

“Ease up, Chris,” Tristan said.

“Ignore him,” I suggested.

“Look,” Tristan said, leaning forward to peer over the steering wheel.  “I can admit it when I’m not good at something.  It’s different when you have someone looking over your shoulder and acting as your laugh track.”

“You’re doing fine,” Kenzie said.

“Compliments are a supply and demand thing,” Chris said.  “If you give them out for nothing, they aren’t worth anything.”

“Thanks, Chris,” Tristan said, sarcastic.  Traffic started moving again.  He started the van moving again, then made another abrupt stop.  My head smacked back against the headrest.

“How do you not know how to drive?” Chris asked.

“I know how to drive, Chris.  I got my license before the raid on the Fallen, in case we needed to drive a bus or something.  I needed something to do when I wasn’t at the hideout.”

“I can imagine how that would have gone.  Not to worry, fellow heroes, I learned how to drive just in case this happened!  Then you drive us straight into a ditch.”

“I can drive straight, Chris, in case you haven’t noticed.”

“I did notice, but it was easier to word it that way than to try to describe what you’re doing now, with the stop, start, stop, start thing.”

“Traffic is stop-start.”

“Traffic is stop, coast, and start.  I was thinking you were wearing the boots from your costume, because your foot is so heavy.”

“He’s new, Chris.  Ease up,” I said.

“Okay,” Chris said, before immediately betraying his word by saying,”Isn’t it a rule that every self respecting teenager has to be in line to get their license the moment the DMV opens on their sixteenth birthday?”

“The DMV wasn’t open the day I turned sixteen,” Tristan said.  “On account of the world having ended the year before.”

“Excuses,” Chris said.

“I didn’t get my license when I turned sixteen,” Sveta said.  “But I don’t have hands, feet, or a definitive birthday.”

“Excuses,” Chris said, again.

I offered my own input, “I can fly, so it was never a priority.  I can drive, I had my license, but the only practice I really got in the last four or five years was driving the Patrol buses from parking space to parking space so we could shovel the whole lot.  Tristan is a better driver than I am.”

“Why are you guys so lame?” Chris groaned.  “Not being able to drive sucks, and I’ve got to wait three years.”

The road was fairly busy.  The timing of our trip meant we were traveling down the main East-West highway that ran through the city, and it seemed like a lot of the farming settlements were transporting stock out to the east, traveling in the direction of the Brockton Bay and Boston areas of the sprawl.  That procession was compounded by the stream of construction vehicles heading toward the city center.

In the van, we had Tristan in the driver’s seat, me in the passenger seat, and Kenzie wedged between Sveta and Chris in the back.

Tristan stopped again, but there was more than enough clearance between himself and the car ahead of him, and the stop was premature.  A car behind us honked, long and loud.

“Why did you stop just now?” Chris asked.

“I saw movement out of the corner of my eye.”

“There wasn’t any movement,” I said.

Tristan crept forward until he could stop at a more reasonable distance behind the car ahead of us. “I know that now.  It was a shadow.  I’m in battle mentality, I think.  I’ve spent years as a cape and I’ve only been behind the wheel for a few hours now, I’m stressed, and my brain is going for what it knows.”

“That might make sense,” I said.  “But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work on fixing it.”

“I know, I know.  I can get past this,” he said.  He was frowning, staring at the road, even though the van wasn’t moving.  “If I’m reactive and defensive, I need to make that work with something that’s either stop or go.”

“It’s a pretty crummy battle mode if you’re reacting to things that aren’t there,” Chris said.

“Hey Kenzie,” Tristan said.  “Do me a favor?”

“Any time.”

“Get him.  Shut him up by any means necessary.”

Chris was directly behind me, so I couldn’t see anything more than the periodic glimpse of a flailing limb I got in the window’s reflection.

Tristan continued driving, a little more confident now that he wasn’t being heckled and cackled at.  He seemed oblivious to Chris’s noises and curses of protest.

No, not oblivious.  He smiled wide without looking back as Chris protested with, “No tinker tech!”

Outside the van, the city was in a weird place.  There were a lot of businesses with signs left dark, and a lot of people out on the sidewalks and stairs.  People weren’t going to work, or they couldn’t.

Something was simmering.

I could understand it.  The sky had been taken from us.  There might have been an undercurrent of hope, the idea that if we tried hard enough and waited long enough, we could do things right this time.  Every last person had lost someone or something they cared about.  We’d all had to work hard to get through the first winter and contribute.

There had been an implicit hope, I imagined, that if we made those sacrifices and threw ourselves at the problem, we’d be rewarded with a city that had learned from the mistakes of the past.  We’d experienced a paralysis in terms of leadership and even the name we gave the city, and the conflicting desires from the various groups who had very different ideas of what that perfection looked like might have played a role.

That hope had been leveled.  There wasn’t a point in the city where one of the portals wasn’t visible at the horizon.  There were several points in the city where the portals loomed overhead, dense areas where the main infrastructure of the city had been positioned close to the portals.

“Tristan,” Sveta said.  “There’s something I wanted to bring up, but it’s awkward to, and I don’t know if it’s going to be any easier to fit things in when we get to Ashley’s.”

“Oh geez, you’ve got to drop this on me today?” Tristan groaned.

“Sorry.”

“My friend goes to jail, we’re anticipating another friend doing the same, and I have to drive through this mess, and now you’re bracing me for something.”

“Sorry.  It’s not a huge thing, but I thought you’d want to know.”

“Is it the sort of thing where I’m wearing my pants backwards and nobody’s had the courage to tell me, or-”

Kenzie snorted.

“Help,” Chris eked out the word.

“-Yeah, yuk yuk, Kenz,” Tristan said.  “Or is it bad news, Sveta?”

“It’s bad news, I guess.”

“Great.”

“I know you have issues with Moonsong.  The Shepherds lost some members, and she impressed people enough that she’s getting promoted.”

Tristan didn’t immediately reply.

“Sorry again.  I thought you should know before you ran into them,” Sveta said.

“A promotion.  She wasn’t my favorite person, but I always respected her talent.  Reach- we had a lot of good capes.  It doesn’t surprise me.”

“What kind of promotion, do you know?” I asked Sveta.  I could see her over my shoulder.  “To a specific function, like team liaision, or a captain of a sub-team?”

“Second in command of their first team.  Which Weld said puts her third in command overall, somehow.”

“Damn it,” Tristan muttered.

“That’s because the Shepherds folded into the Attendant, bringing their name and logo,” I said.  “The people who worked together stayed together as they merged, making them two teams under one name.  If something happens to the leader of their A-team, the leader of the B team takes over the leadership of the whole group.”

“I know Weld is busy,” Sveta said.  “I barely saw him before but now I only see him for an hour a day, sometimes.  Maybe Moonsong will be too busy to pay attention to you.”

“I don’t know,” Tristan said.  “Damn it.  Thank you for telling me, that really does help.”

“Are you sure?” Sveta asked.

“Yeah.  I’ve gotta figure out what I’m doing.  Now I know to stay a solid distance away from them.”

“I hope I’m not prying,” I said.  “You never really told me what happened.”

“I lost it,” Tristan said, his eyes fixed on the road even though traffic crawled.  “I’m not trying to deflect blame or anything, but I was dealing with the C-seventy bullcrap, three-point-four GPA, kicking ass as a hero on a kick-ass team, made friends and hung out with those friends.  I did it while living half a life… and something gave.”

“That happens,” I said, trying to sound neutral.

“It happens, yeah.  I got desperate and I stopped thinking straight.  I did some impulsive stuff, dug myself into a hole, and then kept digging.  I look back and I don’t even recognize the person I became.”

“We all deal with that to some degree,” I said.  “It comes with powers.”

“Yeah.  Dug myself into a hole and kept digging down, and the power situation didn’t help.  I’ve always been good at what I do.  Sometimes it takes time to learn, but if I have the chance to practice, I’ll practice like hell, and I’ll be kicking ass in no time.  It’s why I’m grinding my teeth over the driving.  Nobody’s around to teach me and I don’t have a car I can use to practice.  I’m really worried I’m going to break Kenzie’s parents van, here.”

“It’s okay,” Kenzie said.  “It’s not a big deal.  The van was kind of a present to me, to help move my tinker stuff around.  I really appreciate you taking us.”

“It’s your family’s van,” Tristan said.  “You’re the one that’s being a big help.”

“What about your parents?  They can’t help with the driving?” Kenzie asked.

“It goes back to what happened with Reach.  I tried to do it all and when I couldn’t do it anymore I let something slip, I became a villain and didn’t even realize it.  I got arrested, I lost most of my friends from back then, my team, my academic record, and I lost my family.  My dad doesn’t want to do dad things with me.  My mom is really careful around me, like it’s all forced.  They don’t call me, it’s always me calling them.”

“You go to church with them,” Sveta said.

“It’s bittersweet,” Tristan said.  “They’re almost normal when we’re at the church, but I think it’s because they think I need redemption.”

“Rain and Ashley are looking for their redemption by turning themselves in,” I said.  “Would you do the same thing, or am I missing something?”

“Rain is,” Tristan said.  “You’re right on that one.  Ashley?”

He made a creaky sound, moving his hand.

“Not redemption?” I asked.

“I don’t think that’s so on the nose for her.  I could be…”

Traffic was moving, and Tristan was going a decent speed, and this time, as something moved across the road, it was real, and not a phantom shadow.  Tristan hit the brakes, and I could immediately tell it wasn’t going to be enough.

I flew, rising up in my seat, and activated my defenses for a moment, pushing back against my seat.  I could hear the metal where it attached to the rest of the car protesting, and the entire van lurched.  A sharp sound to my right marked the Wretch whacking at the door.

We stopped with a few inches to spare.  A group of people were running across the road.  Many had masks on, of the mundane sort.

“Thanks, Vic,” Tristan said.  “Good move.”

I checked the coast was clear, opened my car door, and flew out, closing it below me before giving chase.

With a higher vantage point, I could see the line of traffic, stretching out down the road, avoiding the area where a portal’s expansion cut through the highway, forcing a detour onto smaller streets.

I could see the stores and the people clustered around broken windows.

Cause and effect.  People couldn’t get around, which meant they couldn’t get to work easily and they couldn’t go to stores to make their purchases.  Power, water, and the delivery of other resources had been interrupted in places.  Stores, restaurants, and services closed or reduced their hours, because they lacked employees, customers, and resources.  More people were dicking around with no or temporarily interrupted employment, frustrated at the backslide in progress and the overall hopelessness of things…

People wanted what they were owed, maybe.  Or they wanted to feel like they were making some headway in things, when it felt so hard to obtain.  They saw the unmanned stores and they noted the lack of proper law enforcement.

Looters.  These weren’t the first I’d seen, and they weren’t the only symptom of the city’s current ails.

Will these unpowered people look back and think that they can’t recognize who they were?  Or is it easier to justify and massage past events and past wrongs committed, if you don’t have powers to punctuate, exaggerate, and highlight it?

I didn’t have my costume, and I still had my jacket threaded through the triangle of upper arm, forearm, and sling strap, so it rested across my forearm.

Their getaway vehicle was on the other side of the highway, and there was less traffic going toward the city center.  They’d drive off and disappear into the side roads somewhere.  The ones at the front of the pack were loading up the trucks with bags of stuff, on the road just beyond the highway.  The middle of the pack was already over the concrete barrier that separated the westbound traffic from the eastbound, and the stragglers were just behind them, hesitating because traffic was incoming.

I intercepted the people who were climbing into the first of the trucks.  I used my aura to spook the first guy and to try to get his grip to ease up where he was holding onto the door and the side-grip at the chair back.  He twisted around, hands up to defend himself, and I simply tugged him back, letting him fall to the ground.  No strength needed.

I used my toe to nudge the keys from his grip to the ground, and he didn’t fight me.  Then I stomped on them, forcefield up, with enough force to drive the metal into the concrete.

I pointed at him, and I ordered him, “Stay.

He nodded.

I believed him.  Marching toward the other truck, where people were rushing to load electronics into the back, I spotted orange lights at the base of the truck.

No need to bother, then.  I ignored them, walking casually, and the fact I ignored them seemed to throw them off.

I chose the largest group that had assembled off to the side.  Six individuals, all together.  I let my aura burn and I watched the effect it had on them.  My eyes searched for weapons and saw none.

This wasn’t a planned thing, a raid or a rush.

It was impulse.  I could even imagine it was desperation, like how people stole for a loaf of bread.  The difference was that this wasn’t to fulfill such a basic need.

Probably, anyhow.  The cold season was sneaking up on us, and they might have felt they weren’t ready.  Maybe this was borne of that.

Except I felt they’d probably be more organized if they were thinking that far ahead.  There were bags of what looked like clothes, and they weren’t winter clothes.  Not needs in the sense that those clothes would help survive the winter.

“Bad luck, guys,” I said.  “You pulled this just as my friends and I happened to pass by.  Let’s make this easy.  Surrender.”

A woman hucked a brick-sized package of batteries at my head.  My forcefield caught it, knocking it aside.  Heads turned to look at her.

I could remember the movie scenes where the mob of criminals went after the cape or hero, shot, saw they were invincible, and then kept shooting despite the futility of it.  I was suspicious the PRT had used leverage over the media to encourage those scenes, with the follow-up of the mob getting taken to pieces.  A way of affecting the public’s approach to capes and the willingness to go all-out.

“Oh.  I am really, really sorry,” she said.

There it was.

“Get down on the ground,” I said.  “Hands on your heads.”

Some started to obey, the woman foremost among them.  A group of others at the periphery and around the first truck dropped their stuff and bolted.  They all ran as a group at first, and then, as I took off and one saw me on the approach, the idea went out.  They scattered.

The car door behind me slammed.  The driver had climbed into the second truck, and others were piling into the back with the stolen merchandise.  The truck peeled out, making it about half a foot before the spike of stone that Tristan had made popped the tires.

“Stay,” I told the ones who were already on the ground or partway there.  “The way things are now, if you cooperate and own up, you’ll get off with a slap on the wrist.  Okay?”

I saw a few nods.

I went after the ones who were running.  I started at the far left.

No forcefield, no super strength.  I flew to catch up and I caught the first one mid-run.  Because I could maneuver in the air at the same time I caught up, it was relatively trivial to get in a position to stick my leg between his knees and trip him.

I left him behind, relatively sure I could catch a second one before he picked himself up and got far enough away.

The second went roughly the same way.

The third one I caught up to had a knife that was made for the kitchen, not for fighting.  She disarmed herself swiping at my forcefield, and promptly surrendered.

By the time I checked on the first and caught him limping away, Sveta had rounded up the others, including the second and third I’d stopped.

She was fast, she had reach, and she was mobile.  This was very much her thing.  She hadn’t left any marks more serious than a palm with road rash.

We herded the ones who had bolted in the direction of the disabled getaway vehicles.  The ones I’d told to stay had stayed.  The van had pulled off the highway, and Looksee was standing on the top, watching over things.  She’d have projected her costume.  Capricorn had his costume on with no armor but the helmet, and was standing guard by the store with the broken windows.

I flew closer to them to get a status update, and as I passed the van, I could see Chris still in the backseat, gagged and ensnared by Looksee’s eyehook, the prehensile tendril with the camera and claw at the end.

“Lucky that we happened to be passing by,” Looksee said.

I smiled.

I didn’t have the heart to tell her.  This kind of low-level dissent was happening all over the megalopolis.  I could see it whenever I flew over.  When I’d told Ashley that we intended to arrive at two thirty, I’d plotted for a detour like this, because it was next to inevitable.

It would get worse; the shock was wearing off.

An armed Patrol soldier greeted us at the door.  His was a face I’d seen from the Stratford patrol, not far from Bridgeport.

“We sent our information ahead,” I said.

“You did.  You’re the girl from the community center thing, right?”

“Yeah,” I confirmed.

“Okay.” It wasn’t a smiling, accepting okay.  “She’s inside.  Be good.”

Sveta raised her eyebrows at me the moment we were past the guard and inside the apartment.  Some things were already set aside, lining one side of the hallway, making the fit through fairly tight.  Sveta had once described the apartment as being an unusual mix.  I could see it in place now- cardboard boxes and plastic totes in places, and then furniture in other places that definitely hadn’t come from a box store.

The table by the kitchen door was wrought iron with curled-up feet, meeting and melding at knee height and then separating out to grip the edges of dark-tinted glass top.  There were some bills on top, unopened.  A mirror with a wrought-iron frame loomed ominously above the table.

I really hoped the mirror was fastened securely, because it had to weigh fifty pounds with all the iron curls and thorns, and the tinted glass below it would not survive an impact.

The kitchen had a similar theme, but the appliances were red, and the clear glass electric kettle, table, and stool were glass with a red tint.  There wasn’t much wall space, and narrow scroll-like strips of cloth ran down the available spaces between cabinets.  Calligraphy-like strokes of red paint suggested a male’s head, broad shoulders and buttocks, and the woman standing in profile.  A flick of the brush suggested the nipple for the woman and a knot-like flourish indicated that which was visible between his legs.  The electric kettle was on, burbling.

The dining room was the most conventional of the rooms, with dark, stately furniture, a rug, and an ornate gold-painted picture frame behind the head of the table.  A massive brown horse with the whites of its eyes showing had its teeth around a man’s head, while its hoof held the man’s body down.  It was partway through tearing the man’s head off, ribbons of gory flesh still connecting the head and neck, and the man’s fingers were slipping from the horse’s reins.

It was such an odd thing to see that I paused mid-stride to confirm it wasn’t my mind playing tricks on me.  Had she found it or commissioned it?  If it was the former, who painted that kind of work and put it out into the world?  If it was the latter, why that, specifically?

I glanced at the candlesticks without candles, and an empty picture frame on the wall behind the length of the dining table, just as ornate as the horse one.  There were boxes in the corner, too.

The apartment was narrow, and it looked like sets of stairs allowed what I assumed were the bathroom and bedroom to be right above the living room.

The living room had a reclining couch and a series of chairs, none of which matched but all of which seemed to follow a theme.  There were bookcases along the wall, all of the same make, with a unique design element that really came into its own with the bookcase closest to the window.  Starting with the middle of the five bookshelves, getting progressively more intense, the wood had been burned, and clear resin had been molded in a shape to emulate the unburned bookshelves.  Flakes of something red and metallic had been set in the burned parts of the wood, so they caught the light from the window and made it look like the wood was still hot from recent fire.

Ashley was perched in a narrow chair with long legs and a high seat, hands clasped together.  Jester was there too, reclining on the couch.  A large black and white picture of a lithe, bare-chested or naked man was on the wall above Jester, the head and lower body out of frame, his arms twisted up behind his back in a tortured position with ribbons loosely binding them.

“Hi Ashley,” I said.  Others offered their greetings.  “Hi Jester.”

Jester smiled.

“Why’d you come?”

“The others either didn’t want to or didn’t care, and I wanted to.  I still probably owe you something from when you carried the slack back at work.”

“Nothing’s owed,” I said.

He just shrugged in response.

“This place really came along since my last visit,” Sveta said.

“I would hope so,” Ashley said.  “It’s been a little while.”

“It’s a shame to pack it up,” Kenzie said.  She hopped into a chair.

“Yes,” Ashley said.  “Yes it is.”

“I love the bookshelves, especially the one at the end,” I said.

Ashley smiled.  “I do too.”

“There were three the last time I came,” Sveta said.  “The one at the end had to have taken the longest to put together.”

“It did,” Ashley said.  “It came out well.  I’m pleased.”

“I’d be worried about the resin refracting light at the wrong angle and starting a fire,” Chris said.

“You are just dead set on being a stick in the mud today, aren’t you?” Tristan asked.

“It’s fine,” Ashley said.  “I was warned about that, and I was careful.”

“If we’re admiring decor, I like this ribbon dancer dude,” Tristan said, indicating the picture above the couch.

Chris snorted.

“I wish I had the artistic sense to figure out what it’s saying,” Tristan added.

“If you have theories, keep them to yourself,” Ashley said.  “I’d hate to have it ruined.”

“Lips sealed,” Sveta said.

“We got in a fight on the way here,” Kenzie said.  “I barely got to do anything, there were looters, and they raided a store, so I got most of their pictures before they could run, so I could track them down later if I had to.  Then I did a sweep of the crowd to see if any looters were trying to hide among the bystanders, but I didn’t find anything.”

“That’s too bad.  It would have been a nice little victory.”

“I wish I knew if it didn’t find anything because there wasn’t anything or if it was because it didn’t work.”

“You’ll figure it out.  You’re clever,” Ashley said.

“How are you doing, Ashley?” Sveta asked.  “Is there anything we can do?”

“I’ve committed a cardinal sin,” Ashley said.  “I asked you to help me move, and I don’t have things packed.  I put most of my books away, and some of my clothes, but…”

She moved her hand in her lap.  Her fingers moved slowly, and they seemed to hit a limit where they wouldn’t go completely straight.

“Have you had that looked at?” I asked.

“Rain did.  He did what he could to fix things, but my usual tinker is gone.  If these hands fail, then I won’t have hands unless they allow me to meet with Rain again,” Ashley said.  “I haven’t been able to pack, as I said, and I’m being a poor hostess, because I have food but can’t serve it.”

“I can grab it,” Jester said.

“The water for tea should be boiled.  Pour it in the pot and bring it straight down.  There’s a shutter by the stove.  Inside you’ll find nuts, chocolate and cookies.  The serving tray and sugar bowl are above the shutter.  There are cold drinks in the door of the fridge for those who don’t want tea, and a little pitcher of milk.”

“That sounds like a lot,” Tristan said.  “I’ll come with.”

“I normally allow myself one treat a day, with the same for any guests- I don’t have many,” Ashley said.  “But we should treat ourselves.”

“Are you okay?” Sveta asked, again.  “In the heat of everything last week, I said some harsh things.  I feel guilty now that we’re here.”

“If I’d refused or if I had tried to get away with it, you would have resented me for it.  Most of you would have.  You were right,” Ashley said.  “Don’t feel guilty.”

“If you changed your mind, I’d have your back,” Kenzie said.

Chris swatted her over the head.  “No.  Bad.”

Kenzie stuck her elbow out toward his middle, digging it into softer flesh.  He grunted.

“What would be the point, Kenzie?” Ashley asked.  She brought her hand up to her hair to tuck it behind her ear.  It looked harder than it should have been, with her fingers not cooperating.  “What would motivate me to stay?  I like some of you, I wouldn’t be able to stay with you.  I like my place, I’d have to leave it behind and run.”

“If the tables were turned, and I had to choose between going to jail or staying, getting in trouble, and spending ten percent of the time I do with you guys, I’d stay,” Kenzie said.

“I know,” Ashley said.  “That’s who you are.”

“I think there’s a better chance that you guys can stay in some form of communication if she sticks to the rules, than if she runs and periodically makes contact,” I told Kenzie.  “We can ask them to make sure something’s allowed.”

Kenzie smiled a little.

“I will make it up to you someday,” Ashley said.  “I promise that.”

“Okay,” Kenzie said.  She offered more of a smile.

Ashley dropped her eyes to her hands, flexing her fingers.

“You’re going to miss out on a lot,” Chris said.  “Shit is slowly and steadily going down, and after this stuff with the portal, it’s pretty clear the major players are starting to act.  We still don’t know who did it.”

“The Birdcage was emptied for Gold Morning,” Ashley said.  “If something serious happens, I hope they’ll release us.  I could join you then, even prove myself.”

“You might not go to prison, you know,” Kenzie said.

I felt so sorry for that kid.  She didn’t deserve this.

“They gave me a short leash, given my history and the people I’m connected to, and they told me what to expect,” Ashley said.

Jasper and Tristan appeared, each carrying a tray.  The chocolate looked like shards of dark chocolate with chunks of salt embedded in it.  The cookies were wafers partially dipped in more dark chocolate.

“We’re going to end up eating and not doing any packing,” Tristan remarked.

“You don’t need to worry about the furniture.  If the girls could look after my clothes, and if you could put away my books and pictures, that would be enough for today.  I’ll help where I can.”

“You’re sure?” Tristan asked.

“Ashley said the van would be enough,” Kenzie said.

“I did.”

The tea was doled out to those who were drinking tea.  Others poured their drinks.  There weren’t enough chairs for everyone present, so I sat on the ground around the crates that were gathered together to act as an impromptu coffee table.

“Ashley,” Tristan said.  “I talked to Rain about this, it might be worth talking to you.  Do you have a plan of action if anyone comes after you?”

“You were thinking Love Lost might go for Rain where he is,” Ashley said.  “And the past allies of Beast of Burden might come for me.”

“It’s not out of the question.”

“I won’t be alone,” Ashley said.  “I have friends waiting for me.”

“Still.”

“Still,” she replied.

“Okay.”

As people finished their drinks or got restless, they stepped away to start investigating what needed to be put away.  I licked chocolate from my fingers and cleaned them off with a damp napkin.

Ashley stood, stretching as she walked to the window.  The unnamed Patrol member who stood at the top of the stairwell cleared his throat loudly.

“I’m not doing anything,” Ashley said.

“Away from the window,” he said.  “You’re on paper as a low-rated mover.”

“Harry,” Jester said.  “I think we’re okay.”

“Away from the window,” Harry said.

I tensed, seeing Ashley bristle, standing a little taller, her pupils disappearing.

I thought about intervening, and I had no idea how I was supposed to go about it.  Maybe getting Harry to safety.

Ashley stepped away from the window.  “I’m going to have to get used to this, I think.  It’s going to be hard.”

“You promised me there’d be a someday we’d meet again,” Kenzie said.  “And you’ve already broken one promise.”

“I know,” Ashley said.

I’d been told to do the clothes, but it felt weird to go through Ashley’s bedroom and things without her there, so I started on the bookshelf.

The team wasn’t technically a team anymore, but we couldn’t break away clean.

The moment Ashley was on her own retreating to the stairs to look down at the rest of us, it was Chris who went straight to her.  The two of them walked into the dining room.  Ashley rubbed at her arm as the two of them talked, and the patrol officer stood a ways back, watching them closely.

That was interesting.  Were there commonalities, in the physical breakdown?

I noticed Kenzie was off on her own, fidgeting, and made a concerted effort to rope her into helping me.  I made it something of a game, filling the box as quickly as I could with one hand while being kind to the books, with Kenzie holding the box, and then taking turns, as she pulled books off the lower shelves.

“Victoria,” Ashley said.  “Can we talk?”

The moment Ashley had been free, Chris had gone to her.  The moment she was free, she chose me?

I was caught off guard, but I nodded.

She led me up to her bedroom.  There were pictures by the wall that hadn’t yet been hung up, judging by the lack of marks on the walls.  The bed was a four-poster with black silk cloth.

“Who are you keeping an eye on?” she asked.

“Everyone,” I said.  “I’m making plans to check on members of the team.”

“Don’t neglect Sveta,” Ashley said.  “Her teams are her families.  She’s not so different from Kenzie.  The only people who stick by her are the same kinds of people who get caught up in helping other people.  It’s a very lonely thing when you’re not anybody’s first priority.”

“There’s Weld,” I said.

“Make sure he remembers, then.”

“These feel like the final instructions of someone who expects to die soon,” I said.  “Do I need to worry?  Do we need to worry?”

“If Death comes for me I’ll shred him with my power,” Ashley said.  “I beat him once, and I hardly expect to kneel before him now.”

“You’re sure?”

She shrugged.  “Death doesn’t worry me.  Destruction does.”

“Destruction of?”

“Of me,” she said.

I glanced around the room, then indicated the wardrobe.  She nodded.

I began packing up the clothes as best as I could, when I couldn’t fold very effectively.  She didn’t seem to mind.

“Destruction of you?  How is that different from death?”

“Before you all came, I nearly destroyed those bookcases, and the artwork.  I almost destroyed that man, Harry, from the patrol.  I could have shredded him, and it would have been easy.”

She said it so casually.

“The girl from the train, Presley, she looks up to you in a way, I think.  She thinks you’re awesome.”

“I am awe inspiring in my own right.  It’s not a surprise, Victoria.  I don’t need a gimmick to do it.”

“Hey,” I said.

She smiled.

“Alright, but- does that not give you a reason to hold back from those impulses?  For this girl who really wants to know how to get her hair as white as you have yours, because she wants to emulate you?  For Kenzie?”

“It’s hard to explain.  Today, I knew you were all coming, and your friend Jester was there, talking to me about nothing.  I don’t know what the reasons for holding myself back will be next time, or if I’ll look for reasons and find nothing there.”

I nodded.  I focused on folding a dress.

She went on, “I’ve been told a sentence is inevitable.  I’ll be confined, and people will bark orders at me and expect me to comply.  I’ll be destroyed or I’ll come through it with a better idea of what I need to do to manage it.”

“You made a promise to Kenzie,” I said.  “You can’t betray that.  Don’t give yourself any other choice except to manage it.”

“You look after her in the meantime, then?” she asked.

I nodded.

“Then that leaves only three more things,” she said.

“Three things?”

“The clothes.  Pack them, please, but keep anything you like.”

The clothes were black, black, and more black.  More to the point, she was a different build than I was, almost narrow, while I considered myself more of an athletic slim.  There might be issues with fit.

“Thank you,” I said.

“The other two things, hm.  I could offer it as a trade.”

“A trade of what?”

“I’m stealing Rain’s thunder, maybe, but… a haircut?”

“I’m working with one hand.  I can use the other some, but… how much of a haircut?”

“The haircut we thought would work for Swansong,” Ashley said.

I paused.  “I think I could manage something.”

“In exchange… take my keys.  Take over the rent for the apartment.”

My eyebrows went up.

“You’re staying with your cousin, you said.  If you haven’t found a place, then stay here instead.  Keep the things you like and store the things you don’t.”

“You planned this.”

“I never had a place, Victoria.  My life is vague dreams and clear destruction.  Again and again, life tells me I can’t do this, I can’t do that.  It goes wrong or I can’t think of it as being right… and I’m not talking about right as good.  The thoughts loop through my head, that nobody can be trusted, everyone is out to get me, and… dying is a really good reality check.  I’m trying to take that to heart.  I was trying.”

“What happened?  There were so many moments that seemed so cool, the photo on the train, Swansong, seeing how you were in the sparring…”

“All punctuated by fits of pique, madness.  It’s not something that goes away or gets better.”

Those words were uncomfortable.  There were already some parallels.  The idea that there could never be a fix to this side of me that I couldn’t control…

She continued, “Some things are starting to make sense, about the group members, my memories, and how this all works, and I can’t even figure those things out because getting to tomorrow is already so hard.  It’s been hard for too many days.”

“It doesn’t get easier when you’re in prison.  I’m not saying you shouldn’t go, but…”

“When I make a mistake now, I kill Beast of Burden.  If they incarcerate me?  I can let myself be someone else’s concern.  I think I know what it’s going to be like, and I’m ready for it.”

I nodded.  I struggled to voice a response, because I was pretty sure she was wrong.

She was trying to build a new self like someone built a house of cards.  It was a precarious thing, and if she slipped up once- destruction of the self.  Something completely different from death.  If she had a last chance then this would be it.

She tried to sound confident in tone, and she wasn’t convincing me.

It was a long, long walk along a razor’s edge.

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Torch – 7.2

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“Rain, would you please stand?”

Rain stood, his chair scraping, the man beside him remained seated, attention and pen on a pad of lined paper in front of him.  Two women and three men sat at the end of the room.  It was a fairly handsome, clean-shaven twenty-something year old in a suit and tie who was doing the formal stuff, it seemed.  The guy put more attention into his grooming and styling his longer blond hair than anyone else at the table had put into theirs, the woman from the Wardens possibly excepted.

“Today we’ll be addressing the case of Rain F, that’s R-A-I-N, full name redacted, case number seven-seven-one-one-two to pass our desks here at the Meadows-Corona office.  Rain is a minor at seventeen years of age, and his middle and last names will be redacted and abbreviated, respectively.”

Fat lot of good it would do to trim his name when it was as unique as it was.

“Our intention today is not to sentence, but to assess if the case is worthy of the court’s attention.  Spoiler, there are charges of manslaughter, so it probably is.  Our secondary duty today is to decide what we’ll do with the person or people in question in the time between now and when the courts can see them.  Have you sought or been provided with counsel, Rain?”

“I was provided with counsel, yes.”

There was a pause.  The stenographer shifted her keyboard on her desk at the side of the table and it squeaked as it moved.

“To summarize, Rain was one of many to submit himself to the custody of the patrol block when the independent farming settlement outside of New Haven was raided.  Both heroes and villains were on the scene, with members of the patrol block supporting the heroes.”

Rain hesitated, then bent down to whisper to the lawyer that sat beside him.  The men and women at the table at the far end of the room waited until Rain straightened and raised his hand.

“Yes?”  The response came from a man with a gruff voice, a nice suit and white facial hair and hair in need of a bit of a trim.

“Can I clarify something?”

“Yes.”

“If we’re summarizing, I think it’s important to note that the compound was run by the Fallen.  It was a cult.”

“Your statement will be noted, Rain,” was the gruff response.

“Yes, sir.”

There were two women at the table: one was from the Wardens.  The woman that wasn’t was Hispanic, slightly overweight, and dressed a little more casually than I’d expected for a court proctor.  She offered a more gentle elaboration, “This office has more than a hundred people from that settlement to process.  To avoid bias and to be as fair as possible, we’re not going to make any early conclusions about what it was or wasn’t.  As we address you and your situation, we’ll hold to this idea, but we won’t hold you to it.  Do you understand?”

“Yes, ma’am.  I can say things as I saw it.”

“Exactly,” she said.

The second of the men went on with the formalities.  “On that note, to continue the summary, Rain is one of many that this office will be sorting through in the coming days and weeks.  For easier processing, most are being addressed as groups, where the circumstances are similar.  Rain is a unique case.”

Hard to deny.

“Rain is unique because, point one, he has turned himself in to the authorities with respect to a case of multiple manslaughters.  He expressed the intention of pleading guilty.  Some of those affected are here at the office today, and will provide testimony.”

As Rain looked over his shoulder to glance at the people in the room, I followed his gaze.  There were others seated, and any number of them could have been people from the mall.

“Point two, Rain admitted to the authorities that he killed a costumed villain with his own hands, known to this office as a Jonathan Seiter, in what Rain states was self defense.”

Snag.  How that particular thing was addressed would impact Ashley quite a bit.  Ashley wasn’t conveying much.  She sat with Kenzie.

“Point three, Rain admitted to the authorities that he committed, quote, more crimes than he could count, with crimes including theft, grand theft, auto theft, vandalism, and arson.  Much of this occurred before the end of the last calendar era, at what the individual claims was the behest of a villainous group.”

He’d done stuff with the Fallen between the time he was a child and the incident at the mall.

“Point four, Rain provided information and assistance during the attack on the farming settlement outside New Haven, and this information and assistance was instrumental in mitigating damage and saving lives.”

That was our contribution, in part.  I’d spent the better part of a day trying to figure out how to word my letter to the court proctors.  It had been a distraction from the surgery I’d had looming.

“Point five, not unique to Rain himself, but necessary to state for the record, is the fact that he and others were under varying degrees of… how did you put it, Kimberly?  We didn’t write it down in the notes.”

“Soft mental compulsion,” the woman from the Wardens said.  “Those affected weren’t controlled like a puppet, but they were under threat, much as if there was a gun to their heads or the heads of a loved one.”

“Thank you.  The Wardens, corroborating witnesses and others have given us their input on this.  It’s a thing, this compulsion, but it’s not a thing we can prove was in place.”

Rain raised his hand again.

“Rain?” the woman with the frumpier clothes asked.

“I don’t want her power to be a mitigating factor.  I do want to make sure that woman goes to jail and stays there for a long time, that’s the only reason I brought it up.”

“Have a seat, Rain,” the woman said.  “Let’s have a conversation.”

“A conversation?” he asked.  He took his seat.

“I do think we want to talk about that, but let me start off by saying what our goal is here.  When a case crosses our desk, it’s our job to decide if it’s worth the time of a proper court.  If we say yes or no, that doesn’t mean it’s a for-sure yes or no.”

Rain nodded.

“My personal view is to imagine four cases.  If I put yours with them, is yours going to be the standout case?  Manslaughter, murder, arson, and grand theft are serious things.  I think yours might stand out.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“You’re turning yourself in.  I imagine your lawyer advised you that if you kept to yourself, you might fly under the radar.  It’s a lot easier to recommend your case to the courts for processing if it’s a plea.”

“He did tell me that.”

“Why turn yourself in?” she asked.

“Because-” Rain started.  “Before that thing at the mall happened, I was a kid, it felt like a long, unpleasant dream.  I was raised with these people, they chose what I read and what I watched for most of my life, and I was raised in compounds like the one that was attacked last week, or in small towns, or cabins.  Nobody really questioned, nobody said any different.  But then the mall happened and for the first time I had to make a choice.”

“Elaborate,” the man with the nice hair said.

“I was told to guard the door of the mall.  It was left so I could open it if I had to.  I knew… I knew it was a trap.  I was threatened, told not to open it no matter what, but I realized that if I didn’t open it then I’d be in trouble too.  I still didn’t open it, even when I realized people were hurt and scared.  That’s not okay, and I deserve to be punished.”

“Were you compelled?” Kimberly asked.

“Um.  By Mama Mathers, you mean?”

“The soft compulsion,” she said.  “Mama Mathers, yes.”

“She was there in the back of my head.  You see visions of her if you think about her, and I thought about her and what she’d do.  She was there, then.”

“She can make people lose their minds if they don’t do what she wants,” Kimberly said.

Someone in the back stood up.

“Sit,” the gruff man said, annoyed.

“You can’t go easy on him,” a man said.

Sit.  We will ask you to speak when your turn comes.  If you do not take your seat and remain silent, you will be removed.”

There was a pause as people got settled.  There was murmuring, and a bald man at the end of the court proctor’s table banged his cup against the table a few times, in lieu of a gavel.

