Glare – 3.5

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The van bobbed with the added weight as I set Kenzie’s projector-recorder box down.  As I moved back, I nearly tripped over Kenzie, who had climbed into the van right behind me.

“I’ve got the straps, I’ll tie it down,” she said.  “Thank you for doing the heavy lifting.  It really helps.”

“Sure,” I said.  I squeezed past her and climbed down from the back of the van.  “For the future, if I’m using my strength, you probably want to keep more of a distance.  I wouldn’t want to bump into you with my power up.”

“Oh, okay.”

With Tristan having laid out his plan, the meeting was done, Tristan’s creations had been dismantled, the rocky walls and barriers broken down and placed with other rocks, and I had my laptop with my gathered notes in my bag.

Kenzie’s dad was standing by the door to the van.  The others were gathered on the sidewalk in front of the library.

“Are you going to be okay going home alone?” Tristan asked Rain.

“If you’d asked me earlier, I’d have said yes.  I’m less sure now,” Rain said.

“Sorry,” I said.

“No need to be.”

“I want you to know what you’re up against.  I didn’t do it to scare you, exactly.”

“Knowing what I’m up against and being scared go hand-in-hand,” Rain said.  “Right now I’m telling myself we don’t think Tattletale is free enough to be tracking me down right now, and the others are injured or preoccupied.  I’m probably safe to get home like this, right?”

“I’d think so,” Sveta said.  “I’d offer to come with you, but it’s a bit of a long trip.”

“Yeah,” Rain said.  “I wouldn’t want you to go to that trouble, either way.”

“Have you given any thought to moving?” Tristan asked.

Rain shrugged.  “Every day.  Being where I am is tolerable for now, I think.  The commute to the city is a pain, but if I imagine they’re hiring a dozen mercenaries and a few others, then it could be a bigger pain for them.”

“Hey Flays-Alive-Man, for this job, we’re going to need you and your ten superpowered friends to catch a train and spend three and a half hours traveling to the middle of nowhere, and then you have to find our target,” Chris said.

“God,” Rain said.  “Don’t fire up my imagination with names like that.”

“I do want to focus more on your situation,” I said.  “We’ve talked about the team and what the group is doing, but your situation is pressing.  We can’t keep assuming they’re preoccupied.”

“I know,” Rain said.

“We should figure something out, cover any surprises in the short-term while plotting out something workable in the long-term,” I said.

“I agree.  You can send them the wrong signals, but they could try tripping you up too,” Tristan said.

“I know, really,” Rain said.  He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, like he was about to say something, then said, “Yeah.”

“I could come with and fly back, or fly over the train and keep an eye out for trouble,” I said.

I could see Rain’s reaction, the kneejerk resistance.

“Oh!  I have cameras,” Kenzie said, “And you could use them to communicate.  They’re not too obvious.”

“I could carry a camera,” Rain said.  “Just so long as I could turn it off when I need to.”

“Why would you need to turn it off?” Kenzie asked.

“Because I have to go to the bathroom sometimes.”

“Why would anyone use a camera to watch someone go to the bathroom?” Kenzie asked.  “No, wait, I don’t want to know.  I’ve learned my lesson about those sorts of questions.  But you can trust me, that’s not what I’m about.”

“I’m glad.  I still want an off switch.”

Kenzie rummaged in the back of the van and pulled out a bag.  She handed over something looked like a smoke detector in brushed black metal, with a lens in the center.  “Here.  A camera.  You can press down on the lens in the middle and it will alert me.  I’ll set it up so it lets the others know too, but I can pick up sound and visuals and pass it on to the others if you need it.  This is the battery pack.  You can pull it out and the camera won’t work.”

“Seems simple enough.”

“Whatever you do,” Kenzie said, reaching out to touch Rain’s forearm.  “Do not put the battery pack in backward, when you re-insert it.”

Rain looked down at the camera he held with a little bit of trepidation.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because then it won’t work,” Kenzie said.

“You said it in an ominous voice,” Chris said.

“It’ll help Rain to remember not to put it in backward.  Duh.”

“It’s not going to misfire or blow up?” I asked.

“Why do you keep asking that?  No.  It’s a camera.  There is a very small chance of it blowing up, and if it does then it’s going to be a very small explosion.  Unless you’re very unlucky and a lot of the things that could make it blow up all happen at once.”

“I guess I trust your tech more than I trust the people who are after me to leave me alone,” Rain said.  He held up the camera.  “I’ll hold onto this, then.  Thanks.”

“Cool,” Kenzie said.  “You’re welcome.”

“You’re not going to be looking through it and checking in on me at random, right?”

“Not if you don’t want me to,” Kenzie said.

“I don’t want you to,” Rain said.  “No offense.  It’s just that the less you know, the less likely it is that one of the people after me decides to come after one of you to try to get info.”

“Okay,” Kenzie said.  “Not a problem.”

It’s a bit of a problem, I thought.  But not like you’re imagining.

Kenzie looked back toward her dad.  “And I should go.  You know how to get in contact if you have questions.  Do you want a ride?  Does anyone?”

“No thanks,” Rain said.

Kenzie double and triple checked with the rest of us, then looked over at her dad, who was waiting with barely any change in expression.  “I’m going to head out then.  Bye guys.”

“Bye,” Sveta said.

“Talk to you again soon,” I said.

Kenzie climbed into the passenger seat.  Her dad glanced over the group, briefly making eye contact with me, before taking a seat behind the wheel.  She stuck her hand out the window to give us a bit of a wave as her dad pulled away.

“Most uncomfortable car ride,” Rain said, watching them go.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Julien Martin, giving me a ride earlier.  Kenzie sent me a text letting me know he was on his way to pick me up.  I would have said no if she’d asked beforehand.  He turned up, let me into the car, then the entire way here, didn’t say a single word.  I didn’t say a thing either.”

“Am I missing context?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Rain said.

“It’s context for Kenzie to share,” Sveta said, her voice firm.

“Yeah,” Rain said, again.

“Fair,” I said, even though I wasn’t sure it was.  Not a hundred percent.  There was a point where I couldn’t do everything I needed to do if people were keeping secrets.  I didn’t want to press any buttons or tread on anything sensitive, and there were a lot of buttons and a lot of sensitive points.

“We’ll get you up to speed soon,” Sveta said.  “But we have to be fair.”

“Out of curiosity, Sveta, how much wear and tear did your body take out there?  Or is it bad of me to ask?” Tristan asked.

“It’s not bad at all,” Sveta said.

The conversation turned to armor and costumes.  I listened with one ear, but my thoughts were on Sveta’s defense of Kenzie’s background, and how careful Tristan was in asking about Sveta’s body.

There was something I’d noticed with the group, and it was something I’d fallen prey to myself.  When the group was talking, it was almost always in a guarded way.  Even Chris did it to a small degree.  Ashley too.  Conversations were meted out with care, not necessarily so each person was protecting themselves, but so they protected each other.  We often slipped back into talking like we were in therapy.

There were cases where individuals protected themselves and cases where individuals were also protected by others.  Kenzie had a role as the baby of the team, in a way.  There were things she didn’t disclose and things she was intentionally or unintentionally coy about, despite her overly open personality.  That was compounded by how others were ready to step up for her and defend her.  That was the security they’d given her.

I glanced over my shoulder at Ashley, who was hanging back, finishing the second of the bottles of water she’d brought back with her after going to the library.  Ashley was very similar to Kenzie in that department.  Unguarded in terms of how open she was about many things, but she had things she didn’t talk about, and she benefited heavily from the group’s defense of her.

It was the contract between them, the language they used and their habits, it carried over from the group.  It was going to change over time, I was sure, especially if their therapy with Mrs. Yamada ran its course.  I wasn’t sure if that meant the dialogue would become natural, if the contract would be betrayed in small ways, or both.

I was, as much as they’d asked for my help, the interloper.  They protected each other from me, even if it meant Sveta was protecting someone as troubled as Ashley from someone she saw as a friend.  I suspected it ran deeper than her wanting to see Ashley’s humanity win out over the monster.

Getting the information on powers and on the most important things like Ashley’s situation was easily doable, because it was need-to-know.  Where I ran into a stumbling block was that their view on need-to-know and my view differed.

I worried they had too light a view of things.  The ones who didn’t were among the more guarded, and they were being guarded too.

It all knotted together.  Was I supposed to be patient and wait for the information to come out?  Would it come out only as each crisis reared its head?  Or did I push and risk doing damage?

I could push lightly.  I waited for Tristan to stop talking about his armor, and the tools he used to fix the scuffs.

I wasn’t the only one waiting for a break in the conversation.  “I should probably go or I’m going to miss my train.”

“My offer stands,” I said.  “An eye in the sky, if you think you’ll need it.”

“No,” Rain said.  “I’d rather-”

He stopped at that.

“What?” Tristan asked.

Rain went on, “It’s my experience that when you’re in trouble, people are usually pretty good about offering help and support.  People are good like that.  I’ve seen it with family members that had babies, and people who lost loved ones.  Everyone turns up and offers their support, they bring food, they say they’ll be there.  And they are, at first.”

“You think we’ll get bored of this and not help you later?” Tristan asked.

“Not bored,” Rain said.  “Shit happens.  Everyone has their issues, things come up, and then they lose sight of the promises made to new parents, the bereaved, or whoever else.”

“I think that’s pretty unfair,” Tristan said.

“It’s reality,” Rain said.  He looked at me, “It’s nice of you to offer, Victoria, but I’d rather have you come and keep an eye on things when I feel like I’m actually in danger, instead of coming now, realizing what a huge pain in the ass it is to fly that far out of your way, and then feeling reluctant when it counts.”

I thought about reassuring him, pointing out that I’d traveled from the Bridgeport span to the portal in New Haven to Brockton Bay, several times a week, to get notes, check on the wreckage of the house and visit Crystal’s family.  I didn’t.

“Gotcha,” I said.  I’d pushed, I wasn’t going to push harder now that the boundary had been raised.

“You’re still blind, Chris?” Sveta asked.

“Yep.  It’s starting to come back, though.  Thirty minutes to an hour, I think.”

“Do you want someone to stay with you?” Sveta asked.

“No.  Hell no.  Then I’d feel obligated to make conversation and shit,” Chris said.  “It’s a sunny day, there’s a breeze, the weather is perfect.  I’m going to sit outside and wait and then I’ll make my way back to the institution.”

“They won’t be bothered if you’re late for dinner?” I asked.

“So long as I’m there by lights out, they don’t care.  They’ve got twenty staff and over a thousand kids in the building with dead or missing parents.  I eat or I feed myself, I mostly do the chores I’m assigned, I’m there when I’m supposed to be.  There’s lots of others who demand more attention than I do.”

“It sounds like the children at your institution are pretty vulnerable,” Sveta said.  “Nobody paying attention to what they’re doing with their days.  Any of you could be pressed into work or preyed on or you could end up disappearing, and nobody would know.”

“Not me,” Chris said.  “They’d regret it if they tried with me.  With triggers being a thing, they might regret it whoever they try it with.”

I was put in mind of my mom.  “It doesn’t mean the damage isn’t done before powers come into the picture.”

“Yeah, well, I dunno,” Chris said.  “I’m going to relax and wait until my vision comes back.  If it takes too long or if I run into trouble, I’ve got another change I was wanting to make today.  Keen Vigilance.  Perception focused.  It’ll give me a fresh set of eyes.”

“Okay,” I said.

The others got themselves sorted out.  Rain, Sveta, and Tristan started their walk to the train station.  Chris retreated toward the library.

Ashley remained by the sidewalk, drinking her water.  She’d been dead quiet.

“You good?” I asked her.

“I was dead for years.  I’ve been operated on, feeling every last movement of the scalpel, several times.  This is nothing, so yeah, I’m good.”

She put a curious inflection on the word.

It was eerie to think of Bonesaw’s involvement in things.  Her handling of Ashley here, how the Slaughterhouse Nine had got Blasto which had led to Fume Hood’s downward spiral.  It made me think of Crawler, and it made me think of what had happened to my home town.

To my home, my living room shattered with monsters left lying in places where childhood memories were supposed to be.  Monsters that had once been people, a few of them genuinely good and decent.

Heroes, even.

To my family.  To the person who had once been closest to me.

“Right.  Good to hear,” I said.

“We’re similar, I think,” she said.

I paused.  I’d been taking a second to think about how I would gracefully exit.  Now I was left to process what she’d said, and figure out how to gracefully answer that.

“Should I take that as a compliment?” I asked.

“Take it however you like.  Them?  They’ve experienced hurt.  They’ve known horror.  Maybe not so much for Kenzie, but she experienced enough hurt that it balances out.”

“I probably shouldn’t be hearing this,” I said.

“They haven’t seen the worst of it.  They haven’t seen rock bottom and then had someone or something reach up from below and drag them deeper.  The Slaughterhouse Nine were that for me.  I got the impression from how you talked about Tattletale that she was that for you.”

No, I thought.  Only in small part.

“My first take on you was that you knew enough to be useful.  Then you talked about Tattletale, and your reaction to someone who has the information, who’s careful, and who has resources?  You’re afraid.”

“I’m concerned,” I said.

“I respect it, that fear.”

“Concern,” I said.  “If it was just fear for myself, that would be one thing.  But I’m concerned about the others here.”

“It’s a very concerning world, isn’t it?” she asked.  “There’s a lot to be concerned about.  You and I, we have our eyes open about that, even if we’re taking it in very different directions.”

“Are we?” I asked.  “Aren’t you giving this hero thing an honest shot?”

“I am.  It’s not going to work out, but I’ll be here until the end.”

“You sound pretty sure about the fact that it’s going to go south.”

She tipped back her water bottle, finishing it off, and without even lowering the bottle from her mouth, used her power.  Shorter than her prior uses, abrupt.  It made its usual cacophony of noise, my ears ringing faintly in its wake, and it pushed her hair up and back, so it took  a second to fall back into place.

She caught her balance, taking a second before she stood straight again.  Then she looked at me with eyes that had no pupils, no irises, only the white, and only the dark makeup to draw out the eyelashes.  Slowly, her pupils faded back in.

All to dispose of a water bottle, apparently, or to make a point.

“I’m not even the most fucked up person on this team, Victoria,” she said.  “I might not even be in the top two.  Our therapist knows, and that’s why she was concerned enough to reach out to you.  They, the really fucked up ones, they probably know.  But I know it too, which makes me pretty certain.”

“Yet you’re still here,” I said.

“So are you.”

“I’m cursed with an impulse to help people,” I said.

“It’s an epidemic,” she said.

“Guess so,” I said.  I used my flight, my feet rising an inch or two off the ground.  “I think I’m going to take off.”

She gave me a small salute, her expression dispassionate.

I didn’t want to give the impression I was running, so I asked, “See you in a couple of days, then?”

“Yeah.”

I flew skyward, at the speed and angle that made even my stomach do that overly light flip-flop at the distance between myself and solid earth.  I came to a stop when I couldn’t see the library anymore.

I didn’t fly home.  I had too many thoughts in my head, and after seeing the others, seeing personalities and outbursts from Tristan’s comments for Byron to Ashley’s more dire threats, the powers, the secrets that were being kept or barely suppressed…

I remained in the air, the ground a blur beneath me, the clouds not all that far above me.  The city was painted in its golds, its concrete and pavement with yellow paint, its grassy patches, its fields of wheat and corn.

Just me up here, the wind in my ears.

I believed Ashley.  It wasn’t that she was honest, she wasn’t.  She bluffed and she bluffed often.  I suspected the bluffs were because she’d been telling me the truth when she’d remarked on the common thread between us: we’d seen some of the worst the world had to offer and we had reason to be afraid.

I believed her when she said there were people on the team who she saw as more ‘messed up’ than herself.  I had my suspicions about who.

Something was up with Chris.  Mentally and emotionally he was compromised.  Physically, compromised.  Socially, in terms of where he fit into the world, again, he was compromised.  He’d almost revealed the least of himself of anyone present.

Rain was another issue.

The team supported and insulated its members, they protected one another from the interlopers and the outside stresses.  There were times and places that could be good, but I could just as easily see things go in a direction where outsiders weren’t sufficiently protected from the group, while the group carried on like this.

My job, in a way.

I’d keep an eye on all of them, of course.  Kenzie could be a danger, and I could see even Sveta going to a bad place, however much I liked her.  Tristan was strong, and he spent half of his life locked away in a lightless, motionless prison, only a window that looked out through his brother’s eyes and listened through his brother’s ears.  It would be so easy for him to go off the deep end.  Ashley was unpredictable and dangerous, pure and simple.

Chris I could only keep an eye on.  Rain-

I didn’t fly back to Crystal’s.

I flew to the train station, and I held a position where I couldn’t make out the people, but I could make out the train.

I was paranoid, and too many things today had prodded at my paranoia.  There were many I was helpless to do much about, but I could act on these suspicions.

A train came, traveling west-to-east.  I knew Sveta and Tristan would be boarding it.  Had I been on foot, it was the one I would have caught.

When the other train came, traveling the opposite direction, I followed it.  I had a pit in my stomach, doing it, but I had a gut feeling that this was part of why Jessica had reached out to me, and why she had been relieved that I was keeping an eye on things.

Yes, they knew things about each other.  But they kept secrets.  There were evasions, walls that were thrown up.

I just didn’t understand what Rain was doing.  To have a hit out on his head and reject an escort, holding firm to that rejection even after having the danger driven home?

“What’s going on, Rain?” I asked.  Where I was, suspended in the sky, wind rushing past me, there was nobody to hear.

I was prepared to follow him to Greenwich.  It was a lengthy trip, and it left me to think about grabbing dinner, possibly on the trip back.  I tempted myself with thoughts of a burger or a good souvlaki roll.  Something warm, as I thought on it.  This high up, there was no heat radiating up off the ground or nearby surfaces, less sunlight bouncing around with light energy dissipating and becoming heat, and the steady wind flowed past me to swipe the warmth that my body put out.  As stakeouts went, this was liable to be cold, and I’d have to figure out something for bathroom breaks.

As self-imposed missions went, it wasn’t just hard for me to justify doing this, it was a pretty rough experience.  The mind-numbing dullness of a sit-and-watch stakeout combined with the hypnotic nature of a long-distance drive.  Drivers, at least, had to watch the road and be mindful of other drivers.  I had nothing to help keep my thoughts centered.

From Stratford to Bridgeport.  I had my binoculars out, and I watched for trouble, studying the people boarding the train.

Nothing obvious.

The train carried on its way, traveling from the Bridgeport neighborhood to Fairfield span, past the community center that had been attacked at Norfair, and then onward to Norwalk station.  Kenzie’s neighborhood.

There were stops where only a pair of people left, stops where only a few got on, and Norwalk, unfortunately, was one of the major stations.  I couldn’t track everyone that boarded.

My thoughts were preoccupied, thinking about what I was doing, my doubts, my frustration that I couldn’t effectively watch out for trouble while doing this the way I was doing it.  It was too easy for someone with powers to board the train and go after Rain while uncostumed.  Was it likely?  No.  But I wanted to justify what I was doing.

There was a chance, though, that when Rain got off the train, he would be followed by fellow passengers until he was in a place where he could be attacked.  I could watch out for that.

I could watch out for any unexpected stops, and I could keep an eye out for the old staples of railway robberies and ambushes – trains moved slowest when they went around corners, so I could keep an eye out for ambushes and unexpected boardings that took place in those locations.

With my thoughts caught up in things as they were, I nearly missed it.

The train was old-fashioned in look, cars linked by couplings, and passengers could move between cars, with the space between each car being open to the air.  Periodically passengers would step out to smoke or get fresh air.  Most were parents with kids.

At the caboose, a figure had stepped out onto the back.  Rain.

He climbed over the railing and jumped, while the train was going well over a hundred miles an hour.

Hands out to his side, his bag in one hand, other empty, his feet touched the slope, and he stopped.  No momentum, nothing to suggest he’d been on a speeding train a matter of seconds ago.  The fact he stood on a slope didn’t seem to matter, as he didn’t slide, slip, or fall.

He looked around, but he didn’t look up, and I wasn’t sure he would have seen me if he had.  He jogged down the slope, and walked across a field.  Past the field was mostly wilderness and dirt road.

Rain walked for ten minutes to get where he was going.  Erin had parked under a modest little bridge in a town with one gas station.

I didn’t feel good, watching them interact.  I felt guilty for spying, even though his actions proved he was being dishonest.  I watched Rain make conversation with his friend.  Minutes, where he did most of the talking, pacing some, while Erin leaned against the side of the vehicle.

He must have asked something, because Erin shifted position, reaching through the window.  A second later, she drew her hand out.  She had a handgun.

It didn’t mean anything.  This was justifiable, given his situation.  Lying about where he lived and where he was going was justifiable.  Even his friend carrying a gun made sense, when he was being hunted.

His story about how they met and where she came from… I wasn’t sure.  It didn’t feel like I knew the whole of it.

If they’d traveled again, I might have watched to see where they went.  If they’d gone to one of the smaller equivalents of Hollow Point, it might have told me something.  If they met certain people, it might have proven out my suspicion.

They went to get ice cream in the dinky one gas-station town, and I couldn’t conscience staying to watch.

I flew home.

I let myself into Crystal’s apartment through the sliding balcony door.

“…ave site?” a male voice.

“Whenever I’m traveling in that direction,” Crystal said.

“That’s good to hear.  I keep meaning to travel out that way, but…”

“It’s a universe away.  I can go with you sometime, if you want.”

“That might be nice.”

I shut the balcony door.  I could have closed it silently, but I didn’t.

Crystal, standing at one corner of the living room, had the door open, but she stood in between the door and doorframe in such a way that her body filled the gap.  She twisted around to look at me, and I saw a forcefield start to be painted out.

“It’s okay,” I said.

The forcefield winked out.

“You sure?” she asked.

I nodded.

She opened the door wider.  My dad was in the hallway, wearing a sleeveless top with a hood, in a very light fabric, and yoga pants of similar light weight.  A gym bag sat on the floor by his feet.

“You’ve been flying,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said.

“That’s good,” he said.  “That’s really positive.”

“I guess,” I said.  “How are you?”

“I’m noticing how empty my apartment feels, a lot.  That’s not me trying to guilt you.  It’s me realizing where I’ve wound up and wondering how I got myself here.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Do you want to invite him in?” Crystal asked.  “I can fuck off if you need me to.  Or you can take over door duty?”

“I wouldn’t ask you to fuck off in your own place.  Are you getting tired of standing guard?” I asked.

“A bit.”

“We can invite him in.”

My dad entered the apartment.  “Sorry to drop in.”

“Is that what this is?”

“I worry, when you drop all communication.  I thought I would at least ask Crystal if you were okay.”

“I see,” I said.  I walked around behind the couch, putting it between myself and him, and leaned forward on the back of it.

He took a seat on the armrest of the armchair, one foot on the ground.  “I want you to know that what happened at your mom’s house, I’m sorry about that.  It wasn’t right.”

“I appreciate that.  I… I wish I could tell you that I was sorry for how I reacted there.  But I don’t know if I can.”

“I wouldn’t ask you to,” he said.  “I think any and all of us should be understanding when it comes to old wounds.”

Old wounds, I thought.

Were they that old?  Didn’t ‘old’ presume they’d healed over or that things had been addressed or mended somehow?

“I guess,” I said.  “What mom did, I was pretty vocal about why I was upset about it.  Did Crystal explain why I was bothered by what you did?”

“She deflected my question when I asked.”

“If you noticed it was a deflection,” Crystal said, “I need to work on my patter more.”

“Just a bit more,” my dad said, smiling slightly.

“Sorry to interrupt,” she said.

“It’s okay,” I said.  I paused.  “You realize, dad, the reason I felt betrayed wasn’t that I thought you were in on it or anything, right?  I felt betrayed because you let yourself believe mom’s words more than you believed everything you saw in years of living with me, after visiting me in the asylum, after seeing how I function and how I don’t function.”

“I’m not going to try to defend myself,” he said.  “You’re absolutely right.  I let myself be stupid.  I have a way of doing that when I’m around your mom.”

“I just don’t understand how you wouldn’t just stop and realize it doesn’t make sense.  When you know about the nightmares and the fact I hadn’t flown in months, and the fact I don’t even want to talk about her, you’ll believe I’d be willing to meet her face to face and have a meal?”

“It’s not that clear cut.  Your mother is a clever woman, to the point she can outsmart herself.  She has good instincts when it comes to getting people on her side, too.  I’ve been missing home, the past few years, and seeing the woman I still love being warm for the first time in…”

He trailed off.

“Since twenty-eleven,” I said.

“Yeah,” my dad said.  “With food I’ve been aching for for just as long already cooking, the kitchen and barbecue rich with that smell.  Things, like I said, that make me stupid.”

“What food was it?” I asked.

“Laser seared kebabs,” Crystal said.

I bit my lip.  Family recipe.  With my lip still between my teeth, I said, “Okay.”

“I’m not making excuses,” my dad said.  “I should have clued in.  When Amy turned up and I knew you were coming, it wasn’t framed like a reconciliation.  It was framed as you knowing everyone was coming and you would have things to get off your chest.  Carol said she would referee and I knew it would go poorly if it was just her, so I offered to help.  While I was offering I wasn’t stopping to think.”

“Was a part of it you just wanting things to be normal again?  The four person nuclear family back together?”

“Yes,” he said.  “I’m not about to lie here.  I- yeah.  Yes.”

It hurt, hearing that.  Knowing my dad and where he wanted to be were that far away from where I was and where I wanted to be.

“I’m sorry,” he said.  “I let my guard down when I should have had it up to protect you.  I wanted you to hear that apology, and I wanted to make sure you were alright.”

“Crystal and I are looking after each other,” I said.

“Absolutely,” Crystal said.

“That’s great,” my dad said.

I rubbed my arm, wrist to shoulder.  “I’m giving some limited direction to a team of heroes right now.  It’s messy.”

“Any team is bound to be.  It’s good that you’re doing that.”

“Messier than most,” I said.  I paused.  “Top one percent of messy.”

“Ah, I see,” my dad said.  He rubbed his chin.  It was late enough in the day that the stubble he usually had on his chin was more of a shadow.  “The Dallon-Pelham family never does anything the easy way, does it?”

“No we don’t,” I said.

“Can I help?” he asked.  “Advice, support?  I don’t have a lot of money, but…”

“I’ve got the team outlined on my laptop.  Six people, either under eighteen or in the vicinity of eighteen.  One complicated case, age-wise.  Um, this doesn’t leave this room, right?”

Nods from both Crystal and my dad.

“They’ll probably go covert.  Gather and sell info.  I think I can pitch that to the big teams and get the initial funding.  I might be able to get costumes through them as well.”

“They have the infrastructure set up for costumes,” my dad said.  “They’ve got most current members outfitted, and I’ve heard rumor of them branching out to supply other teams and heroes.  I would be very surprised if they said it wasn’t doable.”

“Perfect,” I said.  That helped if and when it came to negotiating.  I held up my hand.  “Funding, costumes, target… target is hard to pin down.  A lot of low-level threats out there, banding together.”

“If you’re keeping an eye out for the criminal populations that aren’t joining larger groups, the places you want to keep an eye on are the Cabin, the Tea-Shop, the Pitstop, the Rail, and the Greens.  Those last three places are pretty seedy and traditional villain bars.  The others are villain bars without the bar part.”

“What about the ones who are hooked into bigger groups?” I asked.

“That gets more complicated, and it’s less about the places to watch and more about the names to keep an ear out for,” my dad said.  “Marquis, Goddess, Lord of Loss, Mama Mathers, the Crowley brothers, Deader and Goner, Barrow.”

I knew the names and I knew where they were situated.  No big surprises there.  I nodded to myself.  Marquis.  So casually mentioned.

“How messy is it?” my dad asked, his voice softer.

“They’re young, some of them are kids, and I’m not positive they’re all going to survive the next two weeks,” I said.  “And that’s not even- there’s enough other mess I could almost forget about that danger hanging over their heads.”

“You’ve taken them under your wing?”

“Yep.  I’m going to at least point them in the right direction, I hope.  I might be the wrong person for the job, but someone has to do it, right?”

“Wow,” my dad said, barely audible.

“What?”

He shook his head.  “It’s hard to articulate.”

“I’m trying to play this slow, keep it calm.  I know a lot and I’ve been down some of these roads.  I’m hopeful I can at least keep things from getting out of control.”

“That may be a tall order,” Crystal said.

“Maybe,” I said.  “If they absolutely insist on getting out there and mixing things up, I’ll point them in the direction of the asshole villains who are ramping up their activity and taking things over.  The nascent Tattletales and Marquises.  Kneecap them or their plans before they can get too big.”

“You really are your mother’s daughter,” my dad said.

My eyebrows went about as high up as they could as I turned my full attention toward him.

“What you said before, and what you said just now.  Those words could have come from her mouth in a different time and place.”

“This isn’t winning points with me,” I said.

“I’m not here to win points,” he said.  “I want to make sure you’re safe, sane, and healthy.”

I noticed the implication of what he was saying.  That taking this course might not be one of those three things.

“What should I be doing different?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said.  “I don’t think any of it is wrong, but I haven’t always been the best judge in the moment.  I’d say CYA.”

“On what front?” I asked.

“Do you have counsel on call?”

“I wasn’t aware we even had a legal system yet.”

“We don’t, but it’s coming soon.”

Counsel on call.  It was common for new teams of heroes to have a lawyer available, who they could call and outline the situation to before they took action.  Covering their asses, making sure the arrests could stick, that there was a voice with the authority and knowledge to talk to the police and courts if and when the heroes’ actions were questioned in more depth.

It wasn’t a bad idea.  It hobbled things, slowed them down, it was a bit of a headache… but having a lawyer as a hoop to jump through could restrain some of the more impulsive parts of the team.  I’d have to run it by them, but it made sense.

“I could ask around,” my dad offered.  “But if you really wanted a good perspective on who you could talk to, there are better people to ask.”

“You mean mom,” I said.

My dad nodded.

“Yeah,” I said.  I clenched my fist and relaxed it.  “I’ll talk to her.”

“You really want this.”

I thought of the team when it had been operating together, playing off one another, being good at what they did.  I thought of Tattletale and her version of my hometown and how much I really wanted her and people like her to lose every reason they had to be smug and confident.

I wanted to bring those two ideas together into a concrete reality, and I wanted it badly enough I was willing to go have a conversation with my mom when I was really fucking pissed at her.

If it meant wrangling this team that was going to do what they were doing whether I was involved or not, I’d do that.

“I feel like whatever I say, you’re going to say I’m just like mom again, and then I’m going to be mad at you,” I said.

“Can’t have that,” my dad said.

“Putting all of that stuff aside,” I said.  “If I walked away, if I left it alone, I’m scared of what would happen to people who didn’t deserve it.  I can’t do that.  I don’t know if that’s the Carol in me talking, but it’s the truth.”

My dad nodded to himself.  “That’s not your mom talking, I’m pretty sure.  Similar, but… not your mom.”

He didn’t even need to say it.  The moment I’d seen the look on his face as he’d opened his mouth, I’d realized who I’d been echoing.

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Glare – 3.4

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Kenzie sprinted toward the wall, and took a flying kick at it.  The wall broke, split at a diagonal, the upper half sliding down the split until the corner stabbed the ground.  Kenzie backed up swiftly before the section of wall toppled and fell to the ground.

“I’m clearly the strongest member of the team,” she said.

“You’re the lamest,” Chris said.

“Can I try it again?” Kenzie asked, ignoring Chris.  “Rain?”

“Be careful,” Sveta said.

“I will.  I want to test stuff.  Can I try it again?”

Rain stood from the rock he was sitting on, and held one hand out to the side.  The silver-white blade he created had a slight crescent shape to it.  He swung his arm and threw it, for lack of a better word.  It traced an arc, more a boomerang in flight than an arrow or thrown weapon, and cut deep into the wall that Tristan had left as a permanent fixture.  A silver-white line was left along the length of the wall.

Kenzie raised her flash gun, and she shot the wall.  Nothing happened.

She approached the wall, and she had her eyehook snake out from where it was attached to her belt, pincers open, slapping against the wall.  She pushed with the eyehook.

“Hurry,” Rain said.

Kenzie continued using the eyehook to push, to no avail.  She moved the hook around to the wall’s edge, grabbed the length of the eyehook, and pulled, adding her strength to the mechanical arm’s.

Stone slid easily against stone, and the wall was pulled down, cleanly cut where the silver line had been drawn.

“I could do this all day,” Kenzie said.

“It’s not a bad power,” I said.

“I never said it was bad,” Rain said.  He sat back down.  “It’s mediocre.  On certain days, it’s a little better.”

“Better how?  Size, speed, effectiveness, number you can throw?”

“All of the above, except maybe effectiveness.  And duration, I’d say.  Ten, twenty percent increase, if I had to guess.”

“Duration?”

“How long after I shoot stuff the line lasts.”

I turned to my laptop and I started typing that up.

“Not effectiveness?” Kenzie asked, as she rejoined us.  She had her phone out and walked without looking where she was going.

Sveta and Tristan were having a conversation off to one side, Ashley had gone back to the library to use the washroom, which had freed Kenzie to rejoin us, and Chris was getting dressed again while under the cover of the giant-size shorts.

“It’s kind of one thing or the other,” Rain said.  “Either it breaks or it doesn’t.”

“I’m looking at the data from my eyehook,” Kenzie said.  “It didn’t work with your power until after I started helping it.  Twenty point two pounds of force total, that’s nine point one six kilograms, and then the break happened.  What if it’s easier to break things when your power is better?”

“It could be,” Rain said.

“It’s good thinking,” I said.

Kenzie nodded, eyes still on her phone, and said, “Can you throw another?”

“More tests?” Rain asked.

“No.  Breaking stuff like this is a ton of fun,” Kenzie said.

Rain stood, looked around, and then created another blade of silver-white light.  He threw it at the half-stick Chris had left impaled in the hillside.  The blade passed through the dead-tree stick, leaving a white line in it a good few feet above the ground, and continued forward as two separate segments flying in parallel, with a narrow gap in the middle.  One hit a tree, and the other hit the ground.

Kenzie ran off, handing her phone to her eyehook.

“What happens if you hit a person?” I asked.

“I tried on livestock, a goat.  Silver line.”

“And?”

“The goat ran off, jumped up onto a tractor tire, then jumped down.  The impact as she jumped down was what did it.  Clean cut.”

“Possibly over twenty pounds of force in that impact?”

“I guess,” Rain said.

Kenzie had reached the rod and found the silver line was higher than she could reach.  She began rolling a nearby rock closer, to give herself a leg up.

Chris, barefoot, wearing his t-shirt and shorts, broke into a sprint.  As Kenzie climbed up onto the rock, Chris threw himself at the rod, hard, body-checking it.  It broke in two at the silver line, the top half toppling.

Kenzie made the kind of high-pitched noise only a prepubescent girl could, and drew her flash gun.  She began shooting Chris repeatedly, while he rolled in the grass, laughing, arms around his face.

“What happens when you hit the ground?” I asked.

“Not much, most of the time.  I guess you get a fissure, but it doesn’t really do much, because the line is so clean.”

“Kenzie!” I called out.

She stopped shooting Chris and turned to look.

“Stomp on the line on the ground?  I’m curious!”

She ran off, leaving Chris where he was.

“Can you explain the schedule, then?  The powers wax and wane?”

Rain sighed.

“Sorry, if I’m grilling you a little too much.  I’m trying to get my head around this.”

“I see them in my dreams.  I never get a good night’s sleep, never dream normally.  Just… them.  And they see me.  We take turns, and when my turn comes up, I get a bit of a power up.”

“That’s how you knew Snag’s description, before you knew his name.”

Rain nodded.

Off in the distance, Kenzie stomped on the silver line in the grass.  There was a bit of dust, and some grass stalks fell, but I didn’t see anything else.  She looked at us and shrugged.

“Every five days, I get my turn, and I’m a little bit stronger.  There are other times I’m stronger, but it’s complicated.”

“Every five?  There’s four others?”

“Three others,” Rain said.

“What’s…?”

“The day in the rotation after me, it’s a blank space.  My running theory is that there was a fifth member of the cluster, but they died before the powers set in.  Free power-up, goes to someone random.  Doesn’t always line up with our power, so on those days, I can sometimes have more tinker power, or more mover power, more emotion power.  A taste of what I could be.”

“Once every twenty days, on average.”

“Never lining up with my days,” he said.  He sighed.  “Through the dreams I’ve seen them unmasked and they’ve seen me.  They hate me and I’m not overly fond of them.  They’re always there, every night, and it’s pretty obvious how much they despise me.  It’s where Tristan and I have that shared experience, kind of.”

“People you can’t get away from,” I said.

“You’re talking about your cluster?” Tristan asked, joining the conversation.  Sveta was behind him.

“Yeah.”

Tristan sat down on the rock beside Rain.  I scooted over so Sveta could sit beside me.

“These people want you dead?  How likely is it they go forward with this hit?”

“Ninety-nine point eight percent likely,” Rain said.

“What’s the point two?” Sveta asked.

“They all die or get arrested before they get around to it,” Rain said.

“You seem pretty cavalier about traveling into the city,” I said.  “You caught a train today?”

“Yeah,” Rain said.  “Again, it’s the dreams, I can pick up a little, and I can throw them off a little.  The thing about being outnumbered in this situation is that I have a lot of opportunities to pick up details.  One clue from any of them can help a lot.”

“Details like?”

“The woman is injured, and Snag wants to repair the arm you trashed.  That buys me a few days.  So, uh, thank you.”

“The third one won’t come after you alone?”

“He’s a guy, a little older than me.  Glasses.  He’s the person with the tinker power.  I haven’t picked up much about him, but he doesn’t interact with people much.  Less than Snag or the woman, and Snag is an asshole and the woman is mute, so that should tell you something.”

“There’s an advantage in that,” Tristan said.  “If they aren’t socially adroit and you are-”

“I’m not,” Rain said.

“You’re better off than they are and that counts for something,” Tristan said.

“They have money and resources, and that more than makes up for it,” Rain said.  He looked at me.  “We’re suspicious they hired Tattletale to track me down.”

“Ah,” I said.  I thought about that.  “I honestly can’t think of someone worse to have on your trail.”

“She’s good enough to take over a city and get away with it,” Rain said.

“That’s not even it,” I said.  “She destroys people.”

“Are we talking about group members behind their backs?” Kenzie asked, as she joined us.

“No,” Tristan said.  “We’re talking Tattletale.”

Over near the staff that had been made with the dead tree, Chris was lying in the grass, arms and legs spread, staring up at the sky.

“He’s okay?” I asked.

“He’s fine,” Kenzie said.

As if responding, Chris chuckled to himself, lying in the grass near the base of the hill.

“The Undersiders took over Brockton Bay, and they did it with Tattletale on point for most of it.  I’m not a hundred percent sure on any of this, but you can look at the events in the city starting with her taking power.  Bank robbery, Undersiders succeed, they run into the Wards, me, and my sister.  Tattletale insinuates knowledge of my sister’s deepest secrets, and mine.  My sister goes off the deep end.  ABB are provoked following an arrest of their leader and an interaction with the Undersiders, with Tattletale.  They’re toppled with a concerted effort on the part of the villains, with intel passed to the heroes by the villains.”

“By Tattletale,” Tristan said.

“In large part.  Empire Eighty-Eight get outed, secret identities revealed.  Undersiders are the focus of the blame, and a number of people die in the ensuing rampage.  Weeks and months of violence and chaos in Brockton Bay feed into the Endbringer attack on the city.  Half of my family died because of that.”

“I’m so sorry,” Sveta said.

I reached out for her hand and gave it a waggle.  “It should be noted that in the hospital after the attack, Tattletale talked to the leaders of various hero teams about Leviathan’s strengths and weaknesses.  Info that was then used to beat down Behemoth enough to let Scion finish him off.”

“That could be a coincidence,” Rain said.

He didn’t say it in a dismissive way.  He said it like he was a little scared, and he wanted something to cling to.

I wanted to drive reality home, though.  Better to scare him and have him alive than the alternative.

“Possibly.  But I’m more inclined to see her as a force multiplier or a kind of thinker version of what you do with your power, creating weak points for others to capitalize on.  We see a lot of these coincidences.  After the Endbringer, the Slaughterhouse Nine visit and do a hell of a lot of damage, but they also lose several key members.  The weaknesses of several key members are revealed and the members are removed.”

“You might want to go easy on talking about those guys when Ashley gets back,” Kenzie said.

“Okay,” I said.  “It’s just one data point in a series.  The last remaining mastermind of the city falls, Coil.  The PRT directors die.  Twice, in quick succession.  Weaknesses are targeted and capitalized on.  Alexandria dies in Brockton Bay, at the hands of a girl who had apparently wanted to be a hero, but who was converted to the villains’ side.  Flechette, a hero, a minor friend of mine?  Apparently converted.  Accord edges into the Undersiders’ turf.  He dies when the Behemoth fight happens.  What do you think happens with his resources and power?  Because I’m betting it’s the same as what happened with Coil’s.”

“And now she runs one of the major settlement points,” Rain said.  He still sounded spooked.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I don’t have all of the information, but she got to that point by being one of the masterminds and playing the game well.  She was aggressive when the city was vulnerable and she was passive when it wasn’t.  The moment Gold Morning came around, I get the impression she mobilized hard, she was ready to expand and capitalize on the situation with more of that aggression.  Again, I’m not 100% on all of that.  But I can say with reasonable confidence that she’s one of the most dangerous, capable people on Gimel.”

“What am I supposed to do, then?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

Sveta elbowed me.  “You have to give him more than that.  You can’t scare him and not give him something.”

“Please,” Rain said.

I thought for a few seconds.

“She bleeds,” I said.  “She gets tired, and she looked really fucking tired when I saw her.  She has a lot on her plate, and I don’t think you’re a primary focus.  Which is good.  You don’t want to be her primary focus, because people who are tend to end up in pieces, one way or another.”