When all had nearly settled, Rain said, “I don’t want you to go easy on me.”

“We want a full understanding of the situation,” Kimberly said.  “She could have made you lose your mind, yes?”

“Not as much as some did back at the attack on the camp.  I hadn’t talked to her recently, so it wouldn’t have been as strong.”

“Still.  She could have.”

“Yes,” Rain said.  “But people died and were hurt.  I see and hear them every night in my dreams.  I should have made the call and opened that door.”

“Do you think turning yourself in will make that better?” the frumpy woman asked.  “Seeing them in your dreams?”

“No,” Rain said.  “I don’t see how that matters.”

In the back, Dr. Darnall stood and left the room.

I set down on the rooftop as Dr. Darnall erected a blue patio umbrella.

“That was quick,” he remarked.  “I thought you would take a few minutes to spot it.”

“There aren’t that many rooftops that are that easy to lounge on,” I said.  “A lot of them are in pretty scary shape, actually.  Flying over, I see cracks and water that’s been there long enough to have algae or something form.”

“That would explain the mosquito-like flies we’ve been getting,” he said.  “I’m glad to have you here.  Is Victoria okay, or do you prefer a cape name?”

“Victoria,” I said.

“Victoria,” he said.  He reached over for a handshake, and I shook his hand.  It was cool- probably from the recent work with the umbrella.  “I’m Dr. Darnall.  You can call me doctor, Wayne, or whatever you prefer.”

It was hard to imagine calling him Wayne and taking him seriously.  “Doctor,” I said.

“Very well,” he replied.

He worked with the umbrella for a bit, and I offered my assistance with my one good hand, pulling the fabric of the patio umbrella around one of the prongs.

We each settled into chairs.  The metal was cold- even though it was only September, the weather was turning.  There was a gravity to the seasonal change that I couldn’t remember ever experiencing back home on Bet.

“Did your friends have their turns in front of the tribunal?”

“No.  Rain had his.  Ashley will have hers soon.  I’m helping her pack up her apartment tomorrow.”

“With one arm?”

“It’s for emotional support, as much as anything.”

“Drink?” he asked.  He reached down and pulled a small cooler out from beneath his chair.

“Please,” I said.  “Whatever you have would be great.”

He had an assortment of sodas, water, lemonade and iced tea.  I took the iced tea, set it down, and got the papers out of my bag.

“The stuff you asked me to fill out.”

He took it, leaning back in his seat.  It was disconcerting to deal with the silence, when I was used to one person guiding and leading conversation, steering things and making the most out of the hour and a half or however much time was set aside.

That had been back at the hospital, though, and maybe the need to fill the silence had been because I’d been something less human.

He read through the paperwork, and put it down on the table with the last page on top.

My ‘homework’.  I’d submitted the critical information back when I’d made my first appointment, which I’d had to cancel for surgery.  I’d walked away with some information on therapy and what to expect, and this.  Questions.

The page he’d left on top had been the unusual exercise in the batch.  The bottom half of the page had been left empty, but for a circle with a thick bold line.  The instruction had been to draw, not write, how I was feeling, and to leave the paper and pen in arm’s reach for a while before and after using the space.

I’d settled on a face, drawing it like I might a sighing emoji, eyebrows slightly turned up in worry.  I wasn’t much of an artist.

In letting it sit, though, I’d drawn around the perimeter of the face, lines circling the bold circle that framed the face.

I felt self-conscious about it.  Now it sat on the table, between the two of us, the page facing nobody in particular.

“Anything you want to get off your chest before we start?” he asked.  “Some people come to a session with something in mind.”

“Uh,” I said.  I leaned back, holding my iced tea.  “No, no I guess not.  This feels pretty different from what I’ve experienced in the past.”

“The therapy you got at the hospital?”

“And what I saw of the session with the group,” I said.

With Jessica.  The rooftop seat gave me a view of the broken skyline, and the place where Jessica might have died.  It made me uneasy.  Powers had taken my body from me, they’d briefly taken my heart, and they’d almost taken my mind.  They’d taken my forcefield and strength and given it over to something else.

Now they’d taken the sky, and with it, they’d taken the one person that I’d known in my life who could make things better without betraying me.

Maybe that was unfair to Crystal and Gilpatrick, to give them the unfair label of people who had helped me but who didn’t help, in that way that I couldn’t put words to.

“Thinking of Jessica?” he asked.

“Yeah.  I don’t want to dwell on it too much,” I said.  I put my iced tea down.  “I’m here for therapy.”

“The therapy I provide is going to be different because I’m new to working with capes.  My background is in cognitive-behavioral therapy, and in the past I worked with police officers, paramedics, firemen, doctors, and other rescue personnel.”

“It seems pretty relevant,” I said.

“I think so,” he said.  “But powers are complicated and you might have to talk me through some things you take for granted.  If you can be patient with me, I’d like to work with you on identifying problems and goals, then addressing your patterns of thought and action to change your emotional landscape, fix the problems, and reach the goals.”

“You might have a bit of an uphill battle, doctor.”

“Which part?” he asked.

“Thought, action, emotional landscape, problems and goals.  All of the fucking above.”

“Do you want to try explaining it?” he asked.  “A big part of what we would be doing is setting goals.  A starting point in figuring out what to address or explaining yourself in totality could be starting off with where you’re coming from, where you are currently, and where you’re going.”

“I-” I started.  It was hard to put things into words.  “Currently I’m bothered.  Because I feel like ambushing me at the courthouse, having me draw the image instead of writing out my feelings, leaving that image out where I can see it, and having this meeting on the rooftop, it’s… confrontational.”

“Confrontational,” he said.  His eyebrows went up briefly.  “Can you elaborate?”

“Pushing me, or testing my boundaries, trying to catch me off balance.  It feels like little plays I’ve had to deal with for a long time.  I don’t know if you’re doing it intentionally because you want to get past my guard or if it’s unintentional and you’re doing it because you’re insecure.  Because I have experience dealing with people who do that.”

“Okay,” he said.  “Let’s get back to that in a minute.”

“Fine.  Where am I from?  I was raised by capes to be a cape, and after finally getting powers I lived a lifetime in three years.  I was reborn, I rushed through my education, I made mistakes, I started working, I found someone who I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, I… started losing people.  I went to the funerals.  I gave my dad showers, because he needed the care.  Then it was my turn, except… worse than death.  I ended up in a hospital and a care center, broken and kind of forgotten or ignored.  I can’t leave that hospital room or that feeling.”

“I’ve heard the general story.  We will touch on that.  I think I can help you if you want that help.  I’ve dealt with a lot of people who had rooms or scenes they couldn’t put behind them.”

I shrugged.  “I don’t think it’s that easy.  It was two years that I was like that.  Every moment was a scene unto itself.”

“Understood.  Just do me a favor and don’t dismiss the idea of it being fixable right away.”

“Okay,” I said.

“That’s where you’re coming from, then.  A lifetime of crisis is hard enough to deal with, and you didn’t have the tools to deal with it.”

“I had some,” I said, annoyed.  Annoyed because he wasn’t jumping to the right conclusion and because he wasn’t Jessica.  There couldn’t be a Jessica because Jessica was gone.  “I was raised to be a heroine.  I didn’t do it all right, I cringe at who I used to be, and how I used to hurt people, but I was given more tools than most people my age, I think.”

“Okay,” he said.

“Yeah.  I’m getting sidetracked.  Where am I now?  I’m trying to make sure that a whole lot of people, some of Jessica’s old patients foremost among them, don’t end up like I did, because there’s nothing I’m willing to do to undo that or unlive those years, but I can at least save other people from it.”

I stabbed the table a few times with my finger to punctuate the last few words.

“You feel what you had to deal with with could have been averted, and you want to avert it for others.”

“One thousand percent,” I said, with emotion.  “One thousand fucking percent, it could have been averted.”

“By an outsider?  Or by someone close to the situation?”

“Both.  By- by any of us paying more attention or communicating more, or paying more attention to powers and how powers work, or being a little bit more of an actual family.  It could have been better if I’d fought better or harder and torn through some mutant dogs and gotten home sooner, if I’d dodged that one acid spittle or follow-up hit and avoided being taken out of commission, or if one less person had died maybe those of us who were grieving might have been clearer headed and we could have steered things away.”

He gave me a sympathetic look.  When he answered me, I couldn’t hear him that well in the physical feeling of how agitated I was and how uncomfortable I was in my own skin.  I hadn’t nosedived into panic or feeling off, but I’d walked here and I’d gotten out of breath walking.  Now I couldn’t get back into breathing regularly.

I wasn’t making sense, because he didn’t have the context for all of that.

I didn’t want to make sense.

I wanted to put him off balance, to shake him and get more of a sign than a sorry look and kind, quiet assurance that he could put me on the right track.

I wanted to gut him.  Not to impale him or tear his stomach out, but to make him feel a fraction of what I felt, emotionally.

“Breathe,” he said.

“I’ve become pretty-” I started.  I stumbled on the word.

“Breathe.”

“Pretty accustomed to the breathing, thank you very much.”

“Okay,” he said.  “Good.  Come back to here.  This rooftop.  Cool weather, your drink.  Have a taste.”

“I’m not not here,” I said.  “Okay?”

“Got it,” he said.  “Do you want to take a minute to catch your breath?  What works for you?”

“I don’t-” I said.  I stopped.  “I’m fine.”

“Do you want to carry on with that thread of conversation, or would you like to change topics?”

“I don’t see the point in carrying on, I guess,” I said.  “I don’t want to sound like I’m resistant to therapy or anything, but I’m kind of frustrated.”

“Okay,” he said.  “You don’t see the point- are you frustrated because you think this is insurmountable?  Or is it because you don’t feel heard?”

“Both,” I said.  “No.  Actually, neither.”

He nodded slowly.  “Neither, then.”

“I think there are skills I can learn and ways I can deal better.  I think this is doable.  But I think the way we’re going about it is wrong.  Because you hear a good bit of what I’m saying, not all, and you don’t understand.”

“Fair,” he said.  “I can’t know your experience.  I do think I can come to understand it.”

“That feels like a canned answer,” I said.  “Like the kind of thing someone says when they can’t come up with a good response.”

“Victoria,” he said.  “I am on your side here.”

“I know,” I said.  “Absolutely.”

“Okay?” he asked.  “Yes, maybe the response was a little trite, but I don’t think it’s wrong.  I can’t know where you’re coming from.  From what you describe, that could be a good thing.  From what you describe and from what I was told, the experience was legitimately horrifying.  Sometimes when you’re in a bad place you need someone who isn’t in that place to lead the way out.”

I drew in a breath.  He held up a hand.

“Canned, I know.  Bear with me, please.”

“Bearing,” I said.

“If it reassures you, I have a lot of experience helping people through trauma.  I’ve spent twelve years with people, with heroes, who were traumatized on and off the job.  I’ve dealt with people who were scarred head to toe, and their experiences after were not too dissimilar to what you most likely experienced in that hospital room.  Others have been through what you’ve been through and they found their way through it.  I have confidence that I can help you do the same.”

I drew in a deep breath.

“You are not alone,” he said.

“You spent a lot of time with heroes, you say, but you don’t mean capes when you say hero.  You’re new to helping caped heroes, you said.”

“Yes,” he responded.  “I get it.  You came from a background that celebrates capes, that puts a lot of importance on costumed heroics.  You value that and it matters that I admitted I’m not that experienced.”

“I celebrated capes, yeah, but you know my aura is all about awe and fear, right?  I put my awe of capes behind me a good while ago,” I said.  “So that background?  It’s not that I’m elitist.  It’s that I’m worried.  I’m worried you don’t understand because the normal rules do not apply.  Every cape you deal with is alone and unique.  They have their own rules and neuroses.  They have their unique, personal powers and challenges.”

“Everyone’s unique, Victoria.  I don’t think that’s exclusive to capes.  We can look to common ground.”

I shook my head.  I was getting annoyed again.  I couldn’t put words to what I was trying to encapsulate for him.  Something I felt Jessica Yamada got.  The consequences.  “Capes magnify, okay?  They exaggerate.  The personalities, the issues, the disorders.  Everything gets bigger or more distorted.  It’s why, if you really truly understood what I’m trying to convey, you’d hear what I said back at the courthouse, and you’d find those kids someone.  Because Jessica was worried and Jessica got it.  If you understood, you wouldn’t be here with me, you’d be running to get these kids some attention.”

“There aren’t resources.  I’m sorry.”

I drew in a breath, then huffed it out, because I couldn’t quite get enough oxygen.  I was too agitated to be still, even to the point of keeping my lungs in a state of equilibrium.

I hadn’t responded, so he carried on.  “If you were to work with me, we’d work on outlining goals.  What I would work on you with would be fundamentals.  Fundamentals work because they apply whether you’re a five year old, a police officer, a surgeon, or a person with powers.  You are human.  Most of the rules still apply.”

Hosting this first meeting on a rooftop was a mistake, because I felt the very real impulse to just stand from my chair, put down my iced tea, and fly away.

I felt other impulses too.  To break the table, to try to drive some point home by scaring him through a display of power.

The Warrior Monk wouldn’t have approved of that, though.

My voice was small.  “I don’t know if I’m human.”

“I beg your pardon?  Is this a case of arguing the idea of ‘parahuman’?”

“No,” I said.  My voice sounded very automatic, as I found the words.  “When my- when the incident happened.  I was mutated, changed into a tangle of limbs, heads, torsos, pelvises and connecting tissue.  I couldn’t speak and I couldn’t eat without assistance.  I could barely move under my own power.”

“That was outlined for me,” he said.  “I can’t even imagine.”

“I had my emotions twisted around.  To make me fall in love with the person who did that to me, and to experience unending heartbreak over the fact that she couldn’t be with me and I couldn’t be with her.  My- she was family, I always saw her as family.  I didn’t exactly leave that behind or stop seeing her that way, so it felt wrong, twisted, even as I felt it in full.”

“You would argue, then, that this is beyond the usual human experience?”

“I don’t think I’m human, doctor, because when Gold Morning happened, she put me back together.  She fixed the feelings and she stripped away the excess flesh.  She made me the way I had been on the day I’d been when I was turned into a monster.  People came and wrapped blankets around me, and I was numb from shock and trying to remember how to move again when she talked to me.”

“She talked to you?”

“She rambled.  She was never good in a crisis and me being fixed was a crisis, I guess.  She told me, um-”

I scratched at my arm, then stopped myself.

“There’s no rush,” Doctor Wayne said.

I met his eyes.  “She told me that when she made that body, larger than mine, the sprawling, broken, wretched thing, raw materials were harvested from stray cats, dogs, and rodents.  Birds, bugs, other things.  People’s household pets that were left behind after Leviathan attacked.  She said, um, she said-”

I felt like I’d get caught up in a loop of ‘ums’ if I let myself continue talking.  I stopped to drink some of the iced tea I’d barely touched.

“Um,” I said, defeating the point of the pause.  “Just, you know, I should be careful about giving or getting transplants.  There’s a chance it wouldn’t be compatible with humans.  Understand?”

He didn’t respond.  Good.

“Because she didn’t want to get carried away, she wanted to get me as close to normal as she could get me and stop herself there.  Then she said- she’d ask if I wanted more fixes, and I couldn’t talk so I shook my head no.  She asked if I wanted my memories of things erased and I couldn’t let myself have that because there’s nobody left in the world I trust enough to protect me from her, except me.  So I told her no, and I told her never to show her face in front of me again.  So I’m- I’m-”

I blinked away tears.

“I am very alone, doctor,” I said.  “My maybe-not-one-hundred-percent-human self is going to fight like hell to save people from… from that-”

I indicated the horizon.  The portals speared and lurched up into the sky, frozen where they were, the sky on the far side a different shade.

“-And from other horrors.  I’m not going to win every fight.  I would really appreciate some help to keep me in the fight.  Because we have a brief moment of calm, and history suggests the periods of calm before the crises get shorter and shorter.”

Again, there wasn’t an immediate response.  He fixed his gaze on the broken horizon because it meant he didn’t have to make eye contact with me.

I’d gutted him.  It was wholly satisfying and far from being a good feeling.  He’d felt something, been shaken, he was forced to reassess his perspective, and now maybe there was a chance he’d understand.

These things weren’t easy.  They required a little baring of the naked and vulnerable soul.  Revealing who and what we were.

“Freak.  Monster.”

“Enough, thank you.  Please.”

The formalities of a courtroom were looking pretty darn sweet, now that things had reached this point.  Rain’s accusers were noisy, and the officers in the room were fighting an uphill battle to keep the peace.

They’d been given a chance to speak and make their arguments, and every one was as angry and vicious as the last.

I felt uncomfortable.  I was only on the periphery of it.  I couldn’t imagine what Rain felt, being the focus.

“That should be enough.  Thank you.  Your feelings have been made abundantly clear, and I and the other court proctors, I’m sure, agree that the pain and loss are real, profound, and very much present.”

There were more noises from that part of the room.

“May I speak?” someone asked.

“If you have something to add, that hasn’t already been stated.”

“I do, sir.”

It was a young girl, twelve or so.  She had thick, straight dark hair with severe bangs and an ankle-length dress.

“Hi, Rain,” she said.  Her voice was steady, but she held a paper or a letter, and it fluttered in her hands.

“Hi,” Rain said, his voice faint.

“My name is Staci.  I was at the mall, the day the Fallen attacked it, but I was not inside when the attack happened.  I really do not hope that people get upset because they think I have no place to speak.  Two of my friends died that day and I think because I saw the aftermath and how the school and the families dealt with it, my perspective is valid.”

Her speaking style was stilted, as she read from the page.

“Two people died and three families were left devastated.  Many of their friends were anguished to hear about what happened.  School has not felt the same.”

“I’m so sorry,” Rain said.

The girl nodded, an intense motion that betrayed nervousness.

“I can not imagine what it was like to come from where you did.  I wrote another letter that I planned to read here or give to you and I changed my mind while I sat here listening.  I wrote this down over the last hour.  I don’t think you should blame yourself.  You were a teenager and teenagers don’t always make the best decisions.  I have a big sister, so I know.”

It was an attempt at a joke, as she turned to her sister in the seat beside her.  Nobody really laughed, though, and the silent disapproval of the people sitting around her seemed to drive things home, because her nervousness amplified tenfold.  Her mom reached over to rub at her arm and shoulder.

“I don’t speak for everyone.  I definitely don’t.  But I’ve hurt and cried a lot over the past year and I’m glad you came here and you did this.  Thank you.  I don’t expect others to but I forgive you.”

There were noises of discontent.  People couldn’t shout down a child, but they could make it clear they didn’t agree.

“Thank you,” the court proctor said.

“Everly?” Rain asked.  “That was your friend?  With the red hair?”

“Yes.  And Sarah was the other.  How do you know that?”

“I see and hear them every night, in my dreams,” he said.  “Sarah had the blonde hair then.”

“Yes.”

“I’ve memorized the faces,” Rain said.  “I’m so sorry.”

“I don’t blame you for them dying,” Staci said.  “The people who set the fires were the ones to blame.”

“I didn’t save them.”

“You were scared.”

Rain had wet eyes.  “I was so stupid.”

“You didn’t have a chance to know better.”

The noises from Rain’s detractors grew louder.  Things dissolved from there, with the officers trying to keep order.  Staci ducked out, her parents providing a bit of a shield.  They left through the door.

The man with the nice hair announced, “The court would like to take a brief recess.  We’ll give Staci and her family a minute, and then we’ll leave.  There are refreshments out in the hall.  Rain’s acquaintances can stay, as they wanted to provide their testimony regarding his character in private, without giving up identifying details.”

The room emptied.  The court personnel, minus some guards that went to the hall, Rain, Rain’s lawyer, and our group remained.

“This is hard,” the gruff man with the white, messy hair and beard said.  “We’re short on heroes.”

“I know,” Rain said.  He wiped at his eyes.  “I’m not much of a hero.  But I’ll be one in the future, given a chance.”

“But you’ve expressed a desire to go to prison,” the gruff man said.

“This kind of thing can’t be something where nothing happens,” Rain said.  Sveta’s sentiment.

“Prison isn’t there solely for your absolution, Rain,” the frumpy woman said.

“I know.”

“You reported one attempt on your life.  Do you think you’ll be safer if you’re in custody?”

“No,” Rain said.  “Probably the opposite.”

“We’ll do what we can.  Your friends.  We will have some questions for the record, but to start us off, do we have any arguments against a stay in the juvenile prison while we wait for the courts to process the young man?”

“Yes,” Kenzie said.  Heads turned her way.  “No.  I just think it isn’t right.”

“These things rarely are,” Kimberly, the woman from the Wardens said.  “Then to get this out of the way, we note no strong arguments against a stay in our custody.  The crimes are severe enough to warrant one.  You have a few months of wait before the courts will even begin to address your case, but it should be quick once you reach that point.  Time served will count against any sentence.  There will be no remuneration if no sentence is doled out.”

“I understand,” Rain said.

“Then when the recess concludes, we’ll note the verdict and seal the paperwork.  Until then, if my colleagues don’t mind, I’d like to get as much information as possible from you and your group, for the court record and the Wardens.”

“I will help however I can,” Rain said.

“Then, to go back to the timing of when you provided information about the Mathers, why the time provided?”

“I was sedated for a surgery, swapping my eyes and ears out.  I started to provide information as soon as I was able.  Before then, Mama Mathers was in effect.”

“Tell us about the timing of your interactions with her.  We would welcome input from the rest of the group as well.”

Rain continued, and I added my own comment.

In the moment, though, I was mostly just taking in how Rain seemed to be.  He sat straighter, and he spoke with more conviction.  Something in him that had been bound up was free.  In the face of his sentence and an interrogation from a staff member of the Wardens, Rain looked at ease for the first time I’d ever seen him.  He still wasn’t one to smile, but I imagined he could come close.

If only we could all have a Staci.

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Torch – 7.1

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I gripped until my fingernails threatened to penetrate the skin, squeezing, strangling, until my hand hurt and my bullet wound hurt more.  The pain in the bullet wound intensified, until the muscle started to cramp.

“Relax.”

Relaxing my grip was a thing I had to tell myself how to do, more than pushing on through the pain had been.  I released the stress ball with the doofy character face on the front.  Bloodshot eyes receded into sockets and the mouth closed to settle into the infuriating little grin.  My handprint remained as an indent on the ball’s thin skin, slowly disappearing.

“Agh,” I made a sound.  The cramping feeling in my arm wasn’t going away.  It was like a charlie horse, but more intense than any I’d had.

“Are you okay?  Was it too much?”  She gingerly touched my arm, being shy of the wound, and felt out the muscle.  “Let me know if this hurts.”

I nodded, because I couldn’t really talk.  The massage helped.  It did hurt, when the fingers pulled against skin closer to the bullet wound, but the massage soothed the cramp enough that the pain was worth enduring.

“I wasn’t sure if you were using super strength or if it was you,” she said.

Then ask, I thought, the pain sharpening thoughts that might not have been so sharp five minutes ago or five minutes from now.

“Well, it seems like you have good strength in your hands.”

“It doesn’t feel strong,” I said.

“Okay.  Not to worry!  That’s something we can work on.”

Anne Lynn was my physical therapist with a first and middle name that she’d insisted were to be used together because she was not an ‘Anne’ and she definitely wasn’t a ‘Lynn’.  Okay, fine.  Going by first impressions, she seemed to be a lovely, warm, caring person who was painfully new to what she was doing.  She went to her mentor, who was in our mostly empty activity area, for things I didn’t imagine really needed clarification or reassurance.  She did much the same for me, double-checking what I said in a way that made me think she wasn’t taking me at my word.

It seemed she also didn’t ask for clarification at times she needed it.

She was a hard person to really dislike or resent, though.  She was shorter than average, cute and bubbly, and her smile seemed persistent and genuine.  That was a hard thing to find, given recent events.

“No super strength, for the record,” I said.  “I turned it off.  It kind of defeats the point, doesn’t it?”

“We should make sure that works as you heal,” she said.

“It’s not a concern,” I said.  “I could be the strongest or weakest person in the world and it won’t affect how my super strength works.”

“Oh?  Okay, got it.  If you’re sure.”

There it was.  The vague impression she doubted me.  Was I being unfair?

“If you keep me talking about this I’m going to go full powers geek on you,” I said.

She snorted.  “That’s convincing.  Oh no, please don’t tell me about your power or show me anything neat!”

“Ahhh,” I said.  So she’d hoped to see something.  I thought about how much she didn’t want to see my uncontrolled forcefield in action, and I smiled anyway.  “Maybe sometime.”

“Sometime, if you’re comfortable doing it.  But not today, our session is just about over.   How’s your arm feeling?”

I tried moving it.  The cramp had mostly subsided.  “Better.”

She smiled, reaching for the shelf under the bench I was sitting on.  Papers and plastic bags rustled.  She put a pile of stuff beside me.  “I have stuff for you.”

“Homework.”

“Some!  Papers, this one has your instructions for your physiotherapy you can do at home.  We want to keep up your hand, wrist, elbow and shoulder strength while letting your arm recover.  This paper here has some recommended tips for recovery and pain.  On the backside, we have some things to watch out for.”

“Neuromas, muscle cramps lasting for long periods of time, persistent fever, swelling that appears suddenly or doesn’t let up.  Got it.”

“If any exercises are too painful for you to do, make a note.  I’ll see you in two days and you can tell me then.  We’ll figure out if there’s something wrong or if it’s something we want you to work through.  If I don’t know for sure then I’ll talk to someone who does.  We’ll meet two days after that session, then scale down to twice a week after that, and once a week toward the end.”

“My doctor told me I should expect two to four more weeks recovery.”

“That’s for the muscle damage.  Longer with the bone healing, but my notes say that was minor.  I printed this out for you.  Bone fracture healing is explained on this sheet.  I included a copy of the list your doctor gave for the supplements to take.  Okay, that’s all the papers.  We have some slings for you- various colors and styles.”

A sling.  Ugh.  “Great.”

“And finally, a bag of rubber bands for some of the hand exercises and-” she paused, raising a bag filled with colorful stress balls.  “Stress helpers!  We have a variety!”

There was a part of me that wanted to groan at the forced cheer, and at the even more forced use of ‘helper’.  I went with it, maintaining a smile and peering at the bag.  It wasn’t worth making her an adversary.

“We have the faces, Grimace Gus, Dopey Dan, Pinhead Pam, and a few others.  I have a few of these myself.  You can pick one to represent someone you hate and channel that emotion into getting better.”

No blonde Smug Susans.  Too bad.

Hearing Anne Lynn get so excited over little toys helped me put my finger on her image and way of presenting herself.  She made me think of a kindergarten teacher.  I could imagine her hyping up a class of munchkins with the same attitude she’d shown around me.

I poked the bag.  It was a resealable bag, but it was old enough that it had crinkled and scuffed to the point it was foggy.  “You have a few of these, huh?  Do you have a Grimace Gus in your life?”

“I do,” Anne Lynn said.  “But it’s mostly the Dopey Dan and Pinhead Pam that give me grief.  Family.

“Ah.  I hear you on that.”  I liked her a little more than I had, hearing that.  I peered at the bag.

“We have other things, like the animal balls.  Let’s see… beetle, ick, the bird, the snake, the lion-”

“Lion,”  I said.

“Do you want to check the bag?  There are others.”

“The lion would be great, thank you,” I said.  “I had a childhood toy that was a lion.”

“Perfect,” she proclaimed, while retrieving the lion.  It was just a head, with two black dots for eyes, no mouth, and the mane taking up three quarters of it, with ears poking up on top.  “Your therapy partner for when you’re not with me.  Treat each other well.”

There was a part of me that felt like she was treating me like a kid, but that might have been her usual demeanor.  I could have rankled at it or said something, and I didn’t.  Another part of me that felt very tired, and that part of me welcomed having a stress doll that reminded me of the stuffed toy I’d loved to the point it had looked monstrous.  That tired part of me almost welcomed the cheer and the being taken care of.

Picking my sling was a little less interesting than picking the stress ball.  I tried on two and went with the most comfortable, holding it instead of putting it on.  I said my farewell to Anne Lynn and walked past others who were in the midst of their own exercises at parallel bars, benches, and weight machines.

One woman with tan skin, black and gray exercise clothing and her hair in a bun was at the weight machines.  She gave me a nasty look.  I had no idea who she might be.

I dropped my stuff off at my locker, then made use of the shower that was adjacent to the therapy area.  It wasn’t that I’d worked up a serious sweat, but I hadn’t slept well, and so I’d flown around before my appointment, checking that all was well.

All wasn’t well.

Rinsing off gave me a chance to refresh myself, resetting to zero, and it allowed me to change my clothes.  What I wore for a doctor’s appointment and preliminary therapy session wasn’t going to serve for the rest of the day.  Once I’d dried off, I put on a top with a collar that had a fine gold zipper instead of buttons, chosen because it was easy to put on with an injured arm.  I pulled on a pair of olive slacks that served as good all-purpose pants.  The pants proved to be less of a stellar choice with two stubborn buttons that needed doing up, but they were business casual and they’d survive if a fight broke out, which I wasn’t quite ruling out.

I stopped at the mirror to braid my damp hair as best as I could with the one hand, taking my time to do it, and then put a bit of makeup on around my eyes.  I was mid-application when the woman with the bun who’d given me a dirty look passed through the shower room, walking behind me and into the locker room, eyeing me as she passed.

I almost said hi.  Maybe I would in the future.

I got my things, put them in a bag, took a minute to situate my arm in the sling, and situated my bag on my other arm.

Leaving the building, I left the smell of sweat made muggy by showers behind me and ventured into the cool outdoors, closing my eyes against the cold sun.  Opening those eyes, I saw the gold-tinted city and a mostly blue sky that would have been pleasant in any other circumstance.

Pleasant if the horizon hadn’t been shattered like a dropped mirror.  The sky was divided, with vague shapes stabbing up into it, the sky on the far side taking on different tints and weather.

The portals hadn’t been flat doors that things could pass through, but three dimensional objects, transition points with rules that we’d simplified by driving trains straight through them.  Nothing about it was simple now.

Four portals in this area of the city had been drawn out to a height taller than our tallest buildings, and expanded out to encompass multiple city blocks.  The fourth had been a surprise by a parahuman that had used a power to hide until the heat had died down.  The worst expansion covered twelve blocks, and it would have covered more if it hadn’t been close to the water.

At the edges of those portals, buildings and one bridge had collapsed.  Within the areas encompassed?  We still didn’t know.  The portals had expanded out, bled into one another to surround one of the more critical areas of the city, because that area had been centered to be symbolically near the largest cluster of portals, and they’d scrambled.  They didn’t point to where they once had.

I checked the coast was clear enough that I wouldn’t scare anyone, and I took flight.

The bugs in the city were bad, stubborn even as the weather was cooling down.  It had been that way for a while, but the spring and fall seemed worst.  They hadn’t gotten the message yet, that the city was here and wildlife and insect life needed to move elsewhere.  Now, though, we had wind.  Different earths had different weather and we had gaping holes in our city with starkly different pressures on one side than we had on the other.  Flying, I could feel it.

I could feel it more as I flew over the portals, to the point that I was course correcting more than I was flying forward.  Crosswinds.  If my hair hadn’t been in a braid, it would have been all over me.

In the center of the portals, three separate doors sloshed together.  The Wardens headquarters had been there.  Key members and staff of the three sub-teams and the Wardens themselves had been stationed there when it had all gone to hell.  Jessica had been working late.

Option one suggested that they’d been torn to shreds, caught by three portals that were clashing together and switching what world they were connected to moment by moment, until they finally stopped expanding and settled.

Option two might have been worse.  The Wardens’ head office had been serving as a place to sequester dangerous capes.  Slaughterhouse Nine, ex-Birdcage capes, international enemies, and Class-S threats like Nilbog.  Even the ones who had been cooperating had been kept under close guard because cooperation didn’t necessarily equate trust.

If Jessica and the other late-evening staff at the Wardens’ HQ were out there, stranded somewhere after the portals swallowed the area up, then they weren’t in good company.  I imagined it ending up something like the Lord of the Flies, if the talking severed pig’s head was the least fucked up around.

It wasn’t a good imagining.

Construction crews were working to mend the damage.  Building hadn’t even begun on the structures that might contain the portal.  It was a herculean undertaking, even with powers helping.

Even after I returned to the streets, the wind was something I noticed, a constant gust that was either coming or going from the direction of the disaster.

Life moved on like normal but the cold wind blew hard.  People on the street kept their heads down and walked briskly, even less likely to make eye contact or offer a kind word than they had been before this.  Businesses were the same, when they were open.  That was saying something, considering this area was the closest thing we had to New York.

Brockton Bay, when I’d paid a visit, had been similar enough.  It had been more of a slice, cutting the city and its industry in two, leaving one half without power or internet.  The attitude shift had been felt there too.

All of the affected areas.  The affected areas of the city felt like ghost towns that weren’t empty nor were they towns.  The warmth wasn’t there, there wasn’t a soul or community, and everything felt eerie.  Too new, too worn out for how new they were, insects clustered on warm surfaces, and too many businesses were closed with all lights off, despite their posted hours.

It was no surprise that I arrived early at the meeting place and yet Kenzie had beaten me there.  She was at the table with her laptop, hair immaculate, and what looked like a set of two individual hair pins that were each one part of a heart, the heart split down the middle by a crack.  She wore both halves, the pins set in her hair so the cracks meshed.  I wasn’t sure if it was meant to be a ‘BFF’ style thing where each friend wore one, or if she was supposed to wear each pin on one side of her head.  She wore a maroon dress with a pattern of black scribbled hearts, and black tights.

Her dad stood by.  He wore a long peacoat, one side of the collar turned up against the wind.  His hair had pulled away in strands that swayed with the wind.

The patio area was otherwise empty.  The business it served was closed.  There weren’t that many people on the street.

“Victoria is here,” he said.

Kenzie sat up to peer over the top of the screen, her eyes large.

“You’re early,” I said.  I sat in the chair across from her, scooting it over so I could see past the laptop to her, and see Julien standing behind her.  Considering we were nearly as close as we could get to the city center without being able to see the base of the portals, there weren’t many people around.

“I like seeing people arrive places.  When they arrive and where they sit tells you things.”

“Does it?”

“Yep.  People sit closer to people they have an affinity with. It’s not always people they like, but it’s usually people they relate to.  And whether you’re a boy or girl matters.  Girls tend to sit next to others or across from others, but guys sit diagonally across.  Once you start noticing it, you’ll see it all over the place.  It’s a puzzle.”

“You like that kind of thing, huh?”

She nodded.

I leaned back into the back corner of my chair, the armrest and the wall beside me supporting me as much as the chair back did.

“How’s your arm?” she asked.  She closed her laptop and turned it over, pressing her hands down on the warm underside.

“Doctor said it’s healing well.  I’ll spare you the gorier details.  Physio started today.”

“What happened?” Julien asked.

“I told you this stuff, dad,” Kenzie said.

“When you tell me things it comes in a stream.  I pick out what I can.”

“I got shot,” I said.  “In and out.  I had to have two fragments of bone removed.”

“I’ve been shot,” Julien said.  “Twice.  Except I didn’t get physio or doctor’s appointments after.”

“I only know about the once,” Kenzie said.

“Both before she was born,” Julien told me.  “I grew up in a neighborhood where you either went to a gang or the gang came for you.  I went to them when I was twelve, they raised me.  I got shot once while working for them, and once when I left and didn’t keep it secret enough.”

“I only heard about the second one,” Kenzie said.

“Why did you leave?” I asked.

“If you asked me then, I would have said there were different middle managers.  Now?  Wasn’t me.”

“You said you were good at it,” Kenzie said.  “Sales.”

“Mm hmm,” Julien said.  “It wasn’t good for me.”

“I can respect that,” I said.  “Leaving.  That can’t have been easy.”

“Thank you,” he said.  He looked down at Kenzie.  “Was she at any risk?”

Dad.”

“Minimal to no risk,” I said.  “Given how everything went last week, it might have been riskier for her to stay home.”

“My wife invited you over, but with everything that happened and the station exploding near our home, you’ll need to give us a few days to get organized.”

“It’s a mess,” I said.

Julien nodded.  His hand rose to his chin as he stroked his beard.  His eyes were on the distance, first on the shattered horizon, and then on the street.  “I can’t tell which one that is.”

I turned to look, wincing as my elbow banged the chair back.

I couldn’t tell who it was either.  He walked with confidence, head high, but his hair had no paint or dye, and it was combed neat.  He wore a vest over a button-up top.  A lot about that image seemed to convey ‘Tristan’, but the lack of color and the more serious expression didn’t.  He seemed to have Tristan’s build, but the cut of the outfit could have created that illusion.  It was a nice suit, minus the suit jacket.

“Victoria.  Kenzie.  Good to see you two.  Mister Martin,” he said, as he arrived at the table.  By voice and manner of speaking?  That was Tristan.

“Tristan,” Julien Martin replied.  He put a hand on Kenzie’s chair back.  “Kenzie.  You wanted me to stay until people came?”

“You can go, dad.  Thank you for sticking around.”

He gave us a nod, and with hands in the pocket of his coat, he walked to his car, which was in what should have been a heavily contested parking spot.

Kenzie smiled, giving me a shrug.  “Sorry.”

“Why sorry?” I asked.

“He’s embarrassing.”

“You pick the weirdest words,” Tristan said.

“Embarrassing doesn’t feel like the most accurate fit.”

“What do you think about him, then?” she asked.  She leaned forward, hands still on her laptop.

“I-” I started.  “Is it undiplomatic to say he gives me a weird vibe?”

“No,” Tristan said, settling into his chair.

“No,” Kenzie said.  The smile fell from her face.  “I give off a weird vibe, too.  I had to get it from somewhere, so obviously I overachieved and got a full share from each of my parents.”

“Speaking of overachieving and casual segues away from uncomfortable topics,” Tristan said.  “I like the saintly laying-on-hands you’re doing for your laptop there.  That’s a new thing.”