“Alright,” Rain said, sounding anything but.

“She…” I started.  I bit my tongue.

“What?” Tristan asked.

“I don’t want to jump to conclusions.  I don’t want to give you the wrong impressions, either.”

“Any impressions help,” Tristan said.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “But what she said when I talked to her, the way she wanted to make herself out to be one of the good guys, bringing good things to others…”

“Oh,” Kenzie said.  She fiddled with her phone.

“It doesn’t necessarily jibe with her working with people who are out for blood and murder.  She seems to want to be a very low-key villain or even a Robin-Hood type desperado while simultaneously leaving a trail of bodies in her wake, or she wants to portray herself as such,” I said.

“I’m now sharing the love and bringing some of that security, stability, and safety to others, in my very, very roundabout way,”  Kenzie’s phone said, in Tattletale’s voice.

“Yeah, that’s it, thank you,” I said.  Kenzie gave me a thumbs up.  I felt a bit of the heebie-jeebies at having heard Tattletale’s voice without being braced for it.  It took me a moment to gather my thoughts before I added, “It makes me wonder what she would say if she were told that Snag and the other two were out for your head.”

“She could be full of shit,” Sveta said.

“She could be,” I admitted.  “Trouble of dealing with masterminds is you can’t ever know.”

“Makes me think,” Tristan said.  “We really should have that talk about our group’s game plan.”

“We can’t have that talk without Ashley,” Kenzie said.

“Or Chris,” Sveta said.

Kenzie turned to look at Chris, before giving us a very unenthused, “Yeah.”

“Pretty quick turnaround on your opinion of Chris,” I said.

“It’s not turned around.  It’s a love-hate relationship,” Kenzie said.  “Sometimes I really like him and sometimes I really don’t.  Right now is one of those times I really don’t.  I was having fun.”

“There will be other times you can fool around with my power, and with others,” Rain said.

“Yeah,” Kenzie said.  She looked at Rain and smiled.  “We’re gonna help you with your thing.”

A bit of a non-sequitur, but I wasn’t going to draw attention to it.  “Do you want to call Ashley or see what’s holding her up?  If she’s not up to having this conversation, that’s okay too.”

“I’ll call her,” Kenzie said, hopping up from her seat.  She wandered off, her eyehook holding her phone to her ear.

“I’ll get Chris,” Sveta said.

As Sveta vacated the space on the bench to my left, I turned to the laptop to my right.  I typed up a few things about Rain’s power, then paged up and down some to look at the entries for the individual powers.  There was a lot more to write up before I had an actual outline I could pitch to the Wardens.  If they were even interested in working with the overarching cape community on that level.

I hoped they were.  The villains had a lot of advantages, from the fact they often had the initiative to the fact that their work often made money, and the fact that the chaos and damage they wrought often created more opportunities, henchmen, and money for them.  Heroes who did well, conversely, often put themselves out of work.

One of the few advantages our side had was that the heroes tended to work together.  If we did it right, we walked away with allies.  I had people like Gilpatrick, Crystal, and Mrs. Yamada.

“How’s Erin?” Tristan asked.

“She’s good.  She’s applying for jobs today.  We’re in an awkward spot for it, though, not many locations, a lot of people around our age want those jobs, and it’s a long drive in to get to work.  I think those places open at six.  It might mean waking up at four to get to work on time.”

Sveta dragged Chris to the collection of rocks, benches, and seats.  Chris climbed up to his seat, sitting on the rock Kenzie had been using.  I was pretty clear he was still blind, from the way he stared off into space.

“There are times I don’t get to sleep until four,” Chris said, talking to the open air.

“That’s not good,” Sveta said.  “Don’t do that.”

“It’s a chance to be independent,” Tristan said.  “If she can get the job.  She gives off a good impression, so I can imagine it happening.”

“Yeah,” Rain said.

“Who is she?” I asked.  “Can I ask?”

“Just a friend,” Rain said.  “I’ve always grown up in the middle of nowhere, so when my family was getting settled after Gold Morning, we saw all the incentives they were offering to people willing to get a headstart on agriculture and it seemed natural, you know?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Erin’s parents were kind of the opposite.  City people through and through, something in them broke after Gold Morning.  They couldn’t bring themselves to join the rat race again, I think.  They were given the option for the simple life and they took it.  Erin got dragged with.”

“And you connected.”

“She was having a hard time, because y’know, she stands out when a lot of people are hurt and angry and looking to lash out.  She went looking for a hiding place and she stumbled on my workshop.  She’s been a real help, from before I even had the therapy, helping me get figured out, listening to me, helping me research.  I… don’t really know what she gets out of the deal, from me.”

“I can think of a few things she gets from you,” Tristan said.

“I appreciate you saying that, I’m not sure I see it though,” Rain said.

I saw Kenzie react to Ashley’s appearance before I saw Ashley.  She made her way up the less sloped side of the hill, holding a pair of water bottles.

“Having a friend with powers is pretty neat,” I said to Rain.

“Yeah.  For sure,” he said.

“And while I don’t know you that well, you seem very thoughtful.”

“And there’s the brooding, mysterious part of it,” Kenzie said.  “Girls like that.  You and Chris are similar like that.”

“I see,” Rain said.  He frowned a bit.

“I’m picturing the expression on your face,” Chris said, before laughing.

“How long’s he going to be blind?” I asked.

“Could be ten minutes, could be an hour or two,” Kenzie said, as she skip-walked over to sit down at Ashley’s side as Ashley took her seat.

An hour or two?

“You got anywhere to be, Chris?” I asked.

“No family, nobody that cares that much,” he said.  “I’m one of the lost boys, living in the institution.”

“I know what that’s like,” Kenzie said.  “The institution.  It’s not fun.”

“Personally?  I don’t give a shit, and they don’t give a shit about me, I could disappear tomorrow and nobody would blink.”

“We’d blink,” Kenzie said.

“You would,” Chris said.  “But you’re lame like that.”

“I’m sorry to hear about your situation,” I said.

“It’s fine,” Chris said, with emphasis, still staring off into space.  Blindly, he rummaged in one pocket, pulling out a plastic kit.  “It’s- it’s freeing.  All I care about is that I eat three square meals, since nourishment matters for my power, and having a place to sleep.  Strip away everything else, and it’s all any of us want.”

“Some of us want people to keep close to us,” Kenzie said.

“Not me,” Chris said.  He opened the kit and drew out a pair of pliers.

“Your opinions may change as you hit puberty,” Tristan said.

“I’m already started on that, I’m not going to go into any details, and I really don’t think my feelings are going to change,” Chris replied.  He seemed to reconsider, then said, “I really hope they don’t.”

I glanced at Ashley.  She’d been quiet since sitting down.  The last time I’d reached out hadn’t ended well.  Was I supposed to ignore her now, leave her alone while she wound herself down?

“How about we talk about your idea, Tristan?” I asked.

“It’s getting later in the afternoon,” Sveta said.  “And Kenzie has dinner with her parents.  It would be good to get it out of the way.”

“I can skip it if I have to,” Kenzie said.

“You shouldn’t,” I said.

Tristan shifted position, metal sliding against smooth stone.  “The plan.  We’ve only got the broad strokes worked out, so if you want to help hammer it out, Victoria, it would really help.”

“Okay.”

“Protecting Rain in the coming weeks is essential.  My starting point for thinking about this plan was thinking how we might cover all the bases we want to cover.  We need to keep the older members of the group free enough to help Rain with whatever he needs help with.  Kenzie wants to do something integral to the group, and while she can help keep an eye out, it’s easy for her to take too much of a backseat role.”

“Am I taking a frontseat role then?”

“I’m- not exactly.  There’s a lot about this that’s counterintuitive.  My first instinct is to think, hey, I want to make money, I want to be out there doing things.  But that leaves us open to interference and distraction.  So… what if we go covert?”

“Covert?” I asked.

“Nobody knows Ashley is on the side of the good guys for the time being.  She’s really good at the villainous persona and atmosphere.”

“Thank you,” Ashley said.

“And then there’s Chris, who can be monstrous, appear, disappear, then show up again as someone or something else.”

I glanced at Chris.  Chris had two sets of pliers in his mouth.  He was readjusting his braces.

“The masterminds and the organizations are masterminding and getting organized.  Hollow Point is one example of that, and Tattletale’s degree of involvement, that’s another example.  I didn’t get the impression Tattletale was really aware that we were a team, so I think this works.”

“Take all things mastermind with a grain of salt,” I said.

“Of course,” Tristan said, quickly enough that I wondered if he’d bothered with that grain of salt.  “Okay, so what if we do like- actually, it’s like Victoria was saying a few minutes ago, about creating and capitalizing on weak points-”

“She was telling us more about Tattletale,” Kenzie told Ashley.

“Yeah,” Tristan said.  “Look, no rush, we do this slow and careful.  We put you guys out there, Ashley and Chris can plant cameras, Kenzie handles backend, we gather all the data we can, and we find out what the masterminds are doing and where the organizations are most vulnerable.”

“Then we hit them,” Ashley said.

“Maybe,” Tristan said.  “Maybe.  We assess the situation, we maybe even spread disinformation, and then we have discussions, involving other cape teams, maybe.  If it seems doable, we hit them.  We have a lot going for us if we want to blitz the enemy or ruin a plan in progress.  When it’s time to make our play, we can do big, we can hit hard, and we can move fast.  If it doesn’t seem doable, we sell the info to another cape team.”

“I like that you’re thinking about the money,” I said.  “How do you sustain things if you’re going ahead and handling the mission on your own?”

“I’m thinking we don’t,” Tristan said.  “I’m not wanting to set up a headquarters, we wouldn’t necessarily have employees or staff, we can figure something out for costume.”

“It’s a long, hard road to gather that kind of intel and then act on it at just the right time.  It’s a test of patience,” I said.  “That patience gets tested further when your pockets are empty.”

“I hear you,” Tristan said.  “It helps some that we have a lot of people here who are subsidized or not entirely out on their own.  Kenzie gets money from her parents, Chris has his meals and shelter through the institution.

“I think we have an advantage there,” Sveta said, quiet.  “Because the thing that defines us, and I don’t think it defined the Irregulars like this, and it didn’t define the Wards, like Weld described them… we all need to be out there.  We need this.  That makes us stick it out.”

There were nods around the group.  Even Chris.  The heads that weren’t nodding were smiling, like Ashley’s, or looking very serious in a way that made me sure they were in agreement, like Rain was.

I allowed myself to nod as well.

“Okay,” I said.  “I might be able to make some recommendations about funding, so you won’t be too starved.  If you think you can gather intel that others might be interested in, I can talk to other teams on your behalf, or I can point you in the right direction if you want to handle that yourselves.  You’d tell them you have the capacity to get intel.  You may or may not want first dibs on these villains, but whatever happens, if they’ll pay a token amount, you’ll give up the info.  It serves a double purpose if you set it up as a dead man’s switch.  Worst comes to worst, the authorities get an email letting them know what you were up to and who you were up against.”

“They’d pay for that, you think?” Rain asked.  “Even if it’s us saying we’re taking first dibs, but we’ll give the info anyway?”

“I think it could be sold to them,” I said.  “Information comes at a premium, and every single team out there is wanting as clear a picture of where things stand as possible.”

“I do my thing, Chris does his thing, Kenzie does her thing,” Ashley said.  “Sveta, Tristan and I help Rain in the meantime.  When we have the intel, we hit them.  Take out key players, interfere with a key part of their business, and we leave them ruined.”

“We maybe hit them,” Tristan said, with emphasis on ‘maybe’.

“If we spend the time to get that far, you’ll be itching to see it the rest of the way through,” Ashley said.

“And then what?” I asked, before they could get in an argument.

“Hm?”

“Let’s assume it’s a success, or you hand off the intel.  What follows?”

“Depends on a lot of factors,” Tristan said.  “We could take another piece of data collected on the way and jump off from there, or we don’t just take money, and we go to another team and we trade intel for intel.  They tell us if they’ve got more tough nuts or tricky areas to tackle, and we use that as our next starting point.”

I nodded.

“What are you thinking?” Tristan asked.

“I… admit this makes a lot of sense.  It may be harder than you’re picturing.  Masterminds cover their asses, organizations have a lot of tools at their disposal.”

“If we get six pieces of a twenty-piece puzzle and we realize we can’t take things any further, we can still sell that intel,” Tristan said.

“Absolutely,’ I said.  “I’m trying to think about how that plays out in the long-term.”

“I don’t know,” Tristan said.  “There’s the stuff I just said, but I was mostly thinking about the next few steps.  I’d rather make calls based on the now and adapt later, depending on what comes up.”

“That’s fair,” I said.  “I’m trying to be mindful of consequences, these days.  You’d be making enemies, once people realized what you were doing and the role you’d played.  If you’re not careful, Ashley and Chris as background observers are cards you can only play a few times, in a limited fashion.”

“You can play me eight times,” Chris said, pulling the pliers out of his mouth, “After that they’ll probably catch on.”

“If you don’t change your head that much, then they’ll catch on sooner than that,” Tristan said.

“On that topic, I’m not sure I like Chris being out in the field like that,” Sveta said.

“I’m fine,” Chris said.  “I can handle that much.”

“I’m thinking Chris gets involved as a distraction.  A few minutes at a time, a monster shows up, overturns the status quo.  The kind of thing we do once every two weeks or once a month.”

“Yeah.  I’m good with that,” Chris said.

“I like it,” Rain said.  “I hate that I’m a burden at this stage.”

“Don’t worry about that,” Kenzie said.  She reached out to give Rain a pat on the knee with her eyehook.  “We’re all burdens in our own screwed up ways.”

My expression might have betrayed something, because Tristan looked my way.

“Yea or nay?” he asked.

“It reminds me of the Las Vegas capes,” I said.  “And a bit of Watchdog.”

“Is that a bad thing?” Tristan asked.

Las Vegas had been damned effective, as had Watchdog.  But where Las Vegas had been a subtle, careful player with a few questionable, mysterious individuals in their ranks making the most of their backgrounds and skills, much like this team in disposition and direction, they’d also been a team that had turned villain at a critical time.  Watchdog had been careful and scrupulous, making measured moves with the best intel and agents they had at their disposal, and Watchdog hadn’t survived Gold Morning as an organization.

Those were the only two data points I had, for teams like this.  Corruption and annihilation.

I couldn’t say for sure that it was a bad thing, but I couldn’t say it was a good thing either.

“It’s a thing,” I said.

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Glare – 3.3

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“You want a game plan?” Tristan said.  “Do you mean for here or for the big picture?”

I was thinking big picture, I thought, I have doubts right now and a plan would help.

Without voicing that, I said, “Here, but I’m open to hearing about either.  If you have something in mind.”

“I want to wait on the big picture stuff so we can include Rain into the discussion.  He and I chat regularly, and he’s heard some, but Ashley and I were talking while we waited for you and there’s bits to discuss.  Comfort levels.”

“Okay,” I said.  “We’ll focus on this for now.”

“I’m in charge, then?” Tristan asked.

“If Sveta is okay with it, you can give it a shot.”

“I’m okay with it,” Sveta said.

He made a small amused sound, his face obscured by his helmet, his hands busy adjusting the fit of his armor as he paced.  “There was a time I thought I might end up being in charge of Reach.  Things fell through before then.  I don’t know if my current mindset works for it, but let’s give this a try.”

I had my own bag, which I’d brought with me.  My computer, masks, and the flags, one red and one blue.  I fished out the flags, holding both in one hand, and put on one of the masks.

“Victoria, you and I are on defense, then,” he said.  “Ashley is going to go hard offense, that’s who she is, and I don’t see Chris holding back.  Sveta, you’re going on the attack.  You loop around, go the long way if you have to.  You might have to dodge Kenzie, but I think you can manage that okay.  It’s only her hook thing and flash gun.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Sveta said.

“Alright,” I said.

“I think the benefit here is that we all have some experience,” he said.

“Kind of,” Sveta said.

“They’re young.  Ashley too, in a weird way.  They’re led by Ashley and we know how she thinks.  I can put my confidence in you, Sveta, if you’re going for their flag.”

“I hope I deserve it.”

“I’m confident in myself and my ability to hold up against a two-person rush, assuming that’s what they do, and I know you’ve got a background, Victoria.”

“Yeah.  Confidence goes before the fall, though.  I think one of the things I regret most in the past is my overconfidence.”

“This is just an exercise.  If I’m wrong on this, I’ll own it.  Let me plant our flag and get my stuff to adjust my armor, I’ll be right with you.”

As he said it, another wall materialized behind us.  A fort with ten foot walls was slowly forming.  Tristan wasn’t even focusing that much on the construction, attention-wise.  He took the flag before walking off.

I had intentionally chosen a less level area.  We were on a hill, playing on a bit of a slope, roughly a ten degree decline with taller grass, weeds, and some pebbly dirt covering the area.  Some trees and rocks dotted the space between where their group would set up and where we would.

I had a few reasons for choosing the area.  Part of it played off something I had experienced with New Wave.  The team had always been split between the fliers and the people on the ground.  Me, Aunt Sarah, Crystal and Eric had all been airborne, while my Uncle Neil, Mom, and Dad had all been landbound.  It created a dilemma in logistics, and this slightly sloped ground and uneven terrain emphasized that logistics in a way that having to go through and around buildings might in the city.

Sveta functionally had a mover ability, I wasn’t sure about Chris’ capabilities, and Damsel and Rain both had some capabilities in that realm.  Supposedly.  I wanted to see how the more mobile members of the group worked in coordination with the others.

It was interesting that Tristan had picked both Sveta and me.  We were both mobile and Tristan wasn’t.  Ashley’s team had three people on foot.

Another reason for this particular location was Rain’s power.  It helped him keep his balance, and that was supposedly the extent of it.  When he arrived, I wanted to see if it factored in here.

Finally, there was the fact that it put us out of the way.  No bystanders, no property to damage.

Kenzie had her head down, her attention on her phone.  Ashley and Chris were both smiling.  All three were talking.  I waited a short bit for them to finish.

“I’m so unbelievably nervous,” Sveta said.

I glanced at her, and confirmed that Tristan had stepped away, rummaging in his bag.  He was out of earshot.

“I definitely hear you on that,” I said.

“I really want this exercise to work somehow, like Tristan said, but for different reasons.  The way you were brought in, you might have come in looking for the bad, and it’s… it’s not all bad.  Really.  I always wanted a team and the idea of finding one and fitting myself to that team with all of my problems, it seemed impossible or far away.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “You talked about it in the hospital.  That you’d talked to Mrs. Yamada and other people about how, putting aside all your issues, you wanted to be a hero.”

“And I wanted a boyfriend, and I wanted to be functional again, and I wanted friends,” she said, staring off at the other three.  “And I have almost all of it, but I feel like it could slip out of my grasp if things go wrong.  If this goes wrong.  I don’t know what I can do if that happens.  I’m worried this is going to be a disaster, and that’s making me so anxious.”

“What can I do?” I asked.  “I don’t want you to be unhappy.”

“Like I said before, I really want you to believe in us here.  I want you to give us a chance.  Even if this is bad to start.”

“Okay,” I said.

“And- I’m sorry if this is pushing a line or if you have reasons, but don’t be so stiff?”

She sounded so uncertain as she said it.  I drew in a deep breath and smiled at her.

“I’m the one with a prosthetic body.  We’re friends, right?”  She smiled, uncertain, and I smiled at her.  “So I don’t want you tense around me.”

“I’m nervous in my own way, and I think that’s how it shows,” I said.  “It’s not you.  Can I give you a bit of a hug, here, emotional support?”

“Please.”

I put one arm around her shoulders and squeezed.  Sveta moved her head in my direction, I moved mine in her direction, knocking heads with her a bit.

Off in the distance, even though she was more than a hundred feet away, I could hear Kenzie cooing and ‘aww’ing over the hug, as she looked at us.

“What did I miss?” Tristan asked.

“I’m anxious,” Sveta said.

“Me too,” Tristan said.  “Your control gets bad when you’re nervous, right?  You have more reflexive movements?”

“It gets so fucking shitty,” Sveta said.  “I’m sorry.  I’m worried I’ll be terrible because I’m all over the place inside here.  I don’t know if you can hear it, but I keep fumbling because I’ll reflexively reach out to grab something off in the distance and hit the wall of the suit instead, and then I have to reach for the right control ring again.”

“Do the best you can,” Tristan said.

“This isn’t about grading you as an individual,” I said.

“It’s about the team,” Sveta said.  “I don’t want to let the team down.  Can we start?  I’ll get more nervous if we wait.”

“Sure,” I said.

The other three weren’t wrapped up in their discussion anymore.  I called out, “You guys want your flag?”

“Here,” Sveta said.  She held out her hand.  I passed her the blue flag.

She passed it to the others, hand and forearm gripping the flag, tendrils pushing the hand and forearm.  She stopped short, relying on only the momentum so it only punched Chris lightly in the man-boob.  He caught her hand and arm in one large hand, plucking the flag free before releasing her hand.  He smiled as he held it up, then he reached low to hand it to Kenzie.  The two of them went to plant it, with Chris picking up a fallen tree on the way.

It seemed Chris and Kenzie got along better like this.

Ashley didn’t join them.  Instead, she started walking toward us, picking her way through weeds and grass.  She still had a partial smile on her face from before.

I flew to meet her partway.

“Ground rules?” she asked, when I was closer.

“Place your flag.  You grab ours and bring it to yours, or vice-versa.  Whoever has both flags at their starting point wins.  Try to avoid hurting the trees.  No personal injuries that aren’t going to heal in a day.  Bruises and scrapes are inevitable, but let’s avoid them if we can.”

“Understood.”  She turned to walk away, one hand raised to give me an over-the-shoulder salute as she did.

Tristan began altering the battlefield behind her, drawing out fifty little sparks to move along the surface of our side of the hill.

The other team was just on the other side of a trio of trees.  The nervousness we all felt was apparent as Kenzie’s cube lit up, making a deep beep sound.

All three faces of the cube that I could see had lit up.  Numbers were apparent.  ’10’…  ‘9’…  ‘8’…

“It’s worth remembering that she can remotely control the cube,” Tristan said.  “Hm.”

“Just the flashlight gun and the eyehook, right?” Sveta asked, giving Tristan a look.

Tristan moved his hand, and finalized his alteration to the slope between our fort and the halfway point of the battlefield.  Uneven ground, raised segments and lowered ones.  Most of it was flat, the spikes sticking out of the sides or toward the ground at an angle.  The material was solid, white with orange-red in the crevices, running through it like ore in rock.

The timer continued.  ‘3’…  ‘2’…  ‘1’…  ‘Go’.

They came out of the trees.  As Tristan had suggested, Ashley’s plan was to go on the attack.

All three of them.  Kenzie had changed, overalls gone, replaced with a skintight suit that mirrored her outfit in color and where it changed from black to pink to red.  Chris had his head turned, and he was using one hand to cram the last few feet of the dead tree into his mouth.

Ashley was on foot.  White eyes were wide open behind her mask, the pupils not visible from this distance.

“This is fine.  Same plan,” Tristan said, not sounding bothered in the least.

Two versus three, while Sveta grabs their flag.

Sveta reached for a tree and found her grip, hauling herself away.

Tristan began creating barricades and obstructions, aimed at being knee-height, to slow them down.

Ashley hurdled the first two.  Chris trampled his way through the three that had been put in his way.

Kenzie turned, aimed, and fired her flash gun in Sveta’s direction.  She missed, aimed again, and fired.  The second shot caught Sveta in its area.

“You take Chris and Kenzie, I’ll work on Ashley,” Tristan said.  He sounded confident.  “Keep an eye on Kenzie, make sure she doesn’t fall.”

I flew to intercept.  Chris had one hand full with the tree, mouth distended with a fat tongue sticking out, apparently to keep the tree from rubbing against his lower row of teeth; his hand served to protect the other teeth.

I was put in mind of the man I’d seen during the broken trigger, who’d had a tree come out the other direction.

Chris laughed, deep and booming, tree digested.  He lowered his chin, mouth closed, hands and arms up to protect his face and guard Kenzie.

I could deal with big and strong.  I flew closer- saw Kenzie turn, aiming her gun at me, and changed course, covering my face and head, my forcefield up.

Even turned partially away, my arms up, the momentary flash of light blinded me.  A full second passed, and my sight didn’t return.  I could hear Chris’ laugh, Kenzie’s amusement.  My forcefield hadn’t helped.

I felt the forcefield meet resistance, and I forced it to shut off before Chris’ hand could close around me.  I pushed out with my aura to try to throw him off balance and buy myself a second, and changed course.  I felt his fingers graze my back, dragging against cloth and not finding enough slack to get a grip.

Blindness was disorienting.  Blindness when flying made it hard to tell which way was up and which way was down, and I knew it would get worse before it got better.

I flew away and at the ground, forcefield up, and landed hard.  I felt Tristan’s creation shatter under and around me as my power absorbed the hit, fragments bouncing off of me, dust collecting on me.

“Are you okay!?” I heard Kenzie call out.

“I’m fine!” I replied.

“Don’t give away your position if you’ve blinded them!” I heard Ashley.

I heard a noise, and at first I thought it was Chris dismantling the fort.  It sounded like someone was tearing the world’s largest sheet of paper, nails on a blackboard, an alien’s scream from a science fiction movie that echoed far more than it should, a sharp explosion, and any number of other things, all overlapping and working against one another.

I opened my eyes and tried to make out the surroundings despite the spots of light that were exploding against the backs of my eyeballs.

Chris was large enough for me to make out his general shape.  I could make out Ashley and Tristan’s positions, but the only reason I could distinguish the two was because Ashley dressed in black and Tristan had more color to his costume.

Right.  I had a few tricks up my sleeve I’d been considering.  This was an opportunity to try one.

I took off, and I activated my forcefield momentarily as I did it, pushing out at the cracked chunks of stonelike ground, sending pieces rolling and sliding in the wake of my takeoff.  I needed their attention.  I saw Chris slow momentarily, mid-stride as he walked toward the fort.

I didn’t fly straight for them, but around, circling closer to the fort.  I paused, giving them time to see me, and then flew straight for Chris’ face, full speed.

I stopped only a few feet short, hitting him with my aura instead of my fist.  Full-strength, point-blank, a hit to the emotional rather than the physical.

The reaction was much the same as if I’d punched him.  Forward movement stopped, reversed, an off-balance stumble backward.

“Holy fuck,” I could hear Tristan.

I heard Damsel’s response, but I had other focuses than making out the words.  It might have been ‘pay attention to your opponent’ or ‘pay attention to who you’re fighting’.

I was busy flying around Chris, one hand extended so it maintained contact with him, let me gently push him, all while helping me to navigate while still partially blind.  Before he fully had his balance, I caught him by the shoulders and pulled him back and down toward the ground.

He walked backward rather than topple, helped by the fact that his head was small, his shoulders and neck narrow relative to his lower body.  It was part of why his center of balance was low to the ground, with his weight gathered around gut, butt, and legs.

Kenzie’s pincer-claw grabbed for my arm, then pulled my arm away from Chris.  I let it, grabbing the prehensile length of it between Kenzie and me.   Not a huge factor.  One hand still on Chris’ shoulder, I activated my forcefield, using the added strength to pull at Chris.  He continued his backward walk until he stumbled into one of Tristan’s sections of raised ground.

He toppled, and I shifted my position to guide his fall for the first half of the way.  The focus on the latter half of the way was letting my forcefield down and catching Kenzie.

Chris fell flat on his back.  Kenzie wriggled momentarily, and I deposited her on Chris’ chest, to make getting to his feet just a little bit harder.  The claw slipped free of my arm.

My vision was clearing enough for me to see vague expressions, without precise detail.  Chris was grinning, shaking with a laugh or chuckle.

“Come on, get up, get up!” Kenzie goaded him.

“Get off me then!” Chris boomed.

Orange motes were starting to surround them.

“Victoria!” Tristan called out.  “Switch with me!”

The words were barely out of his mouth when Ashley used her power again.  It was noisy to the point I worried my ears would be ringing an hour after this exercise.    I could see it as a visible blur of shadow aimed behind her and toward the ground.  She used the recoil to launch herself off to one side, to help her get around and past Tristan.  More orange motes appeared in the direction she was going.

She used her power again, changing course to fly straight for Tristan.  She planted one foot on his shoulder, stepped down so her back grazed against his, her long hair draping over his head and shoulders, aimed forward with both hands, and used her power a third time just as she touched ground, her back to his.

A power-augmented body-check.  The recoil of her power pushed her in the opposite direction she fired, but because she was in contact with Tristan, she pushed him too.  She stumbled, but he sprawled to the ground, his armor striking the hard platform he’d created on the slope, metal screeching and clashing against stone.

The orange motes that had started to appear around Chris and Kenzie came to life around them, an especially spiky, irregular outcropping with a thin ridge extending out to the growth he’d been making in front of Ashley’s original course, which became its own vaguely pineapple-shaped formation.

He’d wanted me to deal with Ashley.  Okay.  She was rolling her shoulders, rubbing at one, while she stalked toward the fort.

I could see better, so I could possibly pull this technique off better.  I flew at her, and she barely seemed to pay me any mind.

My feet touched ground, helping to stop me as I reversed my direction of flight to cancel out my forward movement.  I’d wanted to avoid all physical contact, but I did bump my shoulder into hers as I went from flying at near-top speed to a full stop, my face a couple of inches from hers, well inside her personal space.

As with Chris, I used my emotion aura.

As had been the case with Chris, the effect was immediate and profound.  She stumbled back much as if I’d flown into her and given her a strong shove, her eyes wide.

I’d barely found my own footing when she found hers.  Another blast, jarring for my ears.  My vision was already suffering, and it was made worse by the plume of dust and debris around and to one side of her.  She used the blast and a push of her legs to throw herself at the wall.

The moment she made contact with it, she used her power again, flinging herself out into empty space, hair and dress fluttering.

My first instinct was that she was going to have a rough landing, that I might need to catch her.  Before I’d even figured out how I might do it, she used her power once more.  She was aiming up at an angle, so that meant she was pushed down by the recoil.

It wasn’t a mere drop-kick or a fall, but a spearing plunge.  I did much as she’d done, pushing out with my legs in conjunction with a use of my power, my flight, to get out of her way.

With the speed and general profile of a pickaxe head driven into the ground, she landed on hard ground, in the same spot I’d been standing.  There was a second where she stood there, hair draping down, hands out at her sides with fingers splayed, and then one of her legs wobbled and she dropped to one knee.

“Are you-” I started.  I thought I saw her move and paused.  “Are you okay?  That landing looks like it hurt.”

She raised her face and looked up at me.  White eyes behind a black mask, behind white hair.

She used her power again.  Cords, columns, and shaped explosions of lensing, bending, and darkening within the roughly cone-shaped area, over the one or two seconds that she was creating each blast.  She didn’t even rise from her kneeling position.  She threw herself at me, and this time she caught me entirely off guard.  Her knees hit my shoulders, at least one of her arms caught me around the head, the fabric of her dress pulling against my face as she tried to fold herself around my head.

Holy shit, was my first thought.  She was not letting up.  Every time she acted, it was with the energy of a sprinter taking off from their starting position, except her power gave her more of a push, and the jarring noises only magnified the surprise of it.

My second thought was that she had seized my head.  She wanted to take me down to the ground, much as I’d toppled Chris.  There were two ways I could go.  To roll with the movement and use it, or to fight against it.

My instinct was to fight against it.  I used my flight, going up when she wanted to take me down.  I used my aura, which was more effective when people were close, and she was wrapped around my head.  I used my forcefield, only for one moment, while reaching up, putting my forearm against her ribs, and pried her off of me.

She used her power in the same instant she was pried off- fast enough that I was left with the feeling she had expected to use it while still holding onto me.  Her landing looked like a rough one, sprawling, one shin, one foot, one hand bracing against the ground as she skidded.

I saw her slowly clench and unclench her hands, rolling one shoulder.  She didn’t stand.

“Hoo,” I said.  My heart was pounding, and I fanned myself a bit with my hand.  “You do remember this is a training exercise, right?”

“You do realize my team is going to win this?” she retorted.  Her hands shifted position slightly.

Her face gave away nothing, I realized.  It didn’t help that with the dust, her hair across her face, and the last remaining spots of light in my vision, I couldn’t make out her pupils.  Her hands and where they were pointing were one of her tells.  Her shoulders another.  She was thin, but especially as she crouched there, hands slightly behind her and at her sides, shoulders pointing forward, I could see the muscles underneath the skin around her shoulder and shoulder blade.

Was there power or Manton protection there, keeping her from dislocating her shoulders when she used the recoil to move around like that?  Was it just strength and practice?

I’d relied on instinct to respond to her, and I didn’t love that I’d relied on that instinct.  I wanted to be careful and thoughtful about the moves I made and Ashley’s approach allowed absolutely none of that.  I was left to digest that I’d reacted to her by fighting, going the opposite direction instead of the Judo-like approach of using the enemy’s strength against them.

Was I okay with that?  If I had to rationalize my choice, I’d fought her because I could only use the enemy’s momentum against them if I knew which way they were going, and Ashley was hard to predict.

Well, just a bit less difficult now, as I stopped looking for more obvious tells.  She had stopped rolling her shoulder.  I saw the muscles tense.

“Victoria!”

The shout interrupted both of us, as she planned her next move and I readied my response.  It was Tristan calling.  Ashley and I both looked.

“Come and help!” he called out.

I flew back and away, out of Ashley’s reach, looking.

Chris, legs embedded in spiky rock, was using both hands to haul what looked like a long, thin rod out of his throat.  He’d swallowed the length of the dead tree like a sword-swallower swallowed a blade, and now he was drawing it back out, changed.

Narrower, thinner, smoother, and slick with fluids.

Chris, it seemed, wasn’t just the kind of changer who could adapt his form.  He was the kind of changer who gained new sorts of powers while in an alternate form.

He hauled the last of the tree free of his mouth.  Fifteen feet long, thicker at the end he had just removed than at the end he held, now that he was turning it around to get it in a position he could wield it.  Too long to be a proper club, not quite a rod either.

Kenzie had her flash gun out.  Tristan had thrown up a short wall, just tall and wide enough that he could hide behind it.  Kenzie’s eyehook extended from her belt, through one of her hands, and out to Tristan, with a grip on his leg.  She was simultaneously trying to circle around to get at an angle where she could shoot and blind Tristan and she was using the claw at the end of the prehensile arm to try and drag him out of the cover, helped by tugs with her hand.

Kenzie’s efforts left Chris entirely unmolested as he brought his weapon down, shattering Tristan’s created ground, freeing his legs.

“Leave her!” Tristan ordered.  “We’ll let her get the flag, deal with these two, and catch her on her return trip!”

I flew a little further away.

Sveta- I looked off in the direction of the enemy’s camp.

Little blue flags decorated the landscape on their side of the playing field.  They were situated on every rock, in every crevice, on every flat expanse of ground, on every tree branch.  Sveta was perched on a rock in the midst of it all.

I looked at Kenzie’s cube.  One face of it was glowing.  The projector.

That would be why they had been smiling, then.

I started my flight toward toward Tristan.

“You’ll regret ignoring me,” Ashley said, behind me.

Pride, respect, they were key factors here.  I could remember the meeting, the narrowing of the eyes.  I knew Tristan was in a tough spot, but I paused, turning around in the air.  I had to raise my voice to be heard with the distance between Ashley and me, as I said, “We’re not ignoring you.  We’re dealing with you two against one.”

I left her to limp toward the wall while I flew to Tristan’s side.  I landed beside Kenzie, hard, pushing out with my aura.

She twisted around, gun in hand, and I caught the gun, snatching it out of her hand.

“Hey,” she said.  She reached out with her hand, and I pulled the gun away.  She let go of Tristan and reached out for the gun with the eye-hook.  I grabbed the eye-hook, and then wrapped the length of the prehensile arm around her upper body, tying her up with it.

“Hey!” she said, again.  She laughed.  “Chris help!”

I didn’t need to ask, and I liked that I didn’t need to ask.  Orange motes began to surround Kenzie.

“No, no, no, no!” Kenzie said.  “Chris, Chris, Chris, Chris!”

The head of the long club was poked out between Kenzie and me, separating us.  Kenzie started to back away, and the orange motes became solid rock, encapsulating her legs.  Tristan lunged forward to catch her before her upper body came down and her head cracked down against his rocky terrain.

I flew up a little ways, putting myself between them and Chris.  Chris drew the fat end of the club back, and then smacked it against his palm.  He laughed, deep and low, and pointed at Kenzie.

“Stop laughing at me and help, you doofus!”

I had Kenzie’s gun in hand, I could have shot Chris, but I had my deep reservations about using a tinker’s stuff, even a nonlethal gun that temporarily blinded.

Ashley used her power.  I could hear the sound of it, and I saw the wall break.

“By the way,” Tristan said, looking in that direction.  “We’re not catching her on the return trip.”

He blurred, and with that blurring, the rock blurred too.  White with orange-red veins became clear water, reflecting the blue of the sky and the green of the trees above and grass below.  The front wall of the fort that Ashley had just penetrated and the platform that Kenzie and Chris were standing on became frothing water.

With the slope, that water flowed downhill, carrying Ashley and Kenzie down to the base of the hill, amid branches, mud, and sticks.  Ashley used her power at the start and toward the end, to little effect.

Chris brought his rod down, stabbing it deep into the ground, and held onto it for leverage.  It had to be sturdier than the dead tree had been, because it didn’t bend and it didn’t break.  Condensed down, maybe, shaped to be hard.

He reared back, and he blew.  He’d broken down and processed more of the dead tree than what he’d used to condense it into a giant club-staff.  He exhaled a cloud of wet sawdust.

I didn’t want to put up my forcefield if it would catch the sawdust, so I endured it, flew closer, and used my forcefield for only as long as it took to kick the stick he was holding onto with all of my strength.

It broke, and with it breaking, Chris fell down the hill, rolling over wet grass and weeds, until he came to a stop against a cluster of two trees that had grown next to one another.

He began to pick himself up, working his way up the hill, stabbing down to pierce the ground with his half-stick and plant it there like an ice-climber might use a piton.  The slope was just a little steeper at the base of the hill, and the water had become rock again, smooth and with the spikes all pointed downward, not good grips.

He swallowed hard, giving me a suspicion about what he was about to do.  He spat out a ball of wood pulp and phlegm, and I flew to one side, letting it sail past me.

I was put in mind of Crawler – the changer power, the spitting, the joyful monster.  Crawler had laughed too.

Crawler had critically injured me with his acid spit, and that had let Amy get her hands on me the second time.

It was a dark, unpleasant thought.

Tristan was focused on a point off to the side.  I turned to look, and I saw that he was creating orange motes around the projector box.

The motes solidified, and the box was encased in a thorny encasement of rock.

I turned to look, keeping one eye on Chris, and I saw the flags were still there.

“Nope!  That’s not going to work!  Good luck finding our flag!” Kenzie called out.  She loosed an over the top, mocking laugh.

Tristan turned the encasement to water.

“I said it was waterproofed before!  That’s not going to do anything!” Kenzie called out, before doing her level best to laugh harder, even though she had already been laughing at her limit.

“It doesn’t matter,” Tristan said, loud enough for them to hear.

Sveta made her way back in three moves, from the other team’s camp to a rock, rock to tree, tree to our camp.

She hauled herself up to the top of one of Tristan’s walls and she held up the two flags.

Ashley and Chris, who were making their way up the hill, stopped climbing.

“Yes!  Yes!  That was so great, that was fun, we have to do this again!”

From what Kenzie was saying, she didn’t seem to mind losing much.  She practically bounced with excitement.

Tristan created stairs on the slope.

Sveta joined Tristan and me as the others climbed the stairs.  Tristan put out one gauntlet, and she tapped her prosthetic hand against it.  I offered my own fist to her, and she tapped her fist against it, before wrapping her arms around me in a brief hug.

A stoic Ashley had Kenzie clinging to her as she reached the top.

“-were so cool, it was like how you were in the videos-”

“Ease up, Kenzie,” Tristan said.

Kenzie let go of Ashley, bouncing on the spot before reaching up to her lens-mask and pulling it off.  With the mask’s removal, her costume flickered in places, like an image that had been badly compressed, with heavy artifacting.

“This was everything I wanted it to be and more,” Kenzie said.  “I can’t believe you found the flag.”

“I-” Sveta started.

“Waitwaitwaitwait,” Kenzie said.  “Wait.  Um.  Okay.  I have this covered.”

“Okay,” Sveta said.

Kenzie pulled out her smartphone.

The projector made a sound, and then images streaked the hill, before correcting.  Ghostly images of all of us, life-size.  The images included the constructions Tristan had made.

It looked like where we had all been standing earlier in the match, when I had been facing down Ashley.

The images zipped around as Kenzie changed the time, blurring and streaking before correcting into their proper shapes.

“I saved everything, so we can look back and watch how things played out or compare notes,” Kenzie said.  “So we can do stuff like this…”

The images blurred and moved, then shifted, so the scenes that were projected no longer lined up on the battlefield.

It was Sveta, perched on a branch, flag in hand.  Another blur, moving the clock back.

Sveta removed one of her prosthetic hands.  Fifty or more tendrils snapped out.

“You grabbed every flag,” Tristan said.

“I grabbed at every flag,” Sveta said.  “I had to reposition a few times, so I probably grabbed at some fake ones several times.  It didn’t help that I couldn’t see that well after being shot.”

Kenzie cackled.  Chris smothered her cackling with a large hand.  Kenzie fought back, trying to get out from under Chris’ hand, and she did a pretty poor job of it.

It was weird and good to see her finally acting like an actual kid.  Too much excitement in her system, but that wasn’t a bad thing.

Once Kenzie had settled down more, we walked through the entire fight, focusing on each person.  Sveta was first, easy enough.

Tristan was next, and he made mention of the platform, and how he’d wanted to make sure nobody had footing when the rock turned to water, so he’d raised the ground some.  He had obviously plotted the trap from early on.

“Kenzie?  Do you want to report what you were doing?” Tristan asked, once he was done explaining what he’d done to Sveta.

“Wait,” Kenzie said.  “Rain’s here.  I’ll point the way.”

It took a couple of minutes before Rain and Kenzie’s camera-drone arrived at the base of the hill.

Chris was half the size he had been, and his proportions were returning to normal.  As he shrank, he rearranged the voluminous shorts he’d been wearing, ensuring his modesty was protected.  His old outfit was contained within a pocket on the inside of the shorts, and he gathered it together, folded up, the clothes piled on his lap, along with what looked like a pencil case.

Even though he was returning to the person he’d been, physically, his smile lingered.

“Rainnn!” Kenzie called out, while Rain was still making his way to us.  “Did you bring tinker stuff!?”

“Yeah!” Rain responded.

“Yusss,” Kenzie said.  “This is the best day.”

“You could have waited twenty seconds for Rain to show up and asked him in a normal volume,” Chris said.

“I wanted to know now.”

Chris groaned at her, putting his face closer to hers.

Kenzie groaned louder, exaggerated, putting her face closer to his.

Chris groaned even louder, guttural, using some of the residual transformation to play up the sound.  His forehead pressed against hers, hard enough she had to push back to avoid being pushed over.

Rather than try to top it, Kenzie sat back down.  “I like you when you’re like this.”

“Naked?” Chris asked.

No!” Kenzie said.  “Geez.”

“Why does it feel like every time I enter a conversation, it’s a weird topic?” Rain asked, joining us where we sat on Tristan-created seats and benches.

“I like you when you’re happy,” Kenzie said.  She fussed with her hair, looking down.  “I like you a lot like this.”

I was put in mind of her comments about Chris before she’d gotten in Erin’s car, after leaving the group meeting.  Like she didn’t have the worldly experience to know people didn’t say stuff like that in such an unguarded, dead obvious way.

“I still think you’re annoying as shit,” Chris said.

Sveta kicked him.

Kenzie snorted, smiling as she looked up at him.  “I know.”

“Nah.  I’m joking.  You’re fine.  I think we did pretty good.”

“I think we did too.  It would have worked except Tristan and Byron are strong and Victoria is oof and Sveta was the best counter to what we were doing.  We should fill Rain in.”

“That would be nice,” Rain said.  “It was you two and…”

He turned to look around the group, saw Ashley, and didn’t finish the sentence.

“And me,” Ashley said.

“Here, I can show you the replay,” Kenzie said.  “But I want to see your tinker arms too, before we run out of time.”

“There’s plenty of time,” Tristan said.

“Wait, here, you take the remote, and Rain, you can hand me the arm, I won’t break anything, I promise.”

Rain rummaged in his backpack, “I wouldn’t blame you if you did, it’s fragile and shitty.  You think it would help your eyehook?”

“It might!  But I’m really interested in the interface.  You like to have multiple arms, you said?”

“Yeah.  For what little it’s worth.”

“And you control it with your brain, once it’s plugged in?” Kenzie asked.  When Rain nodded, she asked, “How does the brain know how to control it?”

“I map the brain patterns for input and output and the panel here, between the attachment and the actual arm, it acts like an extension of the brain.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Sveta said.

Tristan was fiddling with the remote, and seemed to be having trouble with the progression of time, with images jumping all over the place.  Sveta, Kenzie, and Rain were all focused on the arm, with Ashley periodically joining in when prodded.

Chris was sitting on the bench, cloth around him as he shrunk down to a more ordinary size.  He was smiling more than before as he rummaged for his headphones and a chocolate bar.

“Your mood seems better,” I said to him.

The smile dropped away.  He looked at me and shrugged.  “It’s different.  I feel more human, mentally and emotionally.”

The change hadn’t seemed to make any difference in how he looked, either.  Were the changes subtle?

“I’m not sure I grasped it all,” I told him.  “Once you change, it’s…?”

I trailed off.

“It’s like a hit of a drug,” he said.  “Focus, surprise, sadness, appreciation, disgust, fear, anger, and then this one.”

“Joy?”

“I call this particular flavor of it Wan Indulgence,” he said.  He bit down on the chocolate bar, then closed his eyes, clearly enjoying it.  He talked with his mouth full, “Can be enjoyment.  I’ll feel it more normally for a few days now that I’ve changed.”

“Oh my god,” Kenzie said.  “Tristan, give that back, you suck at it.”

Tristan was still fiddling with Kenzie’s remote for the projector box.

“It doesn’t make any sense.  Why isn’t it easier to move forward and back in time?”

“Because the box doesn’t perceive time, you dummy.  It perceives images.”

“Why not have it perceive things like time, so you can go backward and forward in time without doing… whatever arcane thing you’re doing right now?”

“Because if it perceived time,” Kenzie said, patiently, her focus on the smartphone remote, “Then it wouldn’t perceive images.  And that would be a dumb thing for a projector box that works with images.  Dummy.”

“You can stop calling me a dummy now.”

“I will if you stop being dumb.  This stuff is obvious.”

“It’s really not,” Chris said.

Kenzie sighed, very dramatically.  “Who are we following next?”

“It’d be nice to show Rain the entire thing,” Tristan said.

“It works best with a point of view,” Kenzie said.  She looked at Tristan and rolled her eyes a little.

“If you keep that up, you’re going to see orange lights swirling over your head.  Then a rock is going to fall on you or, more likely, I’ll swap out and you’ll get a spray of cold water.”

Kenzie stuck out her tongue at Tristan.

I was aware that Ashley hadn’t participated enthusiastically in the conversation.  I suspected why.  I hesitated, then ventured, “I’d really like to see how Ashley approached things.”

“Why?” Ashley asked.

My suspicions were stronger.  I went on, “Frankly, I hope this isn’t taken the wrong way, but you’re really intimidating to go up against.”

“It’s fine,” she said.  “It’s the intention.”

“A big part of the reason I swapped out with Victoria is that I had no idea what to do,” Tristan said.  “I couldn’t catch you with my power, and you’re faster than me on foot.”

Kenzie was changing the perspective.  She created a projection of the hillside and shrank things down, then created more projections, showing an image off to one side of our gathering, showing a zoomed in portion of what the little diorama-sized projection was showing as a whole.  The focus started with the three emerging from the trees, trampling through and hurdling the barriers Tristan created.

She jumped to Tristan trying to deal with Ashley.

“Those blasts are as scary as shit,” Tristan said.  “Every time you used one, even if you were five feet away and you weren’t aiming at me, I was flinching.  I saw what it was doing to my powerstuff, and I did not want that to happen to my bodystuff.”

He’d realized what I was doing, and why, I realized.  Ashley was dejected at losing and we could give her a bit of a morale boost.  She seemed to like being scary.

I wasn’t wholly sure it was good to feed her ego on that front, but I wasn’t sure I liked the alternative, either.

“I have better control than that.  I’m not an idiot,” Ashley said.

“I’m not saying you are,” Tristan said.

“It’s obvious you have control,” I said.  “Kenzie, can you show the walljump?”

“There are two.”

“The one with me,” I said.

Kenzie jumped to the scene.  Ashley leaping off of the wall with one foot, her power just starting to explode out from her hands.  The power looked more solid in projection than it did in reality.

“For the record,” Kenzie said.  “If I was moving through this recording in time and not space, then I’d have to fast forward and rewind and skip around to find this, but I don’t, so I hope people are realizing why this is better.”

“I’m fully in support of dumping water on Kenzie’s head,” Chris said.

“The walljump,” I said.  “The sequences of blasts to maneuver and the whole-body coordination it must take.  That, to me, says control.”

“All for nothing,” she said.

“It was not for nothing,” I said.  “I got to see and experience what you do, I respect the spatial awareness.  The instinct-”

“I fell for a trap,” she said.  “I knew there would be water and I thought I could avoid it if I used my power in time, I didn’t expect there to be so much.”

“We’ve never seen each other’s powers in action,” Tristan said.  “Surprises are inevitable.  You surprised the shit out of me, many times, and I got one good surprise off.  When we do it again, we’ll know each other’s powers better.  It’s part of why we’re doing the exercises in the first place.”

“I failed,” Ashley said.  She stood up, and she rubbed one shoulder.  “I was tested and I failed.”

“Right from the start,” Sveta said, jumping into the conversation  “When we were standing around figuring out what we’d do, Victoria told me that this wasn’t a test of us as individuals.  It’s a test of our coordination as a team.”

“I can find that on the recording,” Kenzie said.  “It’ll be hard to find, though.”

“Hah,” Chris said.  Kenzie pushed his shoulder.

“My team failed,” Ashley said, oblivious to the pair.  “No.  My team was set up to fail.”

“Wait, woah,” Tristan said.

Ashley clenched one hand into a fist.  “You realize if I hadn’t been holding back, I could have annihilated each and every one of you?”

Woah,” Tristan said, with emphasis.  “Ashley-”

She whirled on him, pointing, and he flinched, going silent.  I stood from my seat.

“Ashley,” I said, because I wanted her attention off of Tristan.

“I’m not Ashley,” she said, her voice hard.  “Nobody has called me that in a long, long time.  I’m only Ashley because the therapists insisted and the others needed an actual name to put on the paperwork.  I’m Damsel of Distress!

“Okay,” I said.  “Can we-”

I was spoken over.  “I was a member of the Slaughterhouse Nine.  They selected me.  They had me kill and maim people.  I didn’t mind doing it then, and I could do it here without blinking.”

“I don’t believe you,” Sveta said.

“I’ve died and I came back with only the vicious parts of me intact!  All of the warmth, the good memories, the family, they’re just a fuzzy, indistinct dream.  Those memories have no hold on me.  The killing?  Taking people’s arms and legs and watching them bleed out?  That’s clear as anything.  I could do the same to any of you.”

I wanted the younger and more vulnerable members of the team to back away, to get clear of trouble, but I worried that if I tried to indicate that, it might provoke her.  Everyone was still, and nobody, myself included, was really breathing.

“This was an idiotic game, and I.  Don’t.  Play.  Games.”

“Count down from ten,” Rain said.

Ashley whirled on him.  I left the ground, flying closer, stopping when things didn’t escalate further.

“Count down from ten,” Rain said.  “That’s what Mrs. Yamada says, isn’t it?  When you’re wound up.”

“It’s fine when she says it.”

“It should be fine when any of us say it,” Rain said.  “Count.”

Ashley tensed.  I could see it in her shoulders and the way the tendons stood out in her hands.

Everyone was silent.

I waited.  Ten seconds passed.  Then the fifteenth, then the twentieth.

“Feel better?” Sveta ventured.

Ashley turned, staring Sveta down.  “No.”

“Count down from a hundred,” Rain said.

“I’m not going to-”

“Count,” Rain said, his voice soft.  “Please.  You’ve said before, when you get like this, there’s a part of you that’s saying you don’t want to act this way, and you can’t listen to it.  So listen to the numbers first, then listen to that part of you.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“It’s-”

“It’s not that easy,” she said.  “And I’m going to walk away.  You do your thing.  Let me do mine.”

“Okay,” Rain said.

She limped away, hands in fists at her side.  We were silent as we watched her go.

She walked up the hill, found a rock, and leaned against it, her back to us, and I let my feet touch ground.

“We knew it was coming sooner or later,” Chris said.

“Spooky,” Sveta said.”I expected a small outburst to start with.  That was-”

“Medium-small,” Tristan said.

Kenzie stood up, gathering her things.

“Stay, Kenzie,” Sveta said.

“It’s fine.”

“She wants to be left alone.”

“This thing?” Kenzie asked.  “It’s not you guys being the adults and me as the kid, listening to what adults say.  We’re all equal members of this team.  And this is what I’m going to do, and if I get hurt that’s fine, but this is right for me.  You can tell me what to do with some other stuff but not this stuff.”

“It’s dangerous,” I said.  “Leave her be.”

“No,” Kenzie said, voice firm.  She put her hand on her flash gun.  She looked at all of us, then said, softer, “No.”

“Okay, Kenzie,” Sveta said.  “Go.  Be careful.”

“You’re sure?” Tristan asked Sveta.

But Kenzie was already jogging off in Ashley’s direction.

When Kenzie was out of earshot, but before she had reached Ashley, Sveta raised one hand and said, voice quiet, “If there’s a problem, I’ll haul her back.”

“That takes a second or two,” I said.  “Sparring with Ashley, I gotta say she moves faster than that.”

“And your grip isn’t a hundred percent,” Tristan said.

Sveta set her jaw, hand pointed at Kenzie.

Kenzie reached Ashley, and with Ashley’s movement, we all tensed, preparing to act.

Ashley turned back to look out at the distance, and Kenzie climbed up on the rock Ashley was leaning against.

A moment later, Kenzie had her headphones out of a pocket.  She plugged it into her phone, reached down, and put an earbud in Ashley’s ear, then put another in her ear, before lying down on the rock.

Slowly, Sveta lowered her hand.

“Why?” I asked.

“I gave my reasons before, so did Rain, so did Kenzie,” Sveta said.  “We’ve had this discussion.  This isn’t news.”

“It’s one thing to know it and see it in therapy, it’s another to experience it in the wild,” Rain said.

“Why?” I asked, again.  “You can’t- I understand reaching out to people, but can you really reach out to people who aren’t reaching back?  Can you give forgiveness and understanding to someone who isn’t looking for it?”

“I think she is,” Sveta said.

Tristan said, “I don’t know what you guys talked about, but I discussed this with the others, and I have an idea what they probably said.  Do you know how many appointments and meetings she goes to?”

“It came up,” Rain said.

“Okay, good.  But did you talk about why?

“Because she needs careful handling?” I asked.

“Because,” Tristan said, “She’s a special case.  She’s not the original Ashley, I’m not sure if you picked up on that.”

“I got the gist of it.”

“Like she said, her memories aren’t hers.  She was cloned, they took her and they made up composite memories, but they had no reason to give her those fuzzy memories of other, nonconfrontational stuff.  That wasn’t Bonesaw’s work.  It’s the agent.”

I drew in a breath and I sighed.

“The world ended, and it ended because of them.  We can’t have a sit-down talk with Scion because we killed him.  We have a shitton of questions and the only kinds of people who can answer them are the people who got really close to the agents, like Bonesaw, who made Ashley-”

I felt a chill.

“-and the people like this.  Who are very little of the human, shadows of the human, and a lot of the agent.  All of us have problems, and a big part of those problems are the agents, handling their side of things.  I know I’ve talked to Rain about this, I don’t know about the rest of you guys, but when I’m talking to her I’m also talking to the agent that’s very close to the surface.  I feel like if I can get along with that agent, I can get along with mine.”

“Yeah,” Rain said.

“I want to get along with the human,” Sveta said.  “I don’t want to define her as the monstrous half.”

“That’s fair too,” Tristan said.

I folded my arms.  I looked down at Chris, and I saw that he was half-asleep.

He saw me looking, and he said, “The world was invaded by aliens.  People don’t know it, we don’t like to think about it, but they’re here, they’re a part of things.  Getting along with the most accessible of them makes sense.”

I didn’t like it, but I wasn’t sure how to articulate it.  My own agent had a hand in my life.  It was the wretch, the sapience behind the forcefield.  I had seen what Amy’s had done to her.

Thinking too hard about it stirred up countless ugly feelings, and those feelings choked out and clouded the words I wanted to articulate.

“Let’s leave them be,” Rain said.  “Let’s assume we’re not going to have our second exercise, and walk me through how things went.”

“Alright,” Tristan said.

As the discussion continued, I didn’t take my eyes off the pair in the distance.

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Glare – 3.2

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“Hey, Victoria, you’re strong right?” Kenzie asked.

“Kind of,” I said.  “I’d be worried about breaking whatever it is I’m handling.”

“It’s pretty durable.”

I thought about my forcefield.  “I totaled the last car I lifted.”

“I brought things, and I thought maybe Chris could lift some or Tristan could, but Tristan doesn’t think he’s strong enough and Chris doesn’t want to.”

She turned stick out her tongue at Chris.

“Limited duration,” Chris said.

“I can take a look, where is this?” I asked Kenzie.

“At the street.  Black van.  I’ll show you.”

“Yeah, that’d help.  I’ll probably have questions.”

I turned to the others, pointing at the treeline.  “If you guys want to head over that way, stop at the rocky outcropping on the hill.  We’ll meet you there.”

Kenzie walked with me.  She was wearing black overalls and a pink tank top, a red apple clip in her hair, and red sneakers.  Her hair was in much the same style as before, but the buns were set higher.

I paid more attention to her fashion choice because so much about it seemed deliberate, from color scheme to running theme.  During the last meeting it had been a star on her dress, partially on her shirt, and in her hair.

“My dad gave me a ride today, because he needs to buy a suit and more work clothes,” Kenzie said.  “Please don’t judge me too harshly if he acts really lame.”

“I won’t,” I said.  “You said Tristan and Chris could have helped.  Tristan has increased strength?”

“Just a little.  Very very little.”

“I guess we’ll find out soon.”

“Sveta could have helped too, we think, she’s really strong if she uses her real body, but it would have meant dragging it and that would have hurt the grass.”

“How big is this thing?”

“I’ll show you,” she said.  She sprinted the last little way to the sleek van that was parked on the street in front of the library, hopping up to the passenger side window, clinging to the bottom edge of the open window so she could stick her head in.  The back door of the van popped open, and Kenzie’s father stepped out, walking around the van to the sidewalk.

He was almost as meticulous in appearance as Kenzie.  He was very lean, with pronounced cheekbones and a long face that was made to look longer by the goatee that extended an inch from his chin.  He wore a short-sleeved work shirt with a pinstripe pattern on it, and slim jeans that looked like they had cost a pretty penny.  Shoes, belt, and watch, all expensive-looking.

The beard and his longer hair weren’t as tidy as Kenzie was, but I was hardly about to judge, given how it was probably a day off for him and he was sitting in the sun.

“Dad, this is Victoria.  She’s the coach I was talking about.  Victoria, this is my dad.”

“Hi, Mr…”  I extended a hand.

“Julien Martin,” he said.  He shook my hand.  Both handshake and his tone were stiff, but it was a different kind of stiffness than I was used to seeing in Dean’s family.  I was well aware of how easily I’d slotted him onto that same mental shelf.

“You can call him Julien,” Kenzie said.

“Nice to meet you.  What do you do?”

“Realty.”

“Dad only got into realty a year and a half ago, but he’s really good at both the buying and selling sides of things.  I don’t really get it all, but his boss seemed pretty happy with him.  You got a promotion, right?”

“I did.”

“He’s doing it ethically, too, which is so important, with so many shady people out there.”

“I’m trying,” he said.

“I can respect that,” I said.  “Thanks for bringing Kenzie out this far, and for bringing her stuff.”

Kenzie rolled her eyes.  “We should go take a look so we don’t keep the others waiting.”

Julien followed us around to the back of the van, standing back while we opened the doors.  A black box that was a bit larger than a washing machine was sitting in there, strapped down ten ways from Sunday, to keep it from sliding around when the vehicle moved.  More boxes were sitting at either side of the van, with straps to keep them flush against the wall, but they weren’t any larger than a backpack or suitcase.

“We got the van because some of my stuff is hard to move,” Kenzie said.

“Okay,” I said.  The box had a metal frame around the edges, with a crossbar running diagonally along each face.  “What do I need to know?”

“Pick it up and move it.”

“It’s tinkertech, right?”

“It is.”

“Is there a chance of a misfire if it’s moved in the wrong way, if something’s crushed or broken?”

“No.”

“Will I hurt anything if it’s turned on its side?”

“No,” Kenzie said.  “Hm.  It’s best if you don’t turn it upside down.”

“Where should I grab it, to best carry it?”

“Geeez,” Kenzie said.  “It’s not going to blow up or anything.  Or if it did, it wouldn’t be a big enough explosion to hurt anyone.  Not unless very specific conditions were met.”

“Right,” I said.  I had an issue with my power, where I wasn’t sure I trusted the forcefield to simply hold the box and not crush or dig into it.  It was only about a minute of flying to get to where I wanted to go, but even if everything went according to plan, I was worried that handling the box for more than a couple of seconds would leave handprints or gouges in it.

While I investigated, Kenzie climbed in beside me, peering at the box and watching me.

“Give me some space?” I asked.

Kenzie grabbed some smaller things on her way out.

It took a few minutes, but I unclipped the straps that were securing the box in place, and laid them across the ground.  I lifted the box, and set it down on the straps.  I connected them, wrapping them around the box, then slid it around so I could reach the ones at the back.  There was a ramp built into the truck, and I could see where the box could slide along the tracks, but it seemed like more of a hassle to use the ramp and unload that way.

“How dangerous is this team business going to be?” Julien asked, behind me.

“Dad,” Kenzie protested.  “Don’t embarrass me.”

“If I thought it was going to be a serious danger, I wouldn’t be helping,” I said, still working on the straps.  “But I can’t guarantee anything.”

I fastened the straps, then hauled the entire thing out, forcefield up, gripping the box.  It thudded against the street.  Dense.

“Is it a problem?” I asked Julien.

“It’s not a problem,” Kenzie said, firm.  “I can handle myself.  I’ve trained more than a lot of heroes, because I did a year going to all the practice events and stuff.”

“I’m more interested in what your dad has to say.  I don’t want to step on toes, and your parents get the last word.”

“It’s fine,” Julien said.  “If it wasn’t this, she would be doing something else.  I prefer this team idea.”

“You should,” Kenzie huffed.

“Do you need to be picked up?”

“Yes, please.  In…?” Kenzie looked at me.

“Two hours?” I asked.  “Is that okay?”

“It’s fine,” her dad said.  He still had that tone, which came across curt, inflexible.  I had a hard time imagining him as a salesman.  Accountant, maybe.

“Before you do anything, can you go to the train station?  Rain had to take the train and he’s running late.  Bring him here?” Kenzie asked.

Her dad frowned.

“Please,” Kenzie said.

“Where am I going?” he asked.

“Give me your phone, I’ll put it in there.”

While they fussed, I checked and fixed the remainder of the straps.

“I’ll be right back,” I said.

The straps served to let me hold the box without actually holding it.  I flew, holding the length of straps that I’d wound together and attached at the tail end.  The box made for unwieldy flying, swinging below me.

Could the forcefield potentially claw through them?  Yes.  I hoped I’d be able to see it before it managed to succeed.

I flew in the direction I’d sent the others, leaving Kenzie behind.

My phantom self gripped the length of straps, scratched, squeezed, and twisted it, periodically making the ten foot length of cords bend in unusual shapes.

I hadn’t interacted with it much.  I hadn’t seen the limits of its intelligence or lack thereof.  This one minute of flying might have even been the longest period I’d properly used my strength in two years.

I sighted the others, sitting on the rocks and talking.  I dropped low, and I set the box down on the ground.  Even with the care I was taking, it made a noise on landing.

“Wow,” Tristan said.  “How heavy is that thing?”

“No idea,” I said.  “If I had to guess, maybe three hundred and fifty pounds?”

“I can see why she has a hard time moving those things around.”

“She described them as being bigger,” Chris said.  “Others, I think.  I think they start at that size and get larger.”

“Did her dad leave?” Sveta asked.

“Not yet,” I said.  “They’re figuring out logistics.  He’s going to go pick up Rain at the station.  Be right back.”

I flew over to where Kenzie and her dad were.  Kenzie’s dad was in the driver’s seat, and Kenzie was closing the rear doors.  A series of bags and boxes were unloaded, all packed together.

As I landed, her dad pulled away.  Kenzie raised a hand in a wave.

I was aware of the lack of a wave in response.  From the way she lowered her hand and glanced at me, Kenzie was too.

“Want to fly over?” I asked.

Her eyes lit up with excitement as she nodded.

There were very few people in the world who didn’t like flying.

It was, in a way, almost as much of a pain to bring Kenzie, two cases and two boxes without my strength active, as it had been to move the one cube.  I ended up lifting her by the straps at the back of her overalls, my hand also wrapped around the strap of one bag, while Kenzie held other things.

We arrived at the hill with the rocks.  There was light overgrowth, a fairly loose distribution of trees for the fact that it was untamed wilderness, and thick grass.  A surveying team had passed through at one point, and they had disturbed earth here and there, felled a few trees, and spray painted the face of one of the larger rocks before leaving.

A bit of a shame, but I could understand the need for a quick and easy label.  No minerals or stone of any particular value here.

Chris, wearing his headphones again, was wearing what looked like the same shorts as he had worn at the meeting, and a different t-shirt.  He was examining the box, while keeping at least two feet away from it at all times.  He had a bag with him, a travelers’ backpack that was packed full, but he’d put it down.

“You don’t have to keep your distance,” Kenzie said.  “It’s not dangerous.”

“It’s tinkertech.  It’s science that gets at least some of its functionality from interdimensional fuckery, built by cooperation between you and the unfathomable, menacing thing that chose you as its host.”

“It’s a camera, Chris.  It records and projects.”

“It’s a camera built with collaboration between you and a unknowable, violence-driven multiversal horror.”

“My multiversal horror is pretty tame, I think.  She just likes to build things and gather information,”  Kenzie pressed buttons on the side of the box.  A triangle between reinforcing bars lit up.

A hologram appeared a number of feet away.  A potbellied rat with a crooked nose.

“…And you’re using it to make cartoons,” Chris said.

“Plump Rat King,” Sveta said.  “Some of the kids at the hospital liked that one.”

“It’s okay,” Kenzie said.  “Only the first season was really any good.”

“What’s it good for?” Ashley asked.  She was taking things a step further than Chris’ wearing of the same shorts.  She wore the same dress she had worn at the meeting, the damage at the corner mended imperfectly.  One of the straps, I realized, had been damaged and patched, but her hair masked much of it.  She had a black mask in her hand, but she hadn’t put it on.

“Stuff.  Loads of stuff.  I’ll show you some later,” Kenzie said.  She started opening boxes.

Tristan, much like Kenzie, was unpacking a bag.  His costume was armor.  It struck a balance between function and appearance, but it looked like it was a pretty good quality.  Each segment was framed with goat’s heads and horns, spirals and ridges.  Where it wasn’t brushed metal, things were painted or tinted red or light red.  He saw me looking and smiled.

“Byron is the fish theme, then?” I asked.

“Water as much as fish.  Yeah,” Tristan said.

“You have some kind of superstrength, right?”

“A very small amount.  Helps when you’re wearing armor as heavy as this, or when you’re using a power that can make heavy things.”

“Seems like a good place to get us started,” I said.

Tristan turned around, seating himself firmly on the sloped ground, his armor partially unpacked and arranged beside him.  Some bits were already fastened into place on his arms and legs, over a bodysuit that seemed designed to go between him and his armor.

He held up his hand, and produced three motes of orange-red light.  As each one moved through the air, it left a trail behind it, like the afterimage of a sparkler waved through the darkness.  They traced a circle and as the moving points of light connected to the end of each trail, a shape came to life.  A discus, with a slight peak on one side.

I extended a hand, and he passed it to me.

Dense, heavy, very solid.  Matter creation.

“You can throw it,” he said.

I threw it.  It wasn’t as aerodynamic as a frisbee, but it did catch the air.  It wobbled mid-flight and veered off course, crashing into a tree before disappearing into a patch of grass.

Tristan was already making something else.  Twelve or more motes of light traced the shape.  “Requires a bit of concentration, I can rush it or force it to come into being early, but you get weirdness like… this.”

It materialized.  A hammer or a mace, long-handled.  The weirdness was in how the shape finalized its form, drawing pretty creative curves and hooks.  Spikes, horns, thorns, and other slightly curved growths stood out.  It looked unbalanced.

“Are they permanent?” I asked.

“They can be.  Depends if I keep the sparks alive or not.  I can create a lot of sparks, but it requires more time, more concentration.”

“What’s the difference between keeping it alive or not?” I asked.

“Ah,” he said.  He pushed himself to his feet, shifting his footing to make sure he wouldn’t slide down the hill.  He held out the mace, and started to form the motes for another.  He rushed this one even more than he had the last.  The shape was more unwieldy, less balanced.  “Byron, you want to help with demonstrations today, or do you want to be left alone?”

Tristan blurred, features distorting, his eyes flaring with the same light as the sparks had.  The light turned blue, and then he was Byron, wearing a hooded sweatshirt and jeans.

One of the two maces exploded into a spray of water.  Sveta made a noise of surprise, and Chris, still mostly fixated on examining Kenzie’s cube, jumped back from the cube in surprise.

Byron turned his head so the backspray hit him in the side of the face, rather than right in the center of it.  He dropped the still-intact mace he held with his other hand.

“Hi Byron,” Kenzie said.

“Hi,” I added my greeting to Kenzie’s.  “We haven’t formally met.”

“We haven’t.  I got the basics,” he said.

“So I gathered.”

“This is a terrible idea,” he said.  “Tristan being involved, this team concept, the potential for disaster, and this thing with Tattletale?”

“I don’t see anyone changing their mind.  Mrs. Yamada couldn’t convince them, I don’t think I can.  If they’re going to do this or something like this, isn’t it better that they do it smart and informed?”

“I don’t know,” he said.  “But if you’re enabling them, you should know you own a share of what happens.”

“I don’t think that’s fair,” Sveta said.

“It might be fair,” I said.

“My voice doesn’t matter either.  I tried, nobody listens.  Maybe I own a bit of what happens for not trying harder to stop Tristan from going forward with this.”

“You sound pretty certain something bad is going to happen.”

“I was there for all the therapy sessions, even if I didn’t participate,” he said.  He looked at the others.  “Don’t worry, I’m not going to say anything.  But I am going to say, again, this is a trainwreck waiting to happen.”

“We got it,” Chris said.  “Saying it over and over doesn’t change anything.”

“Be kind, Chris,” Sveta said.  “There’s a lot playing into Byron’s concerns.”

Byron shook his head.  He glanced at me.

“You need anything, while we’re talking?” I asked.

He shook his head.  “No.  Um.  You seem alright, so… be safe.  Be wary.  And for the record, since you’re going to ask…”

He showed me his power.  Motes of light, like Tristan’s, blue.  He drew them in the air, two expanding, abstract shapes, not closed like Tristan’s had been.  He positioned them so there was one on either side of him, then clenched his fist.  The lines that were drawn became water, buckets worth, spraying out in the direction the lines had been drawn.  He had drawn them out as expanding spirals, and the resulting water flew out in circular sprays.

“You can use me if you need to clean up, Tristan,” Byron said.  “I’ll do the quick swaps if you need them.”

The water was still spraying when Byron blurred, features distorting and smearing together, the two lighted eyes peering through the shadows between folds and smears, going from blue to orange-red.

One of the sprays of water lost all of its oomph, the remaining water striking the ground to flow through grass and between rocks.  The other diagram became a solid object, a wheel spikier and cruder than what Tristan had made.  It hit the ground and stuck there.

The water that Byron’s power had produced rained down on us for several seconds.

“It’s not going to hurt the box?” Chris asked.

“Nope,” Kenzie said.  “Waterproofed just in case Byron visited.  It was good to see you, Byron, by the way.  I hope to prove you wrong.”

“Yeah,” Sveta said.  “That’s a good way of putting it, Kenzie.”

Tristan’s face was at an angle that saw him looking down at the ground.  At first I thought he was trying to keep the water out of his face.  Then, as he changed the angle of his head a little, I saw his face.

“For the record,” Tristan said, “If it’s my two hours and I ask you a question and then pass the baton, I’d really appreciate it if you didn’t take up extra time and use it to try and sabotage me.”

“I did say hi to him,” I said.

Tristan shrugged.  “He didn’t have to say all that.  He’s quick to say there’s a problem but he doesn’t suggest alternatives.  He whines about the circumstances but he won’t attend the therapy and he doesn’t want to work on figuring out better courses of action.  It pisses me off sometimes, especially when he elbows into my time to make what I’m trying to accomplish harder.”

His tone was hard.  Pissed off seemed like an apt description.  I’d seen Tristan, casual and smiling some before he’d changed, and now this felt like a complete, sudden shift.

It was easy to forget that he was in there while Byron was out here, feeling things, thinking, his mood changing during that short conversation.

I could see the expressions of others.  The sympathy on Sveta’s face, the tilt of Chris’ head.

Ashley looked especially focused and attentive, her pacing around the hill having come to a stop.  One of her hands was at her hair, pushing it back out of her face, the water helping it stay there.

“It seems like hard feelings are inevitable,” I said.

“Yeah,” Tristan said.  He looked away.  “I can keep my shapes ‘alive’.  If they’re still alive when I change, they become water.  If they aren’t, they’re there to stay.  Same for Byron’s water.  It’s effective if he makes water, sloshes it over someone, and then changes, to make it solid.  We’ve tagged a good dozen villains that way.”

“A dozen is a really good number for a teenage hero.”

“Yeah,” Tristan said.

“You’re pretty lucky, getting a name that fitting for a power like that.”

“Constellations forming rock and water?” Tristan asked.  He snorted air through his nostrils.  “Want to know the hilarious thing?”

“I do,” I said.  I wasn’t sure whatever he was going to say was ‘hilarious’, given his tone, but I’d hoped today would be a lighter endeavor, and any humor would help.

“We weren’t even rock and water, originally.  Reach bought the name from the last Capricorn.  She got wounded in battle and she retired.  Win-win.  We got settled into the role, got our name, our armor, our brand, and… power changed to match.”

“That’s really interesting,” I said.  “There’s a lot of potential there.”

“There is.  Absolutely.  And not all of it’s good,” Tristan said.

“But some of it is,” Sveta said.

“Some of it is, yeah,” Tristan said.  He offered her a small smile.

I could see the concerted effort he was making to pull out of the funk.  A few words from his brother and he was upset enough that it showed in his tone and the direction of what he was talking about.

Tricky, that kind of negativity sitting just under the surface.

“Sveta,” I said.  Change of topic.  “I’m guessing you’ve worked on control enough that you feel okay letting loose in limited ways?”

“Kind of,” she said.  “I don’t want to go all-out in a combat situation.  I don’t want to do anything that would risk people getting hurt.”

“Okay,” I said.

“I figured I would mostly stay in the suit.  I can do this…”

She didn’t touch or move anything external, but the joints of her elbow shifted, and the forearm and hand dropped.  Ten or so tendrils extended between elbow and forearm, like a muscle with gaps between strands.

She moved it, tendrils bending, flinging her hand and the attached segment of arm out fifty feet.  She tried to grab a branch, missed it, grabbed another, and seized it, before pulling her body to follow.  I saw her turn her head away as she pulled herself through the intervening twigs and leaves.

She twisted around, pointed a hand, and used tendrils to push her fist out.

She seized the wheel that Byron had left embedded in the earth, and pulled herself to it.

There was a bit of gracelessness to the landing, her pants leg and the side of her body rubbing against the grass, a few clumps of earth flying, but it served to put her in our midst again.  She wobbled as she stood and Tristan and I caught her between us.

She made a small ‘phew’ sound.

“You’re made of grappling hooks, basically,” Chris said.  Kenzie, sitting on her box, stuck out her toe to jab Chris in the shoulder.

“I can get things for my body.  Weld and I were talking about getting a second body for cape things.  If I had hooks I could unfold I could more reliably grab things.  And I’ll get better with practice,” Sveta said.  “And I really want extra shielding for my joints because they’re the easiest part to break, and I don’t want to have to send it out to be repaired and be unable to walk or do things in the meantime.”

“What happens if the suit gets broken?” I asked.  “As in broken enough that it doesn’t keep you contained?”

“Um.  I have a collapsed hamster ball in here.  I can spit it out, unfold it, shove myself in there and bring the lid behind me.  It’s a bit cramped, it’s not the biggest, and it might not always work, but I’ve also been working hard at keeping myself under control.”

I suppressed a wince.  Sveta had worked hard for as long as I’d known her, and I knew that the anxiety was tied into the lack of control in a feedback loop, and that her being so much more confident and happy would mean she had more control, but all it took was one bad incident.

“Workable,” I said.  “We’d have to be really, really careful.”

“Absolutely,” she said, with dead seriousness.  “The way I see it, my body is pretty hardy.  To break containment, it would take something that would maim an ordinary person.”

“Yeah,” I said.  But if they think you’re durable, they might not hold back.

We’d address that when it came to it.

“Alright,” I said.  “So, my line of thinking was that instead of explaining, we’d do a little bit of a team exercise.”

I heard a faint groan from Chris.

“It should be fun, and it should be relatively low-key,” I said.  “We split everyone into teams of three, and we play a small game of capture the flag, here.”

“See, that’s playing dirty,” Tristan said.  “You’re playing into my love for competition, here.”

“It’s fun,” Kenzie said.  “I really like this.”

It seemed Kenzie could be counted on to be positive.  I said, “I’m hoping it’s fun.  Does anyone else need to explain their powers or cover anything before we get into it?  I know what Ashley can do, unless something’s changed.”

Ashley shook her head.

“We’ll see you in action when we have our competition, then.  That leaves Chris and Kenzie, kind of.”

“I’ve got some things,” Kenzie said.  She opened a case.  “Two of these things I had as just-in-case things when I was a Ward.  I got them fixed up recently, and I even made an improvement.  Eye hook-”

She pulled out a coil of metal.  She stuck it on the corner of her cube, then held her phone in one hand, moving her thumb around.  The coil unfurled, prehensile, and its tip unfolded from its teardrop shape.  Three claws, extending from around a circular lens with a pupil.  Kenzie moved her head and body in time with the movements of the thing.

The thing moved closer to me, until it was two feet from my face, the three claw-blades opening and closing a little.  It blinked at me, shutter closing momentarily.

“It was made to look through vents, to start with.  it’s delicate enough it can turn screws and drill holes, and I can swap out the lens for others.  And I’ve got this flash gun too.”

She held up something that looked like a child’s toy, squat, blunt, with a lens on the front.

“It’s for when I had to get closer to the scene when I was with the Baltimore Wards.  They wanted me to be able to protect myself and they wanted nonlethal.”

“What does it do?” I asked.

“Makes light,” she said.  She aimed it off to the side and pulled the trigger.

It looked and sounded like a camera flash going off.

“And the other stuff?”

“Mask with a few settings,” Kenzie said.  She pulled out a high-tech mask, metal around the edges to give a general circular shape to the clear pane for her face, but she didn’t put it on.  She held up a disc, then clipped it to the front of her overalls, so it was directly over the pocket at her chest.  “This is kind of a costume thing I haven’t finalized.”

“Good,” I said.  “Great.”

“I transform,” Chris said.  “Changer.”

I made a motion for him to continue.

He sounded aggrieved, like it was my fault he had to explain at all, “I don’t know what else you want.  I have a few different forms.  They’re inspired by my moods and mental states.”

“You give them names based on what mood or state they’re from,” Kenzie said.  “Like Creeping Anxiety and Wistful Distraction.”

“Yeah,” Chris said.  “Look, the rest of you know.  Explain.  I’m going to go change.”

He grabbed his bag and hefted it over one shoulder, then began trudging uphill.

“These forms reflect the feelings?” I asked.

“Very much so,” Sveta said.

“It sounds like he has more than a few forms,” I said.

“Eight or more, as far as I’ve counted,” Kenzie said.  “He said a few, but I think he loses track.  There’s wiggle room in each form, too.  It depends on a lot of factors.  Diet, time since he last used a form, if he pushes for something in the middle.”

“He’s strong,” Ashley said.

“He might be,” Tristan said.

Kenzie continued to volunteer information.  “The forms tend to come with pretty heavy weakness.  Anxiety is quick but fragile.  That sort of thing.”

“I think I get it,” I said.  “Can I ask why he’s in the group?”

“The drawbacks,” Tristan said.

“The fragility isn’t a drawback?” I asked.

“It’s one.  He doesn’t change all the way back.”

“What?” I asked.

Tristan explained, “He changes to one, he gets a little taller, a little stronger, a little more sluggish.  He changes to another, gets better eyes, ears…”

“Thus the headphones,” Kenzie said.

“…and less responsive in hand-eye coordination to go with it.  He tries to balance, but lately it’s been getting worse.”

“What happens if he doesn’t change?”

“The body stays the same,” Sveta said.  “He doesn’t change physically.”

“Which is good.”

“But he doesn’t change mentally either.  He says he can’t tap those emotions he’s not using, he can’t think as clearly, his thoughts go in circles.”

“Lose-lose,” I said.

“Something like that,” Ashley said.

I could hear Chris’ approach, now.  The sound of branches breaking underfoot, the rustling of under- and over-growth.

He’d grown.  He’d shucked off his clothes and he’d donned what looked like an oversized pair of shorts in a coarse cloth.  They had to have taken up most of the bag’s space.  He was twelve feet tall, with skewed proportions.  Large legs, large around the middle, large hands, all with coarse hair.  His shoulders seemed somewhat narrow, his neck long, his head only a little larger than normal, with faintly pronounced tusks.  His hair, wild before, was just a bit longer than it had been.

“He chose one of the more pleasant looking forms,” Kenzie said, cheerful.  She grabbed her stuff.

How in the fuck was I supposed to make someone like Chris marketable?  How was I supposed to wrangle Ashley or handle Tristan’s issue?

“Twenty minutes,” Tristan said.  “Then he changes back.  We should hurry.”

Capture the flag.  Right.  A part of me wished I hadn’t brought it up.  I could have left things at this, with powers explained and demonstrated in brief, and then I could have taken a few days to think.

I needed a few days to think, so feelings wouldn’t be hurt, damage wouldn’t be done.

I didn’t have it.  I’d lose too much stock with these guys if I changed my mind.  Chris and Ashley especially.

“Who wants to be team leaders?” I asked.

Tristan raised one hand.  Ashley raised another.