“It’s warm and my hands are cold, duh.”

“Of course.  Too bad, I liked the image of you as technology Jesus.”

She closed her eyes, leaning back, and hummed.  She kept her eyes closed as she stopped humming, and said, “I wish I actually got to go to Church enough that I could know something fancy to say.”

“I’m not much of a memorizer,” Tristan said.  “Most of what I could tell you is what I remember from choir.  I could give you Byron, but I don’t know how he’d feel about that.”

“No, it’s okay.  Not a big deal,” Kenzie said.

Chris was making his way down the street.  Where Tristan had been confident and well dressed, Chris wore a sweatshirt and ducked his head.  He had the headphones on, but not the braces.  He looked very much like a thirteen year old boy, down to the sullen look in his eyes.

“What the hell, Tristan?  I feel underdressed,” Chris said.

“You dressed up a little,” Kenzie said.  “No braces.  It’s nice.”

“No braces because I have back to back dentist appointments,” Chris said.  He put one finger at the corner of his mouth, yanking it back to show his teeth.  The mounts for the braces were still on the teeth, and two of the teeth were missing.  A canine and the molar behind it, at the top.

“You changed too much,” Tristan made it a statement and not a question.

“And I got dry socket.  I’m fucking miserable.”

“You shouldn’t change too much.”

“Oh yes, thank you Tristan.  I completely forgot.  I need and want to change, in case you forgot.  Like right now, I want to get back home and change into a puddle of flesh with no nerve endings or teeth.  But we’re doing this instead.”

“We’re just missing Sveta,” I said.

“The only person without a phone.  Great,” Chris said.

“The trains are down so getting here is tough.  I know it sucks, but stick it out,” I said.

“Do you have any fun painkillers your doctor prescribed you?”

“I have some.  I’m not going to give them to a minor who didn’t have them prescribed to him.  Do you want a boring over-the-counter painkiller instead?”

Chris nodded, and I got a bottle from my bag, passing it across the table to him.

He tipped four or five pills into his hand and before I could get an accurate count or realize what he was doing, tossed them back into his mouth, swallowing them dry.

“Chris!”

“Fuck off,” he said.  “I know my physiology and I know what I’m doing.”

“You keep saying that,” I said.  “It sounds less convincing each time.”

“Chris!” Kenzie said.  “Do you know any good prayers I could say over my laptop?  It’s a thing we were talking about.”

“Do I strike you as the churchgoing type?”

“Nothing?”

“Some random latin.  Ex nihilo nihil fit, I think is a good phrase for you.”

“Why do I feel like you just insulted me?” Kenzie asked.

“It’s not insulting, nimrod.  It’s actually a compliment.”

“Aww!”

“Which I’m regretting now.”

“I’m struck between the fact that you know that, first of all,” I said.

“I spend a lot of time reading when I’m waiting out a form.”

“And the fact you’re doubling down on the moody teenage boy thing.  Most just get into nihilism, but you fit two ‘nihil’ in one sentence there.  What is that?  Word, nothing, nothing, word?”

“Why do I even talk?” Chris asked, leaning back.  He pulled his hood down over his eyes.

Sveta arrived, spotting us before jogging to us in an ungainly way that made me worry she might fall.  She didn’t crash to the ground, but she did teeter, and stopped, her hand resting against a window to catch her balance.

She wore long sleeves, a new wig, and her body was scrubbed of paint.  Her dress was long, layered in stages of darkening green from layer to layer, with shapes cut out of each lower portion.  Fish or leaves, it looked like.

“I love the dress,” I said.

“Oh, this?  It was a gift from Chief Armstrong,” she said.  “I’m sorry I’m late.”

“It’s fine,” I said.  “I don’t think we’re all late.”

She smiled.  “I’m weirdly nervous.”

“It’s a weird thing,” Tristan said.

It was a weird thing.  In timing and place, in atmosphere, and in aim and objective.

The wind whipped around us as the five of us walked as a group.  There weren’t any crowds, and the building was largely empty as we made our way inside.  The interior of the building was dim, but it was mostly because the lights were off and illumination came from the windows to the outside.

“No word on Mrs. Yamada?” Tristan asked.

“No,” Sveta said.  “Not according to Weld.”

“And we don’t know who was behind it?”

“Not yet,” I said.

There were some simple folding chairs lined up down the wide hallway.  Either end of the building had large windows, which let the light come in, casting its long, vague shadows.  Some people were already in the hallway, clustered in groups.

There was a man sitting alone who gave me a curious look as we looked for a spot to situate the five of us.  He was the kind of guy I might have imagined as a kid’s baseball coach, with a bit of a belly, short hair, and a soft expression with lines in the forehead.  As easygoing as he looked in the moment, I could imagine him getting really intense in the right occasion.

He stood when he saw me, and that got my attention.

I left the group to approach him.

“Do I know you?”

“Not yet,” he said.  Before he continued, I was already placing his voice from the phone.  “We had an appointment today.  I’m Dr. Darnall.”

“Oh,” I said.  I felt momentarily awkward and weirded out both.  “I’m sorry to reschedule on you.”

“It’s fine,” he said.  “Both reschedules were for very good reasons.”

Outpatient surgery and this.

“You’re here, though.”

“I was asked to consult,” he said.  “When you rescheduled to attend, I realized the connection to this.  I thought I’d look in and see how he made out, and get our first meeting out of the way, so you don’t have to worry about it.”

“I’m not worried,” I said.  “I’m just trying to work out a lot of things, and timing gets awkward.”

“Absolutely,” he said.  He had an easygoing tone.  “Is that the team you’re looking after?”

“Kind of.  They’re not so much a team anymore, but I do want to look after them.”

The group was all together, talking, with Sveta being the one to look momentarily exasperated.  Each one of them was glancing my way now and again, checking on me.  When the door opened, they would look, waiting to see if we’d see Rain or Ashley.

“Understood,” he said.

“They’re catching up after a week of everyone going their own way.”

“You don’t need to justify or explain, Victoria.  These things are complicated.  If you want to talk about it someday, we can.  If you don’t want to talk, that’s fine too.”

“I’d rather they had therapists than I had one,” I said.

“I’d like it if they had therapists too, but I don’t have the room in my schedule.  When the plane is going down, it’s important to put your own oxygen mask on first.  If we can’t address all of their issues, we can at least help you enough that you can help them.  If you want.”

“Mrs. Yamada- you know her, right?”

“I do.  We were friends.  I attended her cousin’s wedding with her.  As a friend of hers.”

Weird to think about.  I’d never heard mention of a cousin.

“She thought something really bad was going on with this group.  It could be really serious.”

“Yeah,” he said.  He glanced at the window, where the shattered skyline was visible in the distance.  A damaged building still stood, but with a chunk missing.  The girders and beams stabbed out into the gap left by the missing chunk.  Black bones and a tinted yellow exterior.  “She seemed very worried about something.  She didn’t confide in me about it.  I can’t think of many others she would have talked to.”

“It’s on my mind,” I said.

The door opened.  I glanced at it, checking to see if it was Rain or Ashley.  It wasn’t.  It was a middle-aged woman with glasses.

“Rain Frazier,” she said.

People began filing in.  The others made way for others to pass while looking in my direction.

“I won’t get in your way,” he said.  “I’ll be in the back, seeing how I’ll have to leave.  I have an appointment with a patient in ten minutes.”

“It was nice to meet you,” I said.  “Sorry for rescheduling.”

“I work with superheroes and supervillains.  Some stay up all night, others run off to manage crises partway through most sessions.  A couple of reschedules isn’t a blip on my radar.”

“You still came to find me.”

He shrugged.  “My clients rub off on me.  Sometimes you can’t limit yourself to chasing after or staking out and waiting.”

“Getting out ahead of the problem,” I said.

“If you want to put it that way,” he said.

I nodded.

The others were waiting for me, so I ducked my head in a quick farewell and went to join them.

It wasn’t a courtroom, but there was a layout that echoed one.  A series of tables had people behind them.  A woman from the Wardens that had been there when we’d pitched our response to the Fallen hit, then others I didn’t know.  An old man, another.

Ashley was sitting in one of the chairs off to one side, and so we all joined her, filing in to sit around her.

Rain sat past the divider, facing down the tribunal.  He’d cut his hair.

With us, Ashley looked the same.  Kenzie sat beside her, her head leaning on Ashley’s shoulder.

What did it say, when I had no idea what outcome we wanted?  He wanted consequence.  Whether he was found responsible or somehow allowed to go free, the resolutions felt right and wrong both.

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Pitch – 6.9

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“Looksee,” I said.  “Are you there?”

“Always,” came the reply.

“I have someone with me that I’m pretty sure is one of the Crowley brothers,” I said.  I noted the slight nod, and the almost satisfied expression from the man.  It wasn’t him faking me out, I was pretty sure.  Instead, he seemed to like the recognition, even to the point that he was willing to give up information to bask in it.  “He says something bad is up.”

“Capricorn and Sveta are dealing with people with guns.  That’s bad.”

“Something big,” I said.

“I’ll call everyone.”

“Please.  Start with authorities.  Wardens.  Then the team.”

The Crowley brother still had his hands up in surrender.  It didn’t really mean a lot, a lot of the time.  There was no position or way of being that would make a parahuman a non-threat.

This was where we needed the help of the patrol.  I had one Crowley and a bunch of Jackasses that had surrendered, they apparently had guns, and… what?  I had nowhere to take them, I couldn’t drag the leader off without the others causing trouble or hurting someone, and I couldn’t easily cuff them with one hand.

I was forced to wait if I didn’t want to let them go.

“Writing a text message to send to Wardens since their phone lines are garbage awful.  I’ll have Capricorn on the line.  The connection died when he switched.  One sec.”

I could hear the background noise over Capricorn’s voice.  Byron’s voice, against a backdrop of shouting.  “Victoria?”

“Something big’s happening.  I caught one of the leaders and he’s smug,” I said.

The Crowley brother smiled.

“Bait?” Chris asked.  “What’s the context?”

Sveta approached, standing beside me where she could keep an eye on some of the Jackasses.

“I threatened to break his arms and legs.  He surrendered, arms up, and said he’ll cooperate if he gets to see the show.”

“If you threaten to break someone’s arms and legs, I’m pretty sure they’ll say anything,” Chris said.

“I like how you say that like you have experience on the subject,” Looksee said.

“I’ve met some shitty people over the years.  You can learn a lot from shitty people.”

“Focus, please,” Byron said.  The shouting was louder.  “One-”

“He cut out,” Looksee reported.  “He changed and the connection didn’t translate.  I thought I jiggered it right but this is really not my area of expertise.  I think it’s because of my phone box…”

She went on, saying more, tinker talk.  While she talked, one of the Jackasses turned to his boss.  “We don’t have to put up with this, Vince.”

“It’s fine.  Stay put,” Vince Crowley said.

Middle brother.  It made sense that he was here.  The other brothers were supposedly present, but this was the guy who was looped in with the Mathers.  The Mathers family traded family members to and from other branches, connecting families and cementing ties.  The Mathers had also kidnapped kids.  Vince Crowley and his sister had been the ones handling the Crowley end of the deal.  They were smugglers, thieves, and general assholes who had dodged the reaching arms of the heroes, while providing shelter to the real monsters, and implicitly accepting some really fucked up stuff.

The McVeays had been murderers and zealots, the Mathers were kidnappers, among other things, and Vince and Sabrina Crowley had been enablers.  They were smugglers, they’d kept kidnapping victims and sheltered murderers while there was too much attention and heat on them, and they’d almost gotten away with it, despite being up against the whole PRT.

Sabrina had been caught, as were several sub-cells and supporters of that particular family unit.  They’d disappeared, they’d reappeared after Gold Morning, Sabrina back with her brother, and I knew about them because the patrol blocks were keeping tabs on them.

“Capricorn’s back.  I’m doing stuff,” Looksee said.  “I’m checking- I don’t see news.  No rise in phone activity.  No posts online.”

“He said tonight,” I said.

“We’re getting closer to ‘night’,” Capricorn said.  Tristan.

“Looksee,” I said.  “You had something keeping an eye on the phones in Hollow Point.  Your phone box?”

“Yeah.”

“Can you go backward?  See who these guys have been talking to?”

The Jackass next to Vince whipped his head around.  Vince didn’t react much, but it was telling.  I added, “We know where they were in the building.  Can you use that to place the calls?”

“Yup.  Well, not to who.  But I can figure out where.”

“Perfect,” I said.  I met Vince’s eyes, trying to gauge what he thought.  Too hard to read.  “How hard will it be?”

“Not hard,” she said.  “It’s already set up.  I punch in the location data.  Already half done.”

“Already half done,” I told Sveta, my thumb on the switch to the microphone on the earbud’s cord.

“Good job, Looksee,” Sveta murmured.

“And done.  Gimme a minute.”

I smiled.

Part of the intent of my statement and the whole intent of the smile was to see what reaction it got from Vince Crowley.  It was provocative, yes – I knew I might push them to do something.  The real reason was to try and assess how serious of a thing this was.

I could see the agitation of a couple of the Jackasses’.  Whatever they were, borderline sociopathic, brave to a fault, dangerous, they weren’t actors or bluffers.  Vince tried, but I could see a faint frown line between his eyebrows that hadn’t been there before.

“Calls were made from the building they were in, just after they arrived.”

“To?” Chris asked.

“To… there was a flurry of them to a place that’s- it’s not far away.  I’m trying to find a map online to overlay and the webpage is glaaaacial.

The heroes who’d been at the perimeter were approaching now, jogging our way.  They would’ve been the final line of defense had the Crowleys kept running.  Three heroes local to Boston.  All wore bright colors and impractical costumes with extra flaps, layers, and extraneous bits of cloth that made them very ‘costumey’, in a way that made me think of a superhero in a kid’s show.

Magic Knight Crash wore a high-collared top that hung off of him, leaving everything from armpit to pelvis exposed, while his front and back were covered.  He had four belts, not including straps at his arm and thigh, and he had a spiked shield mounted on the side of an engine that had a handle at the back and other side.  Seafoam and purple.

Mystic Magic Impaler was similar, but she wore an eyepatch with a smiley face on it, a drill bit running through the smiley’s head.  The same icon was painted on the bare skin between cleavage and collarbone, and her outfit and hair were predominantly blue with some orange.  The entire setup had far too many ribbons for someone with power drill lances mounted on her wrists, the bits columns, not cones.  If the color scheme didn’t sell the image, the combination of power tools, long hair and loose clothing did.

Dynamite Warrior Dash Fantastic was the most sane of them.  She at least avoided having twenty-plus things on her costume that her enemies could grab, and had some body armor, as paradoxical as it was to have her belly bare beneath a crop top with armor panels on it.  She was curvy, with a round face, and war paint on her cheekbones.  Her hair was short and pulled back in pigtails that were only an inch and a half long.  She didn’t have a weapon, unless the assault to the senses from the orange and purple camo counted.

Yes, I had some loose clothing, and I had my hair out, but I also had the security of the wretch, and I’d made some effort to practicality, with the armor and coverage.  These guys treated practicality like it was the enemy.

That wasn’t me jumping to conclusions.  I knew of the M.K.C. and M.M.I. pairing from before Gold Morning.  I’d been aware they’d made it through that, and their names had come up during the planning for this thing.  They’d been a ‘we’ll call and see if they’ll help’.  Despite appearances and past history, Tattletale had insisted they were trustworthy.  I’d secretly hoped they flake out like they’d been known to in past crises, even at the same time I’d known we needed all the assistance we could get.

Uuuuuuuuuuuuuugh.

“Working, working,” Looksee could be heard in the background.  “I’m finding more calls but Cap keeps blipping out and I’m trying to stay in touch with him.  I think my phone box is too far away.”

“Sorry.  Keep it up,” Capricorn said.

I closed my eyes.  I had to focus on the immediate present, and helping where I could help.

“Who’s in charge?” I asked.

“Me,” Dynamite said.

“Who did you talk to before coming?”

“Imp.  She called in a favor.”

I hesitated.  Sveta nudged me.

“He says something else is up.  We’re chasing it down.  Can you keep them in custody?  At least one has powers.”

“It’s why we’re here,” Magic Knight Crash said.  He had colored lenses that masked his pupils and irises to make his eyes teal from corner to corner, and his mask covered his eyebrows, making it hard to read his expression.  He sounded confident, but the problem with these guys was that their entire persona was over the top confidence.

“The guy with the beard is Vince Crowley.  Duplication of self and objects.  The duplications launch out, and he can put out a lot of them.  They don’t have much substance unless they overlap.  He’s usually not far from his sister, Sabrina, and we haven’t seen her.  She’s a mover on a mass scale.  Raider and getaway.”

“That’s Empusa,” Dynamite said.

“Yes,” I said.

“She’s been seen around here.  She’s strong but she hasn’t done much.  We can deal with her.”

“With a five hit drill punch combo,” Mystic Magic Impaler announced, floating off the ground.  She stabbed at the air with her drills.

Fucking why was this a thing? 

I felt embarrassed and it wasn’t even me saying it.

“You can deal with him?” I asked, indicating Vince.  “Flood of projections?”

“Would firepower work?  Cut or blast through it all?” Dynamite asked.  At my nod, she asked, “Can we kill him if he’s too much of a problem?”

“Or maim?” Impaler asked.

I felt something inside of me die at the question.  Yes, I’d threatened maiming, I even used maiming as a necessary tool, when there wasn’t a polite way to remove someone from a fight.  Impaler was trying so hard to celebrate it and make it her thing.

“Leave him alive if possible,” I said.  “He might be one of the only ones who knows about this thing that’s going on.  If you get any inkling about what’s going on, call us, let us know.”

“The deal was that I surrender only if I get a view,” Vince said.

“A view of what?” Sveta asked.

“Take us up to any rooftop.  I’ll sit, whistle, and wait,” he said.

“Any rooftop?”

“Ah,” he said.  He looked around.  “One with a view of the horizon.”

Of the horizon.

Shit, no.  I really hoped this was a head game.

I exchanged looks with Dynamite.

From what little I knew of Sabrina Crowley, who I could remember a little more easily because she didn’t blend in so much with her brothers, she charged up and released a ‘wave’ effect, about as tall and as big around as a house.  People in the original ‘cast’ could fly within the area of the slow-rolling wave, and there was some duplication trickery in there somewhere because she was from the Crowley family unit.  She used it to hit a location with a whole squad of people who could fly on top of having other powers, or to get her entire team away.

And from what I knew of this team, they might have been just the right people to tackle that particular set of problems.

“It would make it harder for Empusa to rescue him with her power.  We’d see her coming if she aimed at a rooftop,” Dynamite said.

“If you’re okay with it,” I said.  “Okay.  Give him what he wants.”

She put a hand out.  I clasped it for a moment.  She turned to her subordinates, and immediately began haranguing them in the manner of a no-nonsense prison guard that was used to dealing with unruly inmates.

I felt a bit better about these guys now.

“We should help Capricorn,” Sveta said.

I nodded, putting a hand on her shoulder as we jogged away.  When we were a polite distance away, I took flight and Sveta grabbed my shoulder, using me for the first portion of her trip.

“Coming your way, Capricorn,” I said.

“He’s not on,” Looksee said.  “I will as soon as I get a stable signal again.”

“Not on,” I repeated, for Sveta’s benefit.  “Do you have a location for the call recipient?”

“Some.  A bunch, ackshully,” Looksee said.  “Fenway Station.  Calls made mid-event, when the brothers left the camp, and when they got to your area.”

“We’re in Fenway station,” I said.  “That’s the name of the neighborhood.”

“Fenway Station Station,” Looksee clarified.

The issues of nomenclature.

“Call the Wardens.  Don’t brick their phones.  Good work, Looksee”

Trains, stores, people, parahuman security, a portal to Bet.

Capricorn had Flechette -Foil- and Parian near him.  Parian was trying to guard the other two, Foil was picking off the members of the Clans and the Fallen that were still lingering near the building, and the Clan were trying to set fire to Parian’s dolls with thrown bottles.

Capricorn, in turn, was extinguishing the fires with water, and working to trap the Fallen in stone, splashing them with water before turning it to stone.

The idea had been to stay clear of the fight, but I couldn’t imagine someone calling themselves a hero with a straight face and not wanting to help those in need.

Or needing to support those who were wanting help, maybe.

The lies we told ourselves, when need trumped reason.

Sveta went straight to Capricorn.  I went straight to the Fallen.

There was one I recognized.  He wore a latex demon mask with paint on it, but I’d seen him a while ago, and he had Fallen flowing out from around him in a way that drew the eye when I was up in the air.  On the ground, he would have been one masked face in the shuffle.  In the air, I could see people emerging from the crowd, ducking out from between people when they hadn’t been there before.

Maybe a small part of me had been looking for him.  When I had talked to the Attendant about joining, he’d been there.

The latex mask being what it was, he didn’t seem to have the ability to see in the upper periphery of his field of vision.  He didn’t see me.  I had the wretch up on the descent, to protect myself, and I dropped it just before flying my knee into his jaw, the hit punctuated by a heavy dose of my aura.

Swearing erupted around me.  His power was flaring up, visible now, with arcs of red-orange light dancing between the people in the crowd he’d been using to help form his gateways.  People shrieked and cussed as they were burned.

Shouts overlapped.  The mob with a focus became a scramble.  Two people had one arc of portal energy, starting at one person’s foot, running up the side of his body, along his arm, and out to the other person’s hand, tracing down the body to the ground again.  As they parted, the arc stretched and snapped, flailing out and striking the crowd or ground before dissipating.  No serious damage done, to look at it, but the cracks and snaps were like whipcracks, driving the already retreating group to run more.  Elsewhere, more portals were breaking.  Some people were trying to stand still, fighting the tide of the crowd, because they had portals connected to them.

There.  That was satisfying in a way I couldn’t put my finger on.  I couldn’t even stop to contemplate it.  I had to get to Capricorn, and we had to get to the station with the gateway to Earth Bet.

A flare of light caught my attention, but it wasn’t portal light.  A molotov.

There were people beneath me.  In the moment, not entirely sure if the bottle would break through my defenses and splatter me or hit the wretch and splatter it, I positioned myself and the Wretch between the bottle and the crowd.

In that moment of acceptance of the fact I might burn, the memory of Crawler’s venom and the pain that had followed felt so real I felt like I was already on fire.  It hit me like a punch to the gut, and my breath caught in my throat.

Idiots, the word flashed through my mind, aimed at the Fallen and members of the Clans.

Idiot, the word flashed through my mind, the singular reserved for myself.

The flaming projectile changed direction in midair, almost disappearing.  I could follow the path it took, the orange in the gloomy, overcast drizzle tracing a line through my vision like Capricorn’s power did.  I saw the explosion, the bottle cast off to the side, landing in an inconsequential patch of road.  Sveta had grabbed it.

Other heroes from the perimeter were collapsing in.  I didn’t see anyone who might be the other Crowley brothers.  Jake and Cutter.

I made two more quick strikes, targeting people who looked like they were giving orders or rallying the Fallen.  I saw someone in passing who might have been Victor, from Brockton Bay, and in the moment I was trying to decide if it would be wise to try to go after him, I saw that this wasn’t close to over.

I flew to Capricorn, landing while still moving at a speed where I had to run a couple of steps and use a moment of flight to keep from stumbling.

“Thank you,” I said, to Sveta.

“Anytime.”

There was no need to ask what it was.  She got it.  That- this, I liked it.  It would be nice to do the hero thing with her, even sometimes, even if the team fell through.

“Did you catch what Looksee said?” Capricorn-Byron asked.

Had I?  No.  I checked.  The cord dangled.  I popped it back in.  “Sorry, Looksee, my earphone came unplugged.”

I could hear her, “I’m trying to figure this out.  There are cameras at the station.  I’ve notified security.  I’m getting other stuff through the camera feeds.  They’re in a restaurant, I think.”

Byron became Tristan.  Tristan pointed, and we walked as a group.

I turned to Foil as we passed her.  “Thanks.”

“I wish we could talk more,” she said.

“Soon.”

Capricorn stopped in his tracks.  “We should tell Tattletale.”

“Looksee?” I asked.  “She’s looped in, isn’t she?”

“I’m talking to her when I get a chance,” Looksee said.  “She ignores half of what I say.”

“She’s running ops,” Parian said.  “Besides, I think she’s worn out.”

“This is big,” I said.  “The Fallen said he wanted to see the horizon when this hits.”

“I’ll call,” Foil said.  “I’ll make the gravity clear.”

“Thanks,” Capricorn said.

“Good fighting beside you, Cap,” Foil said.

He gave her a nod.

The station wasn’t far.

“You could have gone without me,” Capricorn said.

We could have.  Just as Tattletale was worn out, so was I.  I was hurt and that hurt was a dull ache with a more intense pain at the center that made it feel like it had a core or something lodged in it.  Apparently a phantom symptom, with my nerves trying to process the damage.  My focus was slipping a bit.

But I needed to be here.  This whole thing, others might have needed us to be here.  People still needed us, if there was anything to this attack or event tonight.

“We…” I started, trying to voice my thoughts aloud.  “I hit things.  Sveta grabs things.  We can do other things, but… against a bomb?  Or whatever this is?”

“You wanted a toolbox,” Sveta said.

“I wanted more of a team,” I said.  “Looksee, listening in?”

“Half listening.  I’m tracking these calls still.  If we can figure out who, we could figure out how or what.”

“Good,” Capricorn said.

“Can you defuse bombs, Looksee?”

“Maybe.  I’d have to see the bomb.”

“If you can, can you come?  Follow?”

“I’ll head there.”

“Chris?”

There was a wet sound over the phone.

“I think he ate the phone,” Looksee said.  “I hope he un-eats it before he changes back, or he’s going to need either surgery or a slot shaped butthole.  He’s near the station.”

“Can we get him?” I asked.

“We can try.  I’ll have my computer ping him until he listens.”

“I’m running,” Capricorn said.  I was close enough to him that I could hear him on both phone and in person, with a bit of an echo.  “You guys move.  The kids can follow behind.  Keep an ear out for any calls to get away.”

“Yuh huh,” Looksee replied, in the rushed kind of way that suggested she was too active or enthused to even form full words.  She’d been hurt and as close to sullen as Kenzie ever got, and that had faded into the background, almost forgotten.

Capricorn broke into a run.  Sveta used her power to pull herself ahead.  I took to the air.

“Hanging up for a sec,” I said.  “Wave at me if you need me on the phone.”

“Got it,” Capricorn said.

I used my speed dial.  I heard the phone ring twice.

Droplets of moisture touched my skin as I flew.  Too far apart to be even a drizzle, it was moisture in the air.  Half of the sky was dark.  Too early for sunset, but the clouds were thick and the smoke and industry of the areas on the coast were contributing to the haze.

“Victoria?” was the response.  Gilpatrick’s voice.  I could hear the bus in the background.  “What happened in Boston?”

“It’s happening.  The Fallen have guns.  They were ready to shoot people.  Heroes are intervening.  It’s not important-”

“It sounds important.”

“No.  The Fallen have something big going on.  Retaliatory, I think, or it’s someone who’s talking to them and using the attack today as a distraction for other things.”

“What kind of big?”

“There’s a possible attack hitting Fenway Station.  We’re on our way there.”

“We’re too far away, Victoria.”

“The guy I’m hearing this from is saying he wants to see it.  On the horizon.  He said it while a few blocks away from the target location.  That could be him trying to mislead, but it could be…”

“Other attacks?”

“Call, please?  This is an all-hands on deck thing.”

The station.  The building was made to look like an old building, even though it really wasn’t.  It was shaped like a plus sign, with a squat domed tower in the center, a red stone exterior, and arching entrances set at below ground level, with broad stairs leading down into them.  There was infrastructure around the building for refugee intake, but the buildings were locked down and shuttered.

“You guys are there?” Looksee asked.  “I’ve got them on camera.  Sitting and drinking coffee while eating raspberry pie.  I’ve never had either of those things but that sounds like a bad combination.”

“Just so long as they’re not doing anything,” I said.  Sveta caught up with me.  I pointed at one entrance while walking to another.  She nodded.

“We don’t want to scare them,” Capricorn said.

“We do want to be in a position to stop them,” I said.

“Go in, stay put.”

There were kids from the patrol in the building as I entered, more alert than they usually were.  They looked alarmed at my appearance.  Had word traveled this far in the past couple of minutes?

I pushed my hood back and held up my hands, approaching at a walk.

“Stop,” the junior captain said.  She was black, a teenager Rain’s age, her hair shaved at the side and brushed back and away from her face at the top.  She had the ‘cop’ look down one hundred percent.  The technique too- she’d already had her gun in hand, out of sight, and she raised it to point it my way without hesitation.  I could admire that kind of fluid confidence, as someone who’d once had the same position.

“We’re on your side,” I said.  “You just got an alert, right?”

She nodded.

“I gave the info to Captain Gilpatrick at Bridgeport.  I’ve worked with him.  He passed it to others.  Something big is up, and we think the culprits are in the restaurant with the pie.”

She didn’t ease up.

“You’ll want to evacuate,” I said.  “Do it soft, we don’t want to tip those guys off.  Don’t let people enter, encourage them to leave if you can do it quiet.  Let the place naturally empty.”

A light flashed at the desk, at a point I couldn’t see- but I could see the green LED reflected on the glossy black body armor she wore.  Nicer quality stuff than we’d had, but I supposed that came with the big city.

“Ben,” she said.

One of her squad members reached for the phone.  There was a pause.

“Bosses and cops say there’s someone at the other door.  Obvious parahuman.  We’re supposed to send one or two that way for numbers.”

Bosses would mean captain.  Cops would be the local authorities.  One of the two should’ve been making the real decisions.  There should have been one close by here.

“That’s Sveta,” I said.  “She’s a case fifty-three.  My friend and teammate.  With the current emergency, we approached from two angles.”

“Yeah,” the Junior Captain said.  Her voice was level.  “Tell them we’ve got one too.”

“We’ve got one too,” the guy said, into the phone.  “We’ve got two, actually.”

I looked where he was looking.  It was Capricorn.

“Oh, I know you,” the junior captain said.  “Capricorn, right?”

“Yeah,” Capricorn said.

“You’re a hero.  You’ve been active out there.  Somewhere near Fairfield?”

“Cedar Point.  She’s a hero too.”

“And Sveta,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said.  “If my word counts for anything.”

The suspicion wavered, and then it gave.  She held the gun in one hand, and reached for the phone with the other.

So many hurdles.  But the captain communicated the situation, and she communicated my suggestion about the people being evacuated.  The patrol squad went for another patrol, and they talked to people.

“All stations are evacuating for now,” Junior Captain Eads said.  She’d eased up considerably, after her superiors had gotten the okay.  “Trains are stopped, emergency staff is being called in.  Heroes are in.”

Looksee arrived almost ten minutes later.  We were still lingering near the doors, so Looksee sat on the bottom stair, getting out her computer.  Capricorn crouched by her in a position I would’ve been hard pressed to maintain before my legs started complaining, and I wasn’t wearing plated armor.

“No word from Tattletale?”

“Two words.  She said ‘on it’.  I don’t think she likes me much,” Looksee said.

“I did paint her as a pretty horrible person, didn’t I?”

“Ha,” Looksee said, without humor.  “We’ve got our targets on camera, see?”

Capricorn spoke out of the side of his mouth, while crouched near Looksee.  “Maybe don’t announce that we’re tapped into their security while their people with guns and cops are ten feet away.”

Two women and six men at two separate tables.  No costumes.  The restaurant was emptying.  There was one member of the staff walking around, cleaning tables.  Maybe a manager.

Keeping up the facade?  Heroes came in all forms.

What the hell were they up to?

A private message window popped up in the corner.  Tattletale.

Tattletale:
call logs. ur right. they r hitting every station with a portal
I let people know.

Every station.  My heart skipped a beat.

I looked over at Captain Eads.  She was staring at me, looking alarmed.

“They’re hitting all of the stations.”

“Every one with a portal,” I said.

“They’re shutting us down.  Closing us off.”

“Capricorn,” Looksee said.  “Victoria.”

She had our attention.

Tattletale:
tinkr devices. they all have one. under chairs in bags. hit them b4 they can use

It was a message to us, but from the reaction, I had the sense the message was going out to every team and station.

I adjusted my costume, flipping up my hood.  Capricorn stood.  Looksee drew her flash gun.  Patrol soldiers had their weapons out.  Older soldiers were jogging over from one of the other entrances.  Leaders for this particular exercise.

“Their parahuman wants to be the one to make the first move,” one soldier said.

“Who?”

“The girl with the painted armor.”

“Sveta.  Let me set up, and I’m all for it,” Capricorn said.

The minutes that followed were silence punctuated by bursts of movement so intense that it felt like the situation had just erupted.  Boots on the ground, as patrol officers went to one wing or another.  Then laughter, somewhere, eerily out of tune with the feeling we had near the entrance.  Fake, to create a sense of normalcy, when the groups at the table might be noticing how quiet things were getting?

At every station, there had to be a situation like this unfolding.

We had no idea who these guys were.  They might’ve been friends of the Fallen, but that was open-ended.

“Going,” Capricorn’s voice came over the phone, a whisper made loud.

I was looking around the corner as Sveta went around the corner across from me, entering the hallway, snapping over to the entrance to the restaurant, and disappearing inside.

Capricorn came back in from outside at a run.  I flew in, and the officers were ready behind me.

I was just in time to see Sveta skidding on the floor.  She spied the target and grabbed it where it apparently sat on the booth seat beside one of the people at the table, and hauled it to her with enough force that it produced a spatter of blood when it clipped the face of the guy sitting by it.

Then she was out, case in hand, and we were in.  A restaurant with red, white, and black tile, black booths, and pretty looking tables.  It was cold on the one side because windows were open, and noticeably warm on the other because heat radiated from the kitchen.

Sabrina was one, or another Fallen with Crowley genes was.  When she used her power, she clarified the point- a shimmering bubble around herself, wet with waves rolling, overlapping and crashing around it.  Energy shimmered and danced wherever two waves met.

Beside her, someone was using a changer power, manifesting bone armor and a long limb at their right hip.  Possibly a whip.

Someone shot Sabrina.  I carried right past her to the changer, and hit it hard enough to shatter the bone armor and send them sprawling.  Capricorn used his power, and water came in through the open windows, flooding the restaurant and knocking just about everyone at the far end off their feet.  All members of the other group.

It wasn’t a pretty fight.  It wasn’t even an exciting fight.  It was a trap closing, where I was the jaws of the mousetrap slamming down, Capricorn was the pitfall and the bucket of water they were unceremoniously forced to deal with.  Sveta was the snare.

Even with a bullet in her, Sabrina used her power anew, surrounding herself and her teammates.  Her teammates rose up, each one flying within the bubble, with double images forming around each.  Other things were lifted as well- tables and chairs.

People took shots.  Most hit the strategically placed and doubled furniture.

Sabrina fired a handgun from behind cover.  One shot, and I heard four impacts as the shots landed.  Passing through or traveling through the bubble, the bullets were multiplied.

I had the Wretch pick up a table as I flew.  It was my shield, above and beyond what the Wretch offered.  I rammed into the floating cover Sabrina had erected around her people and drove that cover into them.  One flew back and away, stunned, and had a tentacle grab them from the window behind them.

It was my means of taking Sabrina’s booth that she was using as cover and, overturning the table that had been damaged by wretch and bullet alike, place it over her head, capping her in the booth.

She had to fly out, floating in her bubble, moving low to the ground.  Anticipating her, I flew to meet her, diving and putting my foot where mirror images overlapped.  I kicked her chest-first into the floor, and I could hear the clack of her teeth as her chin met the floor a fraction of a second later.

We’d left little room for counterplay.  No room for proper reactions, beyond the wild and desperate attempt to fight back.

Just like that, it was over.

Nobody who knew anything relaxed.  The captains called in that we’d succeeded.  The confirmation came back.  All looked good.  All clear from Looksee and Tattletale.  Sveta handed the tinker case to a professional.

Everyone who knew something about the situation remained ready, waiting for the next shoe to drop.

“Good work,” Junior Captain Eads said.

There was nowhere to go.  Nothing to do.  We’d done our job, the people with the know-how were interrogating who they could find, and answers would come soon.

But the answers had to wait.  The other stations- well, they had to handle their own stuff.  The closest portal to us was really Brockton Bay, and Brockton Bay wasn’t that close.  Our station was busy with cleanup, with questions and no answers.  We were in the way, and we couldn’t go elsewhere to help because things would be over before we arrived.

We had nowhere to go except- almost by silent agreement, we made our way outside.

As Vince Crowley had wanted to do, we found a vantage point to watch the horizon.

The messages began coming in on phones.

“Norwalk station,” Kenzie said.

“That’s your neighborhood,” Sveta replied.

Kenzie nodded.  She was typing quickly.  “My parents look okay.  Reports are coming in.  The sky- a slice of pink?  I don’t get it.  Things seem mostly fine.  What happened?”

“Hey,” Capricorn said.  He touched Sveta’s shoulder.  “Look.”

Off to the north.

Brockton Bay couldn’t catch a break.  It was like a shard of glass or a torn piece of painting.  I could see the sky on the other side.  The world beyond.

They were opening the portals wider.  Taller.  A portal that large- it had to have sliced Brockton Bay in half.  What did that impact?  What did it do?

We’d have to take off- where?

We had somewhere to go now, yet we were paralyzed.  The phone had a list of portals, now, and one by one, the gray rectangles turned green with checkmarks, or were marked with red ‘x’s.

One by one, places were deemed okay or thrust into new crisis.  The city had barely been holding up as it was.

Green.  Green.  Green.  Red.  Green.  Red…

I stopped focusing on the successes and failures, and turned my attention to my contact list.  Crystal.  Gilpatrick.  Dad.  Mom.

I sent the messages and waited for the replies.  In the times between waits, I typed out hurried explanations, as far as we had any.  It seemed like hours were passing and it seemed like no time at all was passing and we were stuck in a horrible, unresolved moment for an eternity.