“Ashley, you want to pick first?” I asked.

“Kenzie.”

“Woo!” Kenzie cheered.

“Sveta,” Tristan said.  “You’d be my second pick, after Rain.  Weld fan club.”

“Chris,” Ashley said.  She pulled on her mask.  It was v-shaped, covering the nose, ears, and eyes, leaving just a hint of her eyebrows visible above.

“You guys set up over there, opposite side of the hill, then,” I said.  Ashley and the two youngest members of the team.

“You’re filling in for Rain?” Tristan asked me.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I’m mostly interested in seeing how you guys operate, so I’ll mostly stick to playing defense and keeping an eye on things.”

“Alright.  I don’t think that’ll be a problem,” he said.

I wasn’t so sure.  I could see the way he set his jaw, before he pulled his horned helmet on.  I had an idea of his disposition already.  I could see the look of Ashley’s eyes behind her mask, too.  She wanted to be leader, by the looks of things, and that meant she had something to prove.  I saw Chris as the giant, properly smiling for the first time since I’d met him, as he looked back over one shoulder, lumbering away.  It made me more concerned, rather than less.

Sveta took my hand, squeezing it.  Off to the side, Tristan was drawing something out of motes of light, ten feet tall and twenty feet wide.  A wall.

I’d wanted to test them, to see how they functioned as discrete units, and possibly to highlight difficulties.

The more I saw, the less sure I was that these guys were equipped to handle even a friendly contest.  There were so many messy parts to this.  Above all else, the ones with the power seemed least suited to wield it.

“Believe in us,” Sveta said, her voice soft.

I wanted to.  I really did.

“I think,” I said, and I said it to Tristan, “You should take this opportunity to explain your game plan.”

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Glare – 3.1

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Cities, like people, got their second chances.  Few cities had needed one so badly as this.  I was left hoping the other cities were doing better with their second opportunities, because nothing I was seeing was very promising, here.

The four teams under the Wardens’ umbrella, now condensed down to three, were divided into those who wanted to return to the way things had been and those who wanted to forge a new way forward, learning from the mistakes of the past.  The appeal of returning to a semblance of what we’d had was clear- we missed the foods, the places, the familiar businesses and media, the familiar faces.

We wanted normal and even now every meal, every soap we used, every piece of clothing, it was a reminder of how far from normal we were.  It was different and often less because we had less, and we had less of a footing.  I wasn’t the only person who felt their stomach sink when we saw the news two weeks after the broken trigger had decimated the reconstruction workers’ protest, saying that the transportation strike was imminent, and that factory workers were contemplating joining in, an across-the-board attempt to demand stability and structure.

It was important, a line had to be drawn and the endless talks about what our government would look like needed to end, but I still saw the reports and I knew the foods, clothes, and routine I wanted were going to have to wait that much longer.

That was one of the prevailing arguments for normal, for going back.  This section of the city, this settlement, was the counterpoint.

Brockton Bay had been a port, growing as the industry did.  A lot of what made it work as a fledgling port city made New Brockton work as one of our first footholds in Earth Gimel.  Lumber, quarrying, some surface level minerals, and geography protected from the harshest sweeps of cold weather from the north.

The industry had become a prominent part of the city, and then the greater industry had outgrown it.  Things had reached the point where it was easier to take one big ship and go to Boston and transport goods from there than to take two smaller ships and go to Brockton Bay, even if Brockton Bay was closer to the goods’ destination.  The factories and goods went where the ships went, because it wasn’t sensible to ship raw materials from Boston to Brockton Bay to do manufacturing when Boston could handle it.

New Brockton felt like it sat on that brink between relevance and ruin.  As a settlement, it was defined by tall buildings and the edifices of heavy industry.  There were ships finding their way past each other on the water and big brick buildings with black plumes of smoke rising from their chimneys.  Already back to the ways of an era that predated me, cutting corners to produce more at a cost to tomorrow.  It was crowded and bursting at the seams, and it had been for a while now, trying to grow despite the constraints of water and mountain around it.

It didn’t escape me that the settlement continued to chug along while the gears and belts of the greater megalopolis were grinding to a stop under strikes and shutdowns.

I walked, rather than fly, because the directions I’d been given mandated it.  I suspected it was intentional.  I knew there were eyes on me, I knew who some of those eyes belonged to, and I had strong suspicions about others.

The racist graffiti no longer dominated downtown, though I did see some, with half of it partially painted over or altered.  Many of the people who had lived and thrived in Brockton Bay had made their way here, after all.  An attempt had been made to use wall space, to give the tenements-and-factories color when mirrored windows on skycrapers didn’t steal it from the sky or water.  Murals now decorated many of the walls and building fronts, no doubt an attempt to leave less open wall space for the gang tags and symbols.  Animals and symbols of humanity like clasped hands covered residential areas.  Green trees, branches, and lush mountains painted almost ironically on the sides of factories and power plants.

There were places that mirrored home, in layout and the buildings that had been placed.  The area that had been the Towers at the southwest corner of the city was still the Towers.  Downtown was still where Downtown had been.  A Lord Street stabbed north-to-south through the settlement.  Despite the attempts, it wasn’t home.  It came from something different.

Such was the counterpoint: in attempting to paint a picture of home, we might distort or create a caricature of that picture.  If we rushed it or forced it, we risked making some of the same fundamental mistakes we’d made before, building on cracked foundations.

Seeing the murals, the directions I’d received started to make sense.  The path was byzantine.  Go the way the wolf and his cubs are looking.  A wolf and three cubs that looked like they were made of white smoke were painted on a concrete wall.  They stood facing one way, but their heads were looking back.

Walk beneath the leaping rabbit.  A rabbit decorated an arch at the edge of a children’s park.  The park felt small and lonely amid larger, taller buildings, partially fenced in, with room for two swings, a slide, a sandbox and one basketball half-court that would have to be vacated if a car came through to use the parking garage or if the dump truck came for the dumpster at the back of a building.

Follow the snake.

If I hadn’t known it was a snake, I might not have realized what it was.  It was sectioned off, the skeleton of a winding serpent with each vertebrae several feet from the other.  Three white pieces along one wall, a white-painted drain cover, then more segments on the wall opposite.

The painted lines of a crosswalk took me across the street.  I followed more segments of the snake to reach one of the larger apartment complexes, four identical L-shaped buildings framing a plaza.  The bottom floors of the buildings and the lowest floors along the inside of each ‘L’ had some basic stores.

Two years ago, this would have been one of the nicer areas in Earth Gimel, if a little basic.  No-name grocery store, clothing store, and home-goods store.  It was dated already, and I could already imagine two years from now, when various murals might be faded or defaced, when the metal chairs and tables would be rusted, the stores closed or forgotten.  The snake cut through the plaza, which could have seated two hundred people, but currently had six.  Any earlier and there would have been people having a late lunch.  Any later and it would be time for an early dinner or an after-work bite to eat.

A tunnel led through the body of one of the apartment buildings, leading from plaza to parking lot.  The mural of a cat with its back twisting and arching was painted on the walls and roof.  Its paws stuck out and across the footpath firmly pressed down on the snake’s neck.

‘Wait’ was the last instruction.

I checked my phone.  One message:

K:
K.

I flicked my thumb, spun up the music player and then fished my earbuds out of the pocket of my jacket.  I put only one in, so I could keep one ear out for trouble.

I waited long enough for five songs to start and stop.  A pair of people arrived at the plaza, got their food, ate, and left, before anything happened.  I wondered more than once if I’d been baited to come here as a way of making me waste time.

“You get fifteen minutes.”

I turned my head in the direction of the parking lot, turning off my music and pulling the ear-bud free.  I moved my hand in a circle to catch most of the length of cord in a loop.

Tattletale had reversed her costume colors from black on lavender to a more royal purple on black.  The same pattern of lines slashing across her costume remained- horizontal line across the upper chest, vertical line slashing down from that, to form a stylized ‘T’.  Another horizontal line jutted out from halfway down, followed by another vertical line piercing that line, a smaller ‘t’ nestled under the right arm of its big brother.  She wasn’t the type to get photographed or caught clearly on video, and it was painted in such broad strokes that I suspected many people missed it.

It kind of smacked of narcissism, I felt, to wear one’s initials.  The more black costume, at least, looked more distinguished.  Her hair needed a bit of combing, like it had been tousled by the wind and it hadn’t been fixed.

She was followed by a flurry of small birds that settled on the street by the exit of the alley, and by one bodyguard.  The cape was burly, wearing a skintight suit that showed off his muscles, and wore a heavy cloth hood with eyeholes cut out, a series of ‘x’ stitches forming a frowny-face.  The lines around his eyes were cut deep.  Very weary.  He stood with his hands clasped behind him.

On the other side of the tunnel, one of the men that had been eating in the plaza had approached.  He now stood with his back ramrod straight, his hands clasped behind him.  Very clean cut, hair short and styled, recently shaved, t-shirt, black slacks, and shiny black shoes.

I knew Tattletale knew how my forcefield worked.  If the man had a gun, he was potentially a danger to me.

“I like the cat,” I said, pointing.  “Subtle.”

“Fifteen minutes, Vicky,” Tattletale said.  “It’s going to be a lot less if you want to make small talk.  If this becomes you wagging your finger at me and acting all holier-than-thou, I’m walking.  I’m busy these days.  The only reason I’m giving you time out of my day is hometown respect.”

I fished in my pocket.  I pulled out the paper.  “This isn’t because you wanted to talk to me?”

“When you’re positioned like I am, you can’t ever do one thing.  That message was intended to do a few things at once.”

“I couldn’t help but notice your use of ‘Glory Hole’.  Seemed unnecessarily antagonistic.”

She leaned against the wall by the cat’s head and smiled at me.  “One, I’m unnecessarily antagonistic.  Two, it serves to let you know who the letter is from, it pushes you off balance if you’re in a position to be easily put off balance, which I would want to know about, and finally, three, if the messenger is the type to ignore my instructions, read the letter and try using that phrasing against you, then they’re liable to get hurt.  That makes it clear I’m to be listened to.  Cleat isn’t the brightest, and he could stand to learn that lesson.”

“And you wanting to talk to me wasn’t one of your reasons?”

“That’s something else entirely.  I offered Hollow Point three asks at a significant discount.  Three times they can reach out to me and get info, now that they’ve paid.  I did this to get them into my debt, to see if they were intelligent enough to ask good questions, and to get them used to paying me money for intel.  If that tide somehow rises, I want my fortunes to rise with it.  You turned up, and they wanted to know, were you the first of a larger group of heroes who were going to make a move?  Who were you, and what role did you play?”

“And your response was this?”

“Multiple purposes, Vicky.  Keep up.  If you don’t care enough you decide it’s not worth it and leave.  Unlikely.  You could get a little upset, and in the doing you reveal what you’re up to.  Or you’re invested on some level, and you reach out, and the dialogue is opened.  If the dialogue is opened, I’m better equipped to deal with you and to deal with Hollow Point.  How the dialogue is opened tells me a lot, too.  You could have come charging after me.  You didn’t.  You asked around for how to contact me, used a liaison, and you respected my direction and my rules in my part of the city.”

My part of the city, I thought.  Yeah.  Impressions verified – New Brockton had retained many of the problems of its predecessor.

“Cedar Point isn’t yours?” I asked.

She shrugged.  “We’ll see what it ends up being.  For now, you’ve got people of Cleat’s caliber there.”

“I asked around a bit before leaving.”

“I know.”

“The construction work dried up, people are moving elsewhere.   Nothing was drawing people in.  Then, in the span of a few days, a large number of people buy apartments, homes, and other properties.  Never mind the fact that there isn’t a lot going on there.  Now a lot of supervillains are making themselves comfortable, figuring out who’ll work with them and who won’t.  Some places and people might be open to them doing business, others are already feeling the pressure to leave, scary people hanging around and intimidating them.  People of Cleat’s caliber, maybe, but an awful lot of them.”

“It’s not the only place.  It’s the biggest of them,” Tattletale said.  “All the itinerant and teamless villains needed to settle somewhere eventually.  Hollow Point is just loose enough they won’t necessarily kill each other, but self preservation keeps them together and following some basic rules.  Some charisma here and there steers them.”

“New Brockton doesn’t count?” I asked.

“Different thing.  Hollow Point is the largest place without a major player heading things.  So far.  New Brockton obviously has its major players securely in place.”

“And even though that neighborhood isn’t yours and isn’t even close to yours, you want me gone?”

“No,” she said.  “You want you gone, if you know what’s good for you.  You don’t want to get involved with that.  You might make headway, but it won’t last.  You’re outnumbered, they’ve got better resources, and if you ever succeed to any measurable degree, they can do things like call in the second of the asks they bought from me.  Then they get an answer, and you have a bad day.”

“Alright,” I said.  I glanced back.  The man standing at the edge of the plaza hadn’t budged.  The brute with the bag over his head hadn’t either.

“If it’s not me they ask, then it’s someone else, and you potentially have an even worse day.  I know you hate my guts, but the reality is I’m one of the nice ones.”

There were a lot of responses I could give to that.  I bit my tongue.

I released my tongue and said, “Hypothetically, if you don’t mind hypotheticals…”

“I’m a great fan of the hypothetical.”

“…If I asked you where you suggested going, if Cedar Point isn’t workable or if it’s untouchable because someone like you is going to step in before any heroes make headway… what places would you suggest?  Outside of the established jurisdictions for teams.”

“I wouldn’t suggest anything.  It’s a wild west out there and there’s no place for you out there.  Not anymore.”

I folded my arms.  I’d expected an answer like this.

“The people who win are the people with clout.  While you were teaching school kids which direction a gun should point or hauling water out to the refugees still back on Bet, the rest of us were working.  I and people like me were getting our hooks in and laying groundwork to build something behind the scenes.  Taking over corner worlds, finding footholds in this world, starting up businesses, establishing reputations.  The big hero teams have some influence because they’ve been recruiting and they staked out their territory.  Hero and villain, we’re the major players, but we operate the same fundamental way.  We’re scary.  The thinkers, the masters, the masterminds, and the people with the biggest guns.”

“And Cedar Point?”

“Cedar Point, if you want to call it that, and its sister locations are late to the game.  They have some clout because they have numbers and a bit of organization, and because they can all scrape together enough money to call in a big gun if they really truly need it.  They probably won’t last.  Someone nasty will step in and take over what they’re trying to build and it’s probably going to be ugly.  The only reason they’ve lasted this long is that the rest of us have bigger fish to fry.  They’re still a few rungs up the totem pole above you, mind you.”

“It’s too hard so it’s not worth trying?”

“Go home, Vicky,” she said, almost sighing the words.  “Go back, figure out your family thing, keep trying to sign on to one of the big hero teams, you’re bound to find a position somewhere eventually.  Some cape will die in battle, and a seat will open up for you and you’ll do fine.  Or retire.  After what your sister did to you, nobody would blame you.”

I closed my eyes.

“Do what any self-respecting twenty-one year old would do after failing to get into university, get a job waitressing or making hero sandwiches.  Talk to your kids about the old Glory days.”

I opened my eyes.  “And what happens to Cedar Point, in this hypothetical?”

“I’m talking reality, Vicky.  It’s going to be the same thing that was going to happen before the villains turned up, and it’s the same thing that’s going to happen when and if you try and summarily fail to change things there.  The area struggles, it withers, it becomes irrelevant.  This isn’t your fight, and it’s not what you’re equipped to do.  You hit things.  You can take a bullet, unless you’re doing something peculiar like keeping your forcefield down while standing between a man with a gun and Snuff here.”

“Heya,” Snuff said, raising a hand.

I didn’t move a muscle, didn’t react.  Tattletale smiled.

“I know what you’re doing with your forcefield, Vicky.  Just like I did back then.  I know why you’re doing it, too.  I know you don’t belong in Cedar Point, and I know you’re just going to cause headaches for me and the actual heroes if you try anything.  It’s not your skillset, it’s not your powerset.”

I still had the paper in my hand.  I tapped it against my upper arm, my arms still folded.  “Four years, and you haven’t changed a bit since you raided that bank.”

“When we robbed that bank, I was doing multiple things all at once, laying groundwork for moves I wouldn’t make for weeks and months.  If I haven’t changed from that, I think I’m doing okay,” she said.

“Are you, though?” I asked.  “Your hair is messy, and you look tired.”

“I’m going to pretend you’re actually asking out of a concern for my well being, because if I didn’t pretend, I’d walk away, and I might even give some free-of-charge advice to those Hollow Point ruffians, telling them how to beat you if they run into you.”

“Entirely out of concern for your well being,” I said, with as little warmth and concern in my voice as I could muster.  “Hometown respect, you know.”

“I’m one of the major players now.  The other major players call me for a hint when they’re stuck on something.  I’m wealthy, well-positioned, and safe.  I’m now sharing the love and bringing some of that security, stability, and safety to others, in my very, very roundabout way.  It’s part of why I’m having this conversation with you.”

“Sure,” I said.  I paused.  “Speaking of you showing up, I’m surprised the rest of your old team didn’t turn up too, for old time or camaraderie’s sake.”

She turned.  With the way the light came through the tunnel, I could see the eye symbol on her chest in a slightly different shade of purple, hidden where the vertical bar met the horizontal, and the shadows meant I could no longer see her eyes or expression.   Maintaining the same tone, she said, “No, you’re not surprised.  You know full well they’re well positioned too.  They’re doing their own things.  They’re still a resource I can and will tap.”

“Gotcha,” I said.

“But I think you were trying to get a jab in, and that’s a good sign this conversation has run its course.  I’ll wish you good luck in your endeavors, whether you join a big team or end up making those sandwiches.  So long as you stay out of my way.”

“Out of curiosity,” I said.  I saw her pause, just as she was about to turn to walk away.  I continued, “Do you regret your part in what happened with my sister?”

“Do you?” she asked, without missing a beat.

“Absolutely,” I said, without any more hesitation than she’d shown.

“Be sure to call before you set foot in my neighborhood again.  You and your friend have a nice flight home.”

Friend?  My first thought was that she meant my autonomous forcefield, that she was personifying it.

Then I realized who she really meant.  Just as surprising that she would be aware, but not as alarming.

She hadn’t answered my question, but I hadn’t expected an answer.  She and Snuff walked to the parking lot, turning the corner there.  Behind me, the gunman was walking back to his table.

My impression was that I was better off heading the way I’d come than I was leaving.

The moment I didn’t have the roof of the tunnel over my head, I took to the air.

I was high enough that I could see the entirety of Tattletale’s realm, and where the city was bleeding into and through the mountains and forest to connect to other areas and the remainder of the megalopolis.  I could see the boats on the water, like ants on an anthill, the black smoke, and the patches that gleamed with a forced luster.

It wasn’t home.  The worst of the fucking racists were gone, I had to hope, but the rest of the bad stuff seemed to be firmly entrenched in there.

I drew my phone from my pocket.  I put the one earbud in, some music to drown out my thoughts while I steadied myself.

Me:
Did you record all of that?

A dark shape flew within a foot of me.  For an instant, I thought it might have been one of the small birds that had arrived with Tattletale.

It was a sphere, consisting of several layers like an onion, alternating blue and red.  The lens was a white circle, and as it roved, the layers moved to accommodate it looking around.  Several fins extended out from the two most external layers, moving independently of one another to correct its position and hold eerily steady in the wind.

Recorded it all,” the camera said, Kenzie’s voice with some synthesizer mixing things up.

“You got the sound, too?”

“Of course,” she said.  “Can I listen to it?

“No,” I said.  “Not yet.  Not when Tattletale operates the way she does.  I’ve got a long flight back.  Any way you can replay the conversation for me so I can listen to it on the way back, and figure out if anything needs redacting?”

Without listening in?

“I’d prefer if you listened in with the rest of the group.  I’m concerned Tattletale can say something to me that affects one of you.  She touched on some personal subjects, and I need to think about how much I’m comfortable sharing.”

Not a problem.  Give me a minute.

I started my flight home, the camera flying alongside me.

I expected the camera to speak, when Kenzie was ready.  I was a little surprised when it came through my ear-bud instead.

“…you’re bound to find a position somewhere eventually.  Some cape will die in battle, and a seat will open up for you and you’ll do fine.  Or retire.  After what your sister did to you, nobody would blame you.”

I was still, listening to this.  The others, Rain excepted, were gathered around the table.  The library had picnic tables and benches strewn around, and some patio chairs for reading outdoors when the weather was good. They had arranged themselves on a mixture of seats, with Ashley standing.  Kenzie’s laptop was sitting on a patio table, with Rain watching in through a halting, low-res webcam.

I’d been periodically pausing the conversation, to fill in gaps with basic knowledge and context, but I left things alone for this one.

“Do what any self-respecting twenty-one year old would do after failing to get into university, get a job waitressing or making hero sandwiches.  Talk to your kids about the old Glory days.”

“Pause,” I said.

The recording paused.

“It took her a little while to get around to it, but it’s worth stressing that this is who she is.  I thought about redacting these parts, but I think it’s important you know.  The PRT thought she had the ability to sense weak points, primarily psychological ones.  I agree with that assessment.”

“Your sister is Panacea, right?” Chris asked.

I tensed a bit.

“Chris,” Sveta said.  “I think Victoria would prefer it if we glossed over that part.”

“It’s for context.  Like she just said, it stresses who Tattletale is.”

“She was a healer,” I said.  “Tattletale’s words caught her in a bad way at a bad time.  Two months later, she had a mental breakdown.  In part because of what Tattletale said.  She put me in the hospital.  Let’s leave it at that.”

“Resume recording,” Kenzie said.

And what happens to Cedar Point, in this hypothetical?

“I’m talking reality, Vicky.  It’s going to be the same thing that was going to happen before the villains turned up, and it’s the same thing that’s going to happen when and if you try and summarily fail to change things there.”

“Pause,” I said.  “She likes to act like she knows what’s going to happen, but it’s worth saying she can be surprised.  She was surprised at the bank.  She and her team pulled it off regardless, but… she was surprised by my arrival, and by my sister being there.”

“Worth keeping in mind,” Tristan said.  “If we wind up fighting her.”

“I’m giving you all the info I can, so you can make an informed decision,” I said.  “Resume.”

-The area struggles, it withers, it becomes irrelevant.  This isn’t your fight, and it’s not what you’re equipped to do.  You hit things.  You-

Kenzie’s voice chimed in with a cheerful, synthesized, “Redacted!

“Pause.  Redacted because it’s a weak point,” I said.  “Power-related.”

“I think I know,” Sveta said.  “If this makes you doubt Victoria at all, I hope me vouching for her helps.”

“It helps,” Kenzie said.  “Not that I was doubting her.”

“Resume,” I said.

-I know you don’t belong in Cedar Point, and I know you’re just going to cause headaches for me and the actual heroes if you try anything.  It’s not your skillset, it’s not your powerset.

There was a small chime as a message appeared in the corner of the laptop.  The recording paused in response to the message appearing.

Rain:  Is it ours?

“That’s a conversation I want to have shortly,” I said.  “Powers.”

“I’m looking forward to this,” Chris said.

Behind him, pacing a little, Ashley smiled.

Right.

“Resume,” I said.

“Redacted, redacted,” Kenzie’s synthesized voice played.  Then Tattletale’s voice came up again.  “I’m one of the major players now.  The other major players call me for a hint when they’re stuck on something.  I’m wealthy, well-positioned, and safe.  I’m now sharing the love and bringing some of that security, stability, and safety to others, in my very, very roundabout way.  It’s part of why I’m having this conversation with you.

“Stop,” I said.  The recording paused, and Kenzie hit a keyboard shortcut to close the window.  “Everything that followed was small talk, some threats from her, and stuff about my sister I don’t want to get into.  That’s Tattletale.  That’s how she sees the world.  I do believe her when she says there’s no good way to break into this scene.  There are a lot of people who want to hold their positions and the power they’ve taken for themselves, and when you’ve cornered them, they’re going to call people like Tattletale for backup.”

“Or worse,” Ashley said.  That was apparently what she’d fixated on, during the earlier part of the conversation.

“Or worse.  People who are good at the roles they’ve taken on, well-proven by years of experience, people who can and will casually destroy you.”

“No matter what we do,” Sveta said, “We’re going to run into trouble.  So we do nothing or we plan for it.”

“We plan for it,” Tristan said.  “Ashley and I were talking about this.  Something that might fit our niche, and gives key members of our team what they’re looking for.”

He looked at Kenzie as he said the last bit, and Kenzie visibly perked up.

“You have a game plan?” I asked.

“The start of one,” Tristan said.  “Maybe.”

I thought about that for a moment.  The others exchanged a few words, and a chime signaled Rain’s comment for the convo – he and Tristan had apparently exchanged some messages about the plan.

“Did you guys bring costume stuff?” I asked, when there was an opening.  “Those of you that have it?”

That got me confirmation from about half of the group.

“I have spare, basic masks for those that need them,” I said.  “I also have the start of my team outline written up on my laptop.  What do you guys say we move to an area with some elbow room, you can show me enough of your powers that I know what to put in the document, and we talk about what you’ve got in mind?”

It might as well have been a rhetorical question.  None of them were about to say no to that.

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Flare – Interlude 2

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“Long coat, long hair, just got through the door, has a gun,” Crystalclear said, thumb on the button of his walkie-talkie.

The reply from the officers was almost impossible to make out.

The status quo in quiet periods was for there to be two thinkers on duty at all times.  They were meant to be in communication and watching each other’s backs, and they were meant to be cooperating with the officers stationed at the portal.

During the quieter times, it would have been less than perfect for his partner to be in the midst of the crowd, where it took effort for Crystalclear to keep track of him and watch the man’s back.

Relay, one of his new teammates.

It wasn’t a quiet period, as one of the day’s bigger trains had just arrived.  There were supposed to be four people on duty, one shift nearly over, another just beginning, for twice the number of eyes and powers on the scene.

Yes, it could have been an accident that the other two had yet to arrive.  But accidents and coincidences could just as easily be contrivances at the hands of masterminds.  The radios acting up didn’t help matters.

“-ot the gun, good ca-” the voice on the other side of the walkie talkie reported, the static cutting off the very beginning and the ending.

Sure enough, the officers had the woman in the coat.  One of the officers had the gun, now.

Red jacket, jeans, pointed boots, group of three, Relay communicated.  Words and ideas conveyed without being spoken.  Not telepathy, not sound, but impressions.

Crystalclear’s vision didn’t give him color that wasn’t the blurring around the white outlines that defined everything.  Red jacket meant nothing to him.  But he could see the crowd, seeing everyone at once, and he could check the shoes.  It took some focus to narrow things down, to look for the pointed shoes, to observe for another few moments to see who was grouped up.

Three people, all about the same age, all men.  Their heads radiated with distortions.  Their focus- not on anything in particular.  He saw what they were dwelling on as a series of fractures, distorted angles, and breaks that surrounded them.  These things suggested things about what was going on in their heads that were more limited to the moment, covering stresses in every sense of the word.

Stress as in emotional upset, stressing the importance of something, stress as in tension and wear.

He was glad he could use the landline for this.  The little room was separated from the portal and train platforms by two walls, one with a one-way pane of glass set in it.  The third wall was open, so he was free to step outside and be in the thick of things within seconds, without having to worry about doors or counters.  Beside him was a phone and a computer he hadn’t bothered to fiddle with – he couldn’t see the contents of the screen without pulling a crystal from his face.

He hit the button for channel one on the phone, then picked up.

“Relay reports there’s three people incoming.  He got a low-level bad feeling about them.  They seem stressed to me.  Not an imminent danger.  You might want to pull them out of line and have a chat.  One in the lead has a red jacket, pointed shoes.  I’ll give you more information on their positions once they’re settled in line.”

“Got it.  Thank you, Crystalclear.”

“Let us know if you need anyone to sit in,” he said.

“Will do.”

He was aware as heads throughout the crowd turned, their focus shifting to Relay, to the train, to the officers.  For most, the light around them refracted into kaleidoscopic structures, cone or beak shaped, pointed this way and that.  At the ends farthest from the points of focus, the open ends of the cones splayed out into nimbuses, auras, fractures.

He had been one of them, a year ago, a refugee stepping off the train to enter Earth Gimel, finding his luggage, walking up the short set of stairs to the desks, where people clustered in families and groups of friends, rather than in single file.  They would be interviewed, they would be given temporary identification, and they would get their packages with information and resources.

Unlike many  of them, he had waited nearly six months for access, because he’d been open about the fact he had powers.  A mistake, because they had wanted to be careful, it had meant he had needed weeks and months of screens, of interviews and background checks, while other people passed through.

It wasn’t the first time something like that had happened, where he had taken too long to put the pieces together.  All thinkers had their weaknesses and catches – all powers, probably, but thinkers were what he was most familiar with, and thinkers almost always had their issues with the mind.  The problems of the mind were difficult to identify and fix, because they were so invisible, and the tools for diagnosis were often what part of what was broken or altered.

He had taken a considerable length of time to figure out the nuances of his power, too.  The most obvious aspect was that he could see through walls, but he lost the ability to see and understand people, to see their faces or easily grasp the clothes they wore.

There was so much more to it, and he was learning more of it every week and month.  The colors meant things, and he had only worked out the blues and the reds.  Other colors separated from the white at times.  There were a lot of greens in the crowd and along the station, pulling away from the outlines.  He had ideas about what they meant, but he couldn’t say anything with confidence.

The fractures and formations in distortions around people were another part of it.  There were elements to the way things broke up and distorted that had deeper meaning, things he didn’t understand in a way he could explain, but which made it easy for him to relate one personality and personality type to another, familiar one.

The portal took up much of the station in front of him.  His multifaceted senses covered the tract of Gimel surrounding the portal, and the areas of Bet on the far side.  His view encompassed the surroundings on the other side, the people, the terrain, and the different colors that bled out from the sharper white outlines.

You’re in the weeds, Relay communicated.

Crystalclear lifted his walkie-talkie to his mouth.  “Weeds?”

Not entirely with us.  Lost, or in a bit of a daze.

Crystalclear looked out beyond the portal.  At the people amassed around it, human-shaped outlines with the outlines of clothes, blurs smearing around the white lines, their heads replaced with fractured, kaleidoscopic messes.  A large group were in eerie unison.  Singing together, possibly, or chanting.

“Yeah,” he replied, one more word for what others would perceive as a one-sided conversation.

It was his perpetual reality.  To be mundane, or to be lost.  The knowledge out of his reach, there if he could find out how to reach for it or connect it.

He focused more on the crowd.

His difficulty wasn’t in tracking everyone, so much as it was finding the right angles.  He didn’t have eyes with his power deployed like this, and he wasn’t limited to one point of view.  He set about making sure he could investigate everyone and their carry-on baggage without anyone being hidden with their outline closely matching someone they were standing in front of or behind.

He didn’t move his head as he looked back, up the stairs and out at the loosely organized lines of people.  The trio had joined the line.

He used the phone, “The three people Relay wanted you guys to keep an eye out for just joined the line.  They’re behind a shorter, elderly couple.  One of them’s agitated.”

“Thank you, Crystalclear,” the voice on the phone replied.

While more of his focus was dwelling in that direction and area, making sure he was seeing everything from the necessary angles, he became aware of two people who others were paying a great deal of attention to.

One of them was tall, somewhat muscular, but what stood out was the storm of fractures around his head, overlapping without connecting to one another.  A crown of thorns, fashioned from something that looked like especially precise breaks in glass or deep-etched frost.

The other was smaller, hunched over.  She was almost the opposite, the breaks vague, cracking out to reach like a whip, aimed at nothing in particular.

He used the walkie-talkie, “I think our relief just turned up.”

Making my way to you.

Relay and the two individuals reached Crystalclear’s booth at the same time.  Crystalclear stepped out, aware of the number of people who were turning to look.  He tried to keep an eye on the crowd.

Relay made the introductions.  “Crystalclear, this is Big Picture, and this is Ratcatcher.”

“Hello,” Big Picture said.  More tight loops of breakage encircled his head rapidfire as he turned it to look at Crystalclear, and the loops bled like purple watercolor paint.

“Hello,” Crystalclear said.

“Hello.  We’re the reinforthmenth,” Ratcatcher said, with a heavy lisp.

“You’re new to Foresight?” Big Picture asked.

“I am,” Crystalclear said.  “Only positives so far.”

“I thought about joining,” Big Picture said.  “I decided it was better to wait until things settled down.  For now, I get paid for this, I keep it simple.”

“Yeth.  Thimple ith good,” Ratcatcher said.

“I like the costume,” Big Picture said.

Crystalclear touched the tunic portion of his outfit.

It wasn’t anything like he’d worn with the Norfair Neighborhood Heroes.  A single shoulderpad, a piece of cloth forming a kind of shawl or mantle as it extended from one corner of the shoulderpad near his heart, over his shoulder, and around to the back corner of the shoulderpad near his shoulderblade.  The shoulderpad, the armor at his wrists and the armor around his legs had chunks of crystal, closely matched to the crystal that he naturally produced.  Lightweight as armor went, limited to a few pieces that were as decorative as functional, but it was still armor.  A band of metal ran along his chin’s edge, and that took some particular getting used to.

“Appreciated,” Crystalclear said.  It was odd to reply when he was only aware of the outlines of the outfit.  He had seen it in the mirror when he had been getting ready, but that memory felt faint, and he had yet to see how put together he looked with the crystals at the upper half of his face.

“I’m going to go get back to work,” Relay said.  “I’ll be in communication.”

Crystalclear returned to his seat.  Big Picture stood out in the open, his arms folded.

Ratcatcher joined Crystalclear in the booth, sitting on the counter by the phone.

“What do you do, Crythtalclear?” Ratcatcher asked.

“I see through walls.  I can see contraband.”

“I can too,” Ratcatcher said.  “I thee thmall thingth, wherever they are.”

“We might be redundant then.”

“Redundancy can help,” Big Picture said.

“Can you share your power, Big Picture?”

Big picture turned his head.  Crystalclear wished he could see the big guy’s face.  Knowing if the guy was frowning or smiling would help a great deal.

“It’s redundancy,” Big Picture said.  He made a sound, almost a laugh.  “Everything I want to focus on, I clone my brain and my mind.  I can give each and every detail every bit of my attention, and I can slow down my perceptions if I want to study it more.  There are a few other nuances, other things I can do with the parallel takes, sharing, but you don’t need all of the details.”

“You can spend the equivalent of a few minutes studying every possible clue?” Crystalclear asked.

“Weeks.  Months, if I want.”

“Sounds as if it could have its drawbacks.”

“Don’t we all?” Big Picture asked.

Crystalclear was aware that Ratcatcher wasn’t alone.  He turned his head a little, then pointed at the pocket of Ratcatcher’s top.  It was a sleeveless top, tight-fitting in the way a costume was supposed to be, but it had a hoodie-like pouch in the front.  There was a small life form in there, the thing’s perspective fuzzy in a way that suggested it was asleep, in whole or in part.

Ratcatcher made a pleased sound, then reached into the pouch.  The disturbance woke the creature, but she didn’t act like it was upset as she held it in her two hands.

Crystalclear could guess what the thing was from its dimensions and Ratcatcher’s name.  “Does it have a name?”

“Raththputin,” Ratcatcher said.  She picked up a walkie-talkie, “The attractive older gentleman in the peacoat, hairy earth and eyelatheth to die for.  Thomething thown into the coat.  Naughty.”

“…I can see Ratcatcher has joined us…” the walkie talkie buzzed in response.  The buzzing turned into crackling.  “…nimize colorful commenta…”

“Radio’th garbage today,” Ratcatcher observed.

“It is.”

“I’m sorry we’re late,” Big Picture said.  “Feels like we took a step backward, citywide.  There’s word of a potential transportation strike.  Our usual bus driver didn’t show, we had to wait for the next.  Construction sites between NYC and Boston are locked down, they aren’t doing anything except getting in the way.”

“Feels like we should be out there, not here,” Crystalclear said.

“I know that feeling.  It’s often a trap.”

Crystalclear turned toward Big Picture.

“I joined the military, before I got powers.  I was thinking something similar when I did.  That things at home were shit, but I was needed out there.  We didn’t fix anything out there, and we came home to find things were worse.”

Crystalclear was going to reply, but he was interrupted by the lisping young woman.

“Buckthom lady thtepping off the train,” Ratcatcher said.  “Bra that doethn’t fit, run in her thtocking.  Cavity thearch, if you pleathe.”

“This isn’t you being funny again, Rat?” Big Picture asked.

“I’m being good, thank you very mush.”

Crystalclear looked.  There was something suspended in the middle of the blur that was the woman.  He held up his walkie-talkie.  “Seconding Ratcatcher on this one.  She’s got something stowed.”

I see her, Relay communicated.  Noise surrounding her is similar to a few others we spotted earlier.

“I remember,” Crystalclear said, through the walkie talkie.  He’d noticed but he hadn’t been sure how common it was or how much of a thread ran through it all until he’d had it point out.  That weakness of his again.  “There have been one or two of these small-time smugglers on every train, all day.”

Big Picture said, “It might be worth checking what’s going on in Bet.  Could be a gang, strong-arming people into going through, or offering a head start in Gimel if they’ll smuggle something through.”

“It might not go that well,” Crystalclear said.  “Too easy to get sucked in right from the start, not being allowed to leave once you’ve made that delivery.”

“The ugly kid with the runny nothe hath clutter in hith bag.  Thyringeth.”

“…heckin…” the radio crackled.

Big Picture picked up his walkie talkie, “The woman with him isn’t his mother, either.  Better to have them get picked out of line and taken away for an interview.”

The radio crackled with the affirmative.

Slowly, the train and the platform emptied.  They kept an eye out for the drugs, for the violence, for the people who were especially angry or scared.

One of the train cars remained filled.  Crystalclear looked through, and saw the people within sitting, calm, not reaching for their things.

“What’s the status of car five?” he asked.  “There are a few guns in there.”

Ratcatcher pulled the keyboard closer to her, she typed and then responded, “Thpecial cathe.  VIP.”

“They’ve got a case fifty-three in there.”

“Weld, according to the computer.  Ethcorting.”

“Weld,” Crystalclear said.  He was familiar with the name.  “Good to know.”

Crowd is thinning out, Relay communicated.  I’ll go say hi.

Crystalclear watched as people sorted out.  The platform emptied, and the officers on the scene did what they could to get others moving along, helping with bags and pointing people in the right direction.

“You’re bleeding,” Ratcatcher observed.

“Me?” Crystalclear asked.

“At the corner of your eye,” she said.

He checked, touching the spot in question and finding the bead of blood with his sense of touch.  Sure enough, she was right.  “It’s a thing that happens.  Doesn’t mean anything.  Excuse me.”

“Eckthuthed,” she said.

He touched one of the crystals that was sticking up and out of that eye socket, gripped it, and hauled it free.  He could feel the glass edge slide against the inside of his eyelid, the root of it hauling free of the floor of his eye socket, and he could feel the fluids inside his eye stir.

“You jutht made it worth,” she said.

“I’m fine.  I never bleed for long.  I try to be careful, so I don’t scare people, but it doesn’t bother me much.”

“Good to know,” she said.  “I know all about that.”

He pulled it free, a foot-long block of crystal, and laid it carefully down on the counter.  He blinked a few times with his one eye, noticed that Ratcatcher had taken off her mask, gray furred and full-face, and decided to keep his gaze averted, for privacy’s sake, and because looking at her would let her see his face.

He concentrated, and he produced another chunk of glass, feeling it stab from the underside of his eye and out, sliding through everything in the way without doing real damage.  He was careful to shape it in his mind so there wouldn’t be any sharp edges resting against his eyelid or brow.

He turned his face Ratcatcher’s way.  “How do I look?  Symmetrical?”

“Yeth.”

“Thank you,” he said.

“Thank you,” she said, with emphasis on the ‘you’.

“Why?”

“Not many people look me in the fathe when my mathk is off and keep from flinching,” she said.

Crystalclear’s response was cut short.

Weld wants us, Relay said.  Diplomatic thing.

“Weld is asking for me,” Crystalclear said.  “Good luck, guys.”

“We’ll get to know each other, I’m sure,” Big Picture said.

“Good luck,” Ratcatcher said.

Relay was already coordinating the officers.  The path that led from platform to the intake center was being closed off, a metal shuttered door sliding closed.  Another set of doors were being unlocked and opened.

VIPs indeed, it seemed, and from what Crystalclear could see, they were only human.

Crystalclear approached the train car, standing beside Relay.  Weld and Narwhal were standing nearby.

Narwhal looked rather spectacular to Crystalclear’s vision, given the emphasis on outlines, and her having dressed up in very small, outlined objects.

“Look after them,” she said.  “I’ll see the way is clear.”

“Got it,” Weld said.  “You would be Crystalclear?”

“Yes.”

“Good to meet you.  I didn’t think you were one of us.”

“Oh, I’m not.  I can go from this to… not this,” Crystalclear said.  He was suddenly aware he wasn’t sure what terminology was okay or not okay with the C-53s.

“That’s good to hear.  Closer to Narwhal than anything, then.  I’ve heard good things, Crystalclear.  Foresight is lucky to have you.”

“Thank you.  Likewise, with you and the Wardens.”

“Were you around for that broken trigger incident a week and a half ago?”

“I was,” Crystalclear said.  “I wasn’t in a position to do much.”

“This situation here follows from that.  We’ve got visitors, and we want to keep things calm and safe.  Foresight said we should make use of you and Relay to help keep an eye on things.”

“Ah,” Crystalclear said.  “Alright.”

There was a pause.  “Are you okay to do this?”

“Yeah,” Crystalclear said.  He realized he didn’t sound confident, and tried again.  “Yeah.”

He wasn’t sure it was alright.  He’d been volunteered for something and he hadn’t explicitly been told.  It was a level of disconnection from the authority that felt uncomfortably familiar and disconcerting.