On the horizon, another slice of sky that wasn’t overcast, in the midst of sunset.  A spear or blade of the wrong light, cast across a community.

A reply from Crystal.  Her team would be out and helping, as soon as they knew what was going on.  If this opened the doors wide for Earth C… what would we even do?

Fight.

Mom was okay.  She told me that Amy was okay, and I let her.  Dad was fine.  Gilpatrick, Jasper, Ashley and Rain were okay.

No response from Weld.

New York was the central hub because it was the place with the densest cluster of portals.  The phone noted several failures in that area.

No response from the Wardens.  They would be getting bombarded.  Maybe it was that.

Hard to convince myself of that, but I tried.  If three portals failed, what happened?  Did they open so wide that each intersected with the others?  What happened to something caught in the middle?

No response from Fume Hood or Tempera.

Crystalclear was well.  He’d been manning one station, and his group had succeeded in finding and catching the person who had brought the tinker device there.  The portal widening device.

I stood, unable to keep sitting, my phone still in my in hand.  Sveta sat with Kenzie, the two of them looking at the same phone.  Capricorn was off to the side, sitting against a wall.  Chris typed.

A response from Weld, brief, and Sveta burst into tears.  I sat down next to her to hug her.  When she stood up a minute later, pacing, I remained where I was, keeping an eye on Kenzie and an eye on my phone.

There was an agitation that was taking over.  I could see it in everyone’s body language.

Phones here and there beeped, people scrolled.

Only the anxiety.

It wasn’t quite true, I knew, but I imagined it all the same.  That we couldn’t bring ourselves to raise the subject, but we were all doing the same things at the same time anyway.   We sat and we poked at our phones, and we convinced ourselves it wasn’t true, we stabbed fingers at the phone with more vigor, as if that could somehow get through and evoke a response.  We searched, told ourselves it was a congested network, and held off on sending messages while hoping for one more.  The realization settled in, and it wasn’t the good kind of settling.

Each and every one of us had one name in common, someone they cared about, and for some, one of the only responsible adult figures who cared about them in turn.  She had every reason to be right at the epicenter, which didn’t make it better.

Today had proven more than anything that these guys still needed her.  What the hell was this team going to do without its therapist?

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Pitch – 6.8

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“Snuff?” Tattletale asked.  She glanced back at the hooded brute.  “Can you take Chicken Little for a walk?”

“Can do,” the man in the hood said.

“Chicken Little?” I asked.

“That’s a good name,” Looksee said.  “The sky is falling, the sky is falling!”

I could hear Chris sigh.

“I make it fall,” the boy with the birds said.  His voice was small and far away.  On a rooftop to our left, birds took off, flying through the light rain.

“Perfect,” Looksee said, giving him a thumbs up.

Chris sighed again.

The birds swooped down to settle at the foot of one of the blocky, concrete office buildings.

“Bye,” Chicken Little said.

“Bye,” Looksee said.

The birds took off, flying over and ahead of the kid.

The fact that everyone was waiting for the hooded executioner to lead the kid villain away gave me a chance to observe and think- he wasn’t good at projecting his voice.  His frame was more similar to Kenzie, but he slouched some like Chris did.  Chris, though, had a natural volume, possibly because of subtle changer effects.  I felt an urge to coach him, and correct something that seemed so obvious, which might have been why I was fixated on it.

It was disconcerting to picture my giving him some tips, having him standing up straighter, having him put his hands in his back pockets as an example of how far back his shoulders should be, and having him speak.  My mom had done it with me, once upon a time.

Rain pattered down beyond the lip of shelter that extended out over our portion of the plaza.  The sound of pained breathing wheezed in and out in the background.

“Chicken Little,” I said, again.

“I was pushing for Hitchcock,” Tattletale said.  “Cardinal was good too, but taken.”

“I was pushing for Unkindness,” Imp added.  “It went over everyone’s heads.”

“Then it’s not a good cape name,” I said.  “It’s going over my head.”

“High bar,” Imp retorted.

“I was a pretty good student, actually,” I said.

“Were you, though?  I was a terrible student and I got it.”

“An unkindness of ravens,” Ashley said.  Her voice came from Looksee’s camera, rather than from the projection.

“Thank you!” Imp said.

“It’s not very good,” Ashley said.

“Ugh!”

“He controls a swarm of birds?” I asked.  I arched an eyebrow.

“It reminded me of a friend, believe it or not.  He needed a mentor, and it seemed natural.”

“Naturally,” I said.

“Trying to do right by him,” Tattletale said, “Letting him pick his own name, which you should never let a pre-teen do-”

“Ahem,” Looksee said.

“Damn straight,” Chris said.

“-Teaching him what he needs to know to get by as a cape in this crazy world of ours, and, you know, not making him stand there while you parade around a projection of a horribly maimed teenager.  The little things.”

“I’m his age and I put that projection together, you know,” Looksee said.  “I had to look really closely at the images I was rendering.  This is good work!”

“You appear to have mentors who are fine with exposing you to that kind of thing, Looksee,” Tattletale’s reply was as smooth as anything.

“Maybe I’m a badass,” Looksee said.  “I took out Mama Mathers.”

“Speaking of,” Tattletale said, perking up and looking past Looksee to Capricorn.  “She’s dead?  No.  Contained?”

“She’s contained with physical constraints and some power stuff,” Capricorn said.

“Partially phased into another reality,” Rain clarified.  “I talked to the heroes.  She’s kept an eye on the Crowley clan for years, twenty-four seven.  She might not sleep.”

“Tranquilizers don’t work, she’ll fake it,” Tattletale said.  “You figured that out.  Good.  Phasing her out should break the connection as long as it lasts, if it can be maintained.  It might even force her to reset all the connections.”

“That was the line of thinking,” I said.

Rain spoke up, taking advantage of the fact he’d had an opening in the conversation again, “I’d really like to hear how you can know how she works, know how she keeps people under her thumb, and then sign off on hurting the innocents caught in the mix.  Doing this to me.”

“I’d like to hear that too, Tattletale,” Foil said.

“Please,” Parian said.

“Please,” I said, echoing Parian’s word, but in my brightest, nicest tone of voice.  I smiled at Tattletale.

Tattletale fixed me with her best ‘are you serious’ look.

“You said you’d help Cradle, but you didn’t want to know what happened to the kid,” I said.  “We thought you needed to see the consequences of your actions.”

“That is pretty ripe, coming from the princess of damage and her troupe of walking disaster areas,” Tattletale said.  “I have looked you guys up, read files, you know.”

“Deflecting?” Tristan asked.

“A bit, yeah.  But I think it’s important for context, because you guys don’t get to act high and mighty here.  The Fallen kid locked people inside a mall and let them die from trampling, fire and smoke.  The junior half of Team Reach crashed and burned after you got up to your antics, Capricorn.  Damsel of Distress had an invite to the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

“So did I,” Rachel said.

“Shh,” Tattletale said.

“Are you saying you’d do the same for any of us?” I asked.

“I’m saying you guys are really not the ones who should be throwing stones here.  I know how you got together, even if I don’t have all the individual details.  The institution that looks after Creepy Kid barely sees him and they’re scared enough of him when he’s there to let him do what he wants.  There’s a story there.”

Something to look into, then.

Tattletale went on, “Garotte, honey, you had my team’s back at the Cauldron HQ.  I don’t want to sling mud at you, but anyone who knows you knows you’re dangerous and you’ve hurt a lot of people.”

“Anyone who knows her wouldn’t fault her for it,” I said.  “I can fault you for knowing full well what you were setting in motion.”

Sveta spoke, “I have never, not once, wanted anyone to die,” Sveta said, her voice firm, even tight.

“You and I both know that’s a lie,” Tattletale said.

“Death happened,” Sveta said.  She was glowering.  “If I’d had the choice, I would have spared even her.  My body was wounded, I was as freaked out as I’ve ever been, and someone needed to die.  I’ve made peace with the fact that I was able to make that someone be her.”

“Convenient,” Tattletale’s word was barely audible.

Honey,” Sveta replied, and the word was only venom.  “Don’t say you don’t want to sling mud at me and then go for the jugular.  We’re not stupid.  If you’re going to be vicious with someone who has saved the lives of several people here, don’t coat it in that ‘honey’.”

“Throwing everything you’ve got at the wall and seeing what sticks, Tattletale?” I asked.  “Desperate.”

“I’m tired,” Tattletale said.

“You skipped me, by the way,” Looksee said.

“I skipped you because you’re prepubescent and I’m not that big of a bitch.”

“I can take it.  I don’t want special treatment.”

“I’m tired, Victoria,” Tattletale said.  “I’ve spent two years trying to do my part to keep the world standing upright.  Parian, Foil, Imp, Rachel, you guys know the kind of thing I’ve been doing.”

“Ignoring me is bitchier than whatever you were going to say,” Looksee said.

“What if I told you there was nothing?” Tattletale asked, exasperated.

“I’d say you were being condescending, which is super bitchy.”

“Kiddo, you fucking raised the bar by not only blazing an accelerant-soaked trail of destruction through your cape life, but your civilian life too.  You did more damage casually than some do intentionally.  There’s a reason I ignored your calls.  You proved me right when you bricked my good phone with the incessant attempts to get my attention.”

“Can confirm,” Imp remarked.  “Tats went mute mid-mission while she scrambled to get a new phone.  She was pissed.  It was great.”

Looksee paused, digesting that, then answered Tattletale at a lower volume than before. “I automated it, so you know.”

“I figured.  Point stands.”

“It’ll unbrick if you reply to one of the messages.  That was the point, if you read any of the warnings or the last message sent.”

Tattletale shook her head.  “Where was I?”

“You’re tired, so you took a shortcut by striking a deal with a guy who was really good with blades and the guy who really wanted me cut up,” Rain said.

I glanced at the Undersiders.  They weren’t moving much.  Foil was bending down so Parian could whisper something in her ear.  Both of them were fixing their eyes on Tattletale, even while Parian whispered.

“Not a shortcut,” Tattletale said.

“He knew where to place the blades for maximum effect, drawing it out,” Rain said.  His fingers touched one of the wounds.  “That’s why they hired him, you know.”

“It wasn’t a shortcut, and it was never intended that they’d go through with it,” Tattletale said.  “So please, off the high horses, stop crawling up my ass, and I’ll explain.”

“That you made a mistake,” I said.

“Oh my god,” she said.  “If they didn’t hire me, they would have hired someone else.  The benefit of them hiring me?  I had every intention of steering them away.  I offered Cradle something he wanted more than revenge, last minute, after I’d proven I could deliver what he wanted.  Well, it wasn’t last minute.  Last thirty seconds, because I had to take thirty to put my card in a new phone to repopen communication after someone bricked my good phone.”

Tattletale frowned at Looksee as she said that last part.

“A mistake, then,” I said.  “You were tired and you made a mistake, is what you’re saying.”

“Someone else got to Cradle in the meantime, I think.  If we had this conversation in five days, I could give you a definitive answer.  For now, best I can do for explanations?  I figured it out and someone steered him onto a more determined course.  I didn’t make a mistake, and no, grab bags aren’t some inexplicable thing for me.  I wasn’t shooting blind, thank you very much.”

“Are you saying that because you’re for real or because you’re trying to cover your weaknesses?”

“Gee, Victoria,” Tattletale said.  “I could hardly be blamed if it was me covering my ass.  The last time I gave you a hint about the strengths and weaknesses of my power, you went full offensive with this bit of theatrics.  But no.  March was and is an isolated, special case.”

“In so many ways,” Foil murmured.

“Theatrics are one of the best part of being a cape,” I said.

“One of them,” Capricorn said.

“Okay,” she said.  “But you’re wrong that I’m covering my ass.  No, sorry.”

I was right that Rain had her agitated though.

“What was the plan?” Rain asked.

“Had all gone as intended, you would have walked away.  A lot depended on whether your three fellow grab-bags were there together, or which one or two were there, but there was no way I could make the offer earlier.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“How do you think that would go, Victoria?  Hey, guys, I’ll give you this thing if you promise not to go after this member of the Fallen you have really good justification for hating.  For no reason, I promise, I’m totally not on his side.  Come on.  They do have some humanity.  For Snag, a few choice words at the moment he was about to pull the metaphorical trigger, as that tiny part of him screamed that it didn’t want to do it?  Would’ve worked.”

“Love Lost?” Rain asked.

“Angrier.  Hurting more.  You would have needed to bleed first, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as bad.  It’s why I told Cradle that if he and Operator went after you, she shouldn’t be there.  She would have been too hard to hold back, and what I told him was that she would have snapped and killed you in a very unsatisfyingly quick way.  I could have steered her away with the right words, right timing, but I didn’t want to gamble it.  Cradle is pragmatic.  He got it.  She wasn’t invited along.”

“And Cradle?  He was there and you couldn’t stop him.”

“Like I said, I needed to prove I could deliver, to maintain the professional relationship, but I didn’t have to deliver if I could make a better offer.  I think someone beat me to it, offering him something.”

“Who?  What were they offering?  What were you?”

“I don’t know who or what.  They exist in hypothetical.  As for me, I was offering a way out.”

“A way out,” Rain said.  “Of the- the rotation.”

“There’s a cape by the name of Goddess.  Also the Blue Empress, Blue Lady, the Woman in Blue.  Once situated on Earth Shin, she was brought here for the fight against Scion by a strange, unnamed player who has since been classified as a threat on par with any Endbringer.  Or with Goddess, as it happens.  Unfortunately, this anonymous figure didn’t put her back.”

“A strange, unnamed player?” I asked.

“So it happens,” Tattletale said, with a grin.  “With only a select group of top Wardens and major players really tracking what really happened.  But we were talking the woman in blue.  She got powers and was relocated to Earth Shin before she could… grow to full potential.  Relocated by a certain secretive agency.”

“Cauldron,” Sveta said.

“Yep.  She proceeded to take over earth Shin, with all other parahumans acting as her lieutenants.  All other parahumans on that world, mind.  No exceptions.  Which the organization deemed fine, because they got to keep her in their back pocket, even while they couldn’t control her.  She is, or was, a grab-bag, she found a way to pull free of her cluster, and she came out of it with a set of powers that would each be world-class on their own.”

“What happened to the others?” Rain asked.

“Dead?” I guessed.

“Alive.  Four of them, anyhow.  A fifth killed themselves because they couldn’t fill the void where the power and feeling powerful once were.  None of them were left with more than whispers of power after.  But they had their lives and their particular dynamic was stopped in its tracks.  Not all clusters have a schtick, but they did, like the mall group does, and Goddess taking all the power brought an end to it.”

“You were going to tell Cradle how to do it,” Rain said.  “How to get all the power and leave the rest of us with nothing.”

“Can you fault me?  He’s the most level headed, and out of the rest of the group, one was an raging asshole, my second choice of the bunch by the way, one can’t take her mask off because if she does she can’t help but scream, and the last member of the group kept the door locked while a mall full of people were trampled, burned, and-or suffocated.”

“He would have gotten all the power for himself?” I asked.

“The last time this worked, the parahuman was way more than the sum of the individual parts.  I’ve tried to sell Foil on it, but she isn’t too keen.”

“I don’t want to tamper,” Foil said.

“I don’t either,” Parian said.

“She’s happy, see?  Cradle, though?  He was one hundred percent the type to go for it, all signs pointed to yes, and he said no.”

“Because he’s a cluster cape,” Chris said.  “You had a bad read.”

Prodding her.

No.  Because then I would have had a capital-N-slash-capital-A, underlined, for my thinker read on him.”

Prodding her and it worked.

“There’s an issue with this,” Capricorn said.

“A few, actually,” Sveta said.

“The one that springs to mind is that you wanted to repeat the process that, the last time it worked, saw a whole Earth being taken over?” Capricorn asked.

“He would have owed me one,” Tattletale said.  “I don’t think he would have been as strong.  Four powersets baseline.”

“I think the last thing the world needs is more over-the-top parahumans,” I said.

“I think you’re situated on in your own little peninsula,  with your own little team, while I’m the one who has spent the last two years trying to help the peace stay peaceful.  Like I said, there are a lot of people trying to keep things upright, but they aren’t communicating, they can’t, and the guys on the far side of everything are pushing really frigging hard to keep things from toppling, and something’s going to give.  Over here?  We can’t push back.  We don’t have muscle.”

“That’s why you want Cradle?” Rain asked.  “To be your muscle?”

“No.  That’s my last ditch move, believe me.  For now, there’s another player who’s pushing on things.  Someone we tried really frigging hard to kick down an metaphorical elevator shaft, as it happens.”

“Ha,” Imp said.  “That asshole.”

“We broke his legs and we scared him away, and he’s good at hiding.  He likes tinkers and he’s interested in complex powers.  If I could have a tinker I can trust with the right emotion power for the task at hand?”

“Cradle,” Capricorn said.

“I’d need to have a conversation with him.  A long one, so I can figure out what went wrong back there.  If he wasn’t too compromised and my idea of giving him all the powers was tempting for him, he’d go run this errand for me, spend about a year in a completely different Earth with no access to your Fallen boy there.  I’d figure out what to do with him by the conclusion of it.”

“If he was compromised?” Ashley asked.

“Cross that bridge when I come to it,” Tattletale said.

Ashley made a gun with the fingers and thumb of her good hand.  A glitch manifested at a fingertip as she ‘fired’ it.  The projected image flickered violently, presumably where her power was kicking in, the effect tracing around her hand as she lowered it, joined by a plume of more artifacting and glitches at the damaged spot of her arm.  The sound was muted, and the camera whined.  A dog barked.

“My dogs don’t like that sound,” Rachel said.  “Stop.”

Looksee thumped the camera.

“Assuming you’re suggesting I kill him, it’s not out of the question,” Tattletale said.  “I’m not as shy as you lot pretend to be.  I can’t push that hard on things as a whole.  I don’t have the muscle some of the major players do, and that’s just reality.  I can try to open channels and hamstring the ones who aren’t helping.  I need Cradle.  Give me him, I can help you guys with the Fallen.”

We exchanged glances.

“I’m not happy you were keeping this secret,” Foil said.

“I’ve offered to rope you guys in.  You’re making and distributing clothes and doing your mercenary thing,” Tattletale said.  “If you only join for the big stuff, it gets hard to get you up to speed, especially if I don’t want to tip off someone like Cradle.  If you insist this is my thing and that you want no part in it, don’t get so upset if I do it in a very Tattletale way.”

“She’s lonely,” Imp said.

“I’m irritated,” Tattletale said.  “I’m tired.  We’ve got the lady in blue trying to get up to full strength again, a guy who wears fucking sweaters is pulling at the threads that are holding everything together while maintaining and expanding the institution side of the old Cauldron.  A handful of others are running the ideological end of Cauldron.  Both of those groups are strong in their own way and yet they aren’t doing a tenth what Cauldron used to do in forestalling disasters and containing the most… unproductive capes and cape-related messes.”

“They’re rebuilding Cauldron?” Sveta asked, horrified.

“The day the Cauldron cracked, they were there moving in with what would be hundreds of employees.  You were there at one point.  You had to have seen the empty offices and rooms.  Every last one of those offices have people now.  Are they doing things on the level of what they did to you guys?  No.  But only because they lack the opportunity.”

“Oh my god,” Sveta said.

“And again, there used to be an awful lot of really fucked up parahumans, powers and power-related things that would have top tier capes moving in to relocate or destroy, before those things were even a problem.  Those guys aren’t doing that clean-up anymore!  I’ve taken some of that on my plate, in the course of my regular business.  There’s a war starting sometime this week, a Machine Army that’s literally on the horizon if you can see between worlds, warlords, broken triggers, and yeah, the Fallen are a mess unto themselves.”

“They have reach,” I said.  “They’re hooking people in.”

“I know they’re a thing.  They’re a relatively manageable thing.  Let’s not forget that, you know, if every single last one of these manageable and less manageable problems I’ve mentioned were magically handled, this city would not be in an especially good place.  Okay?  That’s what I’m doing.  Could I have handled this particular thing better?  Probably.  But I’m not the bad guy.”

“Sounds major,” I said.

Tattletale shrugged.  She shifted position where she sat on the table, crossing her legs.  She grabbed her ankles with her hands.

“Thank you for doing what you’ve been doing,” I said.

“It’s nice to get that from someone,” she said.

“But I can’t help but notice that through all of this, explaining yourself, you haven’t actually apologized for your part in it.”

Rain was very still, to the point that I wasn’t sure if he’d glitched out and frozen again, with the camera needing more percussive maintenance.

But his hair moved.  The breathing continued.

Tattletale replied, “Whatever I say, you find fault in it.  Forget words.  Look at my actions here.”

Capricorn answered her.  “Your action is that you’re giving us help, but it’s help in exchange for this person you need, someone you’ve shown you can’t keep on top of.  That person wants my friend dead.  If the tables were turned, would you consider that gracious?”

“Tattletale,” Sveta said, adding her voice to his.  “You have to know those Fallen are going to hurt people.  You can’t want that.  When everything went to shit and the world ended, there was an implicit trust.  Can we take a step back toward that?  Give us this.  Then we’ll talk, we’ll bring others into the discussion.”

“Spies and moles.  Some with thinker or changer powers,” Tattletale said.  “Have to limit who we bring into the discussion.  Look at what happened back outside New Haven.  I’m deeming you guys, like, sixty percent safe, which I normally wouldn’t work with, but if I don’t deal with you then I might lose these guys.”

She jerked her thumb at the Undersiders.

“If you think you’re getting rid of me for good, you’re deluded,” Imp said.  “Though I have to say I was pretty disappointed at the start there.”

“Have I redeemed myself in your eyes?” Tattletale asked, sarcastic.

“You’re okayish,” Imp said.

“I’m so glad.”

Tattletale answered Imp, but I could see that her attention was on Foil and Parian.

Rachel could apparently be assumed to be fine with things.

I could see the pair mulling things over.  As they whispered, Tattletale’s focus still pointed in their direction, it became harder to say that she wasn’t waiting for a verdict from them.

“Can we trust her?” Capricorn asked.  He’d drawn closer to me, and now spoke in my ear.  Sveta was already situated near enough to me to hear the question.

I couldn’t give an immediate answer.

Looksee approached us.  She brought the camera, which struggled to keep the projections stable as it bobbed, but it seemed to serve to allow Rain and Ashley to join our conversation.  Chris was the last to catch up with us.

“I trust her,” Looksee said.  “I asked her to dish dirt on me and she did.”

“That’s the worst way of telling,” Chris said.

“Being treated crummy is way better than being ignored,” Looksee said.

“That’s not right,” Ashley said.  “Don’t ever let someone who should care about you treat you badly.”

“Yeah?  Okay.  Then don’t talk to me right now.  I’m mad at you.  I’m mad at mostly everyone but especially you.”

“Especially me?”

“Especially you.”

“Fair.”

“Everyone’s input is important here,” Capricorn said.  “But Rain, you were the one who was hurt.  Victoria, you know Tattletale best out of all of us.”

“We need to help those people,” Sveta said.

“I know,” Capricorn said.  “But I think if Rain feels conflicted about releasing Cradle, even with this new information-”

“Which may or may not be true,” Chris interrupted.

“It’s understandable, isn’t it?” Capricorn asked.

“Conflicted is understandable,” Sveta said.  “I had to face down the person who changed me in a life-altering way.  I know you’re connected to them.  You can’t get away from them.  I see it’s similar in a way and I understand.  I really do.”

“It’s a question of what you’d regret, I think,” I said.

“Meaning you think Rain should release Cradle to buy Tattletale’s help,” Chris said.

“I don’t think that at all,” I said.  “I think… you can help the most people possible, and you can still end up with horrible regrets and serious consequences.”

“She got to you.”

It took me a second to connect to who had spoken.  Sveta.

She was partially focused on Tattletale.  Imp, Rachel, Parian and Foil were talking in an animated way, with some henchmen on the very periphery.  Tattletale hadn’t budged from her seat, her attention focused on nothing in particular.

“Tattletale,” I finished the thought.  “Maybe she did.”

“You trust her?” Capricorn asked, again.

“No,” I said.  “But I think I believe her.”

“Fuck,” Rain said.

All heads turned to face his projection, except Looksee, who looked at the camera instead.

“If it comes down to regretting deaths five years from now or saving lives and maybe not living through the next five years, I guess I’ll save the lives,” Rain said.

“You’re sure?” Capricorn asked.

“No.  But I spent my whole life as a believer.  I’ll believe this is the right thing.”

“Come on,” Capricorn said.

As a group, we walked over to the Undersiders’ huddle.  Tattletale rotated herself on her seat atop the concrete slab table with a push of her hand, to stay facing us.

The Undersiders broke away from their cluster to face us as we drew nearer.  One of the dogs growled, and Rachel shushed it.

“Tattletale,” Parian said.  “We think you should make amends here.”

Tattletale’s eyes roved over our group.  She fixed them on Rain.

She knew.  She knew what we came to say.  That Rain had come to the conclusion he had.

“Amends,” she said.  “I’ll point you at the Fallen.  You don’t have to give me Cradle.  If I really need him, I’ll discuss it with you and get permission first.”

Boston.  New Boston, but all attempts to make that stick had failed, in a stark contrast to how Brockton Bay had been so ready to rechristen itself as New Brockton.

Boston wasn’t a city, really.  It was more of an Über-neighborhood, one set of tiles in the vast, disappearing-into-the-horizon expanse of city that was the megalopolis.  It wasn’t really Boston, either.  Attempts had been made to make Boston resemble its former self, but materials were different, everything was new, and the golden patina remained.

Fenway Station.  A transportation hub, surrounded by quickly thrown-together homes that attempted to stay hidden or camouflaged among the brownstone and brick fixtures with gold-tinted windows.

The Boston neighorhoods had heroes of their own.  Independents, and small teams separate from the Wardens.  With Tattletale making the calls, we had their help.  There were others, but Tattletale felt they were a risk, with a chance of moles and troublemakers, and I believed her.

Everyone was finding a location.  Looksee had one working camera doing sweeps, and the laptop beside her showed the figures.  Some were highlighted in red.  Strange body shapes, statures, or more muscle than the usual.  When they clustered, we could know that the people on one floor or one set of floors of a building were likely capes.

People from the Clans were out on the street.  Not many bikers.  There would be Fallen too.

I sat on the edge of a roof, and Looksee sat with her back to the lip of the roof beside me, her laptop placed where the both of us could see it.  Sveta sat beside me, and shifted position to rest her head on my shoulder.  Like old times.

“Capricorn?” Looksee asked.

A pause.

“Red pickup, rust at left wheel.  A bit ahead of you.  It has guns in the back,” she said.

Another pause.

“Sounds good,” she said.

“How’re you managing your end of things?” Sveta asked.

“It’s pretty easy,” Looksee said, without turning around.  “Facial recognition, tagging everyone that’s a possible problem.”

The cooperation of everyone we needed to cooperate.  We had a secured perimeter, there were civilians inside that perimeter, but if we timed our attack just right, then there was a good chance we could evacuate them out.  Sveta and I were in the wings.  Capricorn could bar the path to bystanders.

The team was missing Rain, who was still recuperating.  Ashley was waiting for proper transportation to a secure facility.

This was, in a way, a microcosm of the conflict we’d just weathered.  We were tired, hurting, and pushing forward purely on the energy that came from this being something we really wanted to do.

Sveta, Kenzie, Tristan, Byron, myself.  We wanted to be heroes.  I liked to think we were heroes.

Chris- he was out there, at one of the distant corners of the perimeter, being Chris and keeping an eye on things.  He’d told us that he could change twice a day, but he’d also implied it wouldn’t be a problem if trouble headed his way, that he’d be okay.

Hard to tell, sometimes, when parahumans could be so foolhardy.

Chris wanted- not to be a hero.  He seemed to want something out of being a hero.

Rain and Ashley- I was pretty sure they needed to be heroes, but it wasn’t a need in the same way I needed to be a hero or I wasn’t living up to some fundamental part of myself.  They needed to be heroes in the sense that someone who was freezing to death needed to start fires.

Rain had taken a giant step forward in that regard, and Ashley had fallen back.

I knew what I needed to do.  I’d keep tabs on them.  I’d go to dinner with Kenzie and ensure that she knew that if the team did in fact fall apart, it didn’t mean the relationships were gone.  I’d check on Chris’ situation, because what Tattletale had said concerned me.  I’d follow up on Tristan.  I’d continue to visit Sveta at her place, and see Weld.  I would check in on on Ashley and Rain, whatever path they had ahead of them.  If that meant making sure they had visitors in jail, then I’d handle that.

“They want the go-ahead to attack,” Looksee said.

I had a bird’s eye view of everything.  I surveyed the situation, checked the laptop.

“They want it soon.  People are getting into cars in the parking garage.  Some of those cars have guns.”

I gave her a thumbs up.

“Attacking,” she reported.

Cars pulled out of the parking garage.  They skidded through puddles, and the puddles solidified.  The first truck lost the rubber from three of its wheels, skidding forward on the rims and one corner of the front end.  The one behind it stopped abruptly, with the vehicles behind it crashing into it, in a three-car pileup.

I saw the colors as capes descended on the scene.  As more left the bottom floor of the building on foot, and yet others climbed out by way of the fire escape, it quickly became an all-out brawl.

It was weird to be removed from it, to not be leaping in.  I was reminded of how I’d felt when I’d been on the patrol block.  I’d handled the research, tutored the kids, gave presentations on key things about parahumans, and I’d handled the routine errands like taking water out to tent cities and out past the portals.

A part of me had wanted to leap into things, and that part of me had stopped because it had known that leaping in had meant using the wretch, and I hadn’t been ready to do that.

I’d gone from stark nightmare to vague, new reality and I’d struggled hard in the transition.  I’d thought I was getting better, settling for the vague reality, no longer fighting it.  Staying still and going easy had meant letting myself heal, hadn’t it?

Then the attack on the community center.  The reality check.  Then finding out that this world didn’t really have a place in it for me, if I really wanted to be me.

Then the therapy team.

Even that had felt indistinct somehow.  When I’d introduced the topic of being heroes, hadn’t I talked about the kinds of hero?  The ways money came in- we’d started to do that, but indistinctly.  Heroes were ideological, or they were about money.  They could be heroes for a cause or specific mission.

Indistinct because we’d been a mix of heroes at heart, heroes to serve ends, and those who needed to be heroes, but who, at the time, weren’t.

Looksee was struggling with saying goodbye to people.  I was telling myself I could keep the people, but I struggled with saying goodbye to the idea.

“Fire,” Sveta said.

The jackasses were spreading out, and I saw the orange tint of flame, the black of smoke.  They were setting fire to the trash that had been set out, to a dumpster, and to the contents of one ruined truck bed.

I heard Capricorn’s voice through my earphone, even though the earphone wasn’t plugged into my ear.

“He says he’s got it.”

I adjusted my earbud to bring the attached microphone closer to my mouth.  “Careful of any explosives in the truck bed.”

Got it,” I heard his reply.

“Group leaving the corner of the building,” Looksee said.  “It might be major capes, using the big fight for a distraction.”

Sveta lifted her head from my shoulder.

“Who’s on it?” I asked.

“Nobody.  There’s a perimeter that should catch them, they’ll get there in a few minutes.”

“And nobody stopping them from hurting anyone on the way?” Sveta asked.

“No, I guess not.”

I lifted off, floating away from the edge of the roof.

“Keep the camera close,” I said, putting my earphone in, before adjusting the flap at the base of my hood to hide the cord.  “We delay them until others come.  Looksee?  Point those others our way.”

“On it.”

Best to include her.  Things breaking apart would hit her hardest.  It was just so hard to do without actually having her in the field.

Sveta grabbed something and hurled herself off the rooftop.

I could see the bright colors, as I drew closer.  The exposed skin of arms sticking out of sleeveless shirts was heavily and brightly tattooed.

Jackasses, maybe.  It was almost motley.  I saw two of them ran with their hands tucked in their jackets.  Holding something out of sight.

And among them, someone who wasn’t a twenty-something in bright color.  A guy, long-limbed with long bleached hair with dark roots and a goatee, jogging and moving with languid ease that belied something else at play.  He wore black.

Sveta grabbed onto the light pole near me and pulled herself to it.  I floated next to her.

“Grab the tall one?” I asked.  “If there’s trouble from others, I deflect.  If it’s trouble from him, I hit him hard enough he stops doing it.”

She nodded.

Her hand grabbed at the guy’s arm as I got to the group.  I went straight for the jackass with his hand in his jacket, knocking him into the ground with enough force that if he wasn’t unconscious, he was broken enough to not be a threat.

The other one whipped out a gun.  His eyes widened as he saw me flying, and then he turned, pointing the gun down the street.  There were people.  Distant, but people.

I caught his arm and shoved it down as he pulled the trigger.  I leveraged the wretch, used the strength, and snapped the bones of his arm.

The tall guy- Sveta had grabbed him, but now the other four jackasses were splitting into ghostly images- each was distorted, and each pulled away from the source jackass with an acrobatic leap or flip.  They were massing on Sveta’s arm and glove, weighing it down.

She pulled and she drew the guy in, but it was slow and sluggish.

Instead, I grabbed the guy from behind, hauling him backward.  She let go of him, and with her hand free of that grip, it began to pull and slip back through the group.

The duplicates.  This was one of the Crowley leaders.

His eyes were wide and showing too much white as he turned my way.

His own faded duplicates swarmed me, hands and faces and the press of the physical.  They came at me hard and fast, like they were propelled away from him by some motive force.  When they made contact, they weren’t strong.

But I felt myself losing even though the strength wasn’t all that.

Where they overlapped.

I met them with the Wretch, pushing them off and away with some violence.  I struck at the overlapping portions, where one swing could hit multiple.

He’d broken free of my grip in the midst of the storm he had created.  Now he backed away.  He moved his hands, and all around me, mailboxes, light posts, trash and individual pieces of a nearby car broke away, becoming a storm of shadowy projectiles.

Were it one projectile, I could have dodged.  Were it a handful of meaningful ones, it would have been easier.  As it was, it was a hundred inconsequential projectiles, and where they converged or overlapped, they were solid or more solid.

I was forced to fly at an odd course, up, back and away, so I wouldn’t fly into any of the incoming images.  The stream changed course, everything flying toward my new location.  I moved from point to point, to make getting a bead on me as hard as possible.

And between me and him, it was a veritable wall of flying images, concrete and glass peeling away from the sidewalk and nearby windows like paper from a stack that never ended.  Only these papers crashed and shattered on impact.

“You think you’ve won,” the Crowley leader said.

Sveta was free of the jackasses, as she clung to the wall.  She’d grabbed a gun from their midst and held it on one hand.  She seemed to have found herself in a bind in the process.  The gun couldn’t be dropped without delivering it to the same people she’d taken it from, couldn’t be thrown away because it was a gun, and she didn’t have the dexterity to put it in a pocket where it might stay for good.  At the same time, while her hand held the weapon, she was limited in mobility.

I put my hands out.

She launched the gun.

“You haven’t won,” the Crowley brother said.

I smacked the gun with the Wretch hard enough to shatter it.

“We haven’t lost,” I said.  “The Fallen aren’t going to have a lot going for them when most of you are in custody.  Today was a pretty bad day for assholes.”

“You think we’re broken, bitch?”

Sveta reached out, seizing him by the neck.

He created shadow-selves, and they pulled away from his body in a way that broke her grip.  The initial momentum still yanked him back and off his feet.  He climbed to a standing position, shadow-selves appearing in crouching positions, forming people for him to lean on as he climbed up to his feet.

I’d known Eric to do the same kind of thing.  Crystal’s brother had been good with forcefields.

This guy was more of a forcefield creator than a duplicator, if I thought about it.  The forcefields were just very detailed simulacra of whatever he was spawning them from, and there was utility in how they emerged and flew out.

It was easier to fly and flow between them.  Thinking about it all like that, I could fight him.  A shift in mindset.

He still concentrated a lot of them near him.  That was the barrier.

I could also wait for the reinforcements.

I wouldn’t.  I’d take him with one hand.

The fire’s handled, but they have friends in the neighborhood,” Capricorn said, over comms.

“Noted,” I murmured.

The jackasses were spreading out.  Several made a run for it.  Sveta snatched at them, holding and pulling long enough to break their stride and keep them from getting way.

The Crowley brother saw, and he smirked, showing teeth so white they had to be fake.

“If this comes down to a fight, you’re leaving on a stretcher,” I said.  “I’m all out of patience.”

“Can you fight?” he asked.

I hit the ground hard enough to crack it.  I’d pay the neighborhood back for that.  But the impact was enough to upset his footing, and as his frame of reference changed, so did the angle and flow of the phantom images.   He tipped back, and there was a clearance of a few feet off the ground in front of him where the images weren’t.

I dove, flying, and slid through that clearance.  It was a maneuver that put me within a few feet of him.  I reached out, striking with my good arm, and I felt the impact.  No strength, but a smash to the nose.

A phantom’s nose.  He’d projected one out from his face as I’d swung.

I followed up, hitting, kicking, and then doing the same thing but with the wretch, for the extra force and the ability to tear right past them.  I could see him press back, until his jackasses were right behind him.  Sveta yanked on the jackasses, hauling them away, and the Crowley brother tipped backward onto his back.

“Stretcher or surrender?” I asked, amping up the aura in a subtle way.  Too big of a push could scare, but it also was a thing.  Something people could push back against.

I could use it here to play it subtle, drive the moment home.

“Fine then,” he said.  He smiled, and he dismissed the images.  The transparent detritus, trash, objects and figures faded out.

I remained tense.  What was the catch?

“Bro,” one Jackass said.

“We’ll surrender if you give us a seat to enjoy the show,” he said.

I didn’t respond, only glancing at Sveta.

She was as lost as I was.

“I’m not that faithful a man, that’s not a secret,” he said, still smiling with those too-white teeth amid the wiry goatee.  “But I do believe this is going to be a hell of a thing, tonight.”

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Pitch – 6.7

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Rain had been slouched across the back seat, a first aid blanket over him, a phone there to give him something to occupy himself with.  As he worked his way to a position where he sat upright, Tristan worked his way past the seats to offer a gentler hand.  I would have offered help, more to help reduce the stress on Rain’s body than because the strength was needed, but I wasn’t able-bodied.

Not many of us were really up to the task, now that I noticed.  Sveta wasn’t weak but she wasn’t coordinated.  Ashley had her screwed up arm that was misfiring.  Chris was able but not inclined.  Kenzie was eleven.

As for Rain- the worst damage had been healed, physically, but he’d come awfully close to dying.  A serious impact in the next hour or two could phase out the healed body parts, with catastrophic consequences for both Rain and Scapegoat.  When he moved, though, it was in a careful sort of way that went beyond someone reeling from physical injuries and going easy with the weird phased-in healing that Scapegoat did.  We had to be ginger with the traumatized parts of him that weren’t physical.

I wanted to draw on my own experiences to empathize with him and better know what to do, but I didn’t have great experiences to draw on.  I’d been badly hurt before, but the only comparable kind of harm had been followed with convalescence and a kind of sedation.  That had been followed by Amy’s attentions and some erasure of memories.

A dark, heavy thought to go alongside how drained I felt in the moment.

My best comparison was being made normal, on the eve of Gold Morning.  A kind of trauma that wasn’t physical, and that was definitely lasting.  I could remember how I’d been in those early days and weeks, ginger in how I handled everything, including myself.  It hadn’t helped that just about everyone had been reeling from the loss of Earth Bet, their homes, and loved ones.

“You comfortable?” Capricorn asked.

“As comfortable as I’m going to be the next few days,” Rain said.

“Sorry that we’re going to put more stuff on your plate so soon,” I said.  “We’re trying to figure out what we’re doing.”

“I can take it,” Rain said.  “I’ve learned to deal with shit.”

“Thank you for swearing,” Chris said.  “One of the most annoying things about being a hero is all the goody-goody types who refuse to swear around me.”

“Well,” Rain said.  He moved a bit, paused to wince, and then finished his sentence, “I think it’s firmly established that I’m not a goody-goody type.  I do want to help, though.”

“It’s nice that they aren’t swearing,” Kenzie said.  “They’re thinking of us.”

Chris scoffed audibly.  With the seats of the bus being what they were, it was hard to see his face.

“The worst part about being a hero isn’t anything about swearing,” Ashley said.  “It’s the untenable bureaucracy.”

I saw Chris’ hand pop up to scratch his head.  He said, “You meant to say interminable or something, I think.”

“No,” Ashley said.  “You meant to say yes, Damsel, you’re right.”

“The bureaucracy is definitely a wall we’ve run into,” I said, interrupting.  “The patrol doesn’t want to pursue the remaining Fallen.”

“Who?  Do you know?”

“The Fallen?” I asked.  When he nodded, I followed up by outlining them. “Crowley brothers, their underlings.  Bamet is out of action.  The one who goes changer from a point in space is still out there, presumably.  Valefor might be out there but I made sure he won’t be able to give any orders for a while.  We got Mama.”

“Oh wow,” Rain said.

“I told you before, but I don’t think you were in a good state to process what I was saying,” Sveta said.

Rain nodded slowly.  “You got Cradle.  You got Mama.  Snag’s dead- he’s dead, right?”

“He’s very dead,” Chris said.  “You should know.”

“It all feels like it might break away and reality might hit if I move too fast or look into it too much,” Rain said.

I thought of the state I’d been in, at the end of twenty-thirteen, the start of year zero, after Gold Morning.  “The way you described things, it’s as if you’re dreaming and things are less distinct than the very intense reality that came before the dream.”

“Yeah,” Rain said.  “Exactly.”

“I get it,” I said.  “I’ve been there.  You want to watch out for the moments where you’re trying to reconcile the disconnect and make the now feel real again.  It’s easy to get carried away.”

“In a fight, you mean?” Capricorn asked.  “Throwing yourself at a situation to feel alive again?”

“Not like that, exactly,” I said.

“I don’t get it,” Looksee said.

I floundered for a moment, then said, “I guess, just as an example, I remember taking a shower and having a moment where it really woke me up and I felt grounded in reality again.  There were a few days of painfully cold and hot showers, trying to wake up and stay fixed in the present.”

Sveta reached over to touch my arm.

There had been other moments, too.  Scrubbing myself until my skin broke, among other things.  Too personal and raw to really share.

“I’ll watch out for that,” Rain said.

“I would really, really advise talking to Mrs. Yamada the next chance you get,” I said, “because I don’t think it’s the kind of thing you can watch out for on your own.”

“I left a message for her,” he said.  He touched the phone, which still sat in his lap.

Ashley’s power flickered in the background.  She adjusted her position, acting like nothing had happened as she leaned against the edge of one seat, a death grip around her forearm.

“I’m going to remove my helmet,” Looksee said.  “My breath keeps fogging up the screen.”

“Keep your back to the windows,” Tristan said.

“Okay.”

I wasn’t sure it mattered- the windows were in dire need of cleaning and dirt from the road covered them for extra measure.  It was a good practice to be in, though, for our team members with secret identities.

There was some rummaging.  Looksee wasn’t the only one to adjust her stuff.  We settled in for a longer talk, with Tristan removing his helmet.  He set it down on the faux-leather bench of the bus beside him, then blurred, becoming Byron.

Byron, too, removed his helmet, setting it down next to Tristan’s.  Red and blue tinted metal, horns and ridges for the former, faint fins and distinct scales for the latter.

I pushed back my hood and pulled my gloves off, being more ginger with my left glove because of the injured arm it was attached to.  I laid the gloves across my lap, and the metal decorations stabbed upward like a small crown.  My hands were clammy.

“The patrol doesn’t want to go after the remaining Fallen?” Rain finally spoke.  His voice was as careful as his movements had been, with a questioning, almost unsure lilt at the end.

“Tomorrow’s problem, they think.  There’s enough to deal with today,” I said.

“That’s the bad news, then?” Rain asked.  “Good news is we got some of the worst of them, the bad news is the Crowleys are going to riot?”

“That’s the gist of it,” Byron said.  His reserved tone of voice was a good match for the quieter-than-usual Rain.

“You’re the resident expert, Rain,” I said.  “How do the Crowleys react?”

“Oof,” Rain huffed out the word.  “I know them mostly from visits and once a year events.  We’d sometimes get people sent to us from their family, trading people between families, to cement ties.  I was one of those people, once.”

Sveta spoke up, “Tattletale wants Cradle in exchange for helping us stop them.  The patrol isn’t helping, so…”

“So it’s not even guaranteed we can make this work,” I finished the trailing sentence.

“Wants Cradle how?” Rain asked.

“To go free,” Sveta said.  “The patrol is holding him and the assassin-”

“They’re annoyed about it,” Chris added.

“-And we wanted to ask for your input,” Sveta finished her statement.

Rain leaned back, his head lolling back until it rested on the top edge of the bench seat.  He sighed.

“I thought I only had Love Lost to worry about now,” he said.  “You want to let him go?”

I don’t,” Kenzie said.  “I want you to be safe.”

“We’re unsure.  Trying to figure it out,” Sveta said.  “It’s why we’re asking about the Crowleys.”

“Where were you originally?” I asked.  I put the question out there in part to not make this too abrupt or intense for Rain.  “Were you Crowley?”

“McVeay, kind of.  My aunt and uncle were more into it than my parents, I think.  We had irregular visits to or- or by some intense, religious people that everyone listened to.  A lot changed as we moved around, sometimes we camped, sometimes it was trailers, but a few things were constant, like religious services, extended family being there, and those intense, scary people.  Then I was sent to the Mathers, along with my aunt and uncle.  A bunch of the original people I know from childhood were already there- or here.  Are still here.”

“The community part of it sounds nice, at least,” Kenzie offered.

“It really wasn’t,” Rain said.

“Oh.”

“Sorry,” he said.  He sighed.  “Crowleys… we’ve been seeing them like I used to see the McVeay leaders when we’d go visit their compounds or when they checked on us.  The rest of the family never respected them.  That branch started because some university kids wanted attention, and then a bunch of brothers with powers jumped in, played along, and took over.  They almost got killed by the other families before they figured out how to play the politics.”

“And somewhere along the way, they started buying what they were selling to keep the group together?” I asked.

Rain shook his head.  “I don’t know.  It never felt like they took this seriously, everyone says they capitalize on the reputation of the other families.  But they had the guns today, didn’t they?  They were for real.”

“Yeah,” Byron said.

“You don’t have a good sense of them, then?” I asked.

“I have a bit of a sense.  The low level guys, there are some that call themselves jackasses.  It’s a badge of honor.  They vandalize, they do the stunts you might hear about on the news, interrupting serious events, getting people offended.”

“The people most people think about when they think of Fallen,” Byron said.

“Yeah,” Rain said.  “Thing is, when we’d all get together so every family had enough people nearby to be an army in case something happened, we’d see the jackasses and they’d be some of the scariest people around.”

Chris leaned forward, “Stay away from those Jackass kids, Junior, they’re up to no good, I hear one of them was crazy enough to trim his pubes with a weed whacker.  Be back before eight, because we’re decapitating a baby for the ritual tonight and we need you to hold it down.”

“Not the baby,” Kenzie gasped.

“That first part isn’t all that wrong,” Rain said.  “We’d laugh about it, because parents would tell soldiers to stay away from these loons that have probably never seen a fight.”

“They’re all loons,” Kenzie said.

“Well, yeah,” Rain said.  “These guys specifically were… not all super nuts.  Some were like you or me.”

“You and me are pretty screwed up,” Kenzie said.  “I don’t think that’s a good measure.”

“I think it’s right.  The minor ones were almost normal, except for the part where they were Fallen and they’d each done something to earn their stripes, like playing death metal over speakers at a remembrance ceremony.  But there are a lot of them who… I guess spent years getting celebrated for doing fucked up things.  No empathy, no fear of death.  Those are the ones to watch out for, and the ones I can definitely see hurting civilians.  Shooting people.  Shit.”

“Those are the little guys.  What about the leaders?” I asked.  “If they can order their guys around, what are they going to tell them?”

“I don’t know.  I never really learned much about them specifically.  I saw a few of their immediate family members. They thrive on being unpredictable, I guess.  They seemed to go back and forth between a ton of infighting and hurting themselves and then suddenly being really good manipulators who would send relatives to other branches and isolated cells and try to get them to collaborate on something or they’d steer that ship.”

“If the patrol knows they’re that hard to figure out, they could be taking a wait and see approach,” Sveta said.  She looked at me.

“The patrol is overlooking that we have some pretty good ideas about their current direction, with them using the guns like they did,” I pointed out.

“People are going to get hurt if someone doesn’t stop them,” Rain murmured.

“You think?” Byron asked.

“Oh yeah,” Rain said.  “Yeah.”

I started to lean forward, because the backs of the bus seats obscured so much of the group, found I couldn’t comfortably do it without my arm hurting, and sat up straighter instead.

“We wanted to prevent this.  A spy in Advance-”

A noise at the front of the bus interrupted me.  The door was being pushed open.  Kenzie and Byron reached for their helmets.  Kenzie held the front half of her helmet up in front of her face with her hands.

They relaxed when the head popped up.  Black haired, with jewelry.

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” Erin said.  “I can go.”

“Stay,” Rain said.

Erin remained where she was.  From the height she stood at, she had to be standing on the stair of the bus just before the level the driver’s chair was situated on.  The flat barrier with the railing separated her from us.

“You’re okay now,” she said.  “I saw you before, briefly, while you were bloody- I shouldn’t be mentioning that.”

She sounded so shaken.

“Do you guys want to be alone?” Sveta asked.

“Sure,” Rain said, at the same time Erin said, “No.”

The tension in the pause that followed was almost physical.

“Is your family okay?” Rain asked.

“Mom was really upset.  She got angry, and tried to pick a fight with someone our age, one of the people in body armor.  I was just talking with her, while she’s handcuffed to a rail in one of the buses now.  Dad- he’s angry too but he’s holding it together so he can stick with Bryce.”

“I’m glad they’re alive,” Rain said.

“They’re shaken.  When we were mind controlled, it shook them.  There was a moment I was talking to my mom when she asked me for an explanation, and I thought- did she get it?  Then she started making up these really thin reasons and getting really angry at me for no reason, when I wasn’t saying anything.”

Erin looked so disappointed.

She went on, and her eyes were damp as she said, “But I’m glad they’re alive too, Rain.  You gave me something I didn’t think was possible.  They’re away from all of that.  Maybe there’s a chance.”

“I hope so,” Rain said.

“I’m sorry I was so horrible to you,” she said.

“That night was the kind of night that’s horrible no matter what,” Rain said.  “Wasn’t you.  Let’s pretend it never happened.”

“I’d like that,” she said.  “Can we go back to being friends?”

“Friends,” Rain said.  “Yeah, of course.  Come sit?  Keep us company?  These guys are going to leave soon, and I’ll be bored like this.”

“I-” she started.  “Bryce did get a little bit hurt.  I was about to check up on him.  I’ll visit properly later.”

“Okay.”  The one word from Rain sounded anything but.

“You guys do your hero thing,” she spoke with a forced brightness.  “Thank you, everyone.  I know you helped.  You’re amazing.”

“Except for Kenzie,” Chris said.  “She’s just okay.”

“Aw.”

“Don’t listen to him.  You’re especially amazing, critter,” Erin said.  “Second only to Rain, and I’m biased.”

I snuck a glance at Rain, trying to read him.

“Do your hero thing, Rain,” Erin said.  “Because- you are a hero.  Thank you for helping to get us out.”

“Say hi to Bryce for me, yeah?” Rain asked.

“I will.  I’ll visit soon,” she said.  “I promise.”

And then she was gone, ducking her head down, exiting the bus.  I twisted around and watched through the blurry, dusty window as she walked away, escorted by a patrol student in uniform.

When I looked back in Rain’s direction, his eyes were moist and getting moister.

I dropped my gaze, my eyes settled on the ‘crown’ of spikes from my gloves.  Each spike was meant to run over the top of my knuckles and rest flat against the back of my hand, all in parallel.  I rested a finger on one of the longer spikes.

Rain couldn’t be faulted for feeling vulnerable after his ordeal.

“Cradle would hurt them to get at me,” Rain said.

“It’s possible,” I said.  I was put in mind of Cradle’s words, and the way his description of Rain had struck home for me.  Had I been willing to look at Rain, I might have found it hard to maintain eye contact.

“That’s not what I thought you’d say,” Sveta said.  Her eyes, like mine, were downcast.

“You want me to let him go,” Rain said.

“I’m in this to help people,” Sveta said.  “I think we should all want this.  Even if any of you are more selfish than that, think about where the team is.”

“Where’s the team?” Kenzie asked.

Sveta met my eyes.  I glanced at Ashley, in turn, then at Byron.

“Kenzie, Ashley kind of killed someone,” Sveta said.  “So did Rain.”

“You came very close to killing someone too,” I said.

“I had to,” Kenzie said.

“Wait, let me talk,” Sveta said.  “I’ve been thinking about this.  I talked about this in front of all of you at different times.  In the group, and in the room with Victoria.  My first clear memories, I was dropped into the middle of a populated area in Russia.  I killed a lot of people accidentally.  Civilians and army that came after me, and then people from the PRT.  I didn’t stop because I found a way to stop.  I stopped because they caught me.”

“You’ve talked about it,” Ashley said.  “Deaths stay with us.”

“They’re supposed to stay with us!” Sveta sounded plaintive and outraged at the same time.  “This is major.  I got each and every one of those names of the people I killed.  I learned about them.  I know it wasn’t my fault, but…”

“Saving those people wouldn’t mitigate that,” Ashley said.  “There aren’t scales that balance because you take one life and save another.  If you take lives you’re a murderer and nothing wipes that slate clean.”

“That’s not true,” Kenzie said.

“I know that, Ashley,” Sveta said, upset, “That’s not what I’m saying at all.”

“What are you saying?” I asked.

“I think it would be really messed up if the deaths were glossed over because things were as bad as they were,” Sveta said.  “And if the team stayed together.  I don’t see a good way for things to end.”

“End?” Kenzie asked.  “There doesn’t have to be an end.”

“Kenzie,” Sveta sounded apologetic as she said it.  “How does this continue?”

“It continues when you accept that the people who died were…” Chris said, trailing off.

“Monstrous?” Sveta asked, archly.

“Assholes,” Chris said.

“Yeah.  Let’s kill every asshole,” Sveta said.  “That’d be great.  We’re supposed to be a hero team.  I wouldn’t feel very heroic if this was how we left this.”

“We don’t have to leave anything,” Kenzie said.  Sveta moved her hand to reach over the top of the seat and touch Kenzie’s shoulder, and Kenzie pushed it away.  “This is silly.”

“An awful lot of us have killed,” Rain said.  “Consequences pending or interrupted.”

“You said, once, that you wanted to turn yourself in,” Sveta said.  “You weren’t clear about what happened around that, but it led to your joining the group.”

“Time with Mrs. Yamada first, then the group,” he said.  “I heard some of that discussion.”

“Mama Mathers kept you from confessing,” I concluded.

“Yes,” he replied.  “I’ve always told myself that I’d face consequences for what I did.  There’s no room in the jails, yet.  But maybe one day I’ll face a sentence.  A lot of people got hurt because I didn’t act.  Maybe ten, twenty years, with time off because I cooperate.  That doesn’t wipe the slate clean, like Ashley said, does it?  But maybe it helps?”

“Ashley- you’re cooperating, aren’t you?” Sveta asked.

“Yes.”

“No,” Kenzie said.

“I think it would be a relief,” Ashley said.  “Incarceration.  I’ve been waiting a long time for it, I think, and there are people waiting for me on the other side.”

“I don’t want to be the bad guy.  I just want due process,” Sveta said.  “That’s all.”

“How does this relate to going after the Fallen?” I asked.

“I don’t want this to be all regrets,” she said.  “You’re certain this is going to turn violent, Rain?”

“Completely,” he said.  “It’s the mindset.  The Crowleys are a bit of a mystery but Fallen as a group aren’t.”

“Then let’s get people to help,” Sveta said.  “The patrol might not help, the Undersiders might refuse if we don’t give them Cradle, but we made other allies.  If this is an emergency then let’s call in favors and do what we can.”

“Without getting involved,” Byron said.

“Yeah,” Sveta said.  “Not us as a group.  We’d be peripheral, coordinating.  We all know people.  We can do the right thing here, all of us working together.  That’s what I want most- for this to have been a good thing.”

“You say that like it’s already over,” Kenzie said.

“This part of it’s almost over,” Ashley said.

“No,” Kenzie said.  “Nuh uh.”

“Does not compute with K-z logic,” Chris said.

Fuck off, Chris,” Kenzie said.  “Dickhole.”

She grabbed her helmet as she stood up, putting it on as the two halves.  She stopped walking as I put a hand out.

“Let me go,” she said.

“I will.  One question though,” I said.

“What?”

“Are you going to regret not being here for this conversation?  I can fill you in after, if you need to get away, or I could come with you, if you needed company or backup.”

“You agree with Sveta, don’t you?” she asked, accusatory.

“I like the idea of due process and fair justice,” I said.  “I’m not as sure as Sveta that this machine has its cogs in place.”

She stood there.  Even with the parts of her bodysuit that stood out to give it definition and decoration, it was very apparent how small and skinny she was.  A couple of inches shy of being five feet tall.  Fragile, in a completely different way than Rain was fragile, right now.

She pushed past my hand, walked down the aisle a bit, and then seated herself on a seat a few rows behind Ashley, her back to us.

“Outlining our options, Tattletale said she’d keep an eye on Cradle,” I said.

“She says a lot of things,” Chris said.  “I’m a bit lost, in all of this.  But she pointed Cradle and the cleaver assassin at Rain, right?  She led them right to him.”

“It looks like it,” Sveta said.

“Then she pointed us at the assassin guy and Cradle.”

“Yeah,” Sveta said.

“And now she wants us to let Cradle go.”

“Yes,” I said.

“Contradictory,” Chris said.

“She promised an explanation,” I said.

“Damn this fragile healing effect,” Rain said.  He sounded angrier than anything, now.  “I really want that explanation, now, to my face.”

“I can help with that,” Kenzie said, from halfway down the bus, her back still to us.

I looked at Rain, and then I looked at the boy who had forecast so much of this.  Tristan might have been the type for a victorious ‘I told you so’, had the roles been reversed.  Byron, however, was quiet, his expression unreadable.

My hand moved, and the ‘crown’ moved with it.  I’d exerted too much pressure, and the point of the spike had pierced the bed of my finger, with red blood welling up and a droplet tracing its way down the spike.

I donned the glove, the fabric serving to cover the small puncture wound.

I’d met with Tattletale before, in a place very similar to this.  The city was close to one of the portals, and it was very likely that it was one of the cities that had been supplied with foreign material, and that material was concrete.  Underfoot, the buildings, the supporting pillars that ran diagonally from the ground to the buildings.

Yellow paint marked the pillars, so cars wouldn’t drive into gray pillars against a backdrop of gray ground and gray buildings.  More of the paint had been used to define the boundaries of the road.  Perhaps because the yellow paint was so prevalent, some enterprising vandals had used a boatload of it to scrawl crude images and words along many surfaces- only some of which had been cleaned or partially cleaned.  I suspected the cleanup crews were high school students working as part of a morning or afternoon block, because there seemed to be a bias in the graffiti that was partially removed versus the images that hadn’t been touched.  Art was allowed to stay up as long as possible.

Again, I was guided to a food court, this one beside a complicated concrete edifice with extraneous pillars and supports, and a long overhang that kept things dry in the light rain.  Again, the graffiti, I noted.  Maybe it was something Tattletale liked or identified with the Undersiders.

This time, though, I wasn’t arriving alone.

It was an odd feeling, to have the team with me, when things stood where they did.  Minus two members, but most of us were present.  Yes, things were tense and uneasy, but there had been a moment back there where I’d been damn proud of all of them.  Against Cradle in particular, we’d stood together.

Once we’d figured out where we were going, deciding on a route that avoided the settled areas and roads, Vista had shortened the distance as much as she could.  We’d left Kenzie’s projector cube behind, in favor of the faster trip.  Even with the shortcut, we’d had to hitch a ride to get ourselves here.  Concord Station.

The Undersiders were waiting for us.  They sat on tables and chairs, or lounged with stuffed animals and mutant dogs giving them something to lean on or sit on.  Foil and Imp stood, while others sat or leaned back.  Foil was stock still, on guard, and Imp was restless.

There were others.  I recognized Snuff.  There was the boy with the birds.  Two people were dressed to match Rachel in general style, with heavy clothes that seemed more utilitarian, except for bits and pieces, like a collar here or a spiked belt wrapped around the arm there.  The guy wore a bear trap decoration around his lower face.

Maybe those were utilitarian too, with ‘intimidation’ being the sought-after utility.

They would have outnumbered us without the mutant dogs and the giant stuffed animals with the black cloth.  With them, though?  Three to one.

Similar to Snag’s numbers, now that I thought about it.

“The Fallen reached the city a bit ago,” Tattletale said.  “They didn’t go in with guns blazing, but they’re liable to come out that way.”

“I see your team made it out intact,” I observed.  Off to my left, Chris walked away, traveling the perimeter of the area where the overhang kept the rain off.  Foil changed position, ready to take a shot with her crossbow if she had to, and one of the dogs that had been lying down stood up.

“We get by,” Tattletale said.  “We were playing it careful, we even tried to warn Prancer that something was wrong.  He didn’t buy it.  That’s the issue you run into when you surround yourself with villains and deceivers.  You can’t be sure they’re for real when they tell you something important.”

“Is it isolating, Tattletale, sitting there surrounded with your deceivers and villains?” I asked.

“No.  I’m pretty content right now, actually.”

“Weld says hi, Foil,” Sveta said.  “He wishes he could have talked with you while you were there.”

Foil nodded, but she remained silent.

“This is kind of a favor, us stopping while we’re partway home, waiting for you, giving you the deets you’re so eager for.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I really do appreciate this.  I know it’s a really difficult thing, acting halfway decent.  Do make sure you keep pointing it out, any time you do it, and gloss over the parts where there’s tacit manipulation or something in it for you.”

Tristan leaned over and murmured, “Are you sure you’re good taking point on this?”

“Yeah,” I murmured back.

“She and I, we have a rapport, Capricorn,” Tattletale said.  “It’s not a healthy rapport, but we are who we are.  Oil and water.”

“Can we be the oil?” Imp asked.  “Slick, dark, with wealth implied?”

Beside me, Looksee had her camera.  She hefted it up and set it down on the table.

“No recordings, please,” Tattletale said.  “Or this conversation is over.”

“It’s not a recording,” Looksee said.

“Strange tinker devices?  Not a great way to open this discussion,” Tattletale said.  “At least it’s interesting.  I thought this would be the usual predictable thing with you sniping at me and then asking the questions.  Why did I help you, why did I help Cradle, what are the Fallen doing, what are you missing?”

“No,” I said.

“If you’re not giving me Cradle, this is going to be a short meeting,” she said.

“Explanations before we give you anything,” I said.

“And we’re back to the script,” Tattletale sighed the words, barely audible.  “Normally people pay me for my information.  But for you, and for hometown pride…”

“Not me,” I said.  “The explanations aren’t for me.”

I looked at Kenzie.

She hit a button on her camera.  When it didn’t boot, she hammered it with her hand a few times.

The projector came on.  The two missing members of our group appeared.  Ashley was projected, her lower body a static black dress.  She’d be sitting on a bus right now, a laptop beside her, to capture her face and anything she said.

And Rain.  For the moment, he was intact, but frozen in place.

“Ah,” Tattletale said.  “Your Fallen teammate.”

“It’s up to him whether we give you Cradle or not,” I said.  “But we’re leaning toward not, just so you know.”

“Of course.  Standard negotiation.”

Looksee hit the camera again.

Rain animated, the image glitching in the moment before it caught up.  Now he appeared like he was in the plaza with us, the occasional scan line or glitch marking him for the projected image he was.

Looksee’s camera had captured the images of the wounds.  The slashes, the cuts and cleaves, and the parts where skin peeled away.  It simulated the blood.

She’d even captured the background sound.  The ragged, rough breathing, like each inhalation and exhalation was an effort.

“I don’t need to ask you why you helped both Cradle and us,” I said.  “I think I get it.”

“Do you now?” Tattletale asked.  Her attention was on Rain’s spectre.  Damsel’s spectre moved around the group, standing beside Looksee.

“I get it because you want the same thing I want.  You were managing the battle and hoping and praying that people would see the light and play nice.  You want the old rules and the old ‘game’, and you’re apparently not that stellar when it comes to reading multi-triggers like my teammate, Cradle, or March.  You underestimated the bloodlust and you overestimated how much my teammate deserved it.  He got the cleaver, and you felt so darn awful about it, you volunteered help.”

“Oh my god, Tattletale,” Parian said.

“There’s a good bit more to it,” Tattletale said, before turning to tell Parian, “so don’t buy too heavily into the theatrics.  We’re capes.  We should be used to this.”

“If you want to deal with people like Cradle, you should at least look at the consequences,” Sveta said.

“I’m aware of the consequences.  I’m aware of a ton of stuff.  The reality is, Garotte, there’s bigger picture stuff.  There’re a half-dozen people who are only seeing one or two dimensions of the greater structure and we’re each trying to keep it from toppling without being able to talk to the others.  I’m trying to hold up my end and simultaneously open the channels of communication.  Kind of important.”

So she said, but she didn’t like looking at Rain as she said it.

I could work with that.  Maybe I wouldn’t take point on this after all.  I felt a grim kind of satisfaction.

“Great,” I said.  “Elaborate.  But don’t tell me.  Tell him.”

“Please.  Let’s talk,” the bloodied image of Rain said.

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Pitch – 6.6

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Narwhal faced down the Fallen, standing in the middle of the road.  A crowd of patrol block soldiers stood behind her, with the buses lined up.

The soldiers with guns were only slightly less intimidating than the array of forcefields she’d conjured up, arranged above and to either side of her with the blades pointing forward, each one slightly tilted in angle compared to the one next to it, so they all pointed at the one point ahead of us.

I floated above her.

“It’s over,” Narwhal called out.  “The Crowleys are running, the Mathers leadership is gone.  Half of your town was leveled and legitimate authorities are going to be staying there to make sure everything’s healthy as people move back in.”

And we’ll provide some resources to anyone that wants out for good, I thought.  I hope that pans out.

Healthy,” the Fallen woman in the lead said.  “Healthy food is stuff you have to choke down.  Healthy body means doing grueling work.  That’s you saying it’s going to fucking suck.”

Yeah, she didn’t look like someone who ate her vegetables.

“I’ve done this kind of thing before.  I fought warlords,” Narwhal said.  “I helped the villages after.  I delivered supplies to isolated settlements.  A lot of people want this to have a happy ending, and experience tells me that ending is possible.”

A guy called out, “The only happy ending I want is the kind you use your hand for, bitch!”

There was some raucous, tense laughter from the group.

I felt such disgust, looking at them.  It wasn’t the joke- I could imagine Chris or Rain saying something like that and it being something that pushed the envelope.  They wouldn’t have said ‘bitch’, though.

I couldn’t understand them.

My phone buzzed.  I flew to the ground, off to the side of Narwhal, and brought my phone to my ear.

“Tattletale here.  Can we talk?”

“Standoff with the remaining Mathers Fallen and Narwhal,” I said.  I assessed the situation.  “I think Narwhal has it handled.”

“I’d think so.  I’ve found the Crowleys, they covered their retreat, and now they’re on the move.  They borrowed a fleet of cars from a town north of here, and they’re heading east.”

“East?  Boston?  New Brockton?”

“I’m betting the Boston district of the Megalopolis,” she said.  “They’re taking a route using roads that are barely roads, they’re so rustic.  If you take the major highway, you could get ahead of them with time to spare.  Give me what I need and we’ll help.”

“We being?”

“Undersiders.  I can twist Prancer’s arm, promise to help him bounce back if he’ll lend me people.  I could also give you the information for March.  She’d help, but it would have to come from you, not me.”

“Do I want her help?”

“She’d do the job and she’d do it well, if she thought it would help Rain.”

“But?” I asked.  I was still keeping an eye on the situation with Narwhal and the Fallen.

“You know the Graeae twins?  They’re part of her group.”

“A bit.  They helped Rain out.”

“They were two of three, originally.  They had another brother, and they’re triplets and cluster-mates at the same time.  Big bro went off the deep end.  Kiss and kill are messy enough when you’ve got family bonds, but the brother went full kiss, full kill, at the same time, like where the venn diagram overlaps.”

I felt my skin crawl, and darker thoughts bubbled up, as I drew some parallels.  I kept my voice level as I said, “I’ve read about that.”

“Whichever order that goes in, it’s… it’s not good, Victoria.”

“Thanks,” I said, my voice curt.  “Let’s speed along to the explanation.”

“With my power, I can usually figure people out.  With March, I can’t.  When that happens, it’s because there is no answer, or I’m asking the wrong question.”

That was more information than I’d ever had about Tattletale’s power and its limitations.

“You should know I’m baring my throat and showing you some weaknesses as a gesture of good faith,” Tattletale said.

Or as a manipulation tactic.

I watched the Fallen advance a little, but kept up my end of the call.  In a pinch, I would fly in and stall.  I drew out the thrust of Tattletale’s explanation, something that I seemed to have to do with regularity.  “You think you can’t figure out if March is one or the other because she’s both?”

“Or neither, but saying it’s neither would mean it’s so far afield it’s not sensible.  Which would fit her.  Either way, if she really likes someone, that isn’t a good thing.”

“You’re saying not to rely on her, then?”

“Know what you’re getting into.  She’d be useful to have if you pick this fight.  It’s a lot of Fallen and they’ll be going to somewhere there are friends.”

“Understood,” I said.  I was distracted as I replied; the Fallen were more agitated now.

“We know they’re projections!” the Fallen woman jeered.

Narwhal looked at one of her team members.  I imagined it was the kind of disappointed look that went with a sigh.

She looked at me, and I nodded.

My phone beeped, loud.  I twisted my head around, burying my eyes in the crook of my elbow, bringing out the Wretch.

The flash was so bright I could briefly see my bones through my arm, with everything else being a mottled pink.

The Fallen were left partially or wholly blind.  Some screamed, others opened fire.  Narwhal already had her barrier up.  The forcefields glowed as they absorbed the fire.

Our trap worked.

“Sounds like you’re busy.  We’ll meet, and you can bring some of your people this time, if you want.  You can glare at me, I’ll fill you in on the why and the what.”

“That’s only if we agree.”

“Let’s keep this simple, Victoria.  I’m trying to play ball.”

“You were ops for an assassin that came after my teammate.”

“I’m trying to play ball with this.  If you put him in jail, I might have to break him out, or he’s going to break out on his own.  He’s a tinker, among other things.  The places they’ve got aren’t that good, trust me.”

“If you or your people help him, we’re actually going to have a problem,” I said.  “But whether we release him in exchange for your help isn’t up to me.”

“I’ll send you some stuff.  Use it to convince others.”

Captain Marcial scrolled through my phone logs.  Another captain, Gaymon, was standing next to her, arms folded, watching the screen.

“Using this phone is a hassle,” Gaymon said.

“I’d have given you better if I had better,” I said.  “She texted all that to me, and I don’t know how to put texts on a laptop, or where I would even get a laptop out here.”

“Whatever,” Gaymon said.

I frowned a bit, but I didn’t want to make an issue of things.  I knew some of the patrol blocks were more anti-cape than Gilpatrick’s, and Gaymon had given me that vibe and cemented it in place with his attitude.

Gilpatrick, Sveta and Chris were next to me.  Ashley was a short distance away in the company of ‘Jester’, the both of them sitting on a rock by the ditch.  Rain was lying across the long seat at the rear end of a bus, resting and avoiding any and all disturbances after the attention from Scapegoat.

Shortcut from Advance Guard was lurking around the periphery.  Thankfully, he was staying quiet and sticking to the background.

“This Tattletale, you trust her?” Marcial asked.  She was a slim woman, with a nose that had been broken at least twice, and a thin old scar that parted her eyebrow.  Like Gilpatrick, she was ex-PRT.  She wore a raincoat that was open in the front, because it couldn’t close around her body armor.  The hood kept the drizzle off of her face.

“No,” I said.  “I don’t really trust her.”

“Not so compelling, then,” she said, looking back down at the phone.

“It’s… not a point in her favor,” I said.  “But I’d rather operate under the assumption that she’s telling the truth about where the Fallen are and what they’re doing.  I’m going to go after them and, if she turns out to be right, put myself at risk.  If she’s wrong, I’m flying for a few hours when all I want to do is get my gunshot wound looked at.  Take that for what it’s worth.”

“So you do trust her.”

“I trust that the Fallen are dangerous.  That trust means I’m willing to accept the hassle and the risk.”

“That Tattletale is yanking our dicks?” Captain Marcial asked, her voice about as uncaring and dry as was possible.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Children present,” Sveta said, quiet.  Her arms were folded, and one finger moved, pointing at Chris.

“I don’t care,” Chris said.

“I don’t care either,” Marcial said.  “If they can fight, they can hear some bad language.  This feels like a wild goose chase or a trap.  We’ve already been stung a few times.”

“We know they went somewhere.  Our tinker thinks there’s reason to believe Tattletale is right.  They used guns today, multiple witnesses can testify they put civilians in the line of fire to use as human shields, and tortured others.  There’s a chance they bring that behavior to a settlement.  I think it’s worth using the only lead we have, after they slipped our perimeter.”

“They being the Crowleys?”

“Yes,” I said.  “Possibly with some scattered Mathers, and the Clans, and the remaining Bikers.”

I wasn’t sure how keen the Bikers would be when it came to playing along, but I wasn’t going to bring that up.  Marcial’s approach wasn’t warming me to her, and I was reluctant to give her fuel for her suspicions and delaying tactics.  It was her call when it came to her patrol group and what they were prepared to do.  She had authority over her group in the field like Gilpatrick had for the Bridgeport patrol.

I was keenly aware of Captain Marcial’s geographical position, as well.  She was in charge of the patrol block from New Haven.  They were the closest neighbors to the Mathers camp of Fallen.  The same town with the shop where I’d picked up the donuts, and with the people who’d been camped out watching for trouble, that Looksee had fooled and helped bring into custody.

If anyone was going to turn out to be a Fallen sympathizer, a thing that was happening with some frequency, I wouldn’t be shocked if that anyone was Captain Marcial.

“Crowleys aren’t on paper as being a big threat,” she said.

“Crowleys aren’t on paper as having gun toting soldiers either,” I said.

“We took the same road they did when we came here,” Chris said.  “You can smell the gunpowder in the air, mixed with the smell of cigarettes, alcohol, gasoline and body odor.”

You can, Chris,” Sveta said, stressing the ‘you’.

Gaymon’s superior approached.  I’d caught the man being called Captain Bash, but I wasn’t sure if it was a nickname or real last name.  He didn’t look like a Bash, with a shorter than average stature, skinny physique and a bit of a receding hairline- I could imagine it being the sort of thing where a tall muscular man was nicknamed Tiny.  The PRT director in my hometown had confided in me at one point that she’d been nicknamed Lady, and from her lack of grace and finer manners, it might have been the same sort of thing.

Bash indicated the phone, “What’s this?”

“Villain says she knows where the Crowley bunch went, after Scapegoat helped them push past our perimeter.  Gilpatrick’s cape says they want to follow up on it.  If this is to be believed, the Fallen went north, to the Meridian stretch, and then they’ll go east.”

“To a populated part of the city,” I pointed out.

“And?” Bash asked.

“We’re trying to decide if it’s worth going after the jackasses,” Gaymon said.