It made him think of his aunt.  It also made him think of Big Picture’s statements about it being better to wait.

“We’re bodyguards and protection for the Gimel side of things.  The other guys brought their own protection.”

The other guys? Crystalclear thought.

All thinkers had their weaknesses.  Most hated not knowing things.  Most, by way of how their powers gave them an edge in one respect, had a way of missing other things.  Crystalclear’s vision gave him a lot, but it made some obvious things impossible to grasp.

Crystalclear’s focus broadened as he tried to take in everything necessary to keep an eye on things.  He looked at the crowd, noted who was reacting to the shutters being closed, and tried to keep tabs on them.  He watched the other heroes, tracked the officers, and tried to wrap his head around the fractured messes that were their heads and the ever-shifting contents of those heads.

“Ratcatcher seemed to take to you,” Relay commented.

“Did she?” Crystalclear asked.

“That’s the impression I got.  You didn’t seem too bothered, either.”

“She seemed like a nice kid.  Weird but good.”

Relay made a small sound.  “Don’t, uh, say that around her.  She’s older than you.  Heh.”

Crystalclear smiled, but he felt just a little anxious.  There were things he had liked about the NNH group with Tempera, Longscratch and Fume Hood.  Big Picture had talked about the merits of simplicity.

Thinker issues.  He hated being out of the loop.  It constantly felt like he was.  Even when it was with things that pertained to himself.

“Sorry,” Relay said.  He’d apparently picked something up.

“It’s okay,” Crystalclear said.

The group was departing the train, now.

“We’ll be using the emergency stairwell,” Relay said.  “We go upstairs, we’ll find a vantage point, they’ll have their meeting with the people who are already waiting there, then a few of them are going to go tour Gimel.  Things are out of our hands once they do, they’ve been warned about that.  The newcomers want to see the city they’ve been helping to build.”

“I heard about some of this,” Crystalclear said.  “These are people from an alternate Earth?”

He didn’t get his answer, as the people approached.

Three men, with their entourage, men with guns.  Their heads were interesting.  Leader and soldier, they were very in sync, much like the group that was still gathered outside the Bet portal were of similar minds as they chanted or sang together.  They felt like an odd fit.  Foreign worlders?

Leaders of Earth Cheit.  Abrahamic theocrats.  They’re our guests, here about the people of theirs who died in the broken trigger incident. 

A serious subject.  Crystalclear was aware of a few other things that had come up in regard to the group, until the broken trigger had consumed everyone’s attention.  The discussions in the late-night media had been derailed by the deaths of the ninety-two individuals caught by the broken trigger.

“If you’ll follow us,” Weld said.

They walked up the stairs, with Weld in front, and Relay and Crystalclear toward the rear.  The armed guard trailed even further behind, with one waiting at the base of the stairwell.

They had a bit of a distance to walk to reach the room at the top.  It looked like a ball room, with fancy curtains, a lacquered floor, and lots of empty space.  A table was set to one side, and there were curtains closed that didn’t stop the light from passing through.  Sheers, possibly, to obscure the view of the world outside, or perhaps more importantly, to obscure those on the outside from seeing those within.

People were seated at the table already, paperwork around them.

The one closest to the door was a serious looking woman, slender, in a blouse and a skirt that highlighted how narrow she was.  The belt of her skirt cinched in at the waist, emphasizing her figure.  She had a lot of the anxiety that the refugees departing the train had had, but she didn’t show it in how she sat or how she moved as she stood to greet the men.

Sierra Kiley, Relay communicated.  Board member of Rock Bay Reconstruction Group.  That’s one of the biggest construction firms, with its roots in Brockton Bay.  She’s a candidate for mayor of the Megalopolis, but she’s not expected to win.  Foresight thinks she has her hat in the ring for other reasons.  Access, possibly.  We know she has ties to organized crime, if you couldn’t guess from her background in Brockton Bay.  She doesn’t necessarily know we know.

Next were a couple, male and female.  She wore a nice suit-dress.  He wore a dress shirt, slacks, and carried the paperwork.  Their focus was sharp, they clearly worked well together from how well they coordinated.  As with Big Picture, there was something else going on with the man’s perceptions.  He wasn’t a cone- his perceptions were covering a lot of ground, and his fractures were very different from the norm.  They were closer to being etches.

Jeanne Wynn and her assistant.  CEO of Mortari, second of the large construction groupsJeanne might be too.  She’s a more serious candidate for mayor, she’s running, she and a lot of others think she’ll win.

Crystalclear was bothered that he was getting filled in on things he already had some knowledge of, but felt disconnected in other things.  He’d known about Jeanne.  She had recently put up her proposals online, for how she wanted and expected to run things if she won.

The person who won mayorship of Gimel, if they weren’t killed in an uprising, would likely go on to be leader of Gimel as a whole.

We suspect the assistant is a parahuman. 

He was, Crystalclear knew.  He resolved to communicate that when he could.

Others were named and identified by Relay.  Mr. Nieves, another prospective mayor, though he didn’t have the footing the others did, his chances were better than Ms. Kiley’s.  Mr. Buckner was at the forefront of the burgeoning media enterprise in Gimel, bringing television to the masses.

Stay put and stay silent.

The voice wasn’t Relay’s, but it was easy to imagine as Relay’s, with it being so vivid.

Crystalclear had a confused and fractured memory of his early childhood.  The woman he remembered growing up with was not the woman he’d spent his late childhood and adolescence with.  His aunt had explained the situation for him, saying his mother hadn’t been well, he’d been taken away from her for his safety.

She had said a lot of things over the years.  He had believed most, and because other things had occupied his attention, he hadn’t given the remainder enough focus.

Normally, trigger events emphasizing isolation, loss, cut ties, and betrayal tended to lead to master powers.  Or, rather, master powers tended to go to people who were going to deal with those situations.

Any attachment he had felt to his aunt had faded over the years, long before he had triggered.  She hadn’t cared.  So long as he behaved and didn’t cause a fuss, she had been happy to not have to devote much attention to him.  There was nothing lost, so that aspect of things hadn’t factored in.

So, naturally, he had avoided causing a fuss.

It had only been later that their fragile reality had come crashing down around them.  The police were closing in on him, he was no longer young, and where a young, clean cut white boy had flown under the radar, a teenaged white boy with pimples hadn’t.   It had turned out that his aunt wasn’t his aunt at all.  Her only relation to him was that she had stolen him from his real mother.

The questions had come, hours of interrogation, his lawyer guiding him.  Hadn’t he put the pieces together?  Hadn’t he seen?  Why hadn’t he asked more questions?  He hadn’t looked at what he was delivering to homes even once in the past few years?

No, he’d said.  No, he’d never looked.  He had never really considered.  He had only wanted to exist.

The police had been upset, angry, hostile.  His lawyer had been frustrated, because anything, anything at all could have led to a plea deal or him getting off free.  His ‘aunt’ and her boyfriend were upset, because they blamed him for their being arrested, and they had used a proxy to threaten him.

He had been sufficiently scared and lost to trigger.

Now he stood guard.  He was trying to exist, to do what good he could, and he wanted to pay a little more attention than he once had, even as his power made that very easy on the surface and very difficult when it came to the deeper analysis.

The initial introductions were wrapping up.  The theocrats of Cheit were saying a brief prayer, heads bowed.

People settled into their seats, empty seats between groups, serving as a kind of separation.

“War.”

One word.  It had been said by the lead theocrat, no preamble, and it was enough to be followed by silence.

“I say it not because I believe in it or want it,” he went on, “But because the people at home wanted me to convey it.”

“We’ve had a strong working relationship thus far,” Jeanne said.

“We have,” the theocrat said.

“Forgive me,” Nieves said.  “I’m lost.  It came up before, but things got in the way.  What exactly is the working relationship?”

Jeanne explained, “Cheit has graciously provided Earth Gimel with supplies for reconstruction.  They supplied us with food and other things that enabled us to weather the first winter.  A hard season.”

“I remember,” Nieves said.  “I know this much.  But what exactly did Cheit get in the bargain?”

“Goodwill,” the theocrat said.

“Goodwill?” Nieves asked.

“We have an awful lot of very awful people at our disposal, to put things lightly,” Kiley said.  “We don’t really think anyone wants actual war, do we?”

“As I was instructed, I brought it up,” the theocrat said.  “It is officially on the table.”

Crystalclear was still, listening.  He didn’t miss the glance that Weld and Narwhal shared.  Neither of them budged an inch.

“Goodwill is a matter of faith,” Jeanne said.  “The understanding was that they would share their excess, out of the goodness of their hearts.  We, in turn, would manage our own.”

“Six of Earth Cheit’s citizens are dead.  Five godly men and a woman, all with their families.  By all accounts, they died in a terrible, protracted way.”

“Because of a broken trigger,” Jeanne said.  “Outside of our control.  Surely you understand.”

“These ‘triggers’, as we understand it, are the result of strife and upset.  Your people were upset because of how Mortari and RBR have handled your subordinates.”

Crystalclear watched carefully, his eyes on all of the people present, on the nearby rooftops, and on the area below, to make sure nobody was attempting entry.

Jeanne and the theocrat seemed to be the ones in control over this conversation.  Jeanne had a parahuman with her, and the parahuman was studying the room, but nothing suggested he was communicating with his superior.  Nothing about the way things refracted and moved around his head, nothing about the colors.  Purple here and there, but spotty, brief.

If she was a superior at all, that was.  It was very possible the ‘assistant’ was the one truly in charge.

“What would you have us do?” Kiley asked.

The theocrat answered, “We want you to be in control.  Control your people, organize, avoid similar situations.  We are happy to be generous to our less fortunate neighbors, but we cannot have your troubles become our troubles.”

“We’re working on that,” Kiley said.

“Are you married, Ms. Kiley?” the theocrat asked.

“I don’t see how that’s relevant.”

“That would be a no, then.  I prefer to work with married individuals, like Mrs. Wynn here.  They understand the difficulties of a long term relationship, the compromises and deeper knowledge it takes to make things work.”

“I wouldn’t be where I am if I wasn’t competent.  Trust me, Mr. Aguirre, I’ve earned my place.”

“So I’ve heard,” the theocrat answered.  His tone was such that it was as cutting a response as an outright denial or dismissal.  “Mrs. Wynn, you’re prepared to organize and control things?”

“We’ve already taken steps.  You’ll see measurable change in coming weeks.”

“Good.  Ms. Kiley, you’re welcome to prove me wrong in my judgment about you.  A lot depends on this.  We are happy to keep supplying you with everything you could need, we believe in generosity, but it’s contingent on your successes.  We know which pies each of you have your fingers in.  If one of you succeed, we’ll gladly back you.  If both succeed, we’ll back you both.  If others step up and prove themselves, we’ll back them.”

“Provided we do well enough at making the most of what you provide.”

“Please don’t disappoint,” the theocrat said.  He placed his hand on the paperwork in front of him.  “You know what’s on the table.”

Ms. Kiley said, “I don’t think I’m in your good books, Mr. Aguirre, I think I don’t lower myself any further in your eyes by saying this-”

“What you say or don’t say has little to do with what I feel about you, Ms. Kiley.  I believe in deeds.”

“-You do not want a war with Gimel.  We have so very little to lose, and I can tell you, I know this very well.  We have some very awful people at our disposal.  You can threaten bombs and armies.  We can threaten nightmares come to life and life turned to nightmares.”

“I believe you,” Aguirre said.  “I know the kinds of people you interact with, Ms. Kiley.  Part of the reason I’m here is that I’ve worked directly with some individuals and situations of that breed, who appeared in Cheit.  I wish I could say with confidence that I could make the people I report to believe the same.  They would need to see it with their own eyes, and by then it would be too late.”

“That’s possible,” Kiley said.

“I’ve laid out what the people in charge believe.  I can report your feelings on this and come back another day, but I don’t think this is liable to change.  They want security, you want supply.”

“Succinctly put,” Jeanne said.

“Tell me what you would need, if we were to extend good faith and renew supply for your construction.”

“Construction is stalled.  Transportation is stalling.  Crime is surging,” Nieves said.

“Which are things we’ll get a handle on,” Jeanne said, tersely.  “Yes, please, let’s talk supply.  Concrete, lumber, and food, to start with.”

“Let me see, paperwork, papers, thank you, Charles.”

The discussion continued.

Crystalclear held his tongue, but he could see the way the constructions around the other parahumans’ heads were operating, the cracks that were forming and gathering, and the bleeding of the colors.  Blue-green tints, for many.

“They’ve been giving us supply for nothing?” Nieves asked, raising his voice.  “You idiots.  You’ve profited off of their so-called generosity, but you’ve been selling us out.”

“They were going to look for a foothold, whatever we did,” Jeanne said.  “They wanted security, and that wouldn’t change whatever we did.  Allowing them to help provided some of that security.”

“It provided them leverage and the impression they have a say in how Gimel is run!”

“They do have a say.  They’re our neighbors, and they outnumber us,” Kiley said.  She sounded tired.

The theocrats had departed.  The people had changed seats, to sit closer together.  Jackets had been removed and hung on the backs of chairs, waters and coffees obtained.  The discussion continued, on a different front.  A scattered, small group of people trying to find a way forward against a very large, united group.

The argument continued, heated, terse.  Standing around the edges of the room, the parahumans exchanged looks, then walked over to where the coffee and water was being supplied.

“What do you think?” Weld asked.  Narwhal stood beside him.

“Jeanne has been in contact with Cheit for a long time,” Relay said.  “Since Gold Morning?”

“Her assistant is a parahuman,” Crystalclear said.  “Something about the way his head is put together.  Thinker.  They may have been communicating, maybe not.”

“Kiley was communicating with people throughout.  Earpiece,” Relay said.  “You didn’t see?”

“Heads and surrounding objects get murky,” Crystalclear said, his voice quiet.

“We asked you two here for a reason,” Narwhal said.  “You have strong backgrounds, and people see you as trustworthy.”

“Foresight is taking on a role as Wardens adjunct,” Weld said.  “A… discreet role.”

“You want us to be your watchdogs,” Crystalclear said.

“They’re keeping too close an eye on the Wardens themselves.  We could use observers and more covert operatives.”

“Watching them?” Crystalclear asked, tilting his head toward the window.  He tilted his head toward the table.  “Or watching them?”

“That you asked proves we were right to ask,” Weld said.

Crystalclear bit his tongue.  His instinct was to say Weld was wrong.  That he was the wrong person.  He missed critical things, by consequence of his power being what it was.

He’d joined the NNH to change things, to be a real piece in something greater, rather than a cog in the machine, and that had fallen to pieces.

But by saying all of that that, he would be relegating himself to Big Picture’s small-picture view of the world.  Subsisting, looking after refugees, doing small things, instead of what he’d hoped for with the NNH.  He would be saying he didn’t have what it took.

“I’m in,” Relay said.  “But you already guessed that.”

“Yes,” Narwhal said.  “Crystalclear?”

Crystalclear nodded.  “I will.  One question, though.”

“Ask.”

“If you have us doing this, what do you have Advance Guard and the Attendant doing?”

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Flare – 2.7

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“I felt energized after,” I said.

“Can you elaborate on that?” Mrs. Yamada asked.

“My cousin remarked I looked better, more in touch with the world.  Normally, I get these intrusive… non-thoughts.”

“Non-thoughts?” Rain asked.

“Like, not intrusive thoughts, not ideas that I can’t get out of my head, but my mind has these places it tries to go, and I reflexively shut them out.  Like, one thing, I spent two years in the hospital and in the care home, obsessing,” I said.

“I know what you’re talking about,” Sveta said.

“Yeah. And I feel like I’ve devoted enough thought to that.  Two years of time, more than a lifetime’s worth.  So I lock up, mentally, or trip over the subject.  I get that a lot as my mood gets worse.  I have it for things I do, like using my powers.  I had it a lot less after the day at the hospital.”

“Some people have physiological signs, feeling ill, headaches, breathing, when they’re trying to find an outlet for things they can’t otherwise express,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “Others have habits, things or people they go back to, they could have needs or cravings.”

“What if the thing you turn to is also the thing that causes stress?” Kenzie asked.

“That is absolutely a thing that happens, Kenzie.  It’s at the root of downward spirals like addiction or overeating.  On a more subtle level, something like a panic disorder can self-reinforce because the panic provides relief, even as it makes the actual situations worse.  I like that Victoria identified something that arrests or controls the downward spiral.”

“It’s the sort of thing I plan to do again,” I said.  “Putting all the other stuff aside, distilling things down to the most basic route of helping people, in a way that’s good and healthy for me, too.  Or-”

Mrs. Yamada had started speaking at the same time I added the ‘or’.  We both stopped.

“Go ahead,” she said.

“Or where there’s bad, the good is enough to outweigh that bad and leave me better off,” I said.  I shrugged.

“Here in the group, we often discuss the issues we’re facing, how we relate to what others bring up, and we talk about solutions.  I’ll periodically try to turn things to more positive topics, but with six people here, it’s common for people to come to the session with something they want to delve into.

“I like that you’re dwelling on the good things, Victoria, and that you’re giving me an excuse to turn things toward a better note as we wrap up.  Does anyone else have something to share?”

Tristan raised one hand a little, and Mrs. Yamada nodded, giving him permission to say.

“It’s not positive,” he said.  “I don’t know if that’s alright.”

“It’s fine.  Go ahead.”

“What Victoria was saying, how she was saying she was happy, seeing the kids happy, and how she felt energized after.  I don’t have that.  I don’t have a way to recharge when I’m not at one hundred percent.”

“You definitely have things you’re passionate about,” Rain said.

“I like people, parties, noise, really letting the walls drop away and having fun.  There are things I’d want to go out and do which I can’t.  Things I’m not comfortable talking about with Kenzie present.”

Kenzie smiled at him.  “Rude stuff.  I’m not that young.”

“I know you probably know, I’m still not comfortable talking about it like this,” Tristan said.

“You say Kenzie but you don’t even mention me,” Chris said.  “I’m perversely pleased by that.  You mean fucking, right?”

“Please, Chris,” Mrs. Yamada said.

“I mean stuff,” Tristan said, “Stuff I can’t do because of my situation.  I did some of it back before the trigger.  More like sophomore high schoolers stealing their parents booze and having way too many people in a house while the parents are away, but that was the time of my life.  It was when I was the most excited to be on this- on that planet.  Now I can’t do stuff like that, the pressure release valve is screwed up for the same reasons I’m screwed up.”

“The case seventy stuff,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said.  “Now me passing out drunk might mean I screw up the time window for passing back control, however many alarms I set, and I can’t do that to Byron.  I can’t go have a one night stand because the way things are mean I’d be involving him in it as a bystander or voyeur.”

“Can you find new outlets?” Sveta asked.  “One thing I’ve learned over the past little while is that I still had a lot of growing to do.  It’s easy when you’re in a bad place to think ‘this is it, this is me,’ but there’s always more out there.”

“I’m trying,” Tristan said.  “But it sucks to know that the stuff I want to do and the people I want to do are out there and I can’t do that.  I know it’s the same for Byron.  It’s different for him, though, because he’s a quiet guy, he wants to take it easy, but you get the weird conflict where you want to chill out but you can’t because you also want to maximize your use of time, when you only get to live half your life.”

“I’d like to talk about that at a later point, when we’re not a minute away from wrapping up,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “I’d also like to have a word with Byron and you after the session, make sure everything’s okay.”

“Sure,” Tristan said.

“On a positive note, if nobody minds,” Sveta said, sitting up with the faintest of metal-on-metal sounds.  “I got to recharge too, but it was a big one.”

“Your trip?” Kenzie asked.

“I know we talked about it last week, but we mostly talked about Rain staying safe and the hero team thing.  It wasn’t a little pick me up.  It was big, and I really want to find the chances to go and do stuff like that again.”

“Traveling?” I asked.  Her smile was contagious.

“Traveling.  We had a boat, and when we weren’t around people, I got out of my hamster ball.  We stayed pretty close to the coasts, Weld sailing or driving the boat and me swimming.  It was really, really nice.”

“I can tell you got a lot of sun,” Tristan said.

Sveta smiled.  Her face was so pale that her complexion was borderline impossible for a human.  “I like swimming.  I want to find a way to get out and do it more.  It’s the first time I can remember moving and having there be resistance.  Everything else is too hard or too reflex.”

“Anyone else?” Mrs. Yamada asked.  “Final words?  Thoughts?”

“I’m glad you had a good time,” Kenzie said.

“I really did,” Sveta said.

There was a pause.  No responses, the only sound was a clack as the wind blew the blinds away from the window and they swung back into position.  I wondered how bad the rain was.

Mrs. Yamada looked up at the clock, then said, “Then we should wrap up.  Tristan, a word.  Everyone else, have a good week.  There won’t be a Friday meeting this week, so I will see you next Tuesday.”

“I’d like to exchange people’s contact information, if it’s okay,” I said.  “If you’re wanting to do this.”

“You keep saying that like you’re hoping we won’t,” Ashley said.

“It might make things simpler,” I said.

“The others have my number,” she said.  “I don’t keep track of it.”

“Sure,” I said.

“Do you guys mind giving Victoria my number while you’re at it?” Tristan asked.

“Can do,” Rain said.

People were standing, now.  Tristan gave Sveta a hand in getting to her feet.

The group, Tristan excepted, filed out into the hallway.  A few people had coats draped or hooked on the the stacked plastic chairs along the hallway’s length.  I’d left my bag on the ground.  I pulled my phone out before I slung it over one shoulder.

A message from Crystal, asking if I was coming home for dinner.

“Pass me your number?” Rain asked.  His phone was as battered as he was, with a crack running down the case.

I thumbed through the concentric rings, put my thumb on my phone number and profile information, and then flicked it in Rain’s direction.

“Got it,” he said.

His info appeared on my phone, at the top edge.  It was soon joined by Tristan’s, then Kenzie’s and Ashley’s, near simultaneously.  Kenzie’s name was framed with colorful symbols.  Chris’s and Sveta’s were the last to appear.

Rain had handled sending me Sveta’s, Ashley’s and Tristan’s, it seemed.  Ashley was pulling on a raincoat, and Sveta’s hands were clasped in front of her.

Sveta might have sent me hers without using her hands, now that I thought about it.  It was possible she had a phone in her suit.

I glanced back into the room, to see if Mrs. Yamada had anything she wanted to convey with a look or gesture.  Instead, I saw her talking to someone who wasn’t Tristan.

Byron had black hair, shorter than Tristan’s, slicked back with something that shone in the room’s lights.  He wore a jacket, a black v-neck shirt, and jeans.  The contrast between him and Tristan in everything but facial features were striking- Tristan had been bright haired, his top and shorts all about contrasts with light and dark, color and lack thereof.  He’d brimmed with confidence.

Byron didn’t.  He looked distinctly uncomfortable, his hands in his jacket pockets, shoulders forward, a look of concern on his face.  The muted gray-blue of his jacket, the black v-neck shirt, the jeans, there weren’t any of the intentional contrasts I’d seen in Tristan.

“Are we going to wait for Tristan and try to have a quick chat about things?” Rain asked.

“I have dinner,” Kenzie said.  She looked at me.  “I try to have dinner with my parents every night.  We’re trying to reinforce that normalcy.”

“Is that going alright?” Sveta asked.

“It’s going,” Kenzie said.  She smiled.  “Which is better than the alternative.”

“I’m all people’d out,” Chris said.  “Most of you guys are better than some, but I’m done for now.”

“That’s a good enough reason to put it off, then,” Rain said.  He gripped the doorframe, leaning into the room a little.  I heard Mrs. Yamada’s voice stop.

“Yes?” she asked.

“Wanted to let Tristan and Byron know we’re heading out.  We’re not meeting today.”

“Okay,” Byron said.  “He’ll have heard you.”

He sounded different, even.  Quieter, in the way people talked if they were sure they’d be heard regardless, if they didn’t care, or, on the other side of things if they knew they wouldn’t be listened to.

“We’ll hang out,” Rain said.  “You and me, we’ll do something soon.”

“Okay.  How’s Erin?”

“She’s good,” Rain said.  “I could invite her to come with.”

“I wouldn’t mind.”

“Yeah, for sure,” Rain said.

Rain was still smiling when he stepped away from the door.

“Let’s go,” Rain said.

I had to pause as Kenzie and Chris got out of my way and turned to head down the hallway, while Rain and Ashley led the way.  I didn’t catch Ashley and Rain’s brief exchange of words.

I glanced back at the room, and saw Byron was looking at me while he was saying something to Mrs. Yamada.  The up-down look, followed by the quick glance away when he realized I’d seen him.

You’re too young for me and you’re not my type, based on what little I’ve seen and heard, I thought.

Sveta took my arm, squeezing it.  My reminder to focus on the others.

“You’re okay,” Sveta said, squeezing harder for a moment.  “You can talk.”

“You seem to be doing okay yourself,” I said.

“I’m great,” she said.  “Today was a good day.”

We walked to catch up, and I could feel Sveta periodically leaning harder on me as she worked to maintain her stride.  For all that she was in there, no doubt pulling on multiple components and relying on intricate machinery, she managed pretty darn well.

A little less so on the stairs to the ground floor, but I gave her my arm and plenty of support, and she did okay.

She hugged me with enthusiasm as we walked the five feet from the stairs to the side door, where the others were waiting under the rectangle of roof that jutted out from the side of the boxy building.

“I’m going,” Chris said.  “Bye.”

“Bye,” Sveta said, amid a few other scattered responses.  I raised one hand in a token wave.

Chris removed his headphones as he walked away, stowing them in one pocket of his cargo shorts.  He didn’t use an umbrella or wear a raincoat.  He seemed content to get rained on.

Kenzie had a blue raincoat with duffle coat toggles on the front, and was standing a bit in the rain, head bent over her phone.  Ashley stood on the sidewalk, her hood up.  Rain had settled for an umbrella, but hadn’t opened it yet.

“I’m walking to the bus station in Webster,” Rain said.  “Normally Tristan, Sveta, and I walk that way.”

“I can head that way,” I said.  “I’ll walk with you guys for a bit.”

“I’ll come,” Kenzie said, not looking up from her phone.  “There’s still time before dinner.”

“You sure?” Sveta asked.

“Yep,” Kenzie looked up from her phone.

“And Ashley?” I asked.

She didn’t reply, turning away to look down the length of the road.  She turned around, looking the other way.  In that moment, a car appeared.

“I’ve got a ride,” she said.

“Spending time with the the ol’ guardians?” Sveta asked.

I didn’t miss the word choice.  The forced cavalier attitude.  Awkward.

“I try to get as many of my appointments into the same day as I can,” Ashley said.  “It’s nuisance enough to have my day disrupted with this inanity, I don’t want it taking over my weeks.”

“We’re inanity, are we?” Rain asked.

“You can be,” Ashley said.  “Checkups and tests, therapy, group therapy, being supervised without it being official supervision, interviews, prosthetics tune-ups, work.  It becomes inane.”

“It’s all for good reasons,” Sveta said.

“I’d do better without all of the distractions,” Ashley said.  She looked at me, and she did the up-down assessment too.  It was something different from what Byron had done.  “I look forward to learning what you have to teach.”

“It was nice to meet you,” I said.  I wasn’t sure if I was lying, but it seemed like the thing to say.

She walked down the little dirt path that extended through the grass from the building’s side door to the road.  A black sedan.  She opened the back door, climbed in, and closed the door with more force than was probably necessary.

“I have so many questions,” I said.

“Weld’s kind-of dad figure was the Director in charge of the Boston PRT,” Sveta said.  “He was also kind of in charge of looking after Ashley, because her town was close to Boston.”

“Making sure she didn’t do too much damage?” I asked.

“Yes.  And gradually trying to get her used to the idea of cooperating with the good guys, making sure she was staying reasonably healthy.  They reached out regularly, letting her know there were better options.  Except that Ashley was a different Ashley.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “She’s going to be on your team?”

“Yeah,” Sveta said.

I didn’t have a response for that.

She squeezed my arm.  “I spent a lot of time with a lot of people who never got a chance, Victoria.  I feel like it’s my duty to give her one.”

I drew in a deep breath, then sighed.  “I don’t disagree.”

“But you don’t wholly agree, either?” Rain asked.

“I… believe in second chances.  Not necessarily in every circumstance, though, which seems to be the direction a lot of people are going.”

“We should walk,” Rain said.  “The sooner we get where we split off in different directions, the earlier Kenzie can head back to her parents’ and make it on time for dinner.”

“Yes, please,” Kenzie said, still looking down at her phone.

Sveta had an umbrella.  I held it so Sveta could walk while leaning on me, the two of us sharing it.

There weren’t many cars on the road, and even with the overcast sky making it rather dark out for the late afternoon, there weren’t many lights on either.  The route we were walking put us on a long stretch of road with small businesses and restaurants on either side.  Most of the illumination came from store signs in bright colors that were reflected in the puddles.

“I didn’t get a great read on Chris,” I said.  “He’s the other big set of question marks.”

“I like Chris,” Kenzie said, without looking up.  “He’s crazy smart about some things and adorkably stupid about others.  He’s hard to figure out but when he lets you in it makes you feel special.”

She said something like that with no compunctions, no reservations.  I almost envied her.

Sveta reached out and placed a hand on top of Kenzie’s hood.  “It would be unfair to share Chris’ story when he didn’t want to share it himself, Victoria.  I only said what I said about Ashley because she’s open about it.”

“In fairness, I wasn’t asking or prying,” I said.  “I was remarking.”

“Remarking with a question mark at the end?” Rain asked.

“Inviting an answer, but not pressing for one,” I said.  “I can drop it.”

“Okay,” Kenzie said.  She put her phone away.  “All caught up.  Stir fry for dinner, I’m going to pick up broccoli, and my workshop is warming up for later.”

“You’ve got a workshop, like a proper tinker,” I said.

“Absolutely,” Kenzie said, dead serious.

“Are you hiding a jetpack inside that raincoat, or are those rocket boots?” I asked.

“I wish,” Kenzie said.  “I can’t do that stuff.  I make cameras and inconveniently big boxes.  My best stuff is inconveniently big, box-shaped cameras.”

“Big boxes?” I asked.

“The term in my file is emplacements.  Terminals, tech, and computers big enough they’re hard to move around.  Like turrets, but I can’t really make good weapons or defensive things.”

“I see.  I can see why Watchdog wanted you.”

“Grr, arf.”

And I might be able to see why your supervisors wanted to keep you away from the front lines.

“Out of curiosity,” I said.  “Where are people?  I’m trying to figure out where you guys are situated and what locations might work.”

“I’m from Norwalk Station,” Kenzie said.

Norwalk Station would be off to the west end of Norfair, where we had the community center incident.  The ‘Nor’ part of Norfair.  It was a nice-ish area.  I’d passed through it a few times.  “And you’re in school?  Are you in the morning or afternoon block?”

“Morning.  I joined the study block for afternoons, I keep good grades so they let me, and I have paperwork from before that says they’re not supposed to give me too much homework, so I don’t have too much to do in the afternoons.”

“They might expect you to check in,” I said.

“They might.”

“Weld and I are in Stratford, so is Ashley,” Sveta said.  “Chris lives somewhere around here.  Tristan is close to here.”

Here being Fairfield.

“Bridgeport span, here,” I said.  “I’m closer to you guys in Stratford than not.”

“Of course I’m the furthest out,” Kenzie said.

“Almost,” Rain said.

“Almost,” Kenzie echoed him.

“Where are you situated?” I asked Rain.

“It’s complicated,” he said.

“Uh huh.  That’s starting to sound like a catchphrase.”

“I hate saying it as much as people hate hearing it.  Locationwise, I’ve always liked saying I’m from everywhere that isn’t anywhere.”

I gave him a look.

“Stop being vague and teasing Victoria,” Sveta said.

“I’m not teasing.  I’m in the middle of nowhere, it’s hard to pin down.  North of Greenwich.  It’s a trip to get here.”

That put Tristan, Byron and Chris close to center, Kenzie out west, Rain out to the far northwest, me a bit to the east, and Sveta and Ashley a bit further to the east.  With the trains I was figuring it might take about four or five hours for Kenzie to get to where Sveta and Ashley were situated.  It would take Rain another couple of hours, depending on how far north he was.

“That’s a pretty significant logistics problem,” I said.  “Even in the best case scenario, if we found a place close to here, that’s a two hour or more trip for people to get here?”

“I could build something,” Kenzie said.  “I can’t make promises.”

“How confident are you?” I asked.

“Kind of confident,” she said, sounding anything but.  “I haven’t done teleportation or breaking movement devices before, but if I made it a series of emplacements and built them big, then if I traveled once a week or so to visit the send-receives and make sure they don’t break down, it might work.”

“Tinker stuff breaks,” I said.

“It does,” Kenzie said.

“It would also be liable to break or break down when you needed it to work the most.  During disasters, or times when there aren’t a lot of downtime.”

“That’s very true,” Kenzie said.

“I’m wondering if there’s even a good way to go about this.  I’m not trying to screw you guys up, I’m genuinely wondering.”

“It might not be as complicated as it seems,” Sveta said.  “I can move quickly if I have to, Ashley doesn’t have much occupying her days, when she doesn’t have her appointments, and I don’t think she minds much.  She’s happy to wake up early and read on the train, she even goes to the New York hub a lot, and that’s a full day trip.  As for you, you can fly again-”

She squeezed my arm as she said it, rocking a bit side to side as she did it.  I rocked a bit with her.

“-and the way you were talking about things, this wouldn’t be a full-time thing for you,” Sveta finished.  Her enthusiasm had risen as she talked, and only dropped with that last part.

“Maybe,” I said.  “It seems you’d want a location that was closer to Kenzie and Chris then.  Closer to Rain.”

“Yeah,” Rain said.  He was looking around a fair bit.  “I don’t mind the trips, either.”

“You okay?” I asked him.

“Yeah.  Forgot for a short while that I have an attempt out on my life.  I really should dwell on it more, to be safe, especially with Kenzie in tow.”

“I can hold my own,” Kenzie said.

“It’s an attempt on my life,” Rain said.  “Lives could be lost.  I don’t want yours to be one of them.  I would feel insanely shitty if you jumped in to help and you got hurt or killed.”

“Insanely?”

“Yes.”

“Okay.”

“I’m going to call my ride, I think.  See if she can catch me en route instead of me going to her,” Rain said.

“She?  Erin the lady friend?” Kenzie asked.

“Erin the friendship I’m not going to mess with,” Rain said.   He pulled out the phone and stepped a bit away, walking at the road’s edge instead of on the sidewalk.

We reached an intersection, and Rain stepped away, one hand to his ear while he held the phone to the other.  His eyes roved, looking at nearby rooftops and the dark spaces between buildings.

The building at the corner of the intersection was a bar, and a group of ten or so people were standing outside, smoking.  The place and the people smelled like the cheap alcohol that was barely a step above moonshine, that was being sold on the cheap in a lot of places.  Made to fill a need, now a surplus, with cheap, shitty beer available to fill the need instead.

Their attention was on Sveta.

“Hey,” one called out.

She glanced at them, then set to ignoring them.  I took her cue.

“Hey,” the guy called out again, drawing out the word.  “Hey, you with the paint.”

“Whatever you’re going to say, I’ve heard it before,” Sveta said.

“What the fuck’s going on with you, huh?  What’s wrong with you?” he called out.

I turned my head to look at him.  Sveta squeezed my arm, then shook her head a little.

“Hey, you’re weird,” he called out.  “You’re freaky.”

The light changed.  We crossed, Rain trailing a bit behind, still on the phone, periodically responding.  He shot the guys a dark look.

“I don’t like it when people are mean to you,” Kenzie said.

“Thank you for that,” Sveta said.  “And thank you, Victoria.  I know you probably wanted to say something.  I’m glad we didn’t make it into a thing.”

“Does it happen a lot?” I asked.

“Some.  It beats people running away and screaming, and the running and screaming part beat people dying because of me,” Sveta said.  “This is an improvement.  Things will improve more in the future.  I believe that.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Me too.”

“Me too,” Kenzie said.

Sveta put a hand on Kenzie’s hooded head, squeezed my arm.

“My ride’s here,” Rain said, catching up with us, waving at a distant vehicle with its headlights on.  I got a better view of it as it pulled up beside us.  It wasn’t a pretty vehicle – a van with rust around the right headlight.  “We’ve got a good long drive back.  Was good seeing you guys, good to meet you, Victoria.”

“Good to meet you, Rain,” I said.

The driver stuck her hand out, waving.  We moved around to where we could see her through the passenger-side window.

Erin, Rain’s friendship he wasn’t intending to mess with, was not the kind of person I imagined driving a van like that, or spending time with someone of Rain’s somewhat grungy, not-inclined-to-smile presentation.  There were women where someone’s first thought might be ‘they could be a model’ and there were women where the first thought was ‘they have to be a model, it’s not fair if they aren’t’.  She was the latter.  Short black hair with a long swoop at the front, dangly jewelry, more piercings in one ear, and one of the memorial shirts, much like how the dress I was wearing served as a way for me to represent and remember Brockton Bay.  She was from New York, it seemed, or she wanted to represent it.

“Erin, you’ve seen Kenzie and Sveta before.”

“Hi again,” Erin said.

“And this is Victoria.  We were talking about having her be our coach.”

“Hi,” Erin said, leaning toward Rain to get a better view of me, extending her hand in another wave.  Rain looked momentarily like a deer in the headlights with Erin’s face close, with Erin doing a very good job at not noticing or not looking like she’d noticed.  “You look a lot like Glory Girl.”

“I am,” I said.  “I was.”

“Huh,” Erin said.  “That’s really cool.  Maybe I’ll see you around?”

“It’s likely,” I said.

“You guys have a good night.”

“You too,” Kenzie said.  She held up her phone, like she was trying to get a signal.  “Drive safe.”

“We good to go?” Erin asked.

“Yep,” Rain said.  “You want a ride somewhere convenient, Kenz?”

“Sure!”

Kenzie climbed in behind Rain, giving us a wave before the door was closed.

Just Sveta and me left.

We watched as the van pulled away.

“I have a lot of sympathy for Rain,” Sveta said.

“Are you talking about the attempt on his life or the long car trip with the girl he very clearly likes?”

“Oh, yeah, the dangerous thing too,” Sveta said.  “Mostly the long trip.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“But that’s all negative.  We’re going in the same direction, right?  We can catch up?”

“We can definitely catch up.  I want to hear more about that vacation.”

“And you can come over for dinner, right?  Sometime?  You’re not far.  I can’t promise a good dinner, because I’m still trying to find food that Weld can really taste that won’t make the neighbors evacuate their apartments, but there’s takeout!  Or delivery.  I’m sure there’s something we can do.”

“You couldn’t keep me away,” I said.

Sleep eluded me.  I stood on the balcony, I stared out at a city without nearly enough lights or light in it, a jagged and incomplete skyline, and I tried to shake a persistent melancholy I couldn’t put my finger on.

The day had been a good one.  My friendship with Sveta rekindled, with Sveta doing as well as I could hope for, possibilities for the future, interesting puzzles to work out, and I’d been able to do favors for people I cared about.

A part of it was the therapy.  It was strange, to be in a place mentally and emotionally where therapy had a cost to it, in a way.  The voice of Mrs. Yamada and the tone of the conversations reminded me of the darkest period in my life.  Those reminders were probably responsible for the nightmares that had torn me from sleep.

Maybe it would be good if I called the new therapist, a new voice.

It wasn’t the nightmares that kept me from getting back to sleep, but a restless nagging feeling.  I liked problems I could decisively solve, things I could tell myself I had an answer for, something I could handle in the dawn, and then I could go back to sleep.  The feeling that had settled with me wasn’t that sort of answerable question.

It was the restless nagging that had me carefully and slowly open the sliding door of the balcony, step into the living room, and gather some things.  A bag with my wallet and things, fresher clothes, the mask I’d worn for the broken trigger incident.

I went flying, and my destination wasn’t one that would answer the nagging feeling, but one that could answer other, more concrete questions.  With luck, I’d be able to distract myself.

There were cities and areas I’d considered for the therapy group’s expedition.  Ones in need, ones I knew didn’t fall neatly in one jurisdiction or another.  I used the highways and major roadways as my waypoints, so I wouldn’t pass them or find myself flying too far north or south.

The sun was rising by the time I reached the first.  Sherwood span.  Too low a population, I could tell right away.  Too many farms, the houses too spread out.

It took me twenty minutes to reach the next.  The area was slow to wake up, which was a surprise, given the amount of construction sites I could see from above.  Usually the work started first thing.

It was a nice slice of city, with a view of the water, tall buildings, shiny, modern, with nice, large houses, but it was only halfway erected.    There were cars in driveways, but there wasn’t much life.

I flew low, stopping at one of the gates to a construction site for a taller building.

Laminated sheets had been put up on the gates.

Construction suspended until we’re given what we’re owed.

The same was on display in other places, with laminated sheets of paper and graffiti.  Some of it was angrier.

I was reading a very bold, large bit of text about how certain people should be choking on cocks, when I saw I had company, standing in the corner of my field of view.  A cape.

I turned to face them.

Not anyone I recognized.  A man in armor with spikes on it.  Plate mail, and plate armor was hard to get done right, especially in this modern day.  He carried no weapon I could see.  Spiky plate armor wasn’t exactly original or new, either.

He didn’t say anything or do anything, but he was holding a piece of paper.

I approached him, my forcefield up.  He didn’t budge.

When I was in arm’s reach, he put his gauntlet toward me, paper in hand.  I dropped my forcefield to take it.

“What’s this?”

He wasn’t someone who sounded more intimidating from the inside of a helmet.  His voice was very normal as he said, “We saw you fly in, we discussed, we called some people, this is our message to you.”

“Got it,” I said.  I looked around.  “Quiet town.”

When my head was turned, he reached for my throat.

I put my forcefield up, and I knocked his hand aside, forcefully enough I almost put him on his ass.  The sound rang in my ears.