“It’s more complicated than that.  We can get better info, but it costs,” I said.  “And I need the approval of my whole team on this, first.  I want to make sure we have the other resources we need if we’re going to pay this cost or convince the rest of my team.  If we can work with what we’ve got, though, that’d be ideal.”

“I’ll defer to Gilpatrick and Marcial,” Bash said.  “You make the call, we’ll help, whatever happens.”

“Again,” I said, trying not to let the combination of Chris and Bash sidetrack things too much, “We have witnesses.  They came armed and they fought hard.  This wasn’t the prankster, pain in the ass, public nuisance Crowleys.  This was something more vicious.”

“Because they were defending their home?” Marcial suggested.

“I trust her, Liz,” Gilpatrick said, speaking just a moment before I said something I would have regretted later.  “If she says it was serious, I believe her.”

“This is your girl from the community center?”

I frowned.

“She is,” Gilpatrick said.

“The wrecking ball.”

Fuck me, was she trying to push me?

“She kept my people alive and safe.  She protected civilians.  Considering the fudge-cluster that was, I’m happy with how she handled it.”

“Disaster follows in your heroine’s wake, huh?” Marcial asked, still in that same dry tone.

I closed my eyes, then measured out my response, “It’s my feeling that when you have powers, it’s your responsibility to take action in the face of disaster.  So yeah, you’re going to see me a lot on the scene of bad stuff going down.”

“Cluster fudge, bad stuff,” Chris said.  “You don’t need to censor for my benefit.  I promise you, I’ve heard worse.  I’ve said worse.”

“Don’t interrupt,” Sveta told him.

“I understand that you’re defensive, Victoria.  You put a lot on the line,” Marcial said.

“I’m not-” I started.  I clenched my fist.

“It’s okay.  This is how I function.  Ask anyone who works under me.  I’m asking the questions others are going to ask after we’re done.  Why do this, are we sure, wasn’t there some indication it was a trap?  Succeed or fail, they’re going to wonder, and I intend to have the right answers for them.”

“Okay,” I said, though I didn’t feel okay with it.  The annoying thing with how she ‘functioned’ was that I had a hard time going back and finding the thread of the conversation again.  Chris’ commentary didn’t help.  “Defending their home, you said.”

“Mm hmm,” she said.  She looked at Gaymon as he nudged her.

“The supporting images aren’t very clear,” Gaymon interrupted, holding up my phone.  “Especially on a screen this small.”

“Yeah,” she acknowledged him.  “I don’t think anyone has satellite footage that’s worth three fucks, yet.”

I pressed, “They were armed and ready for a small war.  This isn’t limited to the guns people brought with them and the rifles they had for hunting.  There were assault rifles and whole groups with a matching gun in each person’s hand.”

“I bet if you asked them, they’d say it was a good thing they were armed and ready, since a small war came to them,” she said.  When she saw my expression, she added, “I’m anticipating the responses we’ll get, that’s all.”

I took a deep breath.  “Okay.  Do you have any questions?  Do you need anything?”

“Do you want your phone back?” she asked.

I started to approach, and she tossed the phone my way.  I had to fly a bit to catch it one-handed.

“We’ll let you know what we decide,” Gaymon said.

I turned to walk away, and Gilpatrick told his peers, “I’ll be right back.”

He walked with me, as I walked up to Sveta and Chris, put a hand on Sveta’s shoulder, and had us all walk over to where Jester was talking to Ashley.  From there, I indicated we should walk a little further away for our pow-wow.

“Sorry,” Gilpatrick said.  “That is how she operates.”

“She make a lot of friends with that ‘function’ of hers?”

“No,” Gilpatrick said.  “I’d never pretend she has many allies or friends.  She was New York PRT, and if you ask the New York PRT, they’ll say- they would have said that they were the best in the country.

“A few PRT teams would have said that,” I replied, with a sigh.  “Does she live up to her own hype?”

Gilpatrick gave me a one-shouldered shrug.  “Her ass is so covered it’s bulletproof, and that’s a skill a lot of people overlook.  People who matter trust her when she talks because she is very good at explaining things to people who know nothing.  Again, a skill.”

“That definitely doesn’t make friends if she wins important people over to her side when multiple others try and fail,” I said.

“I won’t comment,” Gilpatrick said, in a conspiratorial way I wasn’t sure someone else would catch.  I was right.  It was something that had happened.

“That’s politics.  Is she good at her job?”

“Depends on what you see as her job.  I’d like to think I’m a better teacher and shaper of our youth.  She’s better at going after the bad guys.”

“Worrying.”

We met with Ashley, where she’d found a rock to lean against.  Jasper put the phone down beside her, then walked over to stand by Gilpatrick.  I really wondered what he’d been talking to Ashley about, and why he’d even gone to talk to her in the first place.

“How’s everyone?” I asked.

“Patched up,” Sveta said, patting her prosthetic shell.

“Good,” Chris said.  “Did what I wanted, mostly.”

I raised an eyebrow at that.  He’d seemed slightly dissatisfied earlier.  He only shrugged.

“I’ve been talking to Jester and Looksee, getting caught up,” Ashley said.  “It’s a good distraction.”

Ooh, she’s into archery,” Looksee said.  The phone rested on the rock between Jasper and Ashley.  “Badass.”

Ashley raised a hand, indicating the phone, “See?  Distraction enough.”

“Wait,” I said.  “Say again, Looksee.  Who is into archery?”

Marcial.

“Why Marcial?”

Because she’s our biggest obstacle, and I was looking for clues.

“Looksee, you can’t spy on people,” I said.

“Please,” Sveta said.

Is it really spying if the information is a mouseclick away?

“Yes,” Chris said.

Oh, hey, Creepy Kid.  Tattletale was asking about you.  I didn’t say anything, of course.

“I’m apparently Creepy Kid now,” Chris said, to Sveta and I.

“I told you, you need to pick a name, or it’s going to get chosen for you,” I said.

“I don’t have good ideas,” Chris said.  “The good names are taken.  The shortlist is Dramaturge, Cryptid, Cryptozoo-”

Looksee snorted audibly over the phone.

“Don’t laugh, Looksee,” exaggerating her name.

“Looksee is good!  Victoria said you can make any name work if you do good enough, and I did good today.”

“Well enough,” Chris said.

“Everyone did well,” I said.  “You included, Looksee.  I know that wasn’t as close to the frontline as you want, but the camera drop, outlining the cables-”

“Threads,” Looksee said.  “With force around and to them.”

“Okay,” I said.  “And the fake cable coming at Cradle.  It was good.”

“She was telling me about it,” Ashley said.

“It was good,” I said.

“If you keep saying that, she’s going to blow a fuse,” Chris said.

“Oh, completely changing the subject, Capricorn is coming back with Vista.  He’s a couple of minutes away.”

“I’ll go say hi in a second,” I said.

“This whole thing is dizzying,” Jester said.  “I don’t know how you do it.”

“In a way, I grew up with it,” I said.  “Was different, back then.  I dealt with more known quantities.  Or I thought I did.  No Marcials.  I never thought I’d miss having my mom as team leader once I flew the coop.  I considered it a good day when my aunt was the one in charge, and I still found it stifling.”

“It’s not all people like Marcial,” Gilpatrick said.

“I know,” I said.  I had to make a three-quarter turn to lightly punch him in the arm, because my injured arm was the one closer to him.  “We’ve got people like you and Jester.”

“The fact that you’re using that name and you’re putting us in the same sentence pains me,” Gilpatrick didn’t move his lips as he murmured the words.

Jester cleared his throat, looking at Gilpatrick.

“I’ll give you one thing,” Chris was saying in the background, “The camera thing was a good play.  Brutal.”

“Thank you, nice of you to say,” Looksee said.

“It was,” Sveta said, “But I don’t like how that was worded.  Brutal and good shouldn’t be put together like that.”

Chris went on, “I wanted to make a joke before, but speaking takes concentration when you don’t have the mouth you’re used to.  Now it sounds dumb, because I’d be saying it out of nowhere.”

“Say it.  Say it,” Looksee said.

“Looksee?  More like look out,” Chris said, and he chose the most deadpan tone of voice he could manage, in a way that sucked any of the residual humor out of the line.

Looksee laughed all the same.

“I hate to be a wet blanket,” Sveta said.  “But, please, almost caving in someone’s skull was an emergency measure, not a thing to be encouraged.”

“Seconding that,” I said.

“You seem to have your hands full,” Gilpatrick said.

“Feels like it,” I said.  Even if I had perfect control of the Wretch, every hand available would be full.

Ugh.  I didn’t like thinking like that.

“You guys talk,” I said.  “I’m going to go see Capricorn.  He should be there soon.”

“He paused to rest,” Looksee reported.  “He’s a minute away.”

“Good enough,” I said.

“I’ll come,” Ashley said.

I hesitated.  I’d wanted to fly.  “We’ll walk fast?”

She nodded.

We skirted the larger meeting, where Mayday had joined the discussion with Marcial, Bash, and Gaymon.  Gilpatrick took my leaving as an excuse to go, too, but he took a separate path.

Only Ashley and me.

“What did you talk to Jester about?” I asked.

“We didn’t talk much.  He brought the phone, and he managed it so I didn’t have to, asked how you were doing, we talked briefly about you.  He was curious about powers.  Looksee did most of the talking.”

“Talking about me?”

“Nothing bad,” she said.

I looked back over my shoulder.  The group was still gathered.  “They’re doing better than expected.  Sveta’s quiet.”

“They’re relieved that Rain is okay,” Ashley said.  “And they’re resilient.”

“And you?” I asked.  “Are you okay?”

“You said everyone did a good job.  I didn’t,” Ashley said.  She walked with her hand clasped around the injured portion, but the posture looked defensive.

“I really liked how you handled things with Gilpatrick, turning yourself in, asking him if you could join the fight.  They’re the right moves.”

“If I end up imprisoned and unable to see or call her, someone needs to look after Kenzie.”

I looked at Ashley.  Her hair had dried somewhat, but it still had the wet hair look, where it webbed into thicker locks.  She was wearing the new dress- the one she’d bought in Cedar Point, but it had been melted at the side, near where her wrist dangled by her leg.  Since the capture the flag game, I’d thought of Kenzie looking after Ashley in a way, but I wasn’t so sure I’d seen Ashley looking after Kenzie.  Defending her, maybe.  Being there-

“Being there for her?” I asked.

“It’s part of it,” she said.  “She doesn’t have anyone.”

“Doesn’t she?”

“I mean someone who will be there a year from now.  The team is wobbly, none of her classmates want to be her friend, and very few people spend time with her without wanting something from her or having to be with her.  When I get in trouble for blasting Beast of Burden, make sure she has someone.  You or someone else.”

I nodded.  “Her parents?”

“Go to that dinner at her house or ask the others if you want an answer to that question.”

I tilted my head a little, trying to see more of her face.  “Usually I can count on you for straight answers.”

“Not about this.  She’d be upset with me and things are hard enough.  She’s upset with me and I’m upset with her.  The talk on the phone, with a bystander there, we were dancing around being upset with each other.”

“Did I miss something?” I asked.

Ashley shook her head.  She moved her injured hand, bouncing it up and down briefly, then clenched her other hand at her arm as a muffled use of her power erupted between her fingers.  Agitation.

“I could have screamed at her.  It’s why I wanted this talk.”

“What happened?”

“I’m not sure, but she was trying to reassure me.  She said the situation was bad, there were lots of people hurt, Rain killed Snag, he was almost killed by Cradle, and even she almost killed Mama Mathers.”

Ashley gave that last bit some emphasis.

“You think it was intentional?  To connect, or…”

“I don’t know.  She said it and I can’t get it out of my head.  If it was intentional, even if it was accidental, if she killed someone, if she ruined herself like that, for something so stupid, or because she was careless, if she’s even capable of making that kind of decision-”

She was getting agitated as she talked.

“I get it,” I said, interrupting the speech.  “I get it.  We’ll figure something out.  I’ll talk to her.”

We walked for a short bit in silence.  I heard Ashley whisper something, but it wasn’t aimed at me.

I chose to ignore the whisper, in the same way I hoped someone would ignore me communicating something to the Wretch.

“She needs someone to look after her,” Ashley said.  “Now that someone can’t be me.”

I looked up.  The sky was still overcast, the light of the sun fighting to shine through in a way that made it look more like the heavy clouds had faint energy glowing from within them, rather than a distant burning orb sending its light to us.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen to the team,” I said.  “I think people are more shaken than they’re saying.”

“They are.”

“There was a lot there that was rough.  There’s still stuff out there- angry people with guns, who just saw their own get attacked, or who were forced to act by Mama Mathers.  Good people got really hurt.”

“Bad people got really hurt too,” Ashley said.

I paused, feeling the weight of that short statement.  “Yeah.  We’ll see how that goes.”

Water pattered against my hood, and I thought the rain had started up again- it was only the wind stirring the droplets from the leaves above.

I saw the distorted space before I saw Capricorn, Vista, and Chasmal.  Capricorn had one of his stone constructions over his shoulder, something that looked like a coffin, but was obviously made of Tristan’s power, with hooks and such.  Interestingly, though it looked like the sort of heavy something that would have required Tristan’s attention, it was Byron in the blue armor who was hauling it, holding up the thicker, wider upper end, with the bottom end dragging in the path behind him.

Vista was shortening their path.  Chasmal would be making the coffin and the person inside light enough for Byron to drag, while simultaneously phasing Mama Mathers partially out of reality.

He had a costume that sported Advance Guard’s geometric future aesthetic with a deep blue color scheme with orange trim.  The aesthetic and design seemed to be intended at invoking the dark, vigilante style.

I was really hoping that a measure like that would sever her connection to others, for any point in time that she woke up.

“You got her?” I asked.

“Yeah.  We also pointed Mayday’s cape and the patrol crew to the building we sealed up,” Byron said.  “Hi, Damsel.”

“Hi.”

“She’s still unconscious or asleep in there?” I asked.

“Has to be.  I’d have felt her struggling, or we would have heard her.”

“She could be dead,” Damsel said.

“Let’s hope,” Chasmal muttered.

“I’m hoping she isn’t,” I said.  Damsel nodded her agreement with me.

“I used my power to sweep over the area,” Vista said.  “I can get a general feel for when there are people somewhere and as far as I can tell, most of the town was evacuated.  We sent some people to rescue and retrieve.”

“Armed, armored people,” Byron said.

“But I think we did it,” Vista said.  She offered her fist out.  After a moment’s hesitation, Byron bumped it.  I was a little quicker to respond.

Vista offered her fist to Ashley, and Ashley shook her head, flashing a small smile instead.

Vista seemed to take it in stride.  “There were two groups that left.  One to the south-”

“Handled,” I said.  “Projections stopped them, even though they knew they were projections.  They lined up to face down our defending group, and we blinded them.”

“And the second one that tore through Advance Guard and the Hollow Point villains as they left by the north road.”

I wished I had a better answer for her.  “We’re still figuring that one out.”

“I hear Prancer’s group skedaddled?” Vista asked.

“What’s left of it.  They took a few bodies with them.”

“Eesh,” Byron said.

“Eesh is right,” I answered him.  “They’ll go back to Hollow Point and they’ll probably find one of the Wardens’ teams waiting there.  The Shepherds or Foresight.  With luck, they’ll be so tired they won’t want to fight for the territory, or they’ll lose that fight if they pick it.”

“We’re not invited?” Byron asked.

I shook my head.  “We weren’t invited, we’re battered and weary, and I think I’d rather deal with the Fallen, if we were going to do something.”

“Alright.  That’s almost a relief.  Come on,” Byron said.  “Let’s get this creepy woman somewhere more secure.”

“Hardly a way to talk about me,” Vista said.

“Ha ha,” Byron said.

“We’ll take her to the patrol block leaders,” I said.  “See if that sways them any.”

“I can take over dragging it if you want,” Vista said.

“I’m good,” Byron said.  “I like getting to pretend I’m the one with enhanced strength.”

“What did you get, if he got that?” Vista asked.

“Resistance to temperature extremes,” Byron said.  He grunted as he started dragging.  “There was a time I made ice.”

Really.

“Uh huh.  There have been other things.”

“Can you change back?  Is that a thing you could do if you tried, or could you change to something new?”

“I could,” Byron said.  “But I don’t want to go back, and I’m worried about how I’d get somewhere new.”

“I’m happy my power’s simple,” Vista said.

“Gross distortion of dimensions, simple,” I said.

She smiled and winked at me.

She was happy, it seemed.

I was- I was almost happy too.

I had my concerns.  I had plenty of worries about what was going to unfold as authorities decided to go after the Fallen or to let them go, and even the simpler joy of being a heroine had been tainted by Wretch and the horribleness of the people I’d been dealing with.  I could ask how everyone was doing, keep tabs on things, and help people out, and there wasn’t anyone who was positioned or invested enough to do the same for me.

A reminder to myself that I needed to call that therapist.

But I could put it all aside, put it out of mind.

We had Mama Mathers.  We had Operator and we had Cradle.  It was a win, and a win we’d thoroughly earned.

Son of a bitch, I should have known.

Why?” I asked.

“We couldn’t come to a decision, so we talked to the administrators who coordinate the patrol blocks,” Captain Marcial answered me.  “They said no.”

“We’re leaving the remaining Fallen?” I asked.

“We explained the guns,” Gilpatrick said.  “The degree of violence here, the boundaries that were crossed.  They’ll have people on the lookout for violence, if the Fallen lash out or try something, but the sentiment expressed was that they didn’t want to punish others for getting away from a violent situation and standing down.”

“They’re the Fallen,” I said.  “They don’t back down.”

“They don’t back down, but they do get tired,” Marcial said.  “We have problems today, occupying heroes and patrols.  The Fallen are a problem for tomorrow.”

“That’s the word from above,” Gilpatrick said.

I retrieved my phone and checked the time.

According to Tattletale, the Fallen would get off the road in two hours and get into the Megalopolis again, somewhere on the east coast.  They were obscuring their retreating convoy with powers, allegedly, and once they were in the city they’d connect with others.  Again, allegedly.

Two hours.

We’d have to deal with Tattletale to know what location, or where they were if they did get to the city.   We’d have to achieve something of a win, and we’d have to have a way to deal with the defeated Fallen.  Here, we could put them on a bus in shackles, or dedicate whole teams to managing the powered ones.  It helped that most of the powered had injuries that slowed them down.

It wasn’t doable.

“I’m sorry,” Gilpatrick said.  “We mitigated the damage.  We met most of the objectives, even in the face of much greater numbers than we expected.  Today was a win.”

“That’s not much consolation,” Capricorn said.  He was back to being Tristan.  “We were there in the thick of it.  We saw them and talked to them.  Lives are going to be lost if we let this go.  They’re pissed.  They’re heading into a population center.”

“Our resources are exhausted,” Gaymon said.  “We have limited personnel and that personnel has been tied up for the better part of the day.  If they go there and stop, we intend to let them.  Otherwise, it ends up as one prolonged engagement where both sides get tired and sloppy.”

“This was already sloppy enough,” Bash said.  “Unexpected numbers, the violence.”

It was so maddening, that the desire for peace and a stop to conflict would provide the flammable material needed for the fires to spread.

I didn’t let that show on my face.

“You’re still standing,” Capricorn said, “There’s gas in your vehicles.  These people are unreasonable, dangerous and desperate.  You can’t let this go.  Others can’t afford for you to let it go.”

I wished Narwhal was around.  I wished Mayday would speak up.

I shouldn’t have been surprised.  I’d had an impression of Marcial almost right away, that she wasn’t on our side.  She’d proven it.  Gilpatrick- I wanted to imagine he’d tried and failed.  In my time with the patrol block, I’d seen decisions from oversight that had definitely been this dumb.

“Thank you,” I said, as diplomatically as I could.  “I understand your hands are tied, if your bosses are saying no.”

Capricorn’s head snapped around.

“They are,” Marcial said.  Had it come from anyone else, I might have been more inclined to believe it.

Capricorn was giving me a hard look through the eyeholes of his helmet.

“There’s no changing your mind,” I said, for his benefit.  “We’ll figure out what our course of action is in the next while.”

“It was a good collaboration.  A good effort, even with everything that went wrong,” Gilpatrick said.  “Be safe, take care of yourselves, and let me know if you need anything.”

I nodded.

I left the scene behind, feeling like I might have said something regrettable if I’d stayed a moment longer.

“This is where we part ways, I guess.  We’ll meet, talk,” Vista said.  “You have my number.”

I nodded.  I clasped her hand in mine.

“Kick some ass,” she said.

“We’ll see,” I said.

We were a group as we walked away.  Me, Capricorn, Sveta, Chris, Ashley, and Looksee had joined us, coming from New Haven to our powwow.

One more member to get.

We filed into the bus.  Rain was awake, a phone that wasn’t his in his lap.

“Cradle?” he asked.

“In custody,” I said.  “Which is something we need to talk about, because it’s you that makes the final call.”

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Pitch – 6.5

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The weather had relaxed some, but the barn we were in had a corrugated metal roof, and each drop that hit it snapped against the hard, hollow surface.  The sound was like dull static, punctuated by Rain’s gasps.

Nobody around.  Most of the fighting had moved to the fringes and perimeters.  Whether it was upside or downside to our secret plan to get behind the fighting and hit them somewhere vital, I couldn’t be sure.

Had to admit, after seeing Rain, I really would have liked to hit something.  It might have been nice to have some regular bad guys around.  Something told me Cradle wasn’t about to let himself get smacked around.

He was smiling slightly.  Asshole.

I kept an eye on Cradle and his assistant as I got closer to Sveta.  She adjusted as she could to put Rain closer to me and further from the crack in her shell where the tendrils were licking out.

I knew the rule that the badly wounded weren’t supposed to be moved, less because of any medical knowledge I’d picked up, and more because I’d seen an awful lot of people with injuries over the year.

Rain?  The rule should have applied.  It was the kind of badly hurt that made me worry that any further tampering would break him.

He had a cut on his face that parted his mask and the bridge of his nose, extended through his upper lip, through the lower lip, and down to his chin.  His mouth was open as wide as it could go, bloodstained teeth showing, and the cut on his chin was open wider than his mouth.  There wasn’t darkness beyond that wound- it was the opposite, with the white of bone showing.

Sveta cradled his head with one hand and arm, even after moving him some, and her hand pressed against the chin, blood getting into the gaps of the prosthetic, the fingers doing very little to hold the wound closed or staunch the bleeding.

I knelt at her side, felt Rain jerk his head as I moved her fingers.  I pushed the wound closed, then moved her fingers with my hands, positioning them, holding them firm.  I took my fingers away, and it was sticky enough I felt her fingers move as mine did.  They didn’t move so much that the wound opened again.  Better.

There was another cut at his eyes- eyelid, bridge of the nose again, and the orb of the other eye.  Shallower, but the damage to the eye made for a lot of fluid.  His good eye was closed, a mixture of blood diluted in damp settled into the creases and cracks.  He pried it open, jaw chattering a bit with the effort, and stared at me with one eye that was shot through with blood, but not bloodshot.

More moisture.

“Come on,” I said.  “Hang in there.”

“We should go,” I heard the man with the red handprint on his mask say.

“If you try to walk away from this, we’re going to have a problem,” I said.

“Don’t be unreasonable,” Cradle said.

“Thinker,” Sveta whispered.  “Combat focused.  Cradle hit me with something I couldn’t see.  It might have been a laser not visible to the naked eye.”

I nodded, trying to divide my attention between the villains and Rain.

What was I even supposed to do?  In any other situation, I would have picked up Rain and flown him to the nearest hospital.  The reason I wasn’t was that I was genuinely worried that a firm shake would make what little blood he had in him fall out.

A mercy, maybe, that Capricorn, Vista, and Chris all turned up.  Less a mercy that they had to see.

“What did you do?” Capricorn asked.

“And they all turn up,” Cradle said.  “You swapped one member out.”

“Oh no,” Vista said, as she moved close enough to see Rain.  She hurried to my side.

“There’s no point,” Cradle said.

I was undoing my belt, a faux-gold band that I’d used to add some color so my costume wasn’t too top-heavy.  The process was hard, complicated by the fact that my left arm had a hole in it and my hand wasn’t cooperating as a consequence.

I needed to refresh myself on things- I’d learned about tourniquets from the patrol block, but in the moment it felt like half of what I’d learned was that tourniquets were a complicated, complicated thing.  Compartment syndrome, damage from long-term use.

“You bastard,” Capricorn said.

“I’m not the bastard here,” Cradle said.  “He is.  Everyone we’ve told the story to has agreed it’s fair.  When the bad guy is shitty enough, it stops being revenge and starts being justice.”

“That’s not right at all,” Sveta said.

Cradle sighed.

“Does ‘everyone’ include Tattletale?” I asked.

“I don’t see how that matters,” Cradle said.  “This is done.  He’s done.  Things have come full circle, telling you would only…”

His machine’s hands moved.  Everyone, myself included, tensed.

One hand moved, palm upward, elbow pointed down.  A one-armed shrug.

“…Multiply the grudge,” Cradle finished his sentence.

Rain’s hand and one arm were my focus here, as I grit my teeth and tried not to be distracted.  He was cut up pretty badly- defensive wounds, with the degree of damage hard to discern.  The way cloth draped and the hand-coverings he wore obscured things.  Like his teeth, the blood ran between the decorative elements of his glove.

His other hand had cuts, ones I might have called serious, if not for the fact that I was having to look at things in totality.  If Crystal had cut her hand like that on an ordinary day, in some hypothetical universe where she tried and failed to use a real knife, I would be rushing her to the hospital.  As it was?  Low priority.

There were cuts on his chest- I’d look at those after.  Vista was tending to his leg, which was as bad as the arm.

“Multiply the grudge?” Capricorn asked.  He stood between us and Cradle.

“You’d walk away wanting to kill against me and against any co-conspirators I named.  You go after me, after them, and assuming they have friends and contacts, assuming you succeeded, those contacts would go after you.  Each time, it becomes something bigger, until one side gets wiped out.  Let’s end it here.”

“What do you think is going to happen, Cradle?” Capricorn asked.  He was incredulous as he asked, “You really think I’m going to walk away when you’ve done this to my friend?”

“What I want to happen, is for Operator Red and I to walk away.  You walk away, and leave the Fallen asshole here.  Your friend killed my friend and clustermate, the scales are even, we can resent each other and still never see each other again.”

Capricorn barked out a laugh.

“I hate that kind of life-death calculus,” Sveta murmured.  Not loud enough to be heard by Cradle.  Her focus was more on Rain and on herself.  Her tendrils kept groping at the more ragged edges of her shell, then pulling away, sometimes bending them in or twisting them around.

I focused on Rain’s more damaged hand and arm as I attached the belt.  He fought me, struggling as I tightened the belt, which made the pain in my left arm all the worse… but the fight wasn’t nearly as intense as I wanted it to be.  A more intense fight in response to what had to be agonizing pain would mean there was more life in him.

This tourniquet would have to do.  I was pretty sure I was good to go if the risk from blood loss -real and present-outweighed the damage from amputation.

“I don’t think they’re going to do that, boss.  They look ticked,” Operator Red said.  He was still holding on to one of the Cradle-machine’s fingers.  He dropped, and fell about ten feet to land on his feet, legs bent.  He straightened, and Chris moved forward a step.

Chris looked back with one bulbous, dark eye.  He had no expression to read.  There was only armor and coarse hair, and a long snout with eyes set on the side, the head more fishlike in dimension than mammal.  His eye protruded and narrowed, more conelike than round as it pointed in Rain’s direction.

“Let me turn the question back on you, Capricorn,” Cradle said.  “How do you want this to go?  A fight?  You all fight me and Operator Red, you get your vengeance on behalf of your murderer friend, and this makes it better?”

Might help,” Chris hissed the words.  Broad blades with a swirling damascus-style blend of white bone and steel were emerging from his various armor plates.  Retractable weaponry, but not in a quick way.

The ‘Keen’ part of Keen Vigilance.

“It might,” Capricorn said.  “But if you really think it was justice, how about we… leave?  We arrest you, we go talk to authorities, and if you’re right, if it is justice, you’ll be free to go.”

“Free to go.  I’m sure,” Cradle’s voice was quieter, not because he was quieter, but because he’d shifted position, turning his back to us as he straightened up.  He turned back to us, and his voice was stronger,  “You don’t see the hypocrisy?  How wrong it would be for him to be free while we’re in custody?  He killed people.  He laughed about it, to my face, to Love Lost’s, to Snag’s.”

“He turned himself in,” Capricorn retorted.  “He tried.  At the first opportunity, he left the camp and went to confess.  He was so twisted up about it he wasn’t coherent.  They had him talk to people, but he couldn’t say much.  I guess because of Mama Mathers.”

“He tell you that too?  I was always fifty-fifty on it being a lie,” Cradle said.  his tone was so casual and conversational, even pleased with himself.  Maybe he was, with Rain bleeding out.

“It’s true,” Sveta said.

I focused on what I could do.  Cuts marked Rain’s upper chest, shoulders, and stomach, until there wasn’t much of his top that wasn’t wet and shiny with blood.  In one place where the cuts ran in horizontal parallel, the flesh had come away in a ribbon, the ribbon dangling toward the ground.  I fixed it as best as I could, pressing a hand down on the wound.

It felt futile.

The wounds to his right leg were as bad as the defensive wounds to his hand.  I could assume they were early wounds, intended to keep him from running.  Vista was bandaging them with strips of cloth.

There was only so much I could do.  I could go through two first aid kits and still run out of material to to bandage and tourniquet this.  I staunched the wounds with my hands, as best as I was able.

“Capricorn,” I said.  He turned his head.  My voice was tense as I asked, “Can you use your power?  A cast, or something to seal the wounds?”

The first orange lights appeared.

Cradle kept talking, like we weren’t trying to save a life. “He killed Love Lost’s daughter.  The girl’s friend died too, and another one is devastated, even after a year.”

“He knows!” Capricorn said, raising his voice.  “He went to the authorities!  He wants punishment!  He wanted jail, because it would at least get him away from this, except you all were coming after him, Mama Mathers had him locked down with her power.”

And because there wasn’t necessarily room, I presumed.  If it was as serious as Cradle was saying, though…

“That way doesn’t work, this way does,” Cradle said. “Tidier.”

Operator Red clicked his tongue, “Tidy is high praise.”

“Oh, fuck you,” Capricorn said.

“This is a fucked up way to go about it,” I growled the words, adding my anger to Capricorn’s.  “This is barbaric.”

Cradle, despite being younger than I was, managed to sound condescending.  “The Fallen are barbaric, and your friend was right there with them.  He locked us in a shopping mall and let us burn.  Snag lost the last mementos he had of family and the old world.  Snag was left with nothing, no escape, only his life… and your teammate got around to taking that from him too.”

“Move your hands,” Capricorn said, glancing back at me.

I took my hands away.  The orange solidified into an encasement around Rain’s arm and hand.  I put my hand to the edge, felt the gap- too much space.  It wasn’t a tight enough fit to staunch the blood or keep things contained.  I looked at Capricorn and shook my head.

You suck at first aid,” Chris hissed.  He cleaved at his sash, and the contents fell to the ground.  The containers were like tupperware, but metal, with rubberized lids, apparently color coded.  I reached for the nearest one.

Careful what you touch,” Chris hissed.  “Green lid.  Open.

I grabbed it, prying the lid off.  It was a tight fit.

Syringes.  There was colored tape around various syringes, no labels, no words.  A foam insert had been carved at in a rough way, to give the needles places to fit in.

Red band.  Coagulant.  Use little.

“What are you doing?” Cradle asked.

“How little?” I asked.

Maybe half inch.”

A half inch as a unit of measurement for a liquid?

It won’t save him,” Chris hissed.  “Might help.

“Why do you have this?” Sveta asked.

One day I change, come apart instead of changing back.

I prepared the needle, holding it over Rain’s heart.

Chris nodded.

“Stop,” Cradle said.

“The man said stop,” Operator Red said.

Didn’t want to use,” Chris was quiet.  “I like him more than most of you.

I plunged the syringe in.

“Operator,” Cradle said.

“Yeah,” Operator Red said.

Operator paced forward.  Chris put himself in the guy’s way, the eye I could see opening wide, ears going back.

I pressed the plunger down.  Half of an inch.  I pulled it free before anything could happen to make me put in more than was necessary.

“Combat thinker!” Sveta called out.

Aw fuck,” Capricorn swore.

“Cradle has invisible weapons!” I added.

Fuck!” Capricorn said, as orange trails surrounded his hands.  He gave Cradle a nervous glance.

Cradle, at least for right now, was hanging back, letting his hired assassin do the dirty work.

Operator reached behind his back, drawing another meat cleaver.  He flicked it around, so it rolled off the back of his hand, and he caught the handle, with the blade beneath his fist.

Capricorn created his weapons.  Two swords of the stone material.  He thrust one in Operator’s direction, and was almost immediately disarmed of it.

He held the other out, to keep Operator more at bay.  Orange lights danced around us without any seeming rhyme or reason.  I left Rain behind and took flight, going high above Operator.

Put the needle back,” Chris hissed, more insistent than before.

“Are you serious?” I asked.

I need it,” he said.  He put his arm in Operator’s way.  The cleaver bit deep into an armor plate.  Operator ducked low, swinging under Chris’ arm.

A blade at Chris’ elbow extended as he clenched a large, brutish fist, and he drove his elbow back.  The two cleaver blades caught the elbow-blade, and Operator was pushed back toward the door.

No sign that he’d lost his balance or been caught off guard in any way.

I reversed course, dropping to the ground.  I placed the needle in the foam insert, and then started to replace the lid.

“Victoria!” Capricorn called out.

I looked to Operator first- the most immediate threat, and then I heard the crash.  Metal fingers and hands reaching up to the roof, finding a grip where it had been bolted or hammered to a broader wooden beam, and then crumpling it.

Water poured unevenly throughout the barn as hands that could have wrapped around a small car brought down the roof.  Beams cracked and split.

I flew for the largest, most pressing part of the roof, and the beam that was attached to it.  The walls were shuddering in a way that made me think the entire barn could come down.

Cradle had apparently lost patience.

The Wretch and I hit the roof in Cradle’s machine hand with enough force that it would take a couple of minutes to walk to wherever it landed.

Sveta, Rain and Vista weren’t in the building anymore.  Sveta had dragged them out through the open door.  Capricorn and Chris were facing down Operator Red, and Cradle loomed in the hole in the roof he’d made, looking up at me.

He swiped a hand in my general direction, coming almost ten feet shy of connecting.  I put the Wretch up anyway.  I glanced at what was happening below- Vista was distorting space, keeping Operator Red in the building and giving Chris and Capricorn time to escape.  Chris was delaying his escape.

Something hit me like a truck, knocking the Wretch out and knocking me almost twenty feet through the air, before I could right myself.

Cradle turned, his attention on those on the ground.  A lot of strength in those mechanical hands.  There had to be a good fifty feet of armspan when the two longest arms were extended, and he had a lot of arms.  He hopped over to one of the shorter arms- almost just a wrist that connected to the central hub, and stepped onto the hand, where he crouched with the hand cupped around him.

I flew at him before he could do whatever he planned to do to the others, my aura down.  A hand came up, intercepting me, and I hit it.  The building creaked and crumbled as hands twisted and wrenched at wood to maintain his position.  He turned his attention back to me.

Another swipe of the hands.  I flew down, away from the direction of the swipe, and again, something collided with me, knocking me downward at an angle this time.

“Looksee,” I said,

“Mm?” was the response, small and emotional.

She’d seen Rain.

“Can your cameras see-”

I flew to evade as the hands moved.  They weren’t moving my way, but to get him oriented, as he closed on the others.  I changed course, flying more toward Cradle himself.

Two hands came up, one to either side of Cradle himself, as if they were going to slam together, catching me in the middle.

They didn’t.  I hit something, a field or barrier between the hands.  It didn’t hit the Wretch so much as it dashed the Wretch to pieces, with me bouncing fifteen or twenty feet back.  The hands came after me, and I flew to evade.

“Can you see what he’s doing?” I asked.

“I think so,” Looksee said.  “I need the projector disc, and you need to connect it to my camera, it’s easy to do, and I need to get it ready.”

Operator Red had exited out the far end of the building, and was circling around.  I wondered if Capricorn’s power had given him pause.  Chris was only just now going out the door that the others had left by.  He had the cloth bundle with his boxes and things.

A… mess of emergency measures, it looked like, for a boy who thought he might fall apart with any transformation, but who had no choice but to transform.

I had to get past Cradle to get to him, and I had to get to him to get the projector.

Sveta hauled Rain a distance off to one side, his back to her chest as she used herself almost as a sled, for the easier ride.  She pulled herself to a fence.

I could see Cradle’s thought process, as he considered going after her, as he turned his mind to the others- to Vista, to Capricorn, and more specifically, to Chris.

The hand came down, a good distance from Chris.  Chris, a mound of armored, furred flesh, hopped, ducking and rolling, as the entire area around him was demolished.  Dirt and soil became a cloud of particles and mud, as something smashed into it and sent the destroyed ground up ten feet in the air.

And as it settled, splattering against one outside corner of the barn, and everything around them, Chris was there, moving slower than an ordinary person might run, with short, heavy running steps.

Vista was using her power to create distance.  Cradle crossed that distance by leaping, each hand pushing against ground or the edge of the barn, with one hand up and outstretched, ready to come down on top of them.

I flew after him, and it was easier to close the distance when Vista was using her power.

I reached him just as he’d almost reached them.  Then his hand came down early, touched ground, and his entire form rotated, a second hand grazing the ground, turning the landing into a cartwheel, one of the longer arms coming around my way.

Whatever he hit me with caught me and knocked me down into muddy field.  The landing reawakened the pain in my arm, to the point where I felt the sensation swell, my body telling me that passing out was a possibility.

Not a possibility, body.