“Our town,” he said.

That said, he trudged off.

I watched him go, and then I walked in the opposite direction.  People were watching from doorsteps with coffee in hand, or standing by cars, now.

I didn’t want to back down or look weak, not if this was possibly a place I might be visiting with any regularity, so I walked slowly, like I wasn’t bothered.

With all that in mind, I still stopped in my tracks when I read the note.

Turn around and fly home, Glory Hole
-TT

They’d asked around, huh?

I folded the paper up, and I held the folded square as I walked, thinking, observing.  A slice of city, paralyzed, a clear villain presence.

The guy with the spikes might have been Cleat.  A low-tier cape with some background in fighting rings and mercenary work.  Unlike most in fighting rings, he’d never found enough success to get traction in other circles.  Ironically.

I’d left Brockton Bay in the middle of a situation, or I’d been taken from the city during.  I’d put in the hours and put heart and soul into trying to combat the badness that was taking over the city, and at the end of the day, I hadn’t ever enjoyed a resolution to that situation.  I’d never felt like I’d made enough of a difference in the end result.

It was tempting, the idea of coming here to a place like this and somehow completing that journey or using a success here to convince myself I could have made a proper difference if I’d been given a chance.

But this wasn’t about me.  It was about those teenagers and kids in Yamada’s group.

A sign was erected by one construction site.  It was covered in graffiti.  ‘Cedar Point Apartments’ was written at the top, but ‘Cedar’ had been covered over in paint, and ‘Hollow’ had been written in its place.

Cute, and from some cursory investigation, the rebranding had been performed elsewhere, throughout the district.  Graffiti and other signs of anger were clear as day, much of it vile and senseless.

Did I really want to pit those kids against this?  They might give it a shot, and if it was insurmountable, Mrs. Yamada might be happy, and if it was surmountable, everyone would be happy.

I wasn’t sure.

I looked at the graffiti, getting a sense of the atmosphere here.  Vulgarity, vulgarity, obscenity, drawing of vulgarity, hate, anger, vulgarity, possible gang tag, ‘hollow point’ appearing again.

I stopped in front of another piece of graffiti.  It wasn’t crowded in with anything else, so it stood out, almost a piece of art in how it was spelled out on a ruined wall, half-toppled.

THIS IS HOW THINGS ARE NOW

I had the paper in my hand, I had my doubts, but the nagging feeling ceased being nagging and became acutely clear as I looked at the statement.

“Fuck that,” I said.

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Flare – 2.6

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“It’s not my intent to change your minds,” I said.  I could see some skeptical looks on some faces as I looked around the circle.  “I’m here to give another perspective, and maybe to equip you guys with knowledge.  If you change your minds because of that- and I think Mrs. Yamada might be hoping for that, then that’s fine.  If not, then I’d hope you were all going into this with your eyes more open about what you’re doing.”

“I’ve  addressed my feelings with the group,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “At the end of the session where the topic first came up, and for a portion of the last session.  We had other things demanding our attention, so we weren’t able to cover it in any depth.”

“That would be me,” Rain said, raising a hand.

Jessica continued, “To abbreviate what I said then, and to reinforce it in the here and now: if you each carried on as you have been until the final group sessions concluded, then moved on from there with the skills and perspective you’ve gained, I think most of you would do fine.  Most of you have reached the points in your journeys where you could continue on your own, without needing the one-on-one therapy or the group sessions.  You could pursue more conventional therapy, I think anyone could, and you would have my number in case of emergencies or backsliding, but most of you would do fine.”

“Ready to be let loose into the urban wilds,” Chris said.

“Not all of us though,” Kenzie said.  “You said most, a few times.”

“Most,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “I also had private discussions with several members of the group.  I won’t say what was discussed, or with whom, but no, I don’t think everyone is ready.”

The group was silent. I assumed nobody wanted to speak up because they felt like doing so would out them as one of the people who’d had one of those private conversations.

Mrs. Yamada went on, “More to the point, beyond any and all of that, I don’t think the group would necessarily be healthy, taken outside of this setting and function.”

“You gathered us together so we could support each other,” Sveta said. “I feel like we do a good job of that. We bring out the good sides of one another.”

“In this setting, yes, I have seen that,” Jessica said. “I’m gratified it’s been so positive for most of you. But that’s in a controlled setting, with a mediator to keep things on course and help recognize the sensitive subjects and steer away from them.”

“May I?” I asked.

“Please,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “Feel free.”

“To build on what you said, I think the things I’ve noticed on the those fronts are that, well, it’s a big leap from the controlled setting of a place like this to the wild, uncontrolled setting of superheroics. Things will get bad at some point, and when they do, there’s a tendency for the bad to snowball.”

“You lived in Brockton Bay,” Tristan said. “Is it possible your sense of normal is skewed?”

“That’s- that’s honestly hard to respond to,” I said.  I didn’t miss the flicker of a smile on Tristan’s face at hearing that.  “Because there’s an answer that springs to mind that I could give you, but I don’t know where people’s limits are, I don’t want to step on toes or upset anyone by giving an example.”

“I don’t know about the others, but I can’t think of what you’d say that would potentially upset us,” Tristan said.

“I can,” Rain said.

I raised an eyebrow.

Rain leaned forward, elbows on his knees.  “I’m making a pretty big leap here, but it’s the response that jumped to mind for me, too.  I’ve been here from the start, I think I know where everyone’s at.  I think it’s okay to say it, but do you mean Gold Morning?  I could see where it would be sensitive, considering just about everyone lost someone, but I don’t think that’s going to push anyone in particular over the edge, here.”

“Yeah.  That was it, thank you,” I said.  I looked past Sveta to Tristan.  “What happened in Brockton Bay wasn’t a break from the pattern.  It was just the pattern playing out at an accelerated rate.  What I’m talking about, the snowballing, the bad things happening and then compounding each other… they still happened.  A whole lot of individual factors played into the events of that day, and into the engagements and infighting that followed.”

“When they happen more slowly, there’s time to rest,” Sveta said.

“When they happen slowly, there’s time to get used to the bad, to normalize it.  You or people you thought you knew change in reaction to those external factors without anyone realizing it and… things still compound.  The bad days come, and the unresolved stuff from the last bad days catches up or demands resolution.”

“Like Gold Morning, again,” Rain said.  “A lot of things caught up with us around then.  Or a lot of things converged to bring it about, maybe.  I wasn’t there so I don’t know.”

“I was only there for the later parts,” I said.  “But I think you’re right.”

“Things are better this time,” Sveta said.  “We’ve learned from mistakes.  It’s a fresh start.  The Endbringers are dormant, we’re finally building things without them being torn down all the time.”

“I agree with Sveta,” Tristan said.  “I really think there is a lot of work to be done before we get to a good normal, but that’s where I want to be out there doing some of that work in the best way I know how, with people I’ve come to know, like, and respect.”

“I don’t like being on the opposite side of an argument from you, Victoria,” Sveta said.  “It doesn’t feel good.”

I reached out for her hand.  She met me halfway, putting the prosthetic hand in mine.  I squeezed it, realized she might not be able to feel the squeeze, and gave it a waggle.  She smiled.

“No hard feelings, okay?” I said.  “I get it.  You want this.  Believe me when I say I want to get out and do some heroic stuff too.”

“I have a boyfriend I feel like I don’t deserve, and please don’t use that as a launchpad to get into another topic, Mrs. Yamada.”

“I’m keeping my mouth shut for the time being,” Mrs. Yamada said.

Sveta nodded.  She looked back at me.  “I missed out on most of my teenage years, I don’t remember my childhood, and I feel so behind.”

“I know.  Believe me, I get it, not to the same degree, but I share some of those same feelings,” I said.

“I know you do,” she said.  She gave me a waggle back.

“I think more than a few of us get it,” Tristan said.  “Losing years or losing time because we have to deal with shit other people don’t, and falling behind because of it.”

Sveta nodded.  “My boyfriend is out and around and he’s doing great work.  He’s been doing it for a while.  He tried to build something with the Irregulars and it went bad.  But now he’s out there again and he’s with the team, the top team I know about, he’s doing amazing stuff.  I don’t know if I can ever catch up, but I don’t want to not try.  I don’t want to let the gap widen.”

“It can’t be just about him, you know,” I said.  “I think that would be more poison than help for a relationship.”

“It’s not.  Well, I mean, it is, but it’s not about him in a him-and-me romantic sense, it’s about me and him- sorry, I’m not making sense.”

“I’m following okay,” I said.

Mrs. Yamada said, “Just take your time, find the words.”

“Back long before I even knew him, he was my reference point for figuring out where we are.  We being the C-fifty-threes.  If he was popular then we all had a shot at getting more popularity.  That was something I could hope I could have one day.  And I didn’t have a lot of hope, so it was important.”

I reached over, and gave her arm a solid pat.  I was still holding her hand.

“And we spent part of the summer touring other worlds.  We were looking for our places of birth, but mostly we were looking for mine.  I’m one of the only ones who remembers mine.”

She moved one hand over to tap a finger against her forearm.  In dark green, almost invisible as a series of dark green images between dark blue sky and dark blue waves, framed by leaping fish in neon orange, were a series of huts.

“I was waiting for some updates on my body and so we just had me in my hamster ball, and Weld is so great, so patient… but I don’t like being that dependent.  I want to be self-sufficient and I want to do it by being a hero.”

“I think that’s kind of the opposite of the toxic path,” Tristan said.  “You’ve talked about it before, Sveta, how you’re worried about how your world revolves around him.”

Sveta nodded.  “When you’re disabled, and I see myself as disabled, then your world gets smaller.  Things get harder.  It’s easy to become dependent or let down your guard.  Everything’s hard and it’s really easy to stop trying altogether, to rely on people who want to help, to do what Victoria said and normalize that behavior and let the toxicity seep into things, only to have it come to a head during an already bad day.”

“I’m just going to cut in here,” I said.  “I one hundred percent think what you’re saying is cool and good.  It’s a good mindset.  I did catch one thing you said and it made me think.  You said ‘self-sufficient’ and one of the things I was thinking about mentioning was, you know, heroing is hard, and it’s kind of hard in part because it doesn’t pay.  That can lead to self-insufficiency instead.”

“It can pay,” Tristan said.

“It can,” I said.  “But it paid in part because people wanted to put money toward it.  Because the governments backed it and put money into the PRT, which paid the heroes a decent wage with opportunities for more.  I spent my entire life seeing my mom stressing out in front of the computer or in front of the paperwork, from the time I could walk to the time I went to the hospital.”

“It can absolutely pay, though,” Tristan said.  He glanced at Mrs. Yamada and then said, “I was a member of a corporate team, I saw and participated in the fundraising and merchandising, and we did well.  We made a good bit of money.”

“Which team?” I asked.

“Reach.”

“Oh, kudos.  I know Reach,” I said.  “I’m not sure I could list off the roster as of Gold Morning but I’m more than passingly familiar.  Good team.”

“Thank you,” Tristan said.  “I mean, I’m not so worried about the money.  That’s the easy part.”

“I don’t think it’s easy at all,” I said.  “There’s a saying, um, seventy percent of couples break up because of financial issues.  The same number of cape teams break up because of the same.”

“What’s so hard about it?” Sveta asked.

“You’re providing a service, and the fruits of that service aren’t immediately tangible.  If you do everything right, get crime rates down, clean up the neighborhood, then people look at the clean streets and low crime rate and they wonder why they’re paying you.  If the crime rate stays high and things are a mess, then they wonder why they’re paying you.”

“How do you get around that?” Chris asked.

“You show your work,” I said.  “And you show it in a way that makes people believe you’re doing a good job.  Bringing in bad guys, getting on the front page, that’s a big one, but you have to factor in the work of maintaining a relationship with the media, marketing, on top of the work you’re already doing.  You can also get into fights the public is aware of, while not putting that public in danger, because putting people in danger means getting sued.”

“Which detracts from the finances,” Chris said.

“In a big way,” I said.

“Like prison rep,” Ashley said.  “Having to show you’re not to be messed with, without making such a mess that you add to your sentence.”

“Yes,” I said.  “Not an analogy I would have jumped to, but it’s a good one.”

“I wasn’t aware you went to prison,” Sveta said.

“I didn’t,” Ashley said, fixing Sveta with a level stare.  “I watch tv and read books.”

I was going to reply to that, but Tristan was already talking.  He said, “I’m not worried about the money side of things.  P.R., rep, image, media, I had advice and lessons from masters in the field, when it came to that.”

“From what I remember of Reach, I believe you,” I said.  “I do think that there’s a ton of difference between launching a new team and capitalizing on an established brand like Reach had, and between being the man in front of the cameras and the person in the background paying the bills.”

“I have to ask,” Ashley said.  She waited for me to look at her before speaking.  “What are your qualifications exactly?  You were on a struggling team?”

“I don’t want to bully Victoria, please,” Sveta said.

I was feeling the numbers disadvantage, with many things I was saying having two people responding, a number of changes in direction, and the periodic challenging questions.  Mrs. Yamada hadn’t spoken up recently.

“I’m a cape geek,” I said.

“We’re all cape geeks,” Tristan said.  “It comes with the territory of being a cape.”

“Then I’m a cape geek of a tier higher,” I said.  “Listen, my mom and dad were capes and they were talking shop around me since I was born.  My aunt, uncle, cousins- my entire immediate and pretty much my whole extended family, they were all capes.  I was giving interviews about what it was like to grow up with hero parents when I was ten.”

Tristan cut in, “Okay, but that doesn’t-”

“Hold on,” I said.  “I was asked, I’m answering.  I triggered at fourteen, I was patrolling within six months.  I had three years of time as Glory Girl, one Endbringer fight, and-”

I paused.

Sveta squeezed my hand.

“-And one run-in with the Slaughterhouse Nine, followed by almost two years in the hospital.”

I glanced at Ashley.  She hadn’t flinched at the mention of the Nine.

I went on, “I’ve seen some of the worst.  I had the best boyfriend in the world-”

“You had the second best,” Sveta said.  “I’ll fight you on this.”

“I’ll take you up on that another time,” I said.  I smiled.  “Some of my family members were some of the most amazing people, one of those family members is still with me, and I count myself lucky in that.  I was a local celebrity, and I got letters from kids saying they were inspired or I’d improved their lives by reaching out to them, spending a bit of time with them, or helping them off a bad path through nothing more than me existing.  With all of that, I think I can say I’ve experienced some of the best that being a hero has to offer, too.”

“What happened to the others?” Kenzie asked.  “The other family members?”

“Kenzie,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “It’s best to leave that be.”

“Okay,” Kenzie said.  “I didn’t mean to pry.  I’m really sorry, Victoria, for your losses.  I asked because I’ve lost people too.  I know it hurts, and I think you’re cool and you don’t deserve that hurt.”

“Thank you, Kenzie.  I’ll share, because I think it’s important for context.  We’ve all lost people and that’s a big part of our shared experience here on Earth Gimel.”

I saw people throughout the room nodding, or acknowledging that.  Interesting, to see the lone wolf villainess Ashley nod, too.  Chris, Tristan, Sveta.  Mrs. Yamada.

Rain was hard to read, but he looked introspective.

“My uncle, my cousin, and that awesome boyfriend, Leviathan, twenty-eleven.  My- another family member, you could say she got herself.  Or you could say the team dynamics, all that stuff I was talking about before, they played a role.  I wasn’t paying enough attention, I let things pass by without remark when I should have pressed, pressed when I should have held back.  And now she’s- she’s not family.  My mom, recently, just…”

I sighed.

“I’m not here to be a downer,” I said.  “I’m really not.  I do want to emphasize this isn’t a game.  There’s a chance at greatness and there’s a chance, maybe a higher chance, of disaster.  I experienced both.”

“Not to belittle that, but each and every one of us has gone through shit,” Tristan said.  “If it’s supposed to be one part of good stuff for every ten parts bad, then I think most of us are owed some good stuff.”

“I don’t think it’s supposed to be that way,” I said.  “Ashley asked who I am.  I’m a cape, born, raised, and learned.  I’m a student of capes, I obsessed over them well before I had powers and I stepped up my game in a professional capacity after I got powers.  I had date nights with my cape boyfriend where I studied and read his Wards handbook, because that’s how into it I was.  I’ve followed the trajectories of two hundred cape careers and I’ve been part of a team trying to get off the ground.  I looked seriously into what it would take to start a team back when my boyfriend was getting close to leaving the Wards, because I was worried he’d get moved to another city.”

I looked Ashley in the eyes.  “This is me.  I know cape stuff.  I know what goes into it and I know what comes from it.”

I looked at Tristan.  “The last thing it is, is fair.  You’re not owed anything.  If you roll the dice nine times and get bad results every time, you don’t have a better shot on the tenth roll because of that.”

But,” Tristan said, and he said it with a bit of theatrical emphasis and a light in his eyes that made me really believe he had that experience in being in front of cameras and showing off for crowds.  He was more into things as he continued, “You have a better shot at getting an optimal result if you roll the dice a lot, than you would if you rolled it a couple of times, get bad results, and quit.  You have to get back up after you get knocked down.  You have to.”

“Or stand up in the first place,” Sveta said.

“Or stand up in the first place, yeah,” Tristan said. He glanced at Mrs. Yamada, then back to me.  “What you were talking about earlier, with Sveta and it being toxic to not stretch yourself out enough, it applies here.”

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “Tristan, can I ask why you keep looking to me?  It’s not a usual habit.”

“Oh,” Tristan said.  “I barely noticed.  I think I’m pretty used to you jumping in to tell me to back down or not get so into an argument.”

“I see,” Mrs. Yamada said.

“I guess the fact that I’m checking means I’m already aware I’m doing it again, and I should self-moderate.  Back down on my own instead of being told to.”

“Look at that, Pavlov’s dog can ring his own bell now,” Chris said.

“I’m all about the goats, thank you very much,” Tristan said.  He touched a more pronounced lock of his magenta hair.  “See, like the curling horns of a ram, right?”

Chris rolled his eyes.

Team Reach and goats?  “You’re Capricorn?” I asked.

“I am,” Tristan said.  “Bonus point for you.”

Kenzie, though, piped up with,”I like the hair-horns thing, Tristan.  I never got it before now but I think it’s neat.”

“Thank you, Kenzie,” Tristan said.  “This is part of why you’re awesome.”

Kenzie’s expression didn’t change much, but she had one leg crossed over the other, and the free-dangling foot bounced.  Like a dog wagging its tail.

Chris said, “Getting an ‘I like it’ from Kenzie is like getting a participation medal from a school event.  Everyone gets one.”

“That doesn’t make it worthless,” Kenzie said.  She flashed a smile at Chris.  “I never lie, I’m always honest when I say I like something.  What makes me different is that I say it instead of keeping it to myself, because I think the world needs more positivity.”

“I like it,” Rain said.  “I could never do it, because it takes a weird sort of social courage, but I like it.”

“Thank you,” Kenzie said.

“I think you lose this round, Chris,” Tristan said.

“How do I lose?  I wasn’t playing.”

“And,” Tristan said.  Again, that one word, almost a pronouncement, volume and emphasis shifted just a bit to get attention.  “On the topic of rounds and games, I feel like Mrs. Yamada is up to something, so I’m going to play this on a meta level and I’m going to shut myself up.  I recognize I’ve been trying to win this conversation with Victoria and I’ve been monopolizing things by jumping in every time there’s an opportunity.  I’m supposed to be listening more and trying to ‘win’ social interactions less, so I’m going to shut myself up.  The others should chime in, I trust them to say what needs to be said.”

“I’m proud of you, Tristan,” Mrs. Yamada said.

Tristan nodded.

Rain said, “I’m less proud and more amazed by the fact that your thought process went from ‘I need to try to win social interactions less’ to ‘this is a meta-scenario I can win’ in, what, twenty words?”

“What, did I?”

“And the fact he used so many words to say he was going to shut up,” Chris said.

Tristan frowned at Chris.  “You guys are harsh.”

“It’s what we’re here for, isn’t it?” Sveta asked.  “We moderate each other.  Hopefully while not being too harsh on each other.”

“It’s part of it,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “I think the ‘participation award’ comment was a little much, Chris.  You have a tendency, which has been remarked on by others in the past, to think a clever put-down is a good thing because it’s clever, when most people will take away the fact it was a put-down.”

“Alright,” Chris said.  “I didn’t think it was a good or bad thing.  Sorry Kenzie.”

He didn’t sound very sorry, but Kenzie’s dangling foot wiggled, and she nodded, wiggling slightly in her seat a bit between the motions.

Mrs. Yamada said, “The reason I’ve been somewhat quiet, despite my referee role, is more or less what Tristan intuited.  I’ve done this in the past – taking more of a backseat, giving you all more of an opportunity to respond to one another and push back against one another rather than relying on me to keep things under control.  In the early stages, I had to step in rather quickly.  I’m glad that with minimal prompting, Tristan stopped himself before reaching the point where I had to tell him to stop.”

“We’re being toyed with,” Ashley said.

“Not that,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “The end goal is to get you all ready for the real world.  Early on, the rudder needed a firm hand; as time goes on, I’m periodically hands off, seeing how you interact, until I see that you’re faring reasonably well on your own.  It’s a gradual process that requires I give you more and more trust.  Okay?”

Ashley nodded.

“It might be worth pausing to take stock in this moment.  Snapshot the feelings and thoughts you’re experiencing.  Some of you haven’t spoken up much at all.  Depending on how you view the conversation, your participation or nonparticipation, some of you might be feeling frustrated, offended, worried, or even guilty.”

“Is that last one aimed at me?” Tristan asked.  “Oh, wait, sorry, I’m supposed to have shut up.”

“It’s not aimed at you, Tristan,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “I want each of you to think about where you stand right now.  What are your feelings and where is your focus?  Have you felt like you’ve had a voice or that you’ve taken things in a positive direction?  Outside of the classroom, in a stressful situation with high stakes, these feelings could be magnified manifold.  As Victoria suggested when she was talking about the slow progression of background negativity, the bad feelings aren’t always resolved or solved, and it would be very easy for a sliver of frustration to carry forward, nettling at you or being joined by other, similar feelings, until you felt compelled to do or say something you regret.”

“Handing that irritation off to someone else,” I said.

“Yes,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “And, as a final comment on the topic from me, I brought Victoria here for several reasons.  One of them is that I do believe she knows what she’s talking about.  Another is that, from my position as a person with a measure of trust and power, with a strong feeling about what you’re committed to doing, it’s very difficult for me to both argue the points and also manage the discussion at the same time.  If I tell Tristan to give others a chance to speak, it could be seen as me trying to shut down his side of the argument.”

“I’m here as a bit of a surrogate,” I said.  “I’m here saying what you can’t.”

“In part.  I think we do disagree on some things.”

“Like the value and importance we place in cape names, to quote a recent example,” I said.  “I like them, you don’t.”

“Yes.  I did, for the record, let Victoria know I would be sitting back more than usual.”

“You did.  I didn’t expect to be ganged up on, though.”

“I’m sorry about that.”

“It was mild,” I said.

“I don’t want to gang up on Victoria.  I’ve done a lot of talking too,” Sveta said.  “But I think that’s because I know Victoria, even if this is our first time really talking properly.  There’s a bit of trust.”

I nodded.  “Yep.”

“For what it’s worth,” Sveta said, “that trust means that much like Mrs. Yamada I do believe Victoria when she says she’s worried or she thinks this could go badly.  I know she knows stuff.  But I do want this.  I want to stand on my own two feet.  Sorry.  I think the ones who’ve been quiet up until now should say stuff.  Ashley, Chris, Kenzie, Rain.  Or, you know, maybe Victoria has more to say.”

“Thank you for coming, by the way, Victoria,” Kenzie said.

“You’re welcome,” I said.  “I do want this to be a chance to share what I know and for you guys to gain, if that’s possible.  Maybe there are places where you might realize there are gaps in your knowledge that you could then take time to brush up on.  There isn’t a rush.”

“There is, kind of,” Rain said.

Heads turned.

“I talked about this last session.  There’s currently some people after me.  I want to be part of a team because it’s backup.  Having a squad of people with me when I’m out and about would throw a wrench into their plans.  It could give me a fighting chance when I wouldn’t have one otherwise.”

“People are after you?” I asked.

Rain held up his fingers in a way that made a rectangle.  “It’s complicated.”

The rectangle was supposed to represent the card.

I smiled despite myself.  “And these guys are okay with taking the risk involved there?”

“I’m not scared,” Ashley said.

“I’m breaking my vow of silence again,” Tristan said, “But I think I’m doing it for the right reasons here.  I like, respect, and/or trust each of these guys who would be my teammates.  But in particular, I consider Rain a friend.  I’m already willing to throw my helmet into the ring and do what it takes to help save his life.  We’ve got some similar garbage going on with… people we can’t get away from, and he’s had my back in the past when it came to my issue.”

“Yes,” Rain said.  He gestured vaguely toward his head.

“People?” I asked.

“Speaking for myself, I’m part of a multitrigger cluster,” Rain said.

“Oh,” I said.  I paused, taking stock of that.  “I can see where that warrants playing the ‘complicated’ card.”

Kenzie spoke up, “Before you got in, Ashley, Victoria was saying we should all get a card saying ‘it’s complicated’ on the one side, and ‘handle with care’ on the other.  I wanted to make sure you got what they were talking about.”

“I like that,” Ashley said.  “It could use rewording.  ‘Do not fuck with’, instead of handling with care.”

“Reminds me of the old wiki entries,” Capricorn said, “The red warning boxes for the scary capes.”

“Did I have one?” Ashley asked.

“You did,” I said.

Ashley nodded.  “Good.”

Was it?  I decided to leave it alone.

“You were motioning toward your head before,” I said, to Rain.  “Are you referring to bleed-over, kiss and kill?  That sort of thing?”

“Huh,” Rain said.  “You weren’t lying when you were saying you’d studied up.”

I’d pulled my hand away from Sveta’s at one point, and I only realized it because she reached out and took my hand again, placing her hand over mine and giving it a congratulatory squeeze.

“Is it part of it?” I asked.

“I don’t know, honest to God,” Rain said.  “When I’m vague and I’m saying it’s complicated, it’s really because I can’t give a one hundred percent clear answer.  I’m still figuring out the rules this works by.  I’ve wondered about the bleeding through.  My personality changed after, but I don’t know how much of that is them and how much is how a trigger event is a wake-up call.”

“We like to give things hard labels, but sometimes they’re blurry around the edges,” I said.

Rain nodded.

“If your own cluster is coming after you, I’d say you could chalk it up to kiss and kill.  Again, blurry, might as well throw it in that bucket.”

“I won’t object,” Rain said.

“And while I’m on that subject, I’d feel compelled to stress that the term uses the word ‘kill’ for a reason.”

“Yeah,” Rain said.

“People die.  Friends of people die.  I’m still figuring out what you guys are doing, but… you want to bring kids into that?” I asked.  I looked over to my right, at Kenzie and Chris.

“Definitely not,” Rain said.  “Tristan is saying he’d help, Ashley is offering a hand, and Sveta might do what she can?  That’s a hell of a lot better, compared to the same circumstance with me alone.”

“There’s more peace of mind in talking to legitimate authorities,” I said.

“There is,” Rain said.  “If things get bad, I’ll go to them.  I’ve tested the waters and asked questions.  It doesn’t seem like they’ll offer help against a nebulous threat with an unclear window of time where it might occur, and villains  I don’t know the names, locations or details of.  It’s more like they want me to call them when I’ve got a claw at my throat.”

“Everyone’s busy,” Tristan said.

“Claw?” I asked.  “Tinker claw?”

That got the room’s attention.

“You’re thinking of the man with the tinker arms you ran into at the community center, Victoria?” Mrs. Yamada asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

She explained, “Victoria mentioned that she took him for a multi-trigger, given the powers he displayed and the common links to a woman with claws she’d read about.  I was going to bring it up at the end of the session, to avoid the lengthy digression like we had last session, and I hoped to extend it to a discussion in another venue, possibly with less people.”

“I derailed us early, it seems,” I said.

“You ran into a member of my cluster?” Rain asked.

“Big guy, beard, heavy coat.”

“Long hair, hood, rough voice,” Rain said, “And a glare, like if looks could kill.”

“No hood, glare… I don’t know.  He wore a mask with a built in glare, but he seemed like the scowly type.  Definitely on the voice.”

“Of course,” Rain said.  “When did you fight him?”

“When?” I asked.  “Um.  Thirteen days ago.  First Monday of September.  High school had just started.”

Rain held up one hand, counting on his fingers, his lips moving.

“Why?” I asked.

“Timing matters.”  It was Tristan who had replied, while Rain was busy counting.

“He was strong then,” Rain said, finishing his counting and dropping his hands.

“He was a bit of a bastard, if I’m being honest,” I said.  “Not fun to go up against.  He’s one of the ones who was after you?”

Rain nodded.

“Why the counting?”

“It’s complicated,” Rain said.  He must have seen the look on my face, because he added, “The powers wax, wane, and shuffle around.  I try to keep track.  He was loaded to bear on that day, if I’m remembering right.  The only power he didn’t have a lot of was mine, and maybe a little bit less of his own.”

“Right,” I said.  “Which is yours?”

“Uh.  Mine is a blaster power,” Rain said.  “It’s pretty mediocre.  I shoot things or people and they’re vulnerable to being broken for a short while after.  To put it simply.”

“Mediocre is sort of the name of the game when it comes to clusters,” I said.

“I’ve got a tinker power, I make extra arms and hands.  They’re not very good.  Barely above what I’d be able to make on my own, fragile enough that if you grab something wrong they can break, no strength, ugly.  The prosthetic focus is part of why I was introduced to the group, I think.”

“It was,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “We thought there was a chance of insights across designs.”

Sveta would be one, obviously.  Ashley raised a hand, slender, with black-painted nails.

I couldn’t tell that her hand was prosthetic.

“I wasn’t much help, because I’m a really bad tinker,”  Rain said.  “I can also catch my balance or secure my footing more easily, that’s my version of the big guy’s mover power.  It’s handy in a way, lets me turn on a dime or keep from falling over.”

“Wait, his power was the mover power?  The arms and emotion power were his secondaries?” I asked.

“That’s what I’m saying,” Rain said.  “I think he had a bit less of his own power that day, with the way it was sorted.  My last power is an emotion power.  Guilt and doubt, over an area.  It’s pretty tepid.”

“He hit me with it a few times,” Tristan said.  “Tepid is a good word for it.  You can actually not notice you’re being hit by it.”

“And it waxes and wanes, you said?” I asked.

“My blaster power can get a bump some days.  My others, no.  They stay at about that power level.  The others change it up more, they’ll act on days they’re strong.”

“We may be getting distracted,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “I might suggest you carry on this discussion later.  Victoria can fill you in on…”

“Snag,” I said.  “Sorry.  This is actually really interesting though.  I’d be happy to talk it over another time.”

“It’s good to have a name for him,” Rain said.  “Uh, okay.  Getting back on topic, I know I’m a little selfish in why I’m doing this.  Wanting people to have my back.”

“We all need people to have our backs,” Kenzie said.

“Yeah,” Rain said.  “It’s still selfish.  It’s messy and I’m not sure I can pull my own weight with all of this.  I do want to help people though.  I’ve been selfish for a long time.  I’m trying to be better.  I know I’m contradicting myself in what I’m doing here, but it makes sense to me, and so few things do.”

“You said-” Kenzie started.  “Oh, are you done, Rain?”

“I’m done.  Pretty much where I’m at.  I’ll buy you a coffee or whatever you drink, Victoria, if you’ll tell me about Snag.”

“Sure.”

“You said you had info about hero teams, Victoria,” Kenzie said.  “And I’m interested in that because I do want to try to be a hero first.”

“First?” I asked.

“I’m saying I’ll try, maybe a few times, and if it doesn’t work out I’ll try other things but if it doesn’t work out then I might try being a mercenary, or a villain.”

“You would be terrifying as shit if you were a villain,” Chris said.

“Would I?  Is that a compliment?” Kenzie asked.

“Yes,” Ashley said.

“No,” Chris said.  “It’s a neutral fact, and I don’t use the word terrifying lightly.”

“Be fair, Chris,” Mrs. Yamada said.

“I’m being fair.  This is an objective fact,” Chris said.

“And be gentle, too.  If you must levy a criticism-”

“Fact.”

“-there are nicer ways to say it.”

“Got it,” Chris said.

Kenzie stuck out her tongue at him.

“Terrifying is good,” Ashley said.  “Terrifying slows the other guy down.  It makes them make mistakes.”

“You’re not wrong,” I said.  “I’ve used that to my advantage-”

“And it’s fun,” Ashley said.

“Ah… I used to think that,” I said.  “I’ve come to reconsider that sentiment.  I regret how I employed it, a little, and I regret enjoying it a lot.”

Ashley sighed a little.

“We’ve talked about this at some length,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “Here in the group.  The approaches that work.  Fear comes at a cost.”

“It does,” I said.  “Not necessarily in the ways you’d expect, pushing people away or any of that.  It makes a mess.  It makes people unpredictable.  I have an awe-fear aura so I’ve seen this at work.”

“I almost envy you,” Ashley said.  “To have something you can so casually employ.”

“It’s not casual,” I said.  “Because like I said, it’s complicated in terms of the mess it makes of things.  I’ve been trying to be more deliberate about how I use it.”

“See, this excites me,” Kenzie said.  “I want to learn from Ashley because I saw the camcorder footage from the Boston Games- I showed you that one right, Ashley?”

“You did,” Ashley said.

“I’ll get you a copy because you liked it so much.  There’s also a video I don’t think I’ve shown you but it’s mostly you walking through a club with someone and everyone gets out of your way.  That was interesting.”

“Do you want people to get out of your way, Kenzie?” Sveta asked.  “I don’t think it’s good or fun.”

“Definitely no.  It’s still interesting.  But, um, I also want to learn from Victoria because I do want to be on a team, I want to be on this team of course, but whatever happens I want to be on some team.  Then I want to be useful so I stay there.  The more I know the more useful I can be.”

“I am interested in hearing it too,” Sveta said.  “About teams, making heroics work.”

“I looked over my schoolwork and some old projects before I came today,” I said.  “I typed up some bullet points and thought hard about what I wanted to say, and… being here, I’m not sure it’s valid.”

“It’s valid.  I want to hear it,” Kenzie said.

“I would too,” Ashley said.  “It’s why I’m here.”

I was caught a little off guard by that.

I could remember Ashley’s comments when the topic of the cards had come up.  She’d liked the ‘handle with care’ aspect of it, which was illuminating in its own way.  More specifically, she’d liked it while interpreting it as a ‘do not fuck with’ license.

The way it had been framed and what I knew of Ashley and Damsel of Distress made me imagine it as a ‘warning: volatile’ label on her breast, worn much like a nametag.

She’d reacted to me belittling her even in a small way, earlier, when I’d reduced her to a pin on a map.

“It might be worth saying why you think it isn’t valid,” Mrs. Yamada suggested.

I tried to find the words to articulate what I wanted to say without getting on anyone’s bad side, my fingers twirling a lock of hair while I looked down at the floor.  I looked up and looked her in the eyes, then looked at everyone else as I said, “I can come here and I can say, alright, finances.  Being a hero team is tough financially.  I touched on this before.  How do you get funding, one source, many, or is it institutional?  What’s your budget, what can you expect to pay, where are the hidden costs, like medical or needing a headquarters, and what are the potential costs or risks if you decide to save money by trimming the budget somewhere?  And maybe that angle works for some of you.”

“It feels abstract,” Sveta said.  “I have a stipend, I pay rent, I have to budget, but when you talk about things in the big picture like that, I find it hard to imagine.”

“Budgets and money make more sense when you root them in tangible things that are relevant to you.  If you had questions about one area, I might have more to say about it, or I could expand on the idea, if that was a thing that worked for you guys, as a way to wrap your head around what you’re trying to do.  I could do the same for objectives and goals, information gathering, costumes and presentation, allegiances and direction, liaisons, territories, methodology… one or two others I’m not remembering off the top of my head.  But as far as I can tell, you’re approaching this from several different directions, with very different priorities.”

“We definitely are,” Rain said.

“I don’t get the impression Ashley is prioritizing developing herself as a person, becoming independent, or catching up in life, like Sveta is.  I don’t get the impression its about becoming less selfish or wanting or needing backup, like Rain.  I’m not sure what someone of your pedigree would be doing here, Ashley.”

“Pedigree?” Ashley asked.

“It means aristocratic background when used to describe humans,” Chris said.  “She’s not calling you a bred animal.  I’m pretty sure.”

“I’m not bothered.  I like the word choice,” Ashley said.  She had half of a smile on her face.

“It was picked to be liked,” I said.

“I’m here to learn, Victoria,” Ashley said.  Her gaze with the narrow pupils and lack of irises was intense.

“That’s positive,” I said.

“No it’s not,” Chris said.

“I’m here to learn how heroes operate, so I can be more effective against them when I return to being a villain,” Ashley said.

I looked at Sveta and Tristan, then at Mrs. Yamada.

“She’s not lying,” Tristan said.

“It’s positive, really,” Sveta said.  “She’s agreed to stick with us until we crash and burn.”

“Until you fail,” Ashley said.

Until we crash and burn,” Sveta said.  “We went over this.  If you leave at the first sign of failure then you’ll be gone in the first week and you won’t have learned anything, and everyone loses.”

“Irritating,” Ashley said.

“Reality is irritating,” Rain said.

“We’re low-key confident we can get her to stick around on the side of the good guys, with sufficient friendship, ass-kicking of our opponents, and time to convince her of the upsides,” Tristan said, to me.

“You vastly underestimate how much I enjoy being a villain, Tristan.”

“You enjoy being a villain but you don’t like the life that comes with it,” Rain said.

“It had its merits,” Ashley said.

“Sure,” Rain said.  “And a lot of other misery besides that.”

Ashley sighed.  “I’ve already agreed.  I’ll join you.  I’ll defend you from your cluster.  In exchange I learn about heroes, I get information about the cape scene, and I may get training.  If it fails, I’ll go back to what I know and enjoy.  You’ll have your chance to convince me that being a hero is great.  I doubt you’ll succeed.  Most heroes I’ve met have been imbeciles and nuisances.”

“Okay,” I said.  I put a hand to my forehead, closing my eyes.  Capes were so damn weird sometimes.

“You said it was better than the alternative, before everyone arrived,” Kenzie said.  “Being a hero.”

“I did,” I said.  I might be regretting saying that now.  The fact that Kenzie paid attention to what I’d said and was quick enough to bring out the salient points was good, objectively, but it was kind of a pain here.  I could see where some of Mrs. Yamada’s worries were rooted, here.  “You have a strong drive to learn, then, Ashley?”

“What I want hasn’t changed.  I want to be on top.  I want to destroy my enemies and give potential enemies a reason to fear me.  I’m going to do it right this time.”

This time.  There were four different things I wanted to reply to there, and I settled on the easy one.  “Reports were that you died.”

“I did,” she said.  “Now I’m back.  My power isn’t holding me back anymore.”

“You get sparky sometimes,” Kenzie said.

“So long as my hands are maintained, I’m fine.  I have contacts.  I’m eating well, I’m sleeping, I’m studying and I’m training.  I’ll do it right this time.  I won’t die this time.”

“Alright,” I said.  “That pretty much sums up what I’m trying to say here.  You guys have your reasons.  I can’t show you a spreadsheet or make a list that meets your needs because your needs are diverse.  It’s not about hard stats like dollars and viewership.”

“It’s about dollars for me,” Tristan said.

“Right.  I’ll note you do have a very different idea than I do about how much money there may be,” I said.

“Kind of,” Tristan said.  “I don’t know if it’s that different.”

The thing I wanted to say that I couldn’t without offending people was that a lot of them were coming at things from an irrational or emotional perspective, from their self, and not from logic.  To challenge Sveta’s approach on this was to challenge the woman she wanted to be.  Challenging Rain meant putting his mortality at risk.  Damsel was too volatile to push too hard, she had her motivations, and I couldn’t imagine scaring her off would do any good to anyone.  The team would go forward without her, dejected and possibly upset with me or with Mrs. Yamada for inviting me.

My impression was that Tristan was looking at the money from an abstract, emotional perspective as well.

“I barely have a high school education, it’s not like there’s a lot out there for me, and money is tight everywhere,” Tristan said.  “I like the hero stuff.  I like the notoriety, and I like being out there.  We need a fix, and the two ways I see of us getting one would be if we get the money together to pay the right cape, or we chance into meeting the right cape.”

“Fix?” I asked.  “Sorry, I missed something.”

“With how quick you were about cape terms and names, and how you knew Reach, I thought you might have realized.”

“I figured out you’re Capricorn.”

“More to it than that.  You know how two brothers can get in a pissy fight over who gets to have the remote and decide what to watch on TV?  We’re stuck doing that, except it’s way more fucking intense.”

Two brothers and one power?  Or-

Oh, I was an idiot.

“That we are,” Tristan said.

We.  “You’re a case seventy?”

“I can’t tell you how bummed I am that it isn’t case sixty-nine instead, but no, that number went to a bigfoot sighting or something stupid.  A stupid bit of immature humor would’ve been the one good thing in this mess of a thing.”

“Case seventies in North America included Knot, Tandem, Zigzag was one, I think, there was House of Three in Quebec.  And… you, it seems.”

“One or two of them might not be seventies, but they get called seventies because they’re close enough.  Blurred lines, like you said.  When twins trigger, the powers are identical or nearly identical.  When twins trigger and they’re touching one another, like you said to Rain, things get blurry, the agent is too stupid or careless to tell where one starts and the other ends, or it wants to fuck with us, and it jams everything in together.  Two minds, two similar powers, and one body to be shared.”

“Is he asleep?” I asked.

“No.  He’s in here, he’s watching and listening.  He sleeps when I sleep, or I sleep when he sleeps, if he’s in the driver’s seat.  We trade out for two hour shifts.”

“Can he communicate?” I asked.  “Talk to you while it’s your turn?”

“That would be too easy,” Tristan said.  His good humor was gone now.  He just looked sad.  “No.”

No.

Two brothers, and only one of them could be interacting with the world at a time.  For the other, it was- picturing it made me think of being in the hospital again.  Being stuck, immobile, locked in while the world went on around them.

Oppressive, that kind of thinking.  Just as oppressive to be living it.

“I like Byron,” Kenzie said.  “I really wish he would stay for the therapy sessions.”

“I like him too,” Rain said.  He leaned back in his chair, hands at his hair, pushing it away from his face as he stretched.  “I don’t like talking about you like you’re not here, Byron.  We’ll hang out later, okay?  Unwind.”

“It’s been a long and rocky road,” Tristan said, to me.  “He’s not interested in the hero thing either.  He’s on Mrs. Yamada’s side here.  On yours, kind of, Victoria.”

On my side?  I was trying to frame my argument, but it was an uphill battle for logic to win against the heart, and it did seem like their hearts were in this, to varying degrees.

I decided to say as much.

“I might not be winning any points with Mrs. Yamada in this,” I said.  “And I don’t know enough about your individual situations, but you have personal, thought out reasons for wanting to do this.  At this stage, I’m not telling you guys you shouldn’t do this.  I’m definitely, definitely not saying you should.  I think there are a few things to work out.  I’m honestly really concerned about Ashley.”

“As anyone should be,” Ashley said.

“That would be why I’m concerned.  I don’t know if you guys want to sit down as a group at a cafe or something, hammer out some basic plans.  You’d probably want something like an outline or playbook that you can take with you when you’re talking to the Wardens or whoever’s managing the territory closest to you.  I think the hero teams are covering different sections of the city, and you wouldn’t want to step on jurisdictional toes.  If you want to do this.”

“That could be great,” Sveta said.

Kenzie nodded, very enthusiastically, as in most things.

“Chris and Kenzie,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “You’ve been quiet.”

“I’ve talked about wanting to pick Victoria’s brain and she listed some topics,” Kenzie said.  “I like this whole conversation as a recap, seeing where everyone’s at, instead of trying to think back to previous sessions and think about what people’s reasons are.  I’m glad we’re talking like this and I want to have that meeting and figure things out.”

“Chris?”  Mrs. Yamada prodded.

“Can I just say I don’t want to share with the guest here?”

“You can,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “Is it the truth?”

Chris looked annoyed as he looked at her.  “I don’t like talking about stuff.  Digging into my thoughts for answers stresses me out and throws me more out of whack than it helps.”

“You can’t exist purely on the surface level,” Mrs. Yamada said.

“I can.  It might or might not be good for me, but something that could be good or could be bad is a lot better than no-win after no-win.”

“No win?” I asked.

“I could say it’s none of your business,” Chris said.

“You could,” I said.  “It’s your right.”

“I don’t see why you’re as defensive as you are,” Sveta said.

“I’m playing defense because paranoia is the only way to survive,” Chris said.  He reached up to adjust his headphones, wincing mid-adjustment.  “How many sessions did it take before I gave you all the basics?”

“Four or five,” Kenzie said.

“Well, this is session one with the new person,” Chris said.  “If you want to drop me from the team because I’m not okay with that, fine.  I’ll figure something else out.”

“Nobody is saying that,” Sveta said.  “You’ve come this far with us, don’t get shy now.”

“I’m not shy, I’m suspicious.  That won’t change,” Chris said.  He sounded irritated, in a way his expression didn’t convey effectively.

“Okay,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “I don’t think pressuring Chris will help anything.  Again, however, I would really urge everyone present to periodically take stock.  Pay attention to what you’re feeling, imagine this dialogue extrapolated out to a greater, higher-stakes situation.  How will you handle your feelings, and will you feel have both a voice and the ability to affect the changes you need?”

“You’re worried we’ll get railroaded,” Rain said.

“I’m worried about a number of things, Rain.  I wish you would be willing to put things off for six months or a year, maintain contact, see how you get along as simple friends and acquaintances, let the ties solidify or break as they will, and then move forward if it is what you still want.”

“There are a lot of issues to hammer out,” I said.  “You’re coming at this from so many different directions… how do you even get started in terms of the kind of team you end up being?  In other things?  I’d join my voice to Mrs. Yamada’s and urge you to take your time.”

“Like I said, I’m feeling the pressure,” Rain said.  “My cluster is homing in on me.”

“I can talk to people, if you want.  If you need another cape to back you up, I might be able to help.”

“I mean, that sounds nice,” Rain said.  “But I can’t help but lie in bed some mornings, wondering if this is the day.  If, in the next twenty-four hours, the other three members of my cluster come after me in an organized way, with a lot of money and a lot of resources poured into things.  When I see it playing out in my head, I know they’re organized, and I worry we’re not.  If we’re part of a team, if we’re training, coordinating, then maybe we can work together in an organized way too.”

“There’s a lot that goes into making a team.  You can stay together and watch Rain’s back, meet, talk, and plan.”

“Without getting the practice in?” Tristan asked.  “Sorry to butt in again, but it takes time to learn how to work with teammates.  Some more than  others.”

“What you’re wanting to do on the heroism front is hard enough without added complications.  It’s a bad, bad climate for heroes to try to get started.  That could end up being more distraction than the training is a boon.”

“Imagine how bad the climate would be if nobody new got started,” Tristan said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I won’t deny that.  I just- I have serious reservations, but I also recognize I probably won’t be changing any minds.  Instead of trying to get you to reverse course or stop, I’m saying maybe change trajectories a bit.  Go slow, focus on what needs to be focused on, instead of getting distracted with the many, many side things that go into getting a proper team started.”

“Focusing on keeping Rain safe, as the priority thing?” Sveta asked.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I can meet you guys at a coffee shop or somewhere, we can make it a regular thing.  I can back you up, I might be able to introduce you to people, and we do what Mrs. Yamada suggested, and take months or a year to get a really good game plan put together.”

“You’re committing to a lot, Victoria,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “It won’t conflict with your other plans?”

“I like doing this sort of thing.  I’ll find a way to work it in.  It gives me an opportunity to stay in touch with Sveta, too.”

I was elbowed, hard, from my left.

“If you think I’m letting you drift away or lose touch now then you need a reality check,” Sveta said.

“Wasn’t planning on it, don’t worry,” I said.

“I don’t like it,” Kenzie said.

It was an abrupt statement, cutting into the dialogue, the serious tone different from the easy back-and-forth.

“We wouldn’t be leaving you out,” Sveta said.  “You said you were interested in what Victoria knew about heroes, and you’d be part of the team when we got started.”

“No I wouldn’t,” Kenzie said.  “Because you all would be doing what you have to do to help Rain, and I’d be on the sidelines.  You said you don’t want to have a kid there in a dangerous situation, so I wouldn’t actually be there when things went down.  And if you thought there would be an attack soon you wouldn’t want me hanging around in case I got caught up in it, so you’d all meet and I’d stay home then, too.”

“It could be over in a couple of weeks,” Rain said.

“It could not be over, too,” Kenzie said.  She smiled.  “Come on.  I’ve done this before.  Again and again.  I did it during the leadership camps and the exercises in San Diego.  I did it during the branding in LA and I kind of did it with the Baltimore Wards.”

“Did what?” I asked.

“Got left behind.  Or sidelined and ignored.  The reasons were good, or maybe I’m a stupid, gullible idiot and the reasons are bad, and I believed them anyway.”

“I liked your contributions to the group, I’d want you to stick around,” I said.

“I know you mean well, Victoria, but this is the way it always goes,” Kenzie said.  She shrugged.  “The compliments, the softening of the blow.  I think you’re nice and you’re trying to do the right thing.  But again and again, because I’m a kid, or because I’m small and weak, or because I’m a girl, or because I’m black, or because I have school, or because I’m vulnerable, or I’m annoying, or because they want to be careful around me because I have problems, or because I’ve said the wrong things because I’m an idiot a lot of the time, or because- because whatever the reason, good or bad, hateful or kind…”

She trailed off there.  She was staring down at the ground, head down where I couldn’t see it.  She huffed out out a small laugh.

Her hands were on either side of her hips, gripping the sides of the plastic chair.

“Articulate what you want, Kenzie,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “Assertive.  Not passive, not passive-aggressive.”

“I don’t want to be left behind,” Kenzie said.  She was speaking more slowly, deliberately.  A dramatic change of pace from her usual output.  “I’m experienced in this, so when I say I think I see things going this way, it would be nice if people believed me.”

“More assertive, Kenzie,” Mrs. Yamada said.

“Trust me,” Kenzie said, with emphasis.  She looked up, flashed a smile at me, then shrugged.  “You say you’re experienced in cape stuff and I think it shows and that’s amazing.  I’m experienced in this and I’m really tired of this song and dance.”

“I understand,” I said.  “I’m sorry to have touched on something that sensitive.  I should have been more considerate.”

“It’s not you,” she said.  “It’s me.  It’s a regular thing.  I don’t blame you.  It’s the way I am, it makes people act this way around me.  And-”

She drew in a deep breath.

“-And I would like to be included from the beginning, in a way where I’m useful and participating and I’m not watching from the sidelines.  I would like to do the team thing from the beginning.  I don’t mind if it’s small or slow but I want to do something with progress.  Or if not that, then tell me upfront so I can have my feelings hurt now right away instead of over a long time.”

“This is really important to you,” I said.

“There have only ever been three times in my life where people acted like they wanted me around.  Not counting the adults who get paid to look after me, sorry Mrs. Yamada.  The first one, it led to my trigger, so you can imagine how well that went.  The second one was the couple of months I spent with the Baltimore Wards, and they don’t want anything to do with me anymore.  The third is here.  These guys.”

“Well gee whiz, Kenzie,” Tristan said.

She smiled, “Sorry.”

“I like to win my arguments, but you can’t bring that kind of weaponry to bear.  It’s just not fair on those guys.”

Kenzie smiled again.

“I’m glad you like us,” Sveta said.  “I do want to include you, and I hope this thing works out the way you want it to.”

“We’ll figure something out,” I said.

“We?” Ashley asked.

“I was going to say,” Chris said.

“I’m not trying to step on your toes or insinuate myself into things,” I said.  “But if you’ll have me, maybe I could take on a role as coach or something.  If you really want to do this-”

I could see the looks on their faces.  Yeah, they wanted to do this.

“-Then maybe we avoid having you guys go from a mediated discussion in a controlled environment like this to… something more loosely supervised and managed, for the mediation part of things, and we look for a shallower pool to dive into instead, where you can get started in some capacity sooner, we ensure everyone has something to do, but we keep it manageable and small.”

“You’re volunteering?” Tristan asked.

“If Mrs. Yamada is okay with this idea.  I don’t see you guys changing your minds, so…”

“It would bring me some peace of mind,” Mrs. Yamada said.

“Mediated,” Rain said.  “You’d be babysitting us?”

“Coaching, giving direction if it’s lacking, give you someone to turn to if you need someone to help resolve a dispute.  I can’t promise you full time hours, it’d be a secondary or minor thing for me, but… I’m trying to think of a good way to tackle this and this is the best idea I’ve got.”

“Yes,” Kenzie said.  “I want to hear more about the heroing stuff.”

“I wouldn’t object,” Ashley said.

“And the shallow end?” Tristan asked.

“We’ll figure something out,” I said.  “I’m thinking of a couple of possible places, we could put feelers out in one that’s close enough for everyone here to get to.  A few of these places have small populations of B-listers, and I think it would be a good, easy place to learn the ropes.”

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Flare – 2.5

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“A mistake?”

“I worry it’s the case.  Time will tell, but I can make educated guesses and I have concerns.”

“I have to admit, I’m not sure how to respond to that,” I said.  “I’d say you’re only human or you’re only mortal, but doesn’t that sound condescending, coming from a parahuman?”

“We’re all mortal, Victoria.  Even Scion was.”

I nodded.

It was strange to hear that name spoken out loud.  Nine out of ten times, people would avoid saying it out loud.  As if they couldn’t reconcile the first hero with the thing that had ended the world.

“I’d like to help,” I said.  “A couple of things are off the table, obviously, but you know what they are, I think.  I wouldn’t be okay if you wanted me to reach out to my sister, or that kind of thing.”

“I wouldn’t ask you to do that, no.  This isn’t anything of that scale, but…” she frowned.  “Given our relationship, with you having been my patient, there’s a power imbalance.  I want to do what I can to ensure I don’t abuse it.  I want to be fair to you.”

“Okay,” I said.  After a pause, I added, “I appreciate the sentiment.”

“Even if this turns out to be minor, it is hard to do without risking a breach of trust and damage to our friendship.”

“Okay,” I said.

“I want to ensure we’re on the same page, when it comes to expectations.  I definitely don’t want you to feel obligated, whether it’s because you feel you owe me something, or because you feel you should.  I know there’s a tendency among heroes to want to step forward and help.  I’ve counseled many a junior hero that they needed to learn to pick their battles.”

“I have no idea what you mean,” I said.  “I pick my battles.  Except for the broken trigger last week, the community center, and, oh, everything else.”

“It is a concern,” she said.  She matched my smile with a small one of her own, but it was fleeting, more an acknowledgement of the joke than anything.  “You’re quick to say you want to help, before you even know what I’m going to ask.”

I nodded.  “I don’t think you’d ask if you hadn’t thought over it.  I trust you.”

“I’d still be concerned, grateful as I am for your trust in me.”

I swished the ice in my iced tea.

“I am sorry,” she said.

“Sorry?”

“If I’ve upset you, approaching this like I have.”

“Did I give you that impression?  That I was upset?”  I was pretty sure my face hadn’t betrayed anything.  I was reasonably sure my power wasn’t leaking, either.

“You did.  And if I’m right about that, please don’t misunderstand me, I am sorry, and I wouldn’t fault you for being upset.  I would like to have meetings like the one I think you were anticipating today.  You and me, staying in touch to a degree, talking over iced tea and ice coffee.  I’d hoped to have one of those meetings before getting around to this topic.”

So it wasn’t too urgent, then.

“Okay,” I said.  I took another careful sip of my iced tea.

She drew in a deep breath, reached back to where the damp, folded paper towel was laying against her neck, and set it within the lid of her iced coffee, which she’d put to one side.  She stared down at it for a moment.

I waited.  I had some ideas about what she was getting around to.  I also had things I might have said, but I was worried that, depending on what she was going to say next, they could be things I’d regret.  If her reasons were good, if they were personal…

I was so fucking done with regrets.  I didn’t want to add more, especially any tied to Jessica.

“I don’t want to compound my mistakes elsewhere with one here.  With that in mind, I want to make it absolutely clear that this isn’t an obligation.  I’d like a bit of help, if you heard me out and were comfortable giving it.  I’d explain the situation as best as I could, but the confidentiality of other patients makes things difficult.”

“What do you need?”

“Before we get into that, touching back on what I said before about wanting to be fair to you, I’ve contacted a colleague.  He’ll be your therapist if you still want one.  He’s waiting for your call and he’ll make an appointment with you.”

“You didn’t have to do that.  I wouldn’t want to burden you guys more.  What’s going on, that you’re going to all this?”

“Maybe it’s necessary, maybe not, but it’s my apology and my thanks to you for having this conversation with me, and for any compromise of the relationship.  It doesn’t mean you have to hear me out, and it absolutely doesn’t mean you have to say yes.  Alright?”

“Alright, but it doesn’t matter,” I said.  “I’ll hear you out.”

“It matters to me,” she said, firm.

“Okay,” I said, a little exasperated.  It was clear Jessica was stubborn when she was bothered by something.  “Fine.  You made a mistake, you want my help.  I’ll phone your colleague and possibly go see him.  I’ll weigh what you’re asking and I’ll try to make an objective decision.  Which may be no.”

“Thank you.”

“What do you need?” I asked, again, holding my iced tea in both hands.

Mrs. Yamada wasn’t ‘Jessica’ anymore, not any more than capes went by their civilian names in costume.  She was in her professional attire, a suit jacket over a blouse, a business skirt, minimal jewelry, minimal and tasteful makeup.  Papers rustled as she paged through files and as the wind blew into the room.

She had told me to dress in a way that was comfortable for me.  It was still hot out and I’d had to travel forty miles to get to a place where Mrs. Yamada could pick me up to drive me the rest of the way.  Even though the heat persisted, the weather had broken, the humidity giving way to a light thunderstorm.  I wore a white dress with a black hood built into it, the Brockton Bay skyline printed in what looked like black and grey watercolors across the breast, the city’s name below and to the side.  There was a scribbling of more watercolor and lettering at the hem.  The white fabric was a thin sweatshirt-like material, so the hood hadn’t been much use against the rain.

The windows were open and the blinds closed, periodically clacking against the windowsills.  The wind wasn’t blowing in a direction that sent the rain into the room, but droplets still beaded the blinds closer to the bottom.  The lights felt artificially bright, in contrast to how dark the clouds and sky were outside.  The room was set up like a high school classroom, minus the ‘class’, no students, no mess, no bulletin board with scraps on it or whiteboard with weeks-old marks that hadn’t been wiped away.  Eight chairs were arranged in a ring at the center, instead of five columns of six desks.

There was a teacher’s desk at the front, and Mrs. Yamada was there, looking over some files.  I’d caught some glimpses of the pictures on the fronts, purely by accident.  I could have pried more, maybe caught a name or a heading by reading upside-down, and I’d decided not to.  She wouldn’t have wanted me to.

“Do I have a file?” I asked.  She startled a little, as if she’d forgotten I was there.

She’d been in the zone, I realized.  She might have needed to be.  She didn’t wear it on her face or in her body language, but there was a reason she was so immersed in what she was reading.

I could relate to that, in a way.  During my hospital stay, I’d delved deep into my studies, struggled with the keyboard as I read everything I could find, while furthering my studies with long-distance education.

“Sorry to interrupt,” I said.

“It’s fine.  You did have a file.  You don’t now, I’m afraid.  Unless it’s somewhere in the rubble.”

I nodded.

She glanced at the clock.  “One of the group’s members tends to arrive early.  She should be here momentarily.”

I looked up at the clock.  One fifty in the afternoon.  From how dark it was outside, I might have thought it was five hours later in the day.  “Good to know.”

“It will be interesting to see how you two get on.”

“Huh.”

I heard the footsteps and glanced at the clock again.  Not even a minute had elapsed.  Was this person that punctual?

I wasn’t sure what I’d expected.  She wasn’t yet a teenager,  or if she was then she was a late bloomer, but she wasn’t wholly a ‘child’ either.  ‘Tween’.  My first thought was that she was as cute as a button, and not in the pink princess way.

She was black, her arms and legs long and skinny, her eyes large in proportion to her face.  She was studying me with just as much or more intensity than I studied her, as we sized each other up.

She was dressed or had been dressed with an eye for modern fashion, fitting to her age.  She wore a blue corduroy pinafore dress with metal studs forming a star shape at the leg.  Her top was a t-shirt, with an image on it in sequins, the kind that had two different images, depending on the direction the sequins were swept.  The image depicted a blue heart if brushed one way, a yellow star if swept the other; I knew because it was a jumbled mix of both.

The reason I thought that she might have been dressed by someone else was that she was so very precise about how she’d put her outfit together.  It was freshly ironed or fresh off the rack, and it was color matched from her shoes to the pins and ties in her hair.  The star theme too.  Kinky black hair had been fixed into place at the side of her head with a star pin, and carefully arranged into two small, tight buns at the back.  Glossy and taken care of, not a strand out of place.  It would have taken me twenty or thirty minutes to do the same, and my straight hair would have been easier to manage, even being as long as it was.

“Hi,” she said.

“Hi,” I responded.

“Gosh, you’re pretty,” she said.

I was momentarily lost for words.  Very direct.

“Thank you,” I said, glancing back at Mrs. Yamada, hoping for a cue.  She was focusing on her notes.  She briefly met my eye, but communicated nothing.

“I can tell you were a hero.  You have that air about you,” the girl said.

“Thank you,” I said, a little caught off guard.  “It’s nice to meet you.”

She smiled, her enthusiasm renewed, “It’s amazing to meet you.  I’m really interested to hear what you have to say.  I really want to be a hero, so I’m trying to learn all I can.”

“That could be good.  It’s better than the alternative, at least.”

“Isn’t it?  You were probably a good one, weren’t you?  You give me that impression.  You’re stylish, I really like your dress, and you have that posture, back straight, unyielding.  Only the best and the true up-and-comers have that.”

“Kenzie,” Mrs. Yamada said.

“Yes?”

“There’s no pressure.”

Kenzie only smiled in response.

“It’s okay,” I said.  I was glad to have a window to speak.  “I like your outfit too, Kenzie.  Good clothes are so hard to get these days, aren’t they?”

“This outfit was part of a birthday present, but I think it was expensive, yeah.  I wanted to look nicer since we had someone new today.”

“There’s no need to go to extra trouble.  Not for me.”

“No trouble, no trouble,” she said, very cavalier.  She looked at Mrs. Yamada, “How are you today, Mrs. Yamada?”

“I’m doing very well today, Kenzie.  How are you this morning?”

“Can’t complain,” Kenzie said.  “Does it matter where I sit?”

“Nothing’s changed from the prior sessions.  Sit wherever you’re comfortable, it doesn’t matter.”

Kenzie smiled.  “I think it matters.  It means something.  Can I sit here?”

“Sure,” I said.

She seated herself in the chair next to the one I was standing beside.

I snuck a glance at Mrs. Yamada, and I saw concern.  Because of the others who were due to arrive?

“You probably caught my name, I’m Kenzie.”

She was extending a hand for me to shake.  I shook it, then turned the chair a bit as I sat down.  “Victoria.  Some call me Vicky, but I’m using that less these days.  You can use it if it’s easier.”

“And you’re a heroine?”

“I used to be.  I’m on hiatus.”

“That’s the coolest thing,” Kenzie said.  “Costumes, fighting bad guys.”

“It had its ups and downs,” I said.  I glanced at Mrs. Yamada.  Her focus was on her notes.

She noticed me looking and asked, “You used to be her patient?”

“I did.”

“She’s the best,” Kenzie said, leaning over and speaking with a voice quiet enough that Mrs. Yamada wouldn’t necessarily hear.

“Yeah,” I said.  Except for her apparent mistake here, which I wasn’t equipped to make a judgment call on.  Not quite yet.

“It’s good here; I always look forward to coming.  Everyone’s pretty neat.  That might not mean a lot coming from me, though.”

“How come?”

“I think everyone’s pretty neat,” she said.

“I see.  That’s admirable.”

The papers rustled.  Mrs. Yamada put the files in a filing cabinet beside the desk at the end of the room, locking them away.  She spoke aloud, “Can I get you two anything?  Water?”

“I’m fine, but thank you,” Kenzie said.

“No thank you,” I said.

“The others may be a bit late, with the weather being what it is.”

“I think we’ll survive the wait,” Kenzie said.  “Right, Victoria?”

“We’ll survive.  Past years have taught me patience, if nothing else,” I said.

“From being a Ward?  Were you a Ward?” Kenzie asked.

That wasn’t where or why, I thought, but I said, “Very briefly.  My family had a team.  Still does, kind of.”

Very kind of.

“Oh, wow, neat.”

I tried to find a diplomatic way to respond to that.

“Or not so neat?” Kenzie said.

“Ups and downs,” I said.

“I was with the PRT, but I wasn’t a Ward exactly,” she said.  “They had trouble sticking me anywhere, and then I went into training, and got to do a lot of really neat camps and exercises and travel, because they had to wait until I was old enough before they could put me where they really wanted to put me.”

“Which was?”

“Watchdog, grrr,” she said.  She’d made a pretty sad attempt at a growl, mischief in her eyes.  “That other branch that worked under the PRT that you almost never hear about.  Oversight and investigation, powers, money, and politics.”

“I know of Watchdog.”

“Cubicle superheroes.”

“They’re actually pretty badass from what I heard, and they do- did a lot of fieldwork and investigations, raiding offices, interrogations, talking to politicians, uncovering conspiracies.”

“That’s true.”

“There’s something about getting organized and going after that thinker or that tinker who’s been working behind the scenes, the guy that’s been subverting society for their own gain, when they’ve probably spent months or years making contingency plans and anticipating the day their world and their plans come crashing down around them.  I think that dynamic is pretty damn cool, the approach and the complexity of it.”

“Hmm, that is cool,” she said.  “Except there aren’t any awesome costumes or monster fighting.”

“Less monster fighting, I’m sure.  I’m not sure about the costumes.  There are probably masks, I guess?”

“And there’s some cublical- bleh.  Cubicle jockeying.”

She spoke so fast she had tripped over the word.

I replied, “Probably a lot, yeah.  But from my short stint in the Wards, there was a lot of paperwork there too.”

“That’s so true.  I was kind of a Ward, so I had to do some.  I think I was good at the paperwork.”

I was starting to feel like she’d been the one who had fussed with her appearance, rather than any parental figure.  Someone so fussy would’ve somehow been mentioned in the life story to this point.  It was very believable, too, to draw a connection between the fastidious appearance and her pride in the paperwork.

“I think I was too.”

She nodded, the conversation momentarily, almost mercifully pausing, then she found her place, enthusiasm returning.  “So yeah.  I was bouncing all over the place.  The Youth Guard stepped in, I’m not sure if you’ve had to deal with them.”

The Youth Guard or the Y.G. were the group that acted like the union that protected minors in Hollywood.  That had protected minors in Hollywood.  They were the group that made sure that Wards’ education and options didn’t suffer as a consequence for them being superheroes, that they didn’t dress provocatively, that they were safe and sane, that nobody took advantage, and other stuff.  They’d reached out to my parents at one point, because they weren’t limited to the PRT.  They were a guillotine that had hung over the heads of any team with under-eighteen heroes or heroines.

“I’ve heard the horror stories,” I said.

“They weren’t a horror story for me.  They said I was being moved around too much and I needed to go somewhere to stay.  Not going to the fun camps and training sucked, but I went back to Baltimore, and I got to set up my workshop, fi-nuh-ly.”

“Workshop, huh?”

“Kenzie,” Mrs. Yamada spoke up.  She still sat at the desk.  “You might want to be mindful of what you reveal.  I’ll get into that more when things get started, but take a moment and think before revealing things that might tie into your cape identity, or identifying parts of your background.”

“Yes, Mrs. Yamada,” Kenzie said.  Then she leaned close to me, whispering, “I took a moment to think and I think I’m safe telling you I’m a tinker.”

“Gotcha,” I said, mimicking her volume and whisper.

“Yep,” she said.  She pitched her voice lower, “The Youth Guard was good to me.  I liked the people who I worked with there, even if the people in charge of me didn’t.  Some of my favorite people next to Mrs. Yamada worked for them.  Not that that lasted for long.  That was only the spring of twenty-thirteen-”

As she talked, I glanced at Mrs. Yamada.  It was clear she heard.

“-and then, well…”

“Yeah,” I said.

Gold Morning.

I was a little caught off guard by Kenzie, on a few fronts.  This wasn’t what I’d expected.  I glanced at the other chairs.

I got into a more comfortable position in the little booth, leaning against the window and taking a moment to digest what Mrs. Yamada had shared.  Someone else walked into the dark little shop, going straight to the counter, their eyes on the desserts behind the display.

“Group therapy?” I asked.

“With the full-time position I’m taking with the Wardens, I have the chance to help a lot of critical individuals.  The people I’ll be helping will be people who can help a lot of people in turn.  An incredible number, in some cases.  As attached as I am to my current patient caseload, and as much as I would like to take you on as a patient, it made the most sense to go this route.”

“Okay,” I said.

She frowned a little.

“But?” I asked.

“The role I held between Gold Morning and now was always going to be a transient one.  My patients and everyone else involved knew I was only seeing the patients I’m seeing now in a temporary way.  I’m one of several therapists who are rotating through a patient caseload, and only half were my patients and mine alone.  In making a transition, it is and was still my responsibility to look after those exclusive patients.”

“Okay.”  I connected that thought to how she’d found a therapist for me.  When it was a chore to get therapists to take new patients, it amounted to a pretty meaningful gesture.

“I’m referring the ones I can to other therapists.  I’m in touch with twelve people who work with parahumans and a few who are breaking into that field.  Not a single one of us is working less than seventy hours a week.  Some of my patients didn’t need counseling anymore, and I was only helping them to find their equilibrium after Gold Morning.  Others are on their way to a new facility in this world’s Europe, which they’ve been anticipating for over a year now.  If you were still in the same condition as you were when I first met you, I would be recommending you go there.”

I nodded.  I didn’t like thinking about it.

“I couldn’t find places for everyone, and I’d turn down the job before I abandoned patients in need.  With the remainder, I saw common ground among them.  Not all of them, but enough of them that it seemed like things could be workable.  Some supplied, needed, or were looking into the same kinds of assistance, which is what prompted the line of thinking.  I was going to introduce them regardless, I could see them talking, and I thought it would be best to have the initial and deeper talks in a supervised setting.”

“And from there, it was a short jump to thinking about group therapy.”

“Yes.  Group therapy, interpersonal group therapy, seemed appropriate for what I wanted them to address with each of them.  It meant that in the time before I took on my full-time role with the Wardens, I could devote more time to more of them.  In an ideal world, if there were some who still needed attention by the time I was done, I could call in favors or find places for them.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Was it group therapy like I was a part of?”

“The therapy you were a part of was encounter-driven.  Different.  More involved, more simulations, acting and role-playing, confrontation, learning assertiveness as opposed to, say, aggressive behavior, or overly passive behavior.  Engaging with peers.”

“I didn’t really do anything except sit there.”

“But you wrote the scripts.  You listened to the others, and you visualized ways you wanted the conversations to go.  I got the impression it was pretty intense, even when you were a step removed in your participation.”

“Sure,” I said.  A large part of what I’d contributed to those sessions had played into my last interaction with my mom.

Not that that interaction had gone well, but I could imagine that if I’d found myself in that same situation without the grounding of knowledge from those sessions, I might not have had the words to articulate as much of what I’d wanted to.  It was even possible that, without the conflict resolution skills, I might have hurt someone.

The recollections of the therapy and of my mom were heavy, pressing down on me and my chest.  I took a long sip of my iced tea.  It was cold and sensory, pulling me away from that rabbit hole of dark thoughts.

“This group was intended to be slower-paced, less intense,” she said.

“Even with the time constraint?”

“Yes, even with.  Part of it is that, as I said, it was the most appropriate for what I wanted to address.”

“Part?”

“The other part ties back to what I said about introductions, how the first meetings are the trickiest.  It was a delicate balancing act to begin with, compared to your group, where we added someone new once every few weeks or months, while the rest of the group remained fairly stable.  With this group, having them all meet at once, I thought it would be best to keep things calmer.”

“Makes sense,” I said.

“My colleagues like to say there is a truism with groups of parahumans.  That the larger the group in question, the greater the chance of a schism or disaster.  I’m not sure I like exactly how the idea is presented a lot of the time it comes up, but…”

I thought of my sister.

“Groups of capes get pretty volatile,” I finished the sentence for her.  “Each person you add is another chance for things to go wrong.”

Three more members joined the group.  An unknown boy and two people I knew, male and female.

When I realized who I was looking at, though, my jaw dropped.  I stood from my chair.

She, for her part, was on a similar page.  She stared at me, confused at first.  Then reality dawned for her as well.

She was pale in a way that skin didn’t tend to be, and she had a mane of black hair.  A small black tattoo marked her cheekbone, partially obscured by skin-tone makeup that had streaked in the rain.  For all that she was almost monochrome from the neck up, she was a riot of color from the neck down.  Sveta.

Her hands went to her mouth.

She closed the distance between us with a half-stagger, half-run kind of movement.  I caught a glimpse of her tearing up before she threw her arms around me, colliding with me.  I caught my bearings and hugged her back.

“You’re okay,” she mumbled into my shoulder.

“I’m-” I started, lost for words.  I looked at Weld, who stood in the doorway, smiling as wide as I’d ever seen him smile.

My arms still around her, I reached out with one hand, groping in Weld’s general direction, as if I could get the words that way.

“Fantastic,” Weld said.  “This is perfect.”

He looked a little less neat than he’d been when I’d known him in Brockton Bay, but not as wild or ‘monstrous’ as I’d seen in the pictures online, back when he’d been a member of the Irregulars.  His skin was dark iron, his eyes silver, veins of more silver tracing from the corners of the eyes.  His hair was wire, made to look more free and unruly.  He was wearing a henley shirt, khaki shorts and sandals that looked like they were made of metal and what might’ve been tire rubber.  I couldn’t imagine any other material that would hold up when bearing the weight of someone that was heavy metal from head to toe.

Beside him was a guy, brown-skinned, with the sides and back of his hair cut short.  The hair on top had to have been painted rather than dyed, because it was magenta, and I couldn’t imagine getting black hair dyed magenta without bleaching it to the point of destroying it, and the rolling curls retained their shape despite the droplets of rain that clung to it.  He was smiling, but more because he looked like the type that very much enjoyed others being happy.  The magenta-haired guy’s shirt was form-fitting to his upper body, showing off lean muscle, and looked like a surfer’s rash guard.  He wore black shorts and sandals.

I turned my attention to the girl of the trio.  I couldn’t believe it was Sveta.

Who was practically sobbing now, apparently.

Emotion was welling in my own chest.  I put my hand on the back of her head, and I felt the hair stir, the tissues beneath the wig moving.

“Well, I think this has made my everything,” Weld said.

“Your everything?” the magenta-haired guy asked.

“Saying it made my day, my week, or even my month wouldn’t be enough,” Weld said, still smiling.  “You’re okay, Victoria?”

“Two arms, two legs,” I said.

“That’s great,” he said.  “Sveta was so attached to you, she hated leaving you behind.”

Sveta nodded, head rubbing against my shoulder.

“And we’d thought you’d died,” Weld said.  “When G.M. happened.  Hearing you were alive was amazing on its own, but you’re… you’re back.  Fantastic.

Sveta made a sound, emotions pouring over, before hiccuping with a sob.

I stroked the back of her head, trusting that someone would tell me not to if it was dangerous.

Then again, I didn’t have my forcefield up.

I could have mentioned it.  I didn’t.

“You have a body,” I whispered.  I could feel it.  It was hard, unyielding.  She creaked in places, and the way she’d moved- the colors and textures I’d seen-

None of that mattered.  She had a body.

“It took some doing,” Weld said.  “It took a lot of doing.  It’s been a whole adventure to get even this far.  It’s not even tinkertech.  Regular prosthetics and some inventiveness from some really stellar people.  Arms, legs, body, some stuff to keep it upright, some machine learning systems that adapt to meet her partway, and a lot of practice on her part, to operate everything internal.”

Sveta pulled away.  She looked me in the eye, reaching up to wipe at her tears.  The hands didn’t seem cooperative enough, almost like someone holding a baseball bat by one end was trying to wipe away tears with the other.

I hesitated, before indicating her face.  “Do you want a hand?”

She nodded, and I wiped the tears away with my fingers.  She smiled, even as more welled up.

“You’re such a sneak, Jessica,” Weld said.  “Not telling us?”

“I did tell you Victoria was recovered.”

“I thought you meant she was mobile enough to get to the meeting place on her own.  I didn’t think you meant a complete and total recovery,” Weld said.

I wanted to turn to see Mrs. Yamada’s expression, but it was hard to move with Sveta hugging me.  She was silent, though.

Behind Weld, someone else was ducking into the room.  He looked like he was of a height with Kenzie, but given how boys developed slower, he might’ve been a touch older.  He had a mess of tousled brown hair that would have been over his eyes if he wasn’t wearing large headphones as a kind of hairband.  He had a very flat expression as he walked around the perimeter of the room.  His t-shirt was black with a logo I didn’t recognize, his cargo shorts had stuff packed into the pockets, but he mostly looked like a very average kid.  Only his old fashioned braces really stood out to me- the kind that made it hard for him to put his lips together.

Sveta twisted around, one hand reaching out to me to steady herself.  She looked over at Kenzie, then at the magenta-haired fellow, and then at the new kid.  She failed on her first attempt at speaking, then managed.  “She was my first friend ever, that I can remember.”

“I didn’t know that,” I murmured.

“I didn’t have anyone, and- there was a time where I was cooped up in a sealed room in the hospital and stuff was going on outside, with the PRT and the other case fifty-threes.  They introduced me to people who were harder for me to hurt.  Victoria was one of them.  I liked her, and she knew Weld, and she put up with me for some reason, so we kept talking and meeting.”

I leaned closer, whispering in her ear.  “For some reason?  You helped keep me sane.  You were my friend.

Stop it, dummy.  You’re going to make me cry more,” she whispered back.  “And I can’t believe I’m finally hearing your voice for real.

And with that last statement she was tearing up more.

Since when are you this much of a crier?” I asked.

I’m all emotionally open and shit now,” she whispered.  “Blame Weld.  And blame yourself, being all normal and stuff.

“I’m pretty sure I just caught you saying my name just now,” Weld said.  “Maybe that’s my cue to duck out before you start badmouthing me.”

“I’d never ever badmouth you,” Sveta said, at normal volume.  She’d turned to face him, and I held her arm to steady her as she swayed a bit.  “What would I even say?”

“I hear people coming anyway,” Weld said.  He stopped, looking at Sveta and me, then smiled wide.  “This is fantastic.”

Sveta hugged my arm.

“You’ve said that a lot,” the Magenta-haired boy said.

“I can’t even begin to tell you,” Weld said.  “In more than one way.  I’ll leave it for Victoria to share.”

“Maybe we can chat another time,” the boy said.  “We could hang out.”

“If Sveta, Victoria, and Jessica okay it,” Weld said, clapping a hand on the guy’s shoulder.  “I don’t want to throw any wrenches into the therapy or make anything awkward by blurring lines.”

“Send me an email if you want to discuss it.  It’s always good to see you, Weld,” Mrs. Yamada said.

“I’ll do that, and it’s good to see you too, Jessica.  I’m sorry I wasn’t able to make the time to sit in.”

“Totally understandable.  Good luck.  We may run into each other if you stick with the Wardens.”

“Excellent,” Weld said.  He glanced at us, delivering a wink probably more meant for Sveta than for me.  “Fantastic.  I’ll text you when I have an idea of what’s happening with my afternoon, Sveta.”

“Good luck,” Sveta said.

With a parting salute, he was gone.

I took my seat, giving my hand to Sveta, as she collapsed into the chair on the other side of me.  Now that she wasn’t bear-hugging me, I could see that a lot of the color on her was that the prosthetic body she wore had been painted.  Bumps and collisions had chipped some of the paint, but from the neck down, everything that wasn’t covered in clothing was painted in rolling waves, in sea serpents, birds and reptiles.  The colors were bright and bold, like graffiti, the living things hot orange, the background cool blues and greens.  Her clothes were relatively plain, a black top and brown pants, and looked to be relatively thick and durable, but the plain-ness was marred by the small streaks and smudges of paint that she’d gotten on it, most of it in long, thin slashes.

The seating arrangement put me between her and Kenzie.  Kenzie, for the time being, was leaning over to the new addition to the group, the boy with braces.  She seemed to be filling him in on what he’d missed.

“Tristan,” the magenta-haired boy said, approaching.  He extended a hand.  I shook it.

“Victoria.”

“Will your brother be joining us today?” Mrs. Yamada asked.

“I asked, he didn’t reply,” Tristan said.

“Brother?” I asked.

“Twin,” Tristan said.  He pointed at his hair.  “Part of the reason I make myself so easily identifiable.  He’s Byron, he used to have blue-green hair to match me, but he quit doing that.”

“Good to know,” I said.

Blue hair.

I thought of my youngest cousin. Where Crystal had always had the red-magenta look, Eric had gone with the blue, dying his hair.  It was a sad, wistful thought.  With so many losses in recent memory, so much tumult, it felt very distant.  That distance didn’t make it it feel any less painful.  If I’d been burned on an hourly, daily or weekly basis for the last four years, the death of Eric and Uncle Neil would have been the very first time my hand was shoved down and held to the oven ring.

Alarming and hard to process in how devastating and raw it had been, important, but still a very long time ago.

I changed up my focus, “You all came in together.  Are you friends?”

“No.  Or kind of?” Tristan asked.

“Kind of,” Sveta said.

Tristan explained, “I ran into Weld and Sveta on the way into the first session.  He dropped her off at the front door because he had a place to be, and I offered my arm.  Sveta and I geeked out together over Weld.”

“He’s geek-out worthy,” I said.

Tristan smiled.  “Does the impromptu Weld fan club have another member?”

“Nah,” I said.  “No, I’m just a fan in a very mundane way.  I think he’s a good guy.”

Sveta nodded emphatically.

“At our first meeting, Tristan kept saying he was Weld’s number one fan,” Kenzie joined in.

“Oh, that.  Don’t remind me,” Tristan said.

“I won’t, then,” Kenzie said, deflating a little.

Tristan sighed, glancing at the rest of the room.  “Nah, it’s no good to leave our guest in the lurch, and I’m supposed to be holding myself accountable.  You might as well share, I’ll take my licks.”

“Alright,” Kenzie said, perking up considerably at the same time Tristan withered.  “So Tristan kept saying it, casually mentioning the posters he had before, and he had merchandise.”

“Weld figurine, from his stint in the Boston Wards.  One where he was wearing his first costume, too,” Tristan said.  “I miss that thing.”

“I want one,” Sveta said.  “Would it be weird if I had one?”

Kenzie continued, “So he kept saying all that, because he was so psyched he got to meet Weld.  Then Sveta finally speaks up, and she was very quiet when she said it, but she said ‘I probably have you beat.’”

“I’m competitive,” Tristan said.  “So I was pretty adamant that no, no she didn’t.”