Chris having run off to one side and Cradle being fixated on Capricorn and Vista meant I could reach Chris.  I flew to him, landing.

“You can see what he’s doing?” I asked.

He gave me a single nod, and his eyes opened wide, ears twitching.

“Of course,” I said.  “Projector disc?”

He tapped the sash he’d made with the cloth bundle.  The disc was a belt buckle, as large as a dinner plate, as thick as a textbook.

“Looksee wants it,” I said.

Operator Red was on the approach, jogging our way with cleavers in hand.  Cradle- fixated on the others.  Vista was trying to keep both opponents at bay by increasing the distance between them and everyone else.

Chris managed to get the disc free.  He passed it to me, then turned toward Operator Red.

The thing with Vista’s distance power was that the closer two people were to one another, the harder it was for her to utilize the distance that remained.

“Keep backing up,” I said.

I flew straight up.

“We have a teammate who needs help,” Looksee said, in my ear.

“I know,” I said.  Sveta still had Rain.  He wasn’t moving much.  She could have left with him, but I wasn’t sure that kind of movement was any good for him.  “But if I leave with him, I’m not sure I won’t come back to more of the same.”

It was already so dark out.  The clouds were heavier, even though there was barely any precipitation anymore.  In the gloom, Capricorn’s lights and the glowing points at the joints and knuckles of Cradle’s robot were eerily bright.

Equally as bright, Looksee’s camera flew to me.  Football sized, with a round lens on the front.

“How do I do this?”

“Attach it on front.  Press it on, rotate.  Like a smoke detector.”

I wasn’t sure I’d used a smoke detector with that setup, but I could guess how it was intended to go.

The entire thing thrummed as the connection was made, the small, quarter-sized lens in the middle of the projector disc illuminating.

“Not much battery,” Looksee said.  “You can let it go.  There’s going to be a time delay.  It’s not accurate.”

“Okay,” I said.  I dropped it.  It fell a short distance before taking flight on its own.

“Help- help everyone.”

“I’ll try,” I said.

“I wish I could do more,” Looksee said.

So did I.

I flew after Cradle.

I could see it now.  Cords or cables, normally transparent, were illuminated in red light.  There was lag, the light tracing one cord that extended from each fingertip, snapping to another position when it fell out of sync.

“Annoying,” Cradle said.  “Doesn’t change anything.”

He raised a hand, bringing it down from overhead, in Capricorn’s direction.

I flew in, and I used the wretch to hit and deflect.

Again, that unreasonably intense force, exploding out and away, as the impact hit the Wretch and the aftershock cascaded out to thrust me away in the air.

The attack was off course- not so much it couldn’t have hit Capricorn, but he’d seen me coming and had moved away.

Vista was a short distance off, using her power.  They’d decided being split up was better, and I knew her power was best when she was alone.

She wasn’t using her ability on Cradle’s robot.  Was it immune?

He kept going after them, trusting his robot to deal with me.  I didn’t have a lot of tools.  Some ideas, now that I thought about it, but…

I’d try for the most basic, tried, and true option.

“Cradle!” I called out.

He glanced back at me, but he continued to ignore me.

I grit my teeth, scowling briefly, and flew in.  His hand came out, and the red lights showed me the rough path of the cables.  They moved like a flail would, delayed, swinging out in a lazy arc, the five cables fanning out as they cut through the air.

I could evade, draw closer- and the hand itself got in my way.  As I moved, so did it, staying between Cradle and I.

I was quicker than the hand, and I could change my path and catch him off guard, but other hands moved, complicating things.  It would be too easy for hands to close in around me.

Above me, cables were swung up, and they connected to another hand, extending from the fingertips of one hand to the fingertips of another.

That’d be the barrier I ran into, then.

As I flew around, they broke free, snapping out with more force than a swing would provide.  They hit me- hit the Wretch, and knocked us off course.

I shouted at a volume that made my throat hurt, “You left yourself out, Cradle!”

Again, another glance my way, before he turned his focus to other things.

“He did all that to Love Lost and Snag, he didn’t do anything to you?”

I chose those words with some intent.  Not just to ask what Rain did, but to imply there was nothing, and invite the retort.

“He took people and things from them!” Cradle roared out his response, so he could be heard.  “He took me from me!

With that last exclamation, it was an actual show of emotion- not that he hadn’t said emotional things, but it was the first time he’d put the emotion out there.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Chris sit down rather heavily, clawed hands raised.  He was bleeding in multiple places, and he didn’t have any fight left in him.

Operator Red turned toward the rest of us, and walked away from Chris, cleavers in hand.

Combat thinkers.  Worse in a lot of ways than fighting someone like my mom, with her energy weapons.  She could slice a grown man in half with her weapons.  A combat thinker?  There were ones who could hammer at you psychologically by mirroring mannerisms of people you knew or feared, ones who could hit your nerves or arteries any time, with any strike or weapon they had at hand, and there were ones who could win most fights without trying, because they had the fighting skills without working for those skills, combat precognition, or they saw the fight move at a hundredth the speed.

I was mentally slotting this asshole in that broader ‘win without trying’ category.  There might have been some of the former, though, if Snag’s team been drawn to him.  The awareness of biology and weak points could both help in combat and in torture.

“He took you from you?” I asked Cradle, keeping one eye on Operator.  Cradle was looking up at me.

I did have his attention now.  Objective achieved, I guessed.

“I was getting everything set up, finally living the life I wanted to live, and he fucked it all up.  He pulled me into this, he infected me, and now I’m different!”

I opened my mouth to respond, to retort, bait out more and keep Cradle’s attention, so we could figure out a way to get Rain away.  If Vista could get to Sveta and Rain- and it looked like she was heading that way-

“He violated my self!” Cradle’s words were more raw than any others I’d heard from him.  Angrier.

My train of thought stopped where it was, as Cradle’s words entered my head and overrode everything else.  In those four words, I got Cradle.

There were so many responses I wanted to give, about everything from the preceding events, the event, and everything that followed…

It was upbringing.  Really questionable upbringing, sometimes or even a lot of the time.

He was in a bad place, desperate, with nobody to turn to.

He regrets it.  He’s trying to do better.  He was willing to turn himself in, even though that wasn’t what Cradle wanted or needed.

He didn’t want any of this any more than Cradle did.

It wasn’t him that screwed with Cradle like that.  It was the power, acting according to some alien programming.

No.

There wasn’t one response I could give without feeling like I might be compromising my integral self.

Well, there was one response.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I… yeah.”

He was too far away to properly hear me.

I nodded, instead.

“If you understand, let him die!”

This time, I shook my head.

“No,” I said, knowing he couldn’t hear.

That would violate my integral self too.  Just as much.  More.

He moved a hand, and the red-highlighted cables swung out, and connected to the ends of other cables, which separated from other fingertips.  One hand now had cables of double the length.

He repeated the process again.

Arming himself for combat.

Chris was okay, it seemed, limping toward the fight.  Operator was crawling toward Capricorn and Vista, who had reunited, and who were only a short distance from Sveta.  Vista was more focused on making the way between Operator and them as steep as possible.

Operator’s cleavers periodically stabbed into the earth for handholds, as he trudged through muddy field at a forty degree incline.

Cradle swiped his cables at me.  I flew back and away, evading.  He swiped again, a backhand, and I barely needed to evade.

Not meant for me.  He’d swiped at the camera.

The camera dodged.

The hand shook, and cables reconfigured.  The one at the middle finger was longer.

One swipe, angled to connect with either me or the camera.  I hit it with the Wretch, and saw the crimson highlighting twist and distort, as the camera struggled to keep up with the outline of the cable.

The cable hit the ground around the base of Cradle’s robot, and the soil exploded with the impact.  Again, that surrounding force.

His version of Rain’s power.  Or something he’d begged and borrowed for, maybe, another tinker’s tech, modified to work with his gear.  That was a thing tinkers could do- a thing that drove them into tinker enclaves or the PRT.  Past tense ‘drove’.

That effect meant I couldn’t catch it, but I could still deflect.  Where things got harder was that I wasn’t sure of the fallout now.  The cord was over a hundred feet long now, the arm was twenty five or so feet long, and even if I knocked the cord to one side, I couldn’t be sure it wouldn’t land in a way that put it near teammates.

I closed the distance.  There were still other cables, and if I couldn’t control the whip-

The hand came up.  I flew to intercept, and hit the back of the hand as hard as I could, before it reached the momentum necessary to flick the whip.  The impact dented the surface of the hand, but didn’t stop it from raising up, catching me as it rose.  The movement was too slow for the impact to hurt, but it was an impact, and that impact made my gunshot wound hurt more.  Again, there was that suggestion that I could pass out if I let myself.

I maneuvered with more care, aura blasting to try to distract Cradle, for all the good it did.

A tinker who’d had a year to prepare, a team funneling him resources, and apparently a bit of talent to boot.

A hand moved to shield an attack from the side.  Something crashed against the hand, and Cradle turned his head to look.

Capricorn’s power.  Water had splashed against the hand and then turned to stone.

A moment later, there was another.

The hand closed, and the stone broke.

I flew back and up a little, to get a better vantage point.

Capricorn was with Vista and Sveta.  Capricorn was creating a sphere somewhere between the size of a beachball and basketball, though spikier than either.  Sveta grabbed it, used her power to fling it from fifty feet behind her to Cradle.

Stone became water, which became stone immediately after impact.

Operator’s advance had been stymied, as the top of the hill folded up and overhead, creating a ridge he couldn’t climb. He was going around, which only served to give them more time.

Cradle moved his whip hand.  I smacked it down, then evaded the various cables that swung in my direction, while I waited for the Wretch to return.

Chris was closing the distance, slow as he was, approaching the hands.  Capricorn unleashed another shot.  The shot clipped the top of a finger, splashing well over Cradle’s head, and then the water became stone.  Each bit of water was now a stone smaller than a fist, raining down on Cradle’s head.

Vista shouted something.

Good.

Good, this was the part I liked, that didn’t make me miserable.  Having a team.  Finding a way to work together and mesh, solving problems.

I just wished it wasn’t at the expense of time.

I struck an arm again- getting past the endless barriers was next to impossible, especially when the cables were whipping around and I was vulnerable right after any impact.  This hit was aimed at destabilizing, putting him on tilt, so he had to adjust, shift weight, and move arms around.

Capricorn and Sveta had been delivering the projectiles at a fairly steady rate.  Now there was a pause.

Above,” I heard through my earphone.

I got out of dodge.

One shot, larger than the others, fired so high it had disappeared into the clouds.  Now it came down, and the descent was guided by my favorite space warper.

Cradle put a hand over his head.

The stone became water at the last moment, but the impact was still enough that the hand came dangerously close to the top of Cradle’s head.  Water filtered between the fingers in streams- and then froze, like the bars of a cage around him.

I flew in, straight for him.

He hurled himself at the bars, at the same moment hands moved apart and the stone shattered.  The bars had broken just in time that he didn’t collide with them.  A hand moved to provide footing below him as he descended, bobbed to absorb the impact of the fall.

Was that intuitive sense of how to stay steady on his contraption his mover power?

It had cost him time, and he was purely on the defensive.  Chris was climbing up one arm- something Cradle could have easily dealt with, if he wasn’t dealing with all of us.

I glanced at Operator, thinker-one bird’s eye view at work, and saw that he was at the edge of Vista’s wave-shaped crest of earth.  A few more steps and he’d be able to walk around it and charge them.  Vista had been too distracted guiding the stone from above to keep tabs on the guy.

“Operator incoming!” I shouted.

An arm moved- not the hand or the arm itself, but the elbow that came at me.  I deflected.

Every second we couldn’t end this was a second Rain was bleeding.  I was worried at how long it had been already.  I could have flown, but I would have been leaving the others at Cradle’s mercy.

I renewed my efforts, taking more risks, as I flew in closer.

“Don’t dodge,” I heard another report.  Looksee.

Don’t dodge?

Capricorn and Sveta hurled another projectile.  A hand blocked it, then shook off the stone.  Other hands were warring with Chris, who was slowly climbing, stabbing, and doing a better job than I was at keeping tabs on everything immediately around him.  It was another distraction for Cradle, but I doubted our changer would manage to get in close if I couldn’t, situational awareness or no.

Speaking of- what was I not supposed to dodge?

“Looksee?” I asked.

“One second, fiddling!”

Fiddling.

I got within ten feet of Cradle, only for a hand to block me.  I flew around it- and he wasn’t there anymore.

He’d hopped down to another hand.

The whip hand moved, and I moved to counter.  I struck it, closer to the elbow than the hand, and the hand slapped down toward the ground.

I went straight from that hit to flying for Cradle, to keep him on his toes and create room for a mistake.

A blur of red in my peripheral vision gave me pause.

The long whip?  It was falling down on top of everything.  Cradle saw it too, moved hands to provide a shield.

I trusted the Wretch, and used the opportunity to hammer him.

The red line passed through everything.  Projection.  A feint.  Cradle had an intuitive sense of where things were, but seeing the red lines had preconditioned him, toyed with that perception as an optical illusion, and with that deception, I could get close enough to make contact.

I grabbed him by the fabric at his back and hauled him up and away.

“Victoria,” I heard Tattletale over the phone call.

“Stop breaking in, please,” I heard Looksee’s reply.

I flew Cradle away from his machine, and dropped him harder than was necessary, relatively close to the others.

Operator was still trying to navigate the Vista-modified battlefield.  He’d managed to dodge some traps already, ground cupping over him like a dome, pitfalls.

“Call off Operator,” I said.

Cradle was silent.

“Call him off!”

“I need him intact and free,” Tattletale said, over the phone.

“Get bent,” I said.

“I’m willing to negotiate,” she said.

“Set him in stone,” I suggested, to Capricorn.  “Leave him for the Fallen when they come back.”

Cradle tensed.

“You’re not going to do that,” Tattletale said.  “You’re too righteous.”

Wah!” was the distant shout.

I turned to look.  It was Chris, and Cradle’s robot was still operating.  The whip hand was moving-

I flew to intercept, as the whip came around.  I knocked it away.

“Again… we can leave you for the Fallen,” I told Cradle.  “Or you can call Operator off.”

“Red!” Cradle called out.  “Enough.”

That meant the assassin wasn’t an immediate concern.

“How’s our guy?” I asked.

“Not good,” Sveta said.  She pressed her forehead to Rain’s.  “He’s not really breathing.  He’s cold.”

“Advance Guard.  They have a healer,” Tattletale said.

“I know,” I said, annoyed.  “Go away.  You led them right to him, didn’t you?  Through our video and phones?”

“Yes, but not like that.  It doesn’t matter.”

“It matters,” I said.  I bent down by Rain.  Capricorn gave me a hand in scooping him up.  I checked to make sure the robot was being good.

“We can handle this now,” Capricorn said.  “Get him help.”

I nodded.

I flew.  Advance Guard had been to the northern end of everything, where a road exited the settlement.  There were some sparse buildings in that direction, but it looked to be mainly for logging and maybe some quarrying as well.

“Victoria,” Tattletale said.

“I can kick her off,” Looksee said.  “I think I figured it out now.”

“I’ll talk to her,” I said.

“The Crowleys came out ahead in this.  I know they’ve got a reputation that makes people underestimate them, but their own people were just attacked.  They’ll be out for blood, and the Fallen have far more reach than you’d imagine.”

“I don’t know what you’re getting at,” I said.  I checked my charge.  Rain was limp.  No fight, no response to anything.

“Let Cradle go.  I’ll keep him and Love Lost out of your way.  He promised to help me after I helped him here.  Do that for me and I will help you.”

“You were talking about the Fallen.”

“I’ll coordinate.  I can get you March and what’s left of Prancer’s band.  The Crowleys are already on their way out, they’re hitting the road, we can hit them before they get where they’re going.”

“I don’t know what games you’re playing, Tattletale, but one of mine might be dead.  Someone I pledged to help and keep alive.  You pointed the killers to him.  You were a cog in Snag and Prancer’s thing, and that turned out pretty shitty.  How much of that was intentional?”

“That’s the kind of conspiracy thinking that gets you put in an institution,” Tattletale said.

“Either you’re incompetent or you’re malicious,” I said.  “Neither lends themselves to us working together.

“Or I’m wrestling with bigger things, Victoria,” she sighed out the words, sounding exasperated, annoyed.

I spotted the first glimmer of color in the trees.  I flew closer.

“I made my offer.  Feel free to accept it,” she said.

“She’s gone,” Looksee said.

There was a pause.

“Is he really that bad?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.  I wasn’t willing to spare the time to check, either.  “But if this doesn’t work-”

I didn’t finish the sentence.

If this doesn’t work, thinking about all the responses I couldn’t give Cradle… would I be willing to try another route?

Another healer?

I dropped down the rest of the way, through the largest gap in the foliage.

Not Advance Guard.  Prancer and his team- half the size it had been, and that was after the defection of Beast of Burden.

Prancer had no Velvet at his side, and he had no Moose.  He did have a dark expression on his face, one that darkened further as he recognized me.

“Advance Guard?” I asked.

He pointed.

Northeast.

No fight, no resistance.  I just hoped he hadn’t lied.

He hadn’t lied.  Advance Guard was with the patrol block, and the patrol block was trying to corral a hero team and somewhat hostile evacuees who outnumbered them four to one.

I landed in the center of the camp.

I spotted Mayday with Gilpatrick.

“Healer?” I asked.

I saw the hesitation, and my heart sank.  The sick feeling was worse.

“Is your healer hurt?” I asked.

“He’s- he’s here,” Mayday said.  “Unhurt.”

“But?”

“But everything went to shit,” Mayday said.  “Come.”

I followed, giving Gilpatrick a look over my shoulder.  He was already talking to others, the moment Mayday was gone.  Things to do, people to coordinate.  It looked like other leaders of other patrols, that he was helping to coordinate.

One of the buses had the remnants of Advance Guard around it.  Mayday hopped up and hauled on the lever to open the emergency door of the bus.  Capes converged, ready to guard

The cape wore a goat mask, golden, and a black costume.  He sat on one of the benches of the bus.  There were others in the bus, men and women in cuffs.

Now that I looked, the cape had cuffs on as well.

“This is Scapegoat,” Mayday said.  “He can heal.  Sort of.  It’s complicated.”

“It always is.  What happened, Scapegoat?” I asked.  I used flight to stead myself as I dropped low.

“I don’t know,” he said.

“He went Fallen,” someone supplied.

“He’s not the only one,” Mayday said.  “We had one other, who died in the scrap.  A lot of people were looking for answers after the end of the world, and the Fallen were promising them.”

Scapegoat shrugged.

Reach, as Tattletale had put it.

I wanted to ask him things, to shake him, to push for more than a shrug.  I imagined a lot of people did.

But I needed his help.

I draped Rain out on the road.  Scapegoat looked down at him.

“Hey,” I said.  I pressed a finger to his pulse.

I couldn’t tell if there was something there or if it was my feeling my own pulse reverberating through.

But he moved.  His head shifted slightly as he looked at me, eyes flickering as he tried to open them – but one was cut and the other was crusted with blood.

“I want someone to heal you,” I said.  “Okay?  Hey.  I need your okay.”

I saw his head move a fraction, then again.

When he tried again, there was more of a nod.

I looked up at Scapegoat.  He looked away, looked at Mayday.

“You want to play games, Scapegoat?” Mayday asked.

“Not games,” Scapegoat said, voice soft.  “But I’ve helped you a lot already, and it doesn’t seem like my situation is any better.  My power sucks to use.”

“I got a message from Tattletale,” Looksee reported, coming in over the phone.  “Tell Scapegoat Tattletale says to, and that he needs the goodwill.  He needs a lot of it.”

I didn’t hesitate.  “Tattletale.  She says to.  You need goodwill, here.”

He paused.

A tense moment later, he nodded, crouched, and held his hands over Rain.  He looked up at Mayday.  “Can you get him warm?”

“We have blankets,” Mayday said.  “Shortcut, grab some.”

I didn’t look for my would-be nemesis; my focus was on Rain and on Scapegoat, making sure Rain was safe, as flickering images overlapped with him.

“You’ll need help too?” Scapegoat asked.

My gunshot wound.  He’d seen the bloody bandages.

“No,” I said.  “I’ll heal it naturally.”

He seemed to take that in a matter of fact way.

There were more things to handle.  Tattletale wanted to cooperate to wrap this up in a better way, and I was not ready to forget or forgive her role in this.  I didn’t want to engage in life and death calculus, as Sveta had put it.

I pressed a hand to my ear, so it was clearer that I was talking to someone.

“Looksee, I’m not sure if you can see-”

“I can’t.  My cameras are down or repurposed.”

“I think he’s getting the help he needs, okay?”

“Okay.”

The minutes passed as the injuries disappeared.  Ashley joined us, with Gilpatrick standing behind her.  Her power sparked a few times, and Scapegoat said something.  She moved to situate herself further back, in a place where she could still watch.

I wasn’t sure what to say or do- a smile felt wrong, I couldn’t think of what to say that wouldn’t be too casual, too personal, or too confrontational.

I raised a hand in a bit of a wave.  She did the same with her good hand.

For now, I could put everything out of mind for the moment.  At the very least, I’d stand watch over Rain like nobody watched over me.

“Looksee,” I said, hand at my ear.

“Yeah?”

“Tell Tattletale I’m willing to consider it, but I want something else on the table.”

“Yeah?”

“We’re going to need more explanations.  I want to know what the hell is going on.”

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Pitch – 6.4

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With the rain we’d had, there was a degree of slipperiness to the dirt and grass.  Twenty five, maybe thirty people were coming at us- it was hard to count when the allegiance of some of the hostages was so unclear, and some had guns.  All had a loose arrangement of hostages in front of them.  Some of the hostages slipped as they ran, and they were trampled by those behind.

Gilpatrick gave me a worried look over his shoulder.  He was using the remote- three green flashes.  I was left to back up, letting Erin go ahead of me.  I crouched by the front tire of one bus.  Erin climbed up onto the bar at the side, so her feet wouldn’t be sticking out below the bottom of the painted bus.

The color coding of Fallen came to mind- two were in white, with Mama Mathers being one, held up by two people at the treeline.  Another wore white and hung even further back, peering through the woods while wearing a pale leather animal mask.

There were two options there, if I went by what Rain had told me, and both were messy.  Animal Master, likely, and the Changer geyser.

One in black- a Fallen that was holding Mama Mathers up.  From the way they were handling her, she was still alive.  They were trying to take her to safety.

One pointed at me, lifting his gun as he turned to his buddy, who had slipped in mud and fallen a few paces behind.  I pulled my head back behind cover.

People opened fire, but they were our people.  Gilpatrick stood on the wheel of a bus, and fired over the hood.  I peeked at the result with my defenses up- the Fallen who wasn’t in black that was supporting Mama Mathers had created a wall of white-blue material with faces embossed on it.  The material cracked as the bullets hit it, and the cracks closed up almost as fast as they appeared.

I’d peeked too long, and one shot me.  It pinged off of the Wretch, and I ducked back behind the front of the bus, where the wheel at least partially protected me.

I knew the Mathers were notorious for their involvement in kidnappings and their connections to other families.  It was what defined them as a sect of the Fallen.  Now I was seeing the long term results of that kind of operation.  Rain had already spelled some of it out.

Mama Mathers was a nightmare to deal with, and she’d traded for multiple capes who could protect her.  Layers of defenses, and Looksee had slipped past those layers to take her out of action.

Rain dripped off of the front of my hood as I hunched over.  My arm was limp at my side, and it hurt all the more because of my position.  Even crouching, somehow, made my arm hurt more, because the angle was different, or because the blood flow had changed.

“Captain Gilpatrick!” I heard the voice.

Ashley.

“What is it?” Gilpatrick replied.  He had his back to a truck much like I did.  Many of his students were crouched in the ditch, the road, another ditch, and a bit of mud and grass between them and the Fallen.

“I want your-”

A series of gunshots from a handful of the oldest patrol block members interrupted her.

“-your permission to fight!” she finished.

He hunched over, back to the wheel rim, reloading.  He called back, “I’m not going to do that!”

“It’s not easy for me to ask!  I’m trying to respect-”

He looked at me, not her, and interrupted, “You don’t need my permission to fight!”

I didn’t hear the start of her sentence, as someone else on our side fired a gun.  A Fallen returned fire and shot the bus.

“-want it,” she said.

“Too bad!” he called out.  “You choose, I’ll be a witness and I’ll testify how you handled it, good or bad!”

I looked across the far ditch, furthest from the Fallen, and saw where a stone had been rolled away to make way for the dirt road.  It was large enough a tractor or team of horses would have been involved.

They’d be close in a matter of seconds.  I put one hand out, pressing it against the stone, and brought out the Wretch.  I pulled back, and the Wretch held on.  Together, we heaved the stone free from the earth that surrounded it.

“Don’t fuck me,” I whispered to the Wretch.  I could hear the fingers and teeth biting into the stone, arms wrapping around it and squeezing until it threatened to break.

Two hundred and fifty, three hundred pounds of rock.  The dirt road was constructed so it formed a hump, with vehicles traveling along the raised portion, with rainwater flowing into the ditches on either side, to be reabsorbed or to run off into some larger water source.  It was the cover the patrol block people were using, and it was cover I could use, albeit in a different way.

I left the scene, flying low and hauling the rock with me.  The Wretch continued to wrestle with it, mindless, carving into it.  I worried it would break in half.

Once I was far enough away I couldn’t see the people, I flew over the road, and flew at them from the sides.

Fights were about information first, positioning second, action third.  It was why I studied parahumans, and it was why I favored the faux thinker-one power I had in my bird’s eye view, when I could use it without being shot.

Without information, people couldn’t know where they needed to be.  If they weren’t in the right place at the right time, they couldn’t act.  Positioning was second.

I was fast, silent, and approaching from an unexpected angle.  I looked for where the people with guns were, and I released the stone.  It hit the ground with no sound but an impact that saw them react.  I pushed out with my aura for good measure.

With momentum, it rolled a short distance.  It rolled into the group, and four people toppled, a stone that came up to almost hip height hitting their legs with crushing force.

If I was a police officer, I would have been clear to shoot, faced with people that had rifles and handguns.  I considered myself clear to demolish anyone who was armed.  The Warrior Monk would have been fine with it.

I saw one person who had a gun I could make out, a rifle painted a dark green with a coarse, grippy texture.  The Wretch and I relieved him of the burden of having to carry a rifle and having unbroken hands.

I knew I was risking getting shot by the first person with the presence of mind to point a handgun at me in an casual way, instead of drawing the thing and sticking their arm out.  Risky too, to fight when I didn’t have the use of my left arm, and a good hit to my arm when I was defenseless could bring me to my knees with the pain.

The aura helped make people stupid, and I could use positioning in another way, moving fluidly and unpredictably as I ducked and darted between people.

I wasn’t about to back off when they were this close to Gilpatrick, potentially Jasper, and others I’d worked with.  Even the pissy anti-cape types deserved to come out of this okay.

Handgun?  I brought the Wretch out and slapped at arm or weapon.  Knife?  I did the same.  Bat?  Easy to hit the weapon and send it back toward the wielder’s face.

A few braver members of their group pressed in, trying to dogpile me, grabbing instead of punching or swinging.  Harder to deal with, until I brought the Wretch out a bit longer.  I could see them react as it unfolded, like an irregularly shaped bubble around me.

I withdrew the Wretch before it could get a grip on anyone or anything.

One pointed a gun at me, and I flew past the gun to drive my forehead into his face.  Instinct, not pre-planning, but I was thinking the Warrior Monk would forgive me on that.  My arm hurt, inexplicably, from me delivering a hit with my head, and my forehead hurt.  I wasn’t wearing my mask- it still dangled from my waist, the curve allowing it to rest against my thigh.

I didn’t let it show.  I watched the others back off, the recent damage and the aura being ample reason.  One had four bloody marks swelling on his chest, and I realized I’d been too slow to dismiss the Wretch, or it had been too quick to unfold.  She had managed to stab her fingertips into flesh.

Hate.  The feeling hit me so suddenly and so unexpectedly that I thought it might have been one of Rain’s cluster-mates.  Hate like when I had been in middle school, arguing with a classmate who had spewed out insane, vile rhetoric that would have made them a perfect fit for Empire Eighty-Eight or the Fallen, and he had refused to listen because I was a ‘pretty, privileged white girl’ and that had somehow meant my experiences and opinions weren’t valid, even though he was an okay looking, privileged white boy.  I’d hated him and I’d hated that I couldn’t talk or shout sense to him and make him stop or even pause in being such a shitty person.

Hate like I had channeled at my sister, because she had broken something intrinsic in me.  Because she had torn open emotional doors I had really wanted to protect and be tender with, so soon after I had lost Dean.  She had violated that and staked her claim to what lay beyond those doors, and it was only by twisting devoted, passionate love into devoted, passionate hate that I had briefly been able to retain something of myself and my boundaries.  Only briefly.

I hated the Wretch, in that same way.  I hated the blood spots I could see where fingers had dug in, the guy now on his knees, fingers at his chest with blood seeping between them.  I hated the scratches on Moose’s face.

I hated the ones with broken hands, arms, and legs, the ones who were lying on the ground screaming.  I hated that when I’d had the ability to be gentle, I hadn’t been, and now that I wanted to be gentle, I couldn’t.

To top it off, I hated the Fallen.

“Stand the fuck down!” I shouted.  “Or I won’t hold back anymore!”

Rain fell all around us.  In the ditches by the road, the water made small trickling sounds.  I could hear gunfire in the distance, and I could hear the patrol block.

My aura burned dark and intense, and I knew that they wouldn’t be feeling the pause or the odd mid-fight peace of rain and the ongoing violence being more distant.

One of them looked at the hostages, who’d made it to the dirt road and now crouched there.  I flew straight for them, pushing past the people in the way with enough force to knock them over.

My thought, my instinct, was that if they had a gun, I wanted to already be there, ready to stop them.  They didn’t have a gun, so I went easy.  I kicked them across the lower legs, the Wretch momentarily active.

“Stand down and don’t even fucking look at them,” I said, pointing at the people they’d used as human shields.  “And don’t fucking think of raising a weapon.  I will shatter you, and you can see how well they take care of you here, or you can go to the hospital, get fixed up, and they’ll send you back home.”

I paused.  I stared at them, meeting each one’s eye in turn.  Roughly half their number were on the ground.

“Do you really think the Fallen are going to look after you when the weather gets colder, food is short, and you can’t be a farmer or a soldier?”

I saw movement.  A blur.  I moved away, ready to raise the Wretch, and as much as I could raise my defenses as fast as I could put my thoughts together, the attacker was fast and I hadn’t anticipated being blindsided.

The hit was hard, and the only reasons it wasn’t harder were that it hit my armor, at least partially, and I was moving back and away.

I winced, my hip aching.  Maybe it was telling, that I’d been driven to get back and away before I’d thought to make myself impervious.

Mama Mathers had kept bodyguards close, but she either had reinforcements from the other family, or this mob had more powered Fallen in it.

It was a Fallen woman.  She was younger than me, going by stature and frame.  A Leviathan theme to her mask, but with a fin on top and at the sides.

She came at me again, and this time I had the Wretch up.  She hit it hard, winced, and turned pitch black, freezing in space.

She got me from behind, a cord encircling my neck, pulling tight.  With my breastplate set up the way it was, there was a little flare of spikes, a few inches in front of my chin, pointing slightly outward.  The cord or wire caught on that, and I brought my good hand up, gripping the wire.

I pulled to get free, and I met resistance- at the same moment the obsidian black figure in front of me resumed motion.  She hit the ground with one foot, and launched herself at me.

I activated the Wretch and tore through cord, catching on something solid enough that the Wretch flickered out.

Metal wire, it seemed.  A garotte, no association with my friend and teammate.  In the course of moving away from the attacker, I moved closer to the unfrozen woman, and put her off her rhythm.  She changed, freezing in place, and the attacker I hadn’t yet seen attacked me from behind, hit me sufficiently hard to make me crash into the frozen woman.  The hit was enough that I’d bruise, but the residual impact made my gunshot wound explode with pain.

I twisted around, exerting force against the immobile obsidian statue, and she came to life, stumbling back, just as I saw the attacker behind me freeze.

One attacker, with two bodies.  Whatever one wasn’t active was immobile and apparently invincible.  Whichever one was active had enhanced speed and the strength that came with hitting things very fast.

The scholar in me wondered for a moment about just why so many Fallen were such massive pains in the ass, with such a solid crop of powers.

Conflict drive?  Close associations with other powers?  Careful selection and sharing of powers through breeding, insofar as powers were inherited that way?

Wretch out, I punched one woman- hit statue.  I pulled the same arm back, elbowing the one behind me- only for her to become statue just in time.  The one in front was already moving out of the way of any follow-up attack, the Wretch grazing her, making her stumble a little.  She still moved too fast for me to give chase.

She attacked relentlessly, and with a speed sufficient that the Wretch only blocked one in three hits.  I could use some basic fighting sense or flying away to protect myself against another one in three, but it still left a gap.  One or two hits made me stumble.  Another cracked me hard enough across the side of my head that I momentarily couldn’t make sense of what I could see.

I connected one hit, then followed up with a swing, Wretch active, hitting the ground hard enough to send a spray of stones, dirt clumps and mud at her.  She went statue and attacked me from behind with her other self, but when I retaliated, the original self had to shake off the residual mud.

I heard Ashley use her power.

She sailed over the heads of Fallen, landing with a bit of a skid.  Her hair was wet and slicked back, and her eyes were wide with the extent of their whites showing.  No pupils.

I wasn’t sure what to say, so I stated the obvious.  “You came.”

“R needs help.”

He did.  That he’d run into trouble had been the window Mama Mathers had needed.  I would have helped him already, but I could hardly leave my patrol block.

Sveta had been with him, too.

The lizard-demon Fallen came after me.  I fended her off, flying a bit away to position myself closer to Ashley.

“Is it alive?” I asked the Fallen.  “Your other self.”

The lizard-demon Fallen charged after me again, in lieu of answer.  I lashed out, and she became statue.  It was like hitting something Clockblocker-affected, from my hometown’s old Wards team.  No result, nothing got through.

“I’m giving you one chance to-”

Ashley’s power misfired.  She stumbled.

The lizard Fallen went after her.  Another cord.  Harder to get it around Ashley’s neck, when Ashley was bent double- Ashley brought her injured hand up, and the wire pulled against her forearm, cutting into flesh.  Blood welled out.

Power welled out too.  The power flared, and the cord broke.  The Fallen stumbled back, and became statue as Ashley turned to look at it.

“If you’re a pair and not one cape with a gimmick, you’ll both want to stand down, because my friend hits pretty darn hard.”

“I do,” Ashley said.  Long, wet white hair had fallen across her face while she was bent over.  It stuck there.

The lizard Fallen cackled, but didn’t respond.

She went after Ashley, instead of me.  Two of her at once, but never acting at the same time.  One became a statue the moment Ashley looked like she might have her bearings and be able to respond.  I flew over, and the Fallen girl moved around behind Ashley, shoving her in my direction, maneuvering to never give either of us a clear shot or angle.

She hit Ashley in the midsection, and Ashley reached out, putting a hand on the Fallen’s collarbone to steady herself.  She was hit from behind, one hit to the kidney.

She used her power, and it tore through the statue, ripping it apart.  Ashley was thrust away by the blast, and she landed not very far from where the lizard Fallen had dropped to the mud and grass, sitting there in shock.

Ashley hadn’t been lying when she’d suggested her power could hurt me.

It had been the final test, in a way.  The group of Fallen soldiers were hanging back, the patrol block having emerged, guns held up.  One or two in the Fallen still had guns as well, or had picked them up, but they were badly outnumbered.

Had the lizard Fallen won, I wondered if they would have pressed the attack, even faced with equal numbers and more guns.  I wondered if they would have had a choice.

Choice.  I looked for the instigator and leader.  Mama Mathers had disappeared into the trees, along with the Fallen in black, the one who had conjured the blue-white wall of faces, and the beast-masked Fallen in white.

Gilpatrick’s group began to disarm, arrest and manage the Fallen soldiers, some tending to the wounded, others hanging back and keeping their guns raised.

“R is in trouble?”

“I overheard,” Erin said.  “One of Bamet’s animals came to relay information.  R was attacked.”

“Rain,” another of the human body shields said.

“I was leaving the full name out, dad.”

“Don’t betray your own, Erin,” the man said.

“Our so-called own betrayed us!” Erin shouted.  “Fuck!  They never cared.  We were only tools to use.  Shields to get in the way so they could get up close.”

“No,” I heard his response.  I cut him off before he said anything else.  There were other priorities. “Attacked where?  How?”

“I- I don’t know.  I’m sorry,” she said.  And in that instant, she didn’t sound like the confident girl I’d talked to.  She was shaken.  “It- bad.  Bamet’s animals, they barely speak English.  But his situation is bad.”

I frowned.

“If you find them, don’t kill the animals?” Erin asked.

“The animals?”

“There’s something human in there.”

I frowned.  I had to go.

“You good?” I asked Gilpatrick.

“Yes,” he said.  “An awful lot of wounded, but- we’ll manage.”

I looked at Ashley.

“I’ll stay,” she said.  “Call if you need me, but-”

But she’d turned herself in?

Did she cut herself off because she couldn’t bring herself to say it?

“I’ll protect these people if they need it,” she said, instead.

So many people didn’t look like the ones I’d known.  Erin and Ashley both lacked the confidence they should have had.  Gilpatrick looked more like the grizzled soldier than the teacher.  Even the Fallen- well, they’d been threats and now the most aggressive and armed of them were on the ground, defenseless, making noises of pain.

I didn’t look like the me I wanted to be, probably.  So soon after donning my new, pretty costume.

This other me took to the air, flying against the falling rain, so that the gentle patter became something sharp in the brief ascent.

Rain, Mama Mathers, and the remaining leadership figures of the Crowley and Mathers branches.

Roughly in that order, anyway, as far as priorities went.