Sveta looked like she was on top of the world, smiling to herself.  She wiped at her face with one prosthetic hand- she still had tracks of tears on her face.  I leaned closer, whispering.  “Want a tissue?”

She nodded.  I stood from my seat while the conversation continued.

“…And she says she’s his girlfriend,” Kenzie said.

Tristan sighed.  “Yep.”

“She’s living with him, and they sleep in the same bed, and they make each other breakfast,” Kenzie said.

I liked the mental image.  I liked that Sveta was smiling as much as she was.

“It’s hard to beat that,” Tristan said.

I collected a tissue from Mrs. Yamada’s desk, glancing at her.  She seemed pretty unbothered by this, so far.

“I don’t think it’s about winning,” Sveta said.

I handed the tissue to Sveta as I retook my seat, and she set about patting her cheeks dry.  A little bit more of the cover-up makeup came away from the tattoo.

“Yeahhhh,” Tristan drew out the word.  He added,  “Easy to say when you’re the clear winner.”

“That’s fair,” Sveta said.

“That’s a joke, by the way.  I’m not being serious here.”

“Yeah,” Sveta said.  “I was wondering there.”

Another person had entered the room.  A boy, Caucasian, with shoulder-length brown-blond hair.  He had a cut under one eye and another cut on the bridge of his nose.  His jeans were ripped at the knee and his shirt was baggy, a size too big for him.  The sleeves were long, red where the torso was white, and they had been rolled up to the elbow.  His sneakers had seen a lot of abuse, by the looks of it.  The white parts were brown and grey in a way that made me suspicious that even a thorough cleaning wouldn’t get them purely white again.  He looked sixteen or seventeen.

“But yeah, damn, I don’t look good enough in a dress, so I have to concede.  Hey Rain,” Tristan said.

“Heya,” the boy who was apparently called ‘Rain’ said.  He took the empty seat next to Tristan. “Why are you wearing a dress?”

“Just joking around.”

There were still two empty seats.  One would be Jessica’s.  There’d be one more, then.

“You made it here okay?” Tristan asked.

“Yeah.  I got a ride.”

“How are things?” Kenzie asked Rain.  She gestured at her head in a way I didn’t see, with her head blocking my view of the hand on the other side.

Rain seemed to take a second to ponder it.  He frowned a little.  “Not great.”

“Better or worse than last week?” Kenzie asked.

“Let’s save the therapy-relevant stuff for the session,” Mrs. Yamada interrupted.  “Small talk and catching up for now, please.  We don’t want to get started before everyone’s here, and I want to go over ground rules and expectations before we ask anything too personal.”

Kenzie smiled and shrugged, settling back into her seat, hands in her lap.

“Alright,” Rain said.  He turned his attention to me.  “This is the heroine?”

“Ex-, kind of,” I said.  “But yeah.  Victoria.”

“Hi.  I’m Rain.  Spelled like the water that falls from the sky.”

“Cape or civilian name?” I asked.

“I hate that you have to ask.  Civilian.  And before you comment on it, yeah, I know.  It’s unusual, I’ve heard the jokes.”

He’d said it as if his patience on the subject had run short a long time ago.  I threw up my hands in mock surrender, my mouth firmly shut.

He said, “You said ex, but you didn’t sound sure.  Are you taking a break?  Or…?”

“Trying to get back into it after a break, but ended up taking another short break to focus on some background stuff.   Getting a handle on things.”

“Yeah,” he said, as if I’d said something very heavy, and he’d felt part of that weight.  “I feel like I’ve been trying to get a handle on things since I got my powers.”

“For a while now, then?  If I can ask?”

“Just under a year ago,” he said.  “I think, along with Chris, I’m the rookie here.”

Post-Gold Morning.  That helped put things in context.

Chris, too.  By process of elimination, he’d be the boy roughly Kenzie’s age.

“Family thing.  You said that once,” Kenzie said.  Rain acknowledged that with a nod.

“Second gen?” I asked.  I wondered if I had any kindred on that front.

“There are a lot of questions you can ask about the parahuman stuff,” he said.  “When it comes to me, the answer to most of them is ‘it’s complicated’.”

“That’s fair,” I said.  “For a while now I’ve thought that parahumans should get a membership card, materializing in our hands when we trigger, or arriving in the mail at the first opportunity.  A warning on one side, ‘handle with care’, and then on the other side, ‘shit is complicated, don’t ask’.  Something that we can flash now and again, like a get out of jail free card.”

“Mine would be worn out, both sides,” Rain said.

“I could get good mileage out of the ‘shit is complicated’ side,” Tristan said.

“Now I feel left out,” Kenzie said.  “I’d like to think mine would be nice and neat, stored away as a just-in-case.”

“Really?” Tristan asked.  “Really?”

“Ruh-heally,” Kenzie said, with exaggerated emphasis and a roll of the eyes.  Tristan mirrored her pose some.

“I do like the idea,” Rain said.  “The card.”

Rain wasn’t a smiler, by the looks of it, but he’d seemed to relax more as I talked to him.

“By the way, I should have asked, am I allowed to swear?” I asked, twisting around to face Mrs. Yamada.

“Swearing is fine In moderation,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “Being here wouldn’t be nearly as positive if you couldn’t say what you wanted to say.  There’s a point where swearing takes away from the communication and expression I’m hoping to see, where you hide behind the swearing, or where it’s disruptive.  I think you six have a good sense of where that point is.  I may referee if we get close to it.”

“Alright,” I said.

“I remember the group therapy session we had back at the hospital,” Sveta said.

“Yeah,” I said.  Sveta had only been there for the initial sessions.  She’d left, I’d stayed.  “Plenty of swearing.  But it was different, and we didn’t have any kids in the group.”

“Well, not young kids,” Sveta said.

I looked over at Kenzie and Chris.  “Will I be overstepping or bothering you if I call you kids?  I’m not sure where the comfort zones are.”

Kenzie snorted.  “It’s fine.”

“Nah,” Chris said, “Hospital?  You were at the Asylum?”

He’d barely hesitated a second.  He’d been so quiet up until now, and then the moment I’d given him an avenue to join the conversation, he went straight from negation to asking questions.

Not pleasant questions either.

“Oh.  Sorry,” Sveta said, to me.  “I should have thought you might not want to broadcast it.  I’m sorry.  I kind of brought it up earlier, too.”

On its own, it was something I could handle most of the time, but it might have been a return to the group therapy session, the presence of Sveta and Mrs. Yamada, even, and possibly the fact that I’d had a few reminders and it was harder and harder to surface, while it almost felt like Chris was pressing down.

Dark, uncomfortable memories stirred.  Being paralyzed, silent, the interminable restlessness.  The way the things on the television and radio had been almost unbearable to see and listen to, not because of the subject matter, but because of my inability to change the channel or shut it off, even though I’d asked for it to be put on in the first place.

I had to take a second to swallow and remember normal breathing and cadence again, after thinking about it.

“Let’s not put too much pressure on Victoria, please,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “I understand that you might feel the need to vet her or figure out if you can trust her, and that makes sense, given the degree of what’s shared here, but let’s be fair.  Let’s keep the small talk small, I’ll outline things as we start, and you can decide if you’re uncomfortable.  If you are, then we’ll figure out a way to move forward.”

“It’s okay,” I said.

“If you’re sure.”

“It’s fine,” I said, glad I was able to find and use a normal tone of voice without any giveaway.  I turned back to Chris, “Yeah.  I was there.  Arrived midway through twenty-eleven, year and a half, and then the Asylum-supported housing after.”

“Right,” Chris said.  “Brockton Bay before that?”

“Yeah,” I said.  I wondered for a second at his jumping to the conclusion, before I remembered I had the city and its name on my dress.

“There was a lot of Brockton Bay in the news, before,” he observed.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Not a lot of it good.”

I wasn’t sure how to approach the conversation with Chris.  He was hard to read, in fashion, in expression- I’d glance at his mouth to see if he was smiling or frowning and I’d only see the braces.  He’d been quiet up until now, too, which meant I didn’t have a lot to go on.

Something about him bothered me.  It wasn’t just the slant of his questions or the way it felt like they were pressing at me, but his demeanor, and little things about his appearance I couldn’t put my finger on.  The messiness of his hair was one of those things.  It looked like he had three cowlicks – two at either corner of his hairline and one by his temple.  With his hair pushed back by the headphones he hadn’t taken off, they looked a little like small bald patches with the way the hair splayed out from those points.  He held his hands with his fingers curled in.  It was offputting in a mild way that lined up with how he came hitting me with those uncomfortable, prying questions and comments.

I wondered if he was one of the ones Mrs. Yamada had been worried about, as part of this group.  One of the additions that catalyzed something volatile.

That might have been unfair.

“Weld was there for a lot of it,” Sveta said, backing me up.  “I’ve heard some of what happened.  Things got scary.”

In all fairness, as fond as I was of her, I did find something amusing in how it was Sveta saying that last bit.  “Scary’s a good way to put it.”

“But you’re still wearing the shirt,” Rain observed.  “You’re attached to the city.”

“Sure.  It’s my city.  I grew up there.”

“But you admit it was scary?” Rain asked.

“The city isn’t defined by what happened to it.  Just like we aren’t the bad experiences that happen to us,” I said.

“Aren’t we?” Chris asked, leaning forward in his seat, elbows on his knees.  “We’re the sum of the things that have happened to us, good or bad.”

“We aren’t,” I said, firmly.  Then, on a moment’s reflection, I added, “We can’t be.  There’s a lot of other things going into it.”

“You’re making me think back to science class,” Rain said.  “I sucked at science.  What was it?  Nature or nurture?”

“Nature versus nurture, yeah,” Chris said.

“That’s it,” Rain said.  “I should have remembered that.  Are you all about the nature, then?”

I thought of my family.  I’m not sure that’s much better. 

Amy had agonized over that one.

“We’re getting into territory that’s close to being therapy again,” Mrs. Yamada said, rescuing me from the line of thinking.  “So I’m going to interrupt.  But it’s a good point to keep in mind for our discussions later today.  I’m keeping an eye on the clock, and we’re ready to start.”

Sounds good, I thought.  I glanced at the empty chairs.

She walked around the perimeter of the room, stopping when she stood behind one of the empty chairs.  “Let me recap for our visitor and remind the rest of the group what I said at the start of the first session.  This particular type of group therapy focuses on self-reflection, effective socializing, supporting each other, helping to problem solve, and examining the patterns we fall into, both the constructive and the problematic.  Each of you has spent some time with me working on these things, and this is the platform where we put a lot of that into practice.”

My role in this, Victoria, is to be the referee and the coach.  I’ll try to ensure everyone gets their turn and has a voice.  I’ll try to head off or steer the discussion if it gets into less constructive territory, and to keep things moving if needed.  I’ll be chiming in periodically to ensure that confidentiality is stressed.  I’ve had Victoria review the same materials I gave the rest of you.”

I nodded.

“While I can promise you confidentiality on my part, and while I’ll encourage you all to maintain it, I can’t guarantee it.  If any of you were to pursue villainous activities, the other members of the group could be compelled to testify against you.  ”

The final member of the group entered the room.  She was somewhere between eighteen and twenty, but her height might have been deceiving.  Her white hair was long enough to reach the small of her back, her irises especially pale or similarly white, and she wore a black dress with a dozen straps overlapping in an intricate way at the shoulders and back.  The hem of the dress was damaged at one end.  Threads frayed, polyester melted, with a noticeable hole in it.

“Hi, boss,” Kenzie said, a twinkle of mischief in her eye as Mrs. Yamada gave her a stern look.

“I’m glad you could make it, Ashley,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “I’ve spent the last minute or two going over the basics, reminding others about the aims of the group and how confidentiality works in a group session.”

“To fill in our guest?” ‘Ashley’ asked.  She went straight to the table at the side of the room where a pitcher of water and paper cups were arranged, pouring herself a glass.

“Yes.  Her name is Victoria.  If you’ll take a seat, I’ll bring you anything else you need, but I’d like for everyone to be seated so I can continue.”

Ashley walked around behind me and circled the perimeter of the group to reach one of the empty seats.  She swept her hand behind her to brush her dress to one side, so it wouldn’t bunch up awkwardly beneath her as she took a seat on one of the two chairs between Rain and Chris.

She stared at me.  Maybe it would have been better to say she stared me down.

I, meanwhile, was left to digest the mistake of Mrs. Yamada’s that I was here to help address.  I was ninety-five percent sure I knew who ‘Ashley’ was when she was in costume, and I was left to take that knowledge and see how it fit together with the issue at hand.

Mrs. Yamada continued, “Use your own discretion when deciding what to share.  You’ve all agreed to participate, knowing the risks and difficulties inherent.  I’m hopeful this will be a positive set of exercises.  I think that more or less sums it up.  I suspect Victoria’s presence and the fact you’ve all had a week to think about what we talked about last session means you’ll have some questions.”

“It’s pretty late to be bringing her in,” Ashley said.  “Is she joining the group?”

“We hadn’t planned on her joining, per se,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “I invited her because she’s exceptionally well equipped to address the topics that came up last session. We’ll build on it and you can decide what you’re willing to share here.  During our next and final session, depending on your comfort levels and how much you want to carry on today’s discussion, she may or may not be in attendance, or not for the full duration.”

“Is it really an ‘issue’?” Tristan asked, making air quotes.

“I think it could be.  Victoria can expand on why, shortly.”

“Are we supposed to know who she is?” Ashley asked.

I glanced at Mrs. Yamada.  She was taking her seat between Ashley and Chris.  From the gesture in my direction, and the fact that she wasn’t stepping in, the ‘referee’ was leaving the ball in my court.

“I’m Victoria Dallon.  If you study Parahumans, my family comes up, because it’s a literal textbook case of powers running in families.  I… believe you’ve run into my family, Ashley.”

“Have I?  I’ve met so many capes it’s hard to keep track.”

“Do you know New Wave?” I asked.  “White bodysuits, symbols in colors?”

“I know a few people like that.  I didn’t always pay attention to names.”

“Would’ve been in Boston.  The slang term in the ‘scene’ was the Boston Games.”

Ashley smiled for the first time.

For the rest of the room, I explained, keeping half of an eye on Mrs. Yamada, to make sure I wasn’t overstepping.  “A series of arrests in Boston saw a shift in the power balance of local gangs.  That’s a pretty common thing, but the Protectorate team followed up on it hard, toppling just about every major and most minor gangs and villains in the city, leaving a void that was bigger than usual.  Villains of every power level and stripe flocked to the city, villains in neighboring cities had a vested interest in having a foothold there as a place to retreat to or a place to expand, and it became an entangled nightmare of villain politics and power plays.”

“Time of my life,” Ashley said.

“Heroes, like the PRT, and like my family’s team, followed, to try and keep the peace until things settled.  My family’s team was Lady Photon, Manpower, Flashbang, Brandish, Lightstar and Fleur.”

“The heroes without masks,” Ashley said.

“Yeah,” I said.

“I remember them.  I was one of the villains who flocked,” Ashley said.

That confirmed that she was Damsel of Distress then.  B-list villain, chronic headache for the PRT of yesteryear, unpredictable, dangerous, unstable, and fortunately, she’d been more of a problem for herself than for others.  She had been recruited by the Slaughterhouse Nine, to pad their numbers, and had died shortly after.

Her history was one of self-sabotage punctuated by events every two or three years where she was cause for alarm.  She had thrived during the Boston Games, in a sense, enough to get her name out there to capes in Northeastern America as a just in case.

She’d later found a place in the Nine.  She was of a particular brand or species of cape, who somehow rose up when everything else was sinking.  It almost made a degree of sense, then, that in following with that pattern, she’d risen up from the grave at the same time the entire world was plunged into chaos.

Kenzie was saying something, and I was having trouble tuning in.

Slaughterhouse Nine meant Bonesaw.  Crawler.  That in turn led me to think about my last coherent, me moments, the blank in my memories, the aftermath.  It made me think about actual monsters,  and the very real possibility that Ashley was one.

“Were you there?”

It took me a second to connect with Ashley’s question.

“If you’re uncomfortable getting into it, we could change the subject,” Mrs. Yamada said.

“Could I just get some water, actually?  Sorry, you meant Boston, Ashley?”

“Yes.  During the Boston Games,” Ashley said, as Mrs. Yamada stood and went to get the water.

“I was a little too young.  I followed along back at home, where we made the dining room into a kind of headquarters, putting up a few bulletin boards.  I colored in the maps and moved pins as the territories changed hands while doing homework and stuff.  Is it a problem?”

“No,” Ashley said.

“What are your thoughts on the subject, Victoria?”  Mrs. Yamada asked, handing me the water.

I drank before answering.

“It’s fine.  Boston was mostly fine,” I said.  “My family didn’t get hurt.  To me, she was just a pin on the map of Boston we had in the living room-”

I saw Damsel’s expression shift.  A slight narrowing of the eyes.

“-And a few interesting and impressive stories my aunt, uncle, and dad brought home.”

That amended the narrowing.  Lesson learned.

“Good,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “I’m glad to hear that.  Questions, thoughts, observations?  Anyone?”

Ashley wasn’t done with the questions and comments.  The words she spoke next were an accusation, and she was very good at sounding accusatory.  “You brought her here to change our minds.”

Our conversation stalled as a waitress wiped down a table behind Jessica.  I swished the ice around my now mostly empty glass.

“I never liked the codenames,” Jessica said.

“We might be very different people in that.  There’s something fun about them.  They’re revealing.”

“They are, but they often reveal just how badly the patient wants to escape, to leave their humanity behind and dive into something well beyond humanity.  Some don’t surface completely.  Some hurt others on the way down.  Some drown in that vast, incomprehensible sea.”

I drew in a deep breath, then sighed.  “Feeling poetic?”

“My own kind of escapism, maybe.  I think sometimes about a world where all of my patients can go by their real names.”

“I’m not following the train of thought, I’m afraid.”

“I arranged the group therapy.  I thought for a long time about whether any of my patients were a significant danger to the others, or if they’d set the therapy of their peers back.  I took precautions, I pored over the notes, trying to visualize how things might go, or the topics that I could safely broach or go back to.  Like I said, the first meetings are hard.”

“Yeah.  I can imagine that.”

“And while I don’t like the way the idea is often interpreted or the conclusions it’s taken to, there’s the notion of volatility, and the exponentially increasing chance of trouble as the groups of capes grow larger.  With parahumans, things are often exaggerated, both in weak points or the hot button issues they have, or their inclination to push certain buttons.  The more you put in one place, the higher the chance of the wrong button being pushed.  That was another concern of mine.”

I nodded.  “How long has the group been running?”

“Two months and a week, with one or two sessions a week, as situations allow.  We’re not quite at the end, but it’s close.  This was supposed to be the easy middle stretch.”

“Supposed to be?  You let your guard down?”

“In a way.  Maybe from the beginning,” Jessica said.

She looked genuinely bothered.  I held my tongue.

She went on, “I spent so much time anticipating and planning for disaster, that I failed to see the other side of that coin.  I didn’t want to think of them as capes.  I sought out the things that would help them connect and find reasons to listen to one another.”

I realized what had happened.

Jessica was nodding to herself.  “That was my mistake.  We were approaching the end stretch, and I reminded them of the date we would wrap up and finish.  The conversation took a turn, and I was caught flat-footed.  They expressed interest in staying together.  They want to found a team.”

“A team of?”

“Heroes, it sounds like.”

“Is that so bad?” I asked.

“Without going into any particular detail, Victoria, several are troubled, vulnerable, or both.  No, I don’t think it’s good.”

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Flare – 2.4

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“Evacuate!”

One word from the parahuman in charge was all we needed.  The clock was too short for anything more.

Capes fanned out, most of them on foot.  I could leave the parts of the crowd closest to us to them.  I flew, avoiding the sky directly over the group of affected people, circling around the periphery instead.  The wind was cold against my face and legs.

The massed crowd of citizen workers was to my right, the people with powers to my left.  Half of the light sources in and around the clearing had broken, and the only other illumination came from the effects of powers.  A common thread ran through all of it.  Energy spilled out and created matter where it splattered on the road, materials sprouted from nothing, streaked with thin streams of liquid that glowed like fire, and more abstract growths formed suspended in air, their images sticking to the backs of my eyes like the persistent afterimages of sparklers waved in the dark.

People were shouting.  Some were screaming.  I couldn’t make much of it out.

I flew to the far side of the clearing, which also happened to have some of the thickest gatherings of people.  They had been citizen laborers, gathering to make their displeasure known to the construction groups.  They’d been facing the building until the incident, they’d backed up, and there were places where the presence of buildings and parked vehicles made it so they had no place to retreat, leaving them now packed together, shoulder to shoulder, front to back, jostling.

I’d helped to evacuate before.  I had attended the Leviathan attack on my hometown.  I had been around for the majority of the Slaughterhouse Nine crisis.  I’d participated in other, minor incidents, helping with fires and storms, though those had mostly involved helping the elderly and standing around.

The truism was that in a disaster, people were their own worst enemies.

Never this bad.

I’d never seen or imagined a situation where people would do the opposite of evacuating, throwing themselves headlong into the hazard.  They thought the people in the center of the clearing were getting powers, and people were breaking away from the crowd at the clearing’s edge to run toward the affected individuals.

Crystal created a wall to block off a street as she passed it.  She wouldn’t be able to keep it up as she got further away, but it bought time for others to get there.

She raked a laser across the road, a bright and noticeable  distraction, to give people pause.

I dropped to the street, using a pulse of my aura to get people’s attention.  Some stopped to look, while others ducked low, as if instinct drove them to shy away from the perceived threat.

“Run!” I shouted, using my aura to play up my words.  “Other way!”

I saw eyes widen, and turned to look.  A man had opened his mouth, and had something that looked almost as tall and thick as a telephone pole spearing skyward from his mouth.  Blood streamed from the sides of his mouth, his jaw clearly dislocated, and more fluids painted the length of the pole as it continued to rise.  It reached its maximum height, and then forked, the upper half splitting out into two equally thick portions, a giant ‘Y’ shape.  Each branch then forked into two, and forked into two again.

“Go,” I said, sparing only a momentary glance for the people I’d been stopping.  I saw them start to run away.

The man reached up, his fingers dragging along the blood-slick shaft of the trunk of the fractal tree he had vomited up.  Each movement of his hands was slower and weaker than the last.

I flew toward him, to do what I could to help, even though I wasn’t sure what that could possibly be.

The ‘tree’ toppled, and it was only because I was already on my way toward him that I was able to intervene.  I reached out for the falling tree, and my power was quicker to touch it.  Phantom fingers bit into the surface, fracturing the chalky material.  With flight, my bare hands, my power, and my aura pushed out to give people a little more incentive to get out of the way, I controlled the tree’s fall.  It broke into chunks on contact with the ground.  One of the people with new powers was pinned beneath branches, but it didn’t look like he was hurt by the contact.

I flew to the man who’d grown the tree.  Even before I reached his side, I could see the damage that had been done.  Jaw, throat, chest, and stomach had been torn away.  Traces of the same material that had formed the tree had collected in his insides and pelvis, breaking into jagged pieces at some point before or during the tree’s fall.

He had no throat to feel for a pulse.  I wasn’t about to rule anything out, even as I saw the remains of his heart in his splayed-out chest cavity.  I pried one of his eyes open, and I saw no response.

I went from a crouch to airborne in a second.

That particular disaster had been dramatic and visible for a significant portion of the people nearby.  Most were thinking twice about running toward the epicenter.

When was the next wave coming?  The number of people to trigger all at once had seemed to double the last time.  They didn’t look like multi-triggers either.  One power each, some self-destructive.  I could hear the screams and shouts of a lot of unhappy people and I couldn’t see one person who looked particularly happy about their new ability.

I flew to a new location, looking to see where I could get the most people away.  The tree had done my work for me in one spot, Laserdream was standing at the intersection of two streets and walling them off with red-tinted, translucent fields.

I saw another group- people were pulling away from the crowd, which was actively trying to grab them and hold them back.  Young people – older teenagers and twenty-somethings, that might have been a group of friends.  Seven of them.

I shouted, but my voice was drowned out by the dentist-drill scream of a power somewhere nearby, by the hollers, the warnings, a dull explosion.

I used my aura again.  Several people in the group stumbled, so caught up in reacting to my aura that they lost track of where they were going or how to put one foot in front of the other.  Several others paused, helping their friends that had tripped, stopped, or fallen.  The people at the edge of the crowd reacted too, pulling back away from me.

I’d hoped more of them would stop shouting and screaming.  The affected people and the people at the edge of the clearing were making so much noise that it nearly drowned me out as I shouted, “Get back!”

A number of people listened.  The crowd in particular was inclined to take my order, getting away from the scene.  Two of the seven who’d lagged behind the others turned to go too.

Five, however, looked at me and then continued to run toward the scene.

I clenched my fist.

Rationally, I knew that they likely saw this as the simplest thing in the world.  The people over there had powers; all they had to do to get powers was to head over there.  Some might well have no idea what triggers were, or they might have bought into one of the various other theories out there, some intentionally obscuring the truth.  They didn’t know better.

Well, the screaming should have given them pause, but that might have been balanced out by the fact that they felt especially powerless at this time in particular.  Because we were only two years after the most catastrophic and traumatic loss of human life in history.  Because as much as we were recovering, we were far from being where we’d been.  We weren’t okay.  The dispute between the citizen workers and the construction administrations only brought that home.

Rationally, I knew that.

Less rationally, I had a weak point that extended well before the Gold Morning, well before the hospital stay, well before the Slaughterhouse Nine, before the bad days against Empire Eighty-Eight, before my trigger, even.  I’d spent a fair portion of my time post-trigger and especially in the hospital, thinking about it.

I couldn’t fucking stand being ignored.

I flew to intercept.

I hadn’t practiced with this power enough.  Even using it was a hard reminder, with a mental and emotional cost.  I knew I needed to come to terms with it, and my time at the hospital had been an early foray into that.

That had been flight, and my flight was more or less untouched.

I flew low, approaching a car.  As with the tree, all of my powers were up and active as I reached out in the car’s direction.  Phantom hands dug into the metal of the car’s body, invisible fingers stabbing through.  A mass of something pressed down on the hood, caving it in.

If I had any control over those limbs, it wasn’t something that lent itself to fine touches.  It didn’t work well with the careful, methodical, warrior monk approach.  In this, in the instinct and the moment of frustration, I could only hope that what I wanted and what my power wanted were mostly in agreement.

I glanced up to make sure Laserdream wasn’t watching.  I was close enough for my fingertips to brush the car’s paint as I swept my arm to one side, the holes and dents in the car twisting or opening wider as the phantom grip adjusted.  The- the other Victoria, the phantom Victoria that had never left the hospital, the wretch, threw the car.

I canceled my power momentarily, to force it to release its hold, so it wouldn’t fling the car into the people I was trying to stop.  I let it reactivate a half-second later, flying forward in the car’s direction.  My defenses were up and sufficient to let me adjust the car’s trajectory with a sharp kick to the side.  Just to be safe.

It crashed into a parked car, upside down, its roof and windows shearing into the top of the other.  A loud impact, metal scraping metal, a dozen windows on the two vehicles breaking.  It was raucous, chaotic, sudden and surprising, in a stark contrast to the massive, enduring weight that seemed to settle in me.

Harder than flying.  I could tell myself I was helping people, keeping them clear of danger, and it helped much as it had with the flying, but it was still hard.

The fact that a car had flown into another car twenty feet in front of them was enough to stop them in their tracks.  I had their full attention now.

“Get away!  It’s dangerous!”

Some backed away, then ran.  Two backed off but didn’t run.  The last of them was a man about my age, who stepped closer to the cars, intent on climbing over them.

“Get away!”

I was prepared to grab him as he climbed onto the underside of the car I’d thrown.  He continued to ignore me, finding his balance, stepping forward-

The fragment of a trigger vision hit me.  The latest wave.

I saw only a flash of faces, and in seeing those faces, I saw the phantom self that clung to me.  The impression lingered for only a moment before I realized the faces didn’t resemble mine.

The man had been springing forward from the car to the ground when the event had hit.  I saw his legs swing forward, while his head remained in place.  He dangled, suspended in the air.

I picked myself up off the ground, flying to him.

Gone already.  No pulse, no light behind the eyes.  He made a faint gurgling sound, but it was some biological process or symptom of what had happened, not a sign of life.  He was pissing himself and shitting himself in death.

He dropped out of the air, and I caught him.  It hardly mattered, he was gone, but it didn’t feel right to just let him fall.  I eased him to the ground.

“Please help!” I heard a guy shout, amid renewed and nearby whimpers and sobs.

I flew.  The two who had drawn back but hadn’t run- a boy and a girl.  The boy was holding the girl, while she strove to stay on her tiptoes.  Her face was turned skyward.

I flew to them, and I caught her, helping to hold her.

“Hold her steady!” the guy shouted.

I held her as steady as I could.

Another suspension?

“My neck!” the victim shrieked the words.  A single glowing vein stood out on each arm, and glows on her legs suggested more of the same, but she barely seemed to care about it.  Clear fluid was streaming from her nose, thinner than snot, with needle-thin streams of blood joining it.

“We got you,” I said.  “We’re here, we’ll support you.  Stay calm.”

“I can’t move my head!” she cried out.  “Every time- my neck!”

“Don’t try,” I said.  The guy was looking to me for help, and I wasn’t sure what to say or do.

“My head hurts,” she said, sounding very far away.  Her words dissolved into a stream of whimpers and cries of ‘ow’.

I was supporting her weight, but it wasn’t easy to do it from a strength perspective with my feet on the ground, and it wasn’t easy to stay steady while flying.

“Laserdream!” I shouted the words, top of my lungs.

“Headache,” the victim said, her eyes wide.  “My brain.”

The guy looked at me again.  This time I didn’t try to hide my expression.  I knew I looked grim.

Her brain.  The Corona Pollentia, the means by which powers were operated by the parahuman.  Hers had been established, but not as a fluid, functional thing.  It was a nail, taking her brain and fixing it to a specific position in reality.

Laserdream appeared beside me.

“What happened?” she asked.

“Give her something to stand on,” I said.  “She’s stuck.”

The forcefield appeared below.  The girl no longer had to stand on her tiptoes.

“People are evacuating more now,” Laserdream said.  “We need to handle the people toward the center.  The waves are random.”

I turned, looking at the guy.  “Do you know her?”

“Not really.”

“Can you run?  Go tell people to get away, as fast as they can.  This is bad.”

“You don’t want to get caught in it,” Laserdream said.

The guy nodded.

“Bye Anne,” he said.  He let go of the girl, transitioning the grip entirely to me, then turned to run.

Anne.

She was making small sounds, guttural.  One hand came up to touch the side of my face and my hair, clumsy, as if she didn’t have full use of her fingers.

One pat.

“I’m sorry Anne,” I said.

She made another of the gurgling sounds.  She was vomiting, I realized, and with her face fixed in a skyward position, there wasn’t anything I could do.  Anything I did to move her would add to the damage to her brain.

I hugged her, hard.  After a moment, I felt her hug me back, clumsy but fierce.

It was only a moment later that she started to convulse, whole-body.  I moved to try to seize her head and keep it from moving- a second too late.  One wrenching, forced movement of her head and upper body, and the nail ripped through a good share of the material in its vicinity.

I caught her as she fell, and laid her out on the ground, placing her on her side.

“We need to help others, Victoria.”

“Yeah.”

Spooky, to take to the air again.  I’d seen the numbers of people affected double, roughly, and this was another doubling, to look at it.  More artificial sources of light had broken, as space folded in areas, as things grew to obscure them, or as tendrils of energy lashed out like living things, distorting geography with each impact.

Matter creation, matter manipulation, matter distortion.

Over fifty people, if I had to guess.  It could well have been sixty-four.  They were too spread out for me to effectively ballpark.  Many might well have died from their power expression or the ‘nailing down’ of the brain.

There was no being polite, now.  One person hesitating at what could have been the edge of the affected area.  I didn’t even pause as I grabbed him by the wrist, picking him up off the ground, dragging him with me, me barely six feet above the ground, him with toes and shoes scraping the road’s surface.  I didn’t want the fall to be too rough if I was knocked out of the air again.

I half-deposited, half-threw him toward the crowd that still lingered.  I pointed at the largest guy present.  “You.  Make sure these people get away!  Keep an eye on this one!”

He looked spooked, and I wasn’t even using my aura.  He gave me a singular nod.

Another two, two men together.  One of them fought me as I held him, trying to pry my hand free.

“Assholes!” he screamed, twisting my fingers, trying to get leverage to bend one backward.  “Keeping powers to yourselves!”

I didn’t reply.  I tightened my grip to keep him from getting any one of my fingers, and I saved my breath and my focus.

If this was turning out as badly as it looked like it was, the aftermath would be answer enough.

The guy who’d fought me was deposited beside the first vehicle with flashing lights that was waiting at the edges.  A fire truck.

“Don’t let him go back!  And try to get further away, in case it expands!”

I was already leaving before they could answer me.  I heard the shouts, though.  The answers.

Crystal wasn’t using lasers or forcefields much anymore.  Only flight, only manhandling.

I delivered two more armfuls of cargo, getting people clear of the danger.  On my return trip, I saw the geography transforming.  A culmination of everything up to this point.  From matter generation, matter distortion, and matter transformation to… something that made the entire area look as though it was being smudged and smeared around, streets widening, buildings pulling back from the street.

Except- no.  No, this was a familiar smudging and smearing.  One that worked with us.

You made it, little V, I thought.  I felt emotionally numb from the series of events, the deaths I’d seen, my momentary use of my power and how the feelings I’d tapped in that moment weren’t easy to bring back into order.

There was only what needed to be done, the mission that stood front and center.  It was difficult to execute effectively, but simple in how Glory Girl, Victoria, the phantom wretch and the capes I was working with could all agree it should be done.

Get people clear.  Get them safe.

A woman screamed words that barely strung together, the heel of one hand pressed to her forehead.  The other was pointed forward.  She shot something that was only visible by the way light refracted at its edges.  The projectile hit the ground, carrying forward like a cartoon mole and the elongated, humped trail of dirt it left in its wake.  Unlike the mole, the hump was jagged, folded earth.  Road folded up like complex origami.  She was pinning people down, keeping them from exiting a building.

In the words I could make out, she wanted them to come help her, and in her actions she drove them away.

“Stop!” I shouted to her.

She shot one projectile at me.  Barely visible, it cut through the air, wind shrieking.

I didn’t want to kill her, and if her hand at her head was any clue that she was in similar straits to Anne and the other man, a light push could do horrendous damage.

I drew closer to the ground, defenses up.

Work with me, I told my power.  My agent.  My flight wobbled as I experienced the lopsided drag of a hand reaching down at one side, clawing at the ground as I passed it.

It didn’t create nearly enough debris.

I changed angles.  I flew for the hump of origami road, two feet across, two feet tall, jagged and menacing.

I passed within a few feet of it, and let my forcefield hit it.

The hump of ground shattered explosively, blades of road cutting at my legs.  But it did create a cloud of dust and debris.

She shot at me, and I reversed direction, passing the hump again, striking it.

The two passes created enough of a mess to block the view.  I flew to the people the origami road woman had pinned down.  “Go, go, go!”

I stood by with my defenses up, positioned to intercept any incoming projectiles.  They took the chance to run for it.

This whole thing was a clusterfuck.  How many people were caught?  How many were acting irrational?  What options did we have?  What the hell was I supposed to do?

The origami woman didn’t send any attacks through the cloud of shattered road that I’d created.  The moment the group was out of sight and away, I was moving again.

A complete and total clusterfuck.  I flew high, and I looked down, wishing we had more light on the scene.

I could see where the distortions were being utilized.  The space between the people at the edges and the center of the effect was being extended, making the clearing larger.  It made it harder for people to approach, carried fleeing people away.  It meant the effect had to reach further if it wanted to catch anyone.

In the tension and the emotions that gripped me, I felt an isolated point of peace and calm I could grab onto.

Vista was here, Vista had made it through Gold Morning.  She was one of the people I liked.  A reason I was doing what I did.  She was one of the good ones, she was doing good work here, and I wanted to help her on multiple levels.

In that line of thinking, I found both the focus to think beyond mere instinct, and to realize what I could do.  I knew how Vista worked.

“It’s Vista,” Laserdream said.  She’d appeared beside me again.  She had a flying cape with her.

“Come on,” I said.  I flew for where the expansion of space seemed weakest, even pinched.

They weren’t on the streets.  It was people in buildings.

I tore through a door, flew through a house.  Nothing.  I bumped into Laserdream and her PRTCJ friend on the way out.  “Search the buildings.  Vista’s power is weakest when it has people in its area.  There are people near here.”

We spread out.  One building each, searching neighboring houses.  I was midway through my search when I heard a whistle.

I flew to the sound.  Vagrants, or just refugees from Gimel who had decided they’d be more comfortable squatting in unoccupied, recently built houses than they were in the tent cities.

The three of us carried them clear.  We were delivering them to safety when the next pulse hit.  We weren’t hit, but I could see a glowing figure in the sky flicker and drop briefly before they caught themselves.

We took to the sky again, looking for pinched areas where things hadn’t distorted enough.  There were two spots, and both were already being addressed.

The area was clear.  We found our way to where the Warden-affiliated capes had collected.  They had gathered at the edge of the effect.

“I think we’re clear, Rocketround, sir,” Laserdream reported.

“We should be shortly,” the leader said, glancing at a Foresight cape who stood nearby.

“Yes sir,” the cape said.  A girl with a hood and blindfold.

“How many?” Rocketround asked.

“Ninety two, if you include the ones in houses,” she said.

Rocketround paused, staring down the length of the road toward the center of the vastly extended clearing.  He spat.  When he spoke, he managed a tone that pretty perfectly encapsulated what I and probably most of us were feeling, “Fuck me.”

Ninety two.  Ninety two, many like Anne.  Many wanting help.  I wanted to fly in, to do something.

“I want everyone clear of the area.  We wait, we see what happens,” he said.  “We see if it expands in reach with further pulses, but I don’t want to give it anything.  Not even any bounceback from reaching out and finding some of us.  Let me know when the next pulse happens.”

“Yes sir,” the blindfolded girl said.

Something in the distance crashed to ground.  Another fixture like the fractal tree?

Laserdream approached me, and she put an arm around me.  I did the same for her.

There was small talk, people remarking on what they’d seen.  Horrible things.  People buried alive by their own powers.  A few cases like what I’d observed.

“Is Vista around?” I asked.  “That was her, right?”

I hadn’t expected Rocketround to be the one to answer, but he was the one who spoke up, saying, “She is.  Upstairs, top floor.  She said she needed a view and no interruptions.”

No interruptions.  I was disappointed.

“Who’s she with?” I asked.

“Wardens,” he said.

“Good for her,” I said.

“Who are you and who are you with?” he asked.

“Victoria Dallon.  Nobody, yet.  I’ve been interviewing for teams.”

“She did pretty good work,” blindfold girl said.

“Thank you,” I said.

“When you three got the homeless out of the house, Vista said something under her breath.  I think it was ‘thank you’.  They were getting in her way somehow.”

I nodded.  “I’m from her town.  I was briefly her teammate.”

It was so mundane it was chilling and disconcerting, after the chaos we’d just weathered.  A few moments of horrible, of stupidity and damage and madness, and now we waited to see what happened next, waiting to see what the aftermath would be.  We talked about dumb things.

“What do you think?” Rocketround asked.  “Not just asking you, Victoria.  Anyone.”

It was in that question that I saw the first real hint that he was shaken.  He was doubting his own capacity in this.

“This is going to hurt,” another cape said.  “People were already feeling pretty beaten down, and… ninety people?  We lost ninety?”

“We don’t know if all of them are in trouble,” Laserdream said.

“I think they might be,” blindfold girl said.

Laserdream didn’t have a response for that.  She only hugged me tighter with the one arm.

“I think-” I started.  “Just speculation.”

Any clues or guesses about what’s going on would be good,” Rocketround said.  He was gripping his upper arm as he stood with arms folded.  He’d emphasized ‘any’, which only served to emphasize how little a clue he and we had.

“The broken triggers are pretty out there.  Not a lot of consistent points or facts… except that they’re big,” I said.

“Big?” a nearby cape asked.

“They tend to cover a lot of ground.  Shaker stuff.”

“Yeah,” Rocketround said.  “That’s come up in briefings.”

“Location, environment, and position matters a lot,” I said.  “The capes closest to the perimeter were least mobile.  I think the further they got from the center, the less flex there was.  Until their agents wouldn’t let them move at all.”

“Typhlosis pointed that out,” Rocketround said, indicating the girl with the blindfold.

“We might want to make them stay put,” I said.

“Yeah,” Rocketround said.  “We’ll do that.”

Someone else spoke up.  A remark about common thread through the powers they’d seen.  Others chimed in.

I only half-listened.  A lot of images stayed with me.  The faces I’d seen midway through the one fragmented trigger, the indents in the car as the phantom limbs had reached out for it, Anne.  The lingering sensation of Anne clinging to me, hard, the touch on my face.  I didn’t know what she had wanted to communicate.  A last kind gesture?

“There we go,” the blindfolded girl said.  “Pulse.  Nobody else affected.”

“I’m going to approach,” Rocketround said.  “Roadblock?  I’d appreciate it if you came.”

“Of course,” a cape by the side said.  A guy in heavy armor.

“Protect me if we run into any trouble.”

“Only four left,” Typhlosis said.

“Four?” Rocketround sounded surprised.

Laserdream’s head snapped around.  Looking at me, looking at Typhlosis.

Typhlosis continued, “Only four alive, still.  The rest went down.  Eaten by their powers, or they tried to move when they couldn’t, and their brains caved in.”

I squeezed Laserdream’s hand.

I might have been less surprised than her because I’d read up more on how these things tended to go.

“Let’s go,” Rocketround said.  “Anyone comfortable joining me, come