I could see Capricorn’s work, and he had raised walls in a way that left the Fallen with far less in the way of places to go.  Some reached as high as the treetops, most others were shorter, speedbumps and momentary obstacles, such that going around was probably easier than finding a way through or over.

I reached for my phone and dialed.

“-n’t find him,” Capricorn’s voice came through.  There was a whoosh of air on his side of the conversation, stopping as he finished talking.

“I can’t do much,” Looksee said.  “Victoria’s on the line now.  She was fighting.  Are you okay, Victoria?”

“Fallen to the Northeast were arrested.  One powered among them.  Erin’s okay.”

“Rain will be so happy to hear that if we can actually find him,” Capricorn said.  Still with the whoosh.

“Mama Mathers got away.  But she’s out of action,” I said.

“She’s alive?” Looksee asked.

“Last I saw,” I said.

“Okay,” Looksee said.  She sounded funny.  “Damsel?”

“She’s staying behind.  Protecting them, she said.  But she wants to stay in custody, I think.  I think it’s a good idea.”

“Okay,” Looksee said, barely audible.

“It makes sense,” Capricorn said.  I heard Vista’s voice, and still with the whoosh.

“Are you flying?” I asked.

“We caught a ride,” Capricorn said.  “Traveling Narwhal style.  We’ll be coming around your way soon.”

Narwhal style?

“Okay,” I said.  “Sveta, Chris?”

“Gone, same as Rain,” Looksee said.  “And changing.  He thinks Keen Vigilance might be able to hear something.”

“Traveling up the east perimeter,” Capricorn said.  “Vista says she would appreciate a lift down to solid ground.  She’s not super confident of her ability to land.”

“Land?  You’re actually on a Narwhal forcefield?”

“Doing loops.  They travel in straight lines, but Vista can bend straight.”

Okay.  I wasn’t just catching my two friends, then.  I was doing it while they were surfing on a flying, crystalline cleaver.

Fuck me.

“I’ll use my power.  Tell me when you start to feel it,” I said, my attention all over the place, as I looked for any sign of Rain, Sveta, Mama, Capricorn, and Vista.

“Feeling it,” Capricorn said.

I spotted them, and flew to match my trajectory to theirs.  “Only one working arm.”

Vista’s power warped space around us, slowing their speed.  It took me a second to adjust.  I let the thing catch up to me, and rested my foot against it, leaning back and moving with it.

“Catch him, catch me after,” Vista said, her voice briefly doubled on both phone and in person, slightly out of sync.

I caught Capricorn’s hand.  I couldn’t use the Wretch, and the strain of my arm carrying him reached across my shoulder to my injured other arm.

“I’m okay if it’s rough,” Capricorn said.

It was rough.  He landed hard, clipping a branch on the way down.  He didn’t react or seem to mind, letting go and pointing.

Vista had jumped, and she was descending slower, the space between her and the ground extending.

I flew to intercept.  I caught her hand in mine.  Again, my arm complained.

Not as heavy as Capricorn.

“Thank you,” she said.

I lowered her to the ground.  Capricorn put his hand out, catching her by the upper arm and helping with the final couple of feet.

“Mama knew where Rain was.  If we track her, we might be able to find him.”

“I can’t help,” Looksee said, through the phone.  “Both of my active cameras broke.  I’ve got another covering myself and Tattletale, I could send that.”

Vista seemed confused.  I motioned for her to come closer, fished in between my armor and my top for my other earphone, rubbed it against the edge of my hood, and offered it to her.

“It would take time to get here,” Capricorn said.  “Don’t worry about it.”

“Shouldn’t I very worry about it?” Looksee asked.  “I should send them now in case they’re needed.”

Cameras broke?” a voice came through the phone, hissing.

“Yes,” Looksee said.  “Don’t get on my case about it, vigilant dumbnuts, I’m not in the mood.”

Wondering… how?

“I dropped one on Mama Mathers and I dropped another on someone with a gun.”

“It worked,” I said.  “I don’t know how you aimed that without looking through the camera-”

“I didn’t.  My cameras were already fritzing out, so I sent them a slice of program, with facial recognition.  I centered it over them, accounted for wind, and when things sounded worst I had my cameras stop hovering.”

You weaponized… cameras?

“I told you not to get on my case about it,” Looksee said.

Am not.

“I didn’t weaponize the cameras, just so you know.  I’ve said I’m not good at making my cameras function like weapons.”

I remember,” Chris’ snakelike voice came through the phone.

“I weaponized the off switch, obviously.”

“Obviously,” Capricorn said.  “Send your camera.  If Mama Mathers is out-”

“Pretty sure she is,” I said.

“We can use all the help we can get.”

“It’s not like Tattletale is responding,” Looksee said.

“Victoria, can you give us another set of eyes from above?” Capricorn asked.

I nodded, taking back my earphone from Vista.

“I really hope he’s okay,” I heard Capricorn, the tail end of the sentence almost inaudible as I was already flying.

The weather seemed to be easing up.  I noticed the precipitation wasn’t as sharp as I flew up into it.  Not like it had been minutes ago.

Capricorn’s walls to the southern end of the camp had served to funnel the Fallen in other directions.  The road seemed untouched, the settlement was almost half and half for buildings that had been abandoned and leveled, and the fighting seemed concentrated at the north end, Crowleys and Advance Guard, and where I’d been helping the patrol block to the northeast.

The northeast was a starting point.  I imagined they would want to go to where there was help.  That meant they’d either head for the center, through open space where I would have to be able to see them, or they’d cut north.  The latter would let them move through the trees.

I reported it to the others.

I spotted the first of the animals.  A man with a hunched back and the head of a pig, his body heavy with muscle that didn’t match an ordinary person’s.  There was a horse, too, but its normal long face had been replaced with a human’s, folding around at the sides in a way that distorted the mouth and made the eyes bug out.  Mama Mathers was draped over the back of the horse.

My pulse pounded as I approached.  I turned sideways to appear less threatening and held my good hand up for the animals, trying to get them to ease up.  My only experience with horses had been at Dean’s family’s place.

The pigman made noises, and I winced.  It sounds like a stuck pig.  An animal in pain.

I’d wondered how the barnyard cape had blended in with the Fallen aesthetic.  I wasn’t wondering anymore.

“Is she alive?” I asked.

“Uuuuuhrh,” the horse moaned, in a halfway sound between a moan and a whinny.

I held my hands up, easing them as I drew nearer.  I hesitated, then put a hand at her neck.  I felt for a pulse, felt one, and then pried open one of her eyes.  I watched it dilate in the light.

I didn’t consider the administration of first aid or medical know-how a strength of mine.  I’d taken a class in first aid, and I’d learned it, a long time ago, and I’d refreshed myself when I had joined the patrol, but…

Suffice to say, that base had been covered, for most of my hero career.

The animals reacted, heads turning.  I glanced back.  the others had arrived.  Capricorn, Vista, and Chris as a broad mountain of hair and layered plates with massive ears and huge eyes, a foot taller than Capricorn.

Mierda,” Capricorn said.

“Erin said there’s something human in there,” I said, staring at the animals.

Chris started to approach.  The animals shied back.

He sighed.

“We’ll help if we can,” I told the animals.  “But can you show us the way to the others?”

You don’t want to do that,” yet another strange voice came through the phone.

“I’ve been trying to get in touch, Tattletale,” Looksee said.  “You’ve been ignoring my calls.”

“The fact you’re saying we don’t want to do this is a pretty good motivator to do this.”

“Don’t be a child, Victoria.  You’ve got the Mathers leader in your hands.  Good one.  Now leave.  Or go help Advance Guard, because they really need it.  Your friend Rain is done for.  He was always going to be done for.”

“Even if I was willing to accept that-”

“Which we aren’t,” Looksee interrupted.

“Our friend was with him.  Sveta.”

“Garotte,” Tattletale said.

“Sveta,” I said, more firmly.

Capricorn and Vista were lowering Mama Mathers to the ground.  The ‘animals’ seemed more relieved than anything to have that taken care of.  The existence of human mannerisms and expressions on animals was disconcerting.

Capricorn began creating a cage for her, to encase her body.

He apparently deemed it better to contain her and risk that she wouldn’t be okay than to rush to give her medical care and risk other lives.  We’d already tried the more merciful route.

“Okay,” Tattletale said.  “I don’t think it matters at this stage.  You don’t need Bamet’s beasts.  I’ll tell you where you need to go, if you promise not to stir up shit with Cradle and his friend.”

I glanced at Capricorn, then back at Chris.

“Promise,” I said.

“That’s a lie.  Whatever.  I’d remind you this is me being nice again, but you don’t care.  There’s a barn southwest of you.  You overshot when you approached.”

I looked.  A barn, in the middle of pen fields, with some stone-and-mortar fences separating fields from road, so no car would drive off the road and into the field without meeting an obstacle first.

The rain was only a trickle now.

Vista warped the space, to bring everyone closer.  It only served to make my trip there even faster, as I flew.

The first thing I noticed was the blood and the bodies.  Animals had been slaughtered, and their parts made for a macabre, eerie picture, with human and animal mixed and blended.  The two Fallen bodyguards were dead, and there were a few others, besides.

The second thing I noticed was Cradle in the rafters.  His robot was large enough that its hands could touch multiple walls, grip the rafters and touch the ground at the same time.  Cradle was perched on the back of one hand, crouching as he stared down.  Another parahuman, dressed in black with a red handprint on his mask, was gripping one finger, dangling.  He had a cleaver in his hand.

And in the corner, almost impossible to see, Sveta was huddled.  Her body was damaged, and tendrils snaked out, gripping herself, none long enough or positioned well enough to do more than snake around her shoulder and chest, twisting at cloth to reveal the painted shell beneath.  She was glaring, hate, and in the moment she looked at me, the hate broke, and she looked like she might cry in relief, or in grief.

She held what remained of Rain in her arms, as he gasped out short breaths, like a fish out of water.  The damage done- it hadn’t been her.

“Let’s not make this a thing,” Cradle said.

It was going to be a thing.

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Pitch – 6.3

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No plan survived contact with the enemy, but I hoped it would at least be recognizable in the aftermath.

Phase two.  Contain and besiege.

We staggered our retreat, with Capricorn walling off the path behind us before the group moved again.  The Fallen sent some people our way, but I had the impression the people were scouts, figuring out where we were and then getting scared off by the razor-forcefields and antisonic booms.

Rain stuck with Narwhal’s group, and even contributed some of the suppressive fire.  As I flew around the treetops to keep an eye on things from above, I saw the occasional tree topple, as Rain’s power and something else hit a tree around the same time.

Trees falling was good.  It helped to cover our retreat in the same way Capricorn’s walls did.

He kept giving me looks.  I couldn’t read his expression while his mask was on, but I could make assumptions.  He hadn’t liked leaving, or even pretending to leave, and I knew he wanted to help Erin.

Mama Mathers was powerful.  It wasn’t that she had the clout some other top tier capes did, but her existence created a blind spot where we couldn’t keep tabs on the Fallen’s side.

Another wall snapped into existence.  Fluke gave the call to move on, and the group ventured further into the woods, away from the area where the Fallen camp was nestled.  Narwhal’s offensive team followed behind the retreat, with Fluke staying back to report to her as she caught up with him.  Weld was hurrying forward to stay near the front of the group, taking on a semi-leadership role.

With each phase in our retreat, Capricorn’s walls went up faster and bigger.  Vista was sticking by him, and from what little I could see as I used my advantage of mobility to check on everything, they were getting along great.

Yeah.  I needed to have a chat with her.

Sveta was sticking with Weld, even though they had different focuses in the moment.  Weld was directing people and making sure the coast was clear, while Sveta had Weld’s phone in hand, a brick of a thing with push buttons that she needed two hands to hold.  He would have dialed for her, or answered for her while Looksee called.  Our kid tinker was on the other end.

My phone was in my pocket, the cord of my earphones running up beneath my armor and hair to my ear, where it was covered.  I was looped into the conversation.

With the rain pattering down around us, cool but not cold, my setup meant I could keep my hands and face dry, without risking that my phone might get wet.

“I had my moment of heroism, I even caught some bad guys,” Looksee said.  “It’s probably kind of lame compared to what you guys are doing, but it’s my first win!”

“Your first win,” Sveta said.

“Mine and mine alone, yes!  I was keeping an eye on everything around the camp and the moment things started, a bunch of people in the town got in cars and raced off in your direction.  I told my friends here and they told Narwhal and her group, but nobody was in a good spot.  So I programmed like lightning, and repurposed the projector box.”

“Not too many details,” I jumped in, wincing at the offhand mention of the trap.  “We don’t know who’s listening in.”

“Sorry.   But I put up projections of police officers and vans and some heroes.”

“What I’m hearing in this is that you’ve taken the time to capture and keep images of police officers, vans, and some heroes,” Chris said.

He was in on the call too, apparently.  I hadn’t known before he spoke up.

“I didn’t keep anyone’s faces or anything, and I changed up the hero costumes,” she defended herself.  “I even asked most of them if I could take their picture.”

“Says the girl who could probably make a camera that steals literal souls if she tried.  Totally innocent thing to ask, and they have no idea at all.”

“Could not.  Souls are for God to handle, numbnuts.”

“Be nice, both of you,” I said.  “Tell your story, Looksee.”

Capricorn was jogging along, with Vista at his side.  He produced orange sparks, and she distorted the space around them.  He shook his head, and the sparks winked out.

It was really, really weird to look at the pair and realize they were about the same age.  I’d heard about Vista from Gallant before I ever even met her, and I’d tried my best to take her as a fellow hero first and a kid second, at his suggestion.  But she was seventeen, now.  Crazy.

“I finished picking out the code and put up my projections just before they came around the corner.  They rolled up and stopped because they had a bunch of guns pointed at them.  I called the guy Victoria mentioned-”

“Gilpatrick,” I said.

“Yes!  I feel bad for forgetting his name.  He’s nice.  I really like him.”

“You like everyone,” Chris said.

“He’s likable,” I said.  “One of my favorite people.”

I heard an audible increase in excitement when Looksee responded, simply from the fact I’d validated her impression.  “I see why.  They sent a van super quick and took all the people into custody.  Fallen, hanging back in the town.”

“They would have been the ones keeping an eye on things,” Sveta said.

“Reinforcements,” Looksee said.  “They had guns.  The assholes.”

It was Chris who answered that.  “We know about the guns.  The Fallen and Hollow Point guys have been shooting them all over the place.  Victoria got shot.”

“What!?”

“I’m fine.  Already patched up,” I said, as I thought,  I might need physiotherapy, and there’s a sensation in the center of this mess that makes it feel like the bullet is still in there, but I won’t die.

“I got shot too,” Chris said.  “Not that anyone cares.”

“When?” Sveta asked.

“I was Dark Introspection.  It didn’t do much of anything, but I still got shot.”

“Don’t talk like that, you guys,” I heard Looksee.  “I’m teary eyed even thinking of you guys being seriously hurt.”

Okay, we needed a distraction.  “Looksee.  I’m thinking of a plan, beyond what we already talked about.  You’re a key part of it.”

“What we just talked about, with our reinforcements?”

“Yes,” I said.  Our reinforcements.  Good to phrase it that way.  Tattletale.

“I’m looking into it,” Looksee said.

“Good,” I said.  “This is separate.  If you’re up for it.”

“Reinforcements?” Sveta asked.

“Rain or I can fill you in after,” I said.

She didn’t respond immediately.  Down on the ground, I saw her look up at me, her Brute-and-gauntlet-wearer class phone still held to her ear.

“Okay,” Sveta said.

“Looksee,” I said, hurrying to lay it out now that I’d cleared some of the obstacles and interpersonal issues.  “You may have people coming down the road.  It’s the easiest way for them to get out if they want to make a run for it.”

“I’ll be ready.  With reinforcements, maybe.  Depends.  They’re not answering.”

“Okay,” I said.  “How hard would it be to set something else up?  Gilpatrick is wrangling an awful lot of people.  What if those people were waiting elsewhere?”

“Elsewhere?” Looksee asked.

“Or… in as many places as you can manage.  I’m thinking we put the evacuees in one place, or spread them out.  They’re people the Fallen have some reason to care about.  We put images of the evacuees in other places, or we fill out the groups.  We give them a reason not to shoot the moment they come storming down that dirt road or out of the woods.”

“I’d need to grab images and write some code.  I’d have to change the spectrum angle on the- thing.  There’s a lot of stuff.”

“Can you?” I asked.

“I can try, but it’s going to be hard, and I’ll be distracted.  I might have to hang up so I can focus.  Um.  Is there anything else I need to do or plan for?”

“No,” I said.

“I’m going to hang up then!  Will call back soo-” she announced, hanging up before she’d even finished the sentence.

There was a pause.

“Is the world ending again, or did she really just say that?” Chris asked.  “She decided of her own volition to hang up on friends.”

“She’s excited to help,” Sveta said.

She was, I suspected, but I wasn’t sure I’d heard excitement, exactly.

Hard to pin down.

Capricorn was building the next wall within Vista’s distortion.  He turned blue, and the wall turned to water.  There were shouts as people near the wall had to jump back to avoid getting sloshed.  Some couldn’t avoid it and were soaked or partially soaked.

Narwhal raised her voice.  I double checked what I could see of the woods, to make sure nobody was coming or passing by our flanks, then dropped from my lookout position.

I hung up my phone as I descended.

“-of you showing off?” Narwhal asked.  I’d missed the start of the sentence.

“No,” Capricorn said.  He was back to being Tristan, and he was drawing out the wall even as Narwhal grilled him.

“This is a serious mission.  Your team posed it as such, and you were there- you saw how high the stakes are.”

“Absolutely,” Capricorn said.

“Yes ma’am,” Vista said.

“What were you doing?” Narwhal asked.

“Trying something,” Capricorn said.  “Vista saved me time earlier, I thought we could afford to lose some to try this, because it could save us a lot of time.”

“Capricorn, I get the impression you’re a good cape, the walls are good, you’ve kept a level head.  But the people back there- they’re the ones who can’t afford for us to screw up or let the Fallen catch up with us.”

Rain was standing a bit off to the side.  He’d been with Narwhal before, and he’d approached, because Capricorn was his friend.  He looked at me as Narwhal said the last bit.

Soon, I pledged mentally, without saying it out loud.

“Yes ma’am,” Capricorn said.

“What were you trying to do, powerwise?” I asked.

“Seeing what translates when I change out, if there’s a way to have her help make it bigger, not just move the sparks around faster, and keep it big even after she withdraws her space warping.”

“You were trying other stuff before,” I said.

“Yeah.  Flubbed this one, I think something went wrong.  The plan was to swap out, swap back a second later, so the wall mostly held… one second.”

He turned blue.  Byron.

“Didn’t go according to plan,” I concluded.

“There was a resistance to swapping back,” Byron said.  “Had to push in a way I never have.”

“Okay,” I said.

Back to Tristan.

“Scary,” Tristan noted.  I was already listening for the sound difference between the pair of them, so I wasn’t relying on sight alone, and I didn’t miss that he’d said the word in a voice that didn’t sound like either of them.  Or maybe it was the voice that fell in the venn-diagram overlap of how they were the same, in the middle of their case-seventy situation.

Narwhal gave me a long look.  As if I was some kind of judge or voice for the weirdness of the team.

“It’s a tricky power,” I tried answering the look.  “If they did figure out a way to save time and let them put up taller, thicker walls, I think you and I would be complimenting them on their ingenuity.  This didn’t cost us much.”

Narwhal looked over in the direction of the biker and Fallen we’d collected.  Afflicted by Mama, they were dealing with the worst she could deal with.

“We’re backing off anyway, and they aren’t pressing hard.  We’ll figure out another angle,” I added, sounding as confident as I could.  It felt strange to try to convince someone of Narwhal’s stature.  “Maybe figure out how to help them.”

“We can try some things once we get far enough out, and that’s why I’m mindful of wasted time,” Narwhal said.  “I miss having thinkers, but we couldn’t conscience bringing them with us, with the risk.  They could crack this and help those people.  It’s frustrating.”

“It is,” I said.  I glanced at Rain.

And there’s Tattletale, ignoring Kenzie’s calls, doing something out there, I thought.  I don’t know if she could crack this, but she doesn’t seem too interested in trying.

Narwhal turned to the Capricorn-Vista pair.

“Right now we need steady and reliable, with no surprises.  Please,” Narwhal said, with emphasis on the please.  “And no more small talk.  Let’s stay focused on the mission.  I overheard when I caught up to you two.  We should save the… complex  inter-cape interactions for later.”

Oh, so she’d noticed too.

“Got it, ma’am,” Capricorn said.

Vista didn’t voice her response, and from the way she held herself, I wondered if it was because she didn’t feel comfortable speaking in the moment.  She only nodded.

“Vista,” Narwhal said.  “Can you cover our flank?”

“Narwhal, ma’am,” Capricorn said.  “She does help me put them up faster and better.  I’d like her to keep helping.  You don’t need to separate us.  We’ll stick to what we know works, and we work well together.”

“Vista,” Narwhal spoke in a lower voice, not taking her eyes off of Capricorn.  “From what I know of your power, you don’t need to be close to make it work.”

“No ma’am, but I have to put it between the trees and it helps if I’m not too far away, so I can see instead of only feeling.”

“I’ve been aligning the walls to work with her on that,” Capricorn said.

“No small talk,” Narwhal said.  “You can stand further back and keep an eye on more of our flank while you work, Vista.”

“Yes ma’am,” Vista said.

Fluke grabbed Narwhal’s attention, and she reached up and over for a forcefield that appeared over her hand, gliding over to him.

“That sucked,” Capricorn said.  He was working on the wall again.  “I generally pride myself on being a kickass, professional cape, and I just got told off by someone global in stature.”

“I’m on the exact same page as you, Cap,” Vista said.  “Except I was a Ward, not a shill, and that’s my actual boss.”

Capricorn didn’t give a visible reaction to being called a shill.  Something they’d talked about earlier?  A joke?

“I think she’s nervous,” I said.  “This whole thing is worse than we thought it would be, and we thought it would be awful.

“She’s very nervous,” Vista said.  “We’re all nervous.  So much going on at the borders between worlds and we find out there’s something this rotten this close to home?  Things are supposed to be getting better and these guys seem really fucking committed to taking things in the other direction.”

“She’s looking,” Capricorn said, as he turned his head toward his wall.  “And we’re still talking.”

“Vista, can we talk?” I asked.

She followed me off to the side.

“I’m going to be cringing about this for the next five years,” Vista said.  “I goofed and got distracted, and everything went splat in front of my team leader, my team, my old team leader, you, Capricorn… and I think my boss knew why.”

I had been able to tell what was going on when I was a hundred feet in the air.

“First off,” I started.

“Yes?”

“The bad moments?  Never as bad as they are in your own head.  You couldn’t predict that.  Take it from the bystander and friend, don’t cringe for five years.”

She didn’t respond immediately, but then she nodded, sighing as she did it, like she was letting something free.

“Okay?”

“Okay.  What’s second off?”

“Second… do you want it blunt or do you want it gentle?”

“Blunt,” Vista said.  “I’m a fighter.  I can take it.”

“You have a problem,” I told her, quiet.  “You have a thing for unattainable guys in heavy armor.”

I saw her react, like she’d been punched in the gut, before she steeled herself.  I could even work out the thought process, as she noted that others were in a position to see us and her.  She couldn’t react too visibly.

“Dead son of a cunt, I might actually,” she said, under her breath.  “Unattainable why?”

“Can’t say.  He’ll tell you soon, I think.  He thinks you’re cool.”

“They always do,” she said.  “When things are calmer, you need to help me with this.”

“I can try, but before we talk about that-”

“We should talk about it another day.”

“Okay.  But on this, just to clear things up in a way I can explain, he has a twin brother.  The one in blue-”

“Oh.  That’s what that was.”

“It’s not a secret, but it’s not something we tell the bad guys either.”

“Got it.”

“I won’t say go for it, because… messy.”

“We’re all messy.”

“Messy… in a way beyond the cape usual.  I don’t think they can date, as it is.  And a very different personality.  Brace yourself for that.”

“Okay.”

“I think he could use a friend, but again, being blunt-”

I stopped as my phone rang, the earphone still in my ear, cord hidden by hair and armor.  I held up a finger for Vista.

“Yes?” I asked.

“It’s Looksee.  So I’ve got a thing.”

“Talk,” Sveta said, on the other line.

“I’m getting footage of the Fallen evacuees, two cameras out there, one up close to get the people and one pulled back to track light sources and get another angle.  My pulled-back is freaking out.”

“Freaking how?” Sveta asked.

“Literal ghost in the machine freaking?” I asked.

“Yes!  Yes, exactly.  I’ve never heard that term before but it fits exactly.”

“How has a tinker never heard-” Chris started.

“Don’t look at it, don’t dig into the code,” I talked over him.

“Wasn’t.”

“It’s Mama Mathers,” I said, loud enough for others to hear.  “With Gilpatrick’s patrol squad.”

“She was approaching, not with them yet, I think,” Looksee said.

“Looksee, call Gilpatrick!” I warned.  “I’m on my way.”

“I’m coming,” Sveta said.

I thought of the secret message to Kenzie.  The plan.  I’d pledged something to Rain, too.  “Has Mama affected you at all?”

“Barely.  Ears.”

“Rain, how hurt are you?”

I moved the hand of my uninjured arm at my side, where only he was really in a position to see.  A slash, side to side.

“Really hurt.  Snag did a number on me,” he said.

With luck, he was lying, and he got my intent.  We needed him as the one person who Mama couldn’t control, operating in a place she couldn’t see- away from those she’d infected.

“Situate yourself, cover us to our south,” I said.  Again, I made the slash.  “Be ready to join whoever, but stay put.  Sveta, escort him, then come to us?”

“Okay,” Sveta said, looking at Rain.  “Can do.”

“Rain?  Fill her in on anything you can on the way.”

“Understood,” Rain said, with a slight emphasis.  Rain jogged northward.

“C and I will follow, or we’ll hold down the fort.  I’ll call when we can confirm,” Capricorn said.

“I’m pretty mama’ed up,” Chris said.  “I’m dealing but it’s distracting.”

Distracting?” Capricorn asked.  He sounded slightly incredulous.

“Seeing the surface of everything peeling away to show the shrieking flesh beneath distracts me.  Sue me.”

Capricorn turned his head.  “Narwhal’s fighting.  I think the Fallen coordinated things so they’d hit all sides at once.”

“She can do that,” I said.  “Seeing what she sees.”

“You realize you’re going alone?  Until Sveta catches up with you.”

“I realize,” I said, raising myself up off the ground a bit.

I flew, zig-zagging to avoid the worst of the branches, ducking my head and letting smaller ones graze my hood.

I had a view of the broader landscape, and I could see where the roads formed an almost hammer-and-sickle image, the half-circle of road with forest cupped in it, and the line stabbing through the southeast or east, leading to the Fallen camp.  Gilpatrick’s group was to the northeast.

The wind blew at my hair and pulled my hood back as I flew.  Something I’d need to fix.  My arm throbbed with renewed pain, not because I’d moved it, but because I’d changed the angle of my body and that changed how the blood flowed through me.

“Are you with us, Looksee?” I asked.

“I am.  I called Gilpatrick, told him.  You sound windy.”

I sounded windy because I was flying.  Looksee, though- she sounded quiet, and not nearly as talkative as before.

“Are you okay?  No effect through your tinkering?”

“No effect,” she said.

I was especially aware of the fact that she hadn’t verified she was okay, and she didn’t sound okay.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.  “Cut the others out of the call if you need to.”

“Already did.  Victoria- Damsel is with Gilpatrick.  She’s sitting in the back of a van.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“What did I miss?  Don’t leave me out.”

“I’m not,” I said.  “I haven’t talked with the others about it, they saw, but I don’t think Rain knows yet.  We’re digesting.”

“Digesting what?”

“She snapped, Looksee.   Not quite like we’ve seen before.  I think- she went there because she needed a time out.  I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

“Okay,” she said.

I could see Gilpatrick’s trucks.  I could imagine where we’d last seen Mama, and where she might have gone.  I averted my eyes from the part of the forest where Mama might be.

“Did someone die?” Looksee asked.

“Someone died,” I said.

“She looks like someone died,” she said.

“I’m at Gilpatrick,” I said.  “I’ve got to focus.  Step back.  Get away, phone her, or-”

“I want to help.”

“Then work on projections, or try again with our ‘reinforcements’.  Throw yourself into this if the distraction helps.  Just don’t look at Mama on camera, don’t dig into code she’s affected, and listen to the little voice inside you if it has doubts about doing something.”

“I’ve got your back,” she said.

Below me, a few people fired into the trees.  There was no returning salvo.

I dropped out of the sky, landing more softly than I usually did, on account of my arm.

No Mama.  The Fallen were remaining in the trees.

“Victoria,” Gilpatrick said.  “Thank you for the warning.”

“No trouble?”

“We had a sudden influx of evacuees.  No guns, no problems.  We cut it off, told them to stay back.”

“And?”

“And if Looksee is right, I think your problem cape thought she’d conceal herself among hostages and catch us by surprise.”

“If you hear or see her, she can affect you,” I said.

“Great,” Gilpatrick said.  “Master-stranger!  Noise protection, eyes down!  Yellow for open fire, you better remember the rest!”

People scrambled to listen.

“Hey!” came a male voice from the woods.

“How fast does it take effect?” Gilpatrick asked.

“Fast, but limited exposure isn’t too bad.  Hallucinations, auditory and visual.”

“I risk exposure, to know what’s going on?”

I nodded once.  “I don’t see a better way.  Unless you want me to deal with it alone.”

“No.”

Gilpatrick looked like an entirely different man, with the tension in his face and neck.  He’d ceased being the tough-but-fair teacher and had become the soldier who had fought real-as-shit monsters.

He held his gun in one hand and a small remote in the other.  The active squad members who weren’t managing the Fallen that had already evacuated were standing with ear protection on, caps pulled down with brim blocking some of their fields of view, their heads bent so they stared at the ground a few feet in front of them, instead of looking forward.

Some of them looked pretty fucking scared.

In the background, I saw Ashley emerge from the back of one of the trucks parked on the road.  Not repainted schoolbuses, but a heavy metal van that might have transported money once.  She walked around to the side and leaned against it, one hand over the wound on her arm.

I nodded once.  She nodded back.

Well, some sort of backup, in the event of a dire situation.

And the guy in the woods was still making noise.  “Hey!”

“What!?” Gilpatrick called out.

“Don’t shoot!” the guy said.  “I’m unarmed, she wants to talk.  I’m talking for her.”

Gilpatrick looked at me.  I wasn’t sure what response to give.  I knew this might be safe in the technical sense, with emphasis on might.  This guy could have powers and he could have powers from the same branch of the family, but odds were that he was unpowered and unarmed as he said.

“She might want to talk, but she’s going to use the chance to threaten to do something horrible to hostages,” I said.  “And she’ll do those horrible things.”

“Better to open dialogue,” Gilpatrick said.

I nodded.

“You and you alone, come out!” Gilpatrick called out.

The Fallen was a skinny shirtless guy with a beard, tattoos up his neck and tattoos on the whites of his eyeballs.  He stood at the edge of the woods.  We stood on the road, a ditch with tall grass just in front of us, a hundred feet of uneven ground with rocks and weeds spanning the space between the ditch and the guy.  Gilpatrick’s group had made a makeshift bridge with two stretchers side by side, for the evacuees to cross the ditch.

The bearded man paused.  “She says her son needs medical attention.”

“We can negotiate,” I said.

“She says you need to think about the long term.  You might not like her, but you want her in power.”

“I somehow doubt that,” I said.

“The Crowleys can’t and won’t accept peace.  The guns were theirs.  She only wants to be left alone with her congregation,” the man said.  “They are attacking Advance Guard right this moment.  If you stop her and you don’t stop them or wipe us out completely, they will gather up the remaining Fallen and go to war.”

“The hallucinations stop now, and they stay stopped,” I said.  “We’ll take Valefor to a hospital.”

“She says he’s your leverage then.  To keep the hallucinations gone.”

“Yeah,” I said.  I glanced at Gilpatrick, and he nodded once.

“She says she expected to see Rain here.”

“Let’s stay focused on one topic at a time,” I said.  “You want Valefor to get help.”

“Same topic, she says.  We were talking about leverage.”

Erin stepped out of the woods.  She moved slowly, and she stopped, standing just behind and to the right of the man with the beard.  Her expression was drawn.  She met my eyes, and I saw the recognition.

I saw her look at Ashley.

“Give us Rain, and we’ll give you her,” the man said.  “Tell Rain, and he’ll agree to it.”

The trading of hostages, less valuable for the more valuable, maybe.

Rain had powers, so he counted as valuable, and he was immune to her powers, so he was a threat.  Hopefully he was a threat who was operating in the background now.

Yeah, I wasn’t about to tell Rain.

The man continued, passing on Mama’s words, “Prancer’s group is done.  They’re a non-threat now.  They’ll leave with their tails between their legs if we let them, and we’re not ready to let them.  Agree to leave us be, and we’ll call back the Crowleys.”

“And you keep your ‘congregation’,” I said.

“Even if you killed the leaders of each family, the congregation would remain,” the bearded man said.  There was a feral look in his eyes.  “We’re here to stay, unless you’re willing to kill us to the last man, woman, and child.  Learn to deal with us.  Negotiate.  Do you want peace, or do you hate us so much you’d prefer a mindless war?”

“It’s not my place to make deals of that scale,” I said.  “I’d have to pass it up to the people at the top.”

“There’s nobody at the top except God,” the bearded man pronounced.  I wondered if he was a preacher, with that passion.  He was a little less enthused as he went on to say, “No government, no law, no kings or queens.  You can decide what happens to Rain and Erin here, you can decide the little things, and we’ll all keep your secret.  That will be the shape of our negotiations today.”

“Hi, Erin,” I said.

“Hi.”

“You okay?”

“Not very.”

I nodded.

“Time matters, ‘hero’,” the bearded man said.

“Back off,” I said.  “We need to talk a minute.”

“Your loss.  The Crowleys are winning.  Our offer stands.”

I looked at Gilpatrick, and at the row of his soldiers that were ready to shoot.  Erin was among the targets, and there were presumably others in the trees behind.  Indiscriminate fire would be disastrous.

I looked back at Ashley, who leaned against the van, almost crushing her forearm in her grip, the grip was so tight.

“You’re right,” Gilpatrick said.  “This isn’t our call to make.”

“They aren’t about to wait and let us call up Chevalier and wait for him to finish whatever he’s got scheduled today, and they aren’t going to let us try to track down someone in government who might have the clout to okay this.”

“No,” Gilpatrick said.

I wondered if this was even something we could possibly do.  To compromise with a group that was uncompromising and unwilling to change its mind at its core.

“Tick tock,” the bearded man said.  Using tactics to make us feel rushed to make a decision.  My mom had employed that on me, once, as something illustrative.  I’d been too young to appreciate the lesson, at the time.  I’d mostly been pissed off.

“There’s no clock,” I said.  “Advance Guard can hold their own.  They’re good.”

Stupid on a macro scale, but I’d liked how they functioned in a scrap.  I could trust that.  I wouldn’t get pulled into their tempo.

“They’re outnumbered.”

“They’re good enough that doesn’t bother me,” I said.

“Tick tock,” the man said, again.  It irritated, which might have been the point, but it irritated me because it was so stupid and unintuitive.

“Valefor has to be dying, with that wound.  If anyone’s feeling the clock, it’s you guys,” I said.  “No mother wants their child to die.”

“She says lots of mothers do, but they keep it to themselves,” the bearded man said.  “We have time on our side in more than one way.  He’s dying slowly, she says.  Slowly.”

Slowly.  The Speedrunners.

They were operating in the background and every time they intervened, they made this whole situation vastly more difficult.

The old side of myself wanted to kick their asses.

“Tick tock, last chance,” the man said.

Last chance?  What was I missing?  My eyes scanned the surroundings.

“And it’s done,” the bearded man said.  He turned to walk back into the woods.  Erin looked bewildered, but he motioned for her to stay.

“Stay put!” Gilpatrick called out.

The bearded man froze in his tracks, his back to us.

“I’m okay with dying, motherfuckers” the bearded man said, but he stayed put.  “She’s telling me that one of our powered just got your Rain… and Rain wasn’t where you told him to be.  He was coming up on us from behind.  Secondhand caught him and now your girl in the armor is cornered.  Four against her.”

I drew in a breath.

“Erin here has outlived her usefulness.”

Erin bolted and I flew.  Nothing to lose.  I flew to where Erin had been, and raised my forcefield.  I felt it drop as a bullet hit it, and dropped to the ground.

It was because I was at a weird angle and because my peripheral vision was untouched that I saw it.  Two streaks from above, straight down.

I heard the metal crash, and saw circuitry and metal housing scatter.

The gunman behind Erin had lost his rifle and he held his hand in an awkward way as he used the other one to reach down for the rifle.  Gilpatrick shot him before he could claim his weapon.

The metal- pieces from Looksee’s camera.

One dropped from the sky to hit the gunman’s hand.  The other-

Children and other unarmed individuals emerged from the trees.  A wall of bodies.  the woman behind them was supported by two Fallen.

The woman was bloody, a scrape down one edge of her forehead and a messy patch of skin and blood toward the top end, hair already matted into it.  Blood streamed down her face.

The blood meant I hadn’t immediately recognized it as Mama Mathers.  The moment meant I hadn’t even realized the hallucinations had stopped.

Kenzie had dropped one of her flying cameras on her.

And the Fallen – there had been a good number in the woods.  Possibly the bulk of Mama Mathers’ faction.

They were charging forth, a wall of hostages goaded to stay in front of them, and they brimmed with all the fury and menace of the legions of hell.

Gilpatrick used the remote to flash.  Two red flashes, bright enough that the people looking down at the ground would see the color change.  I knew the code from my training with the patrol block.

Get the hell out.

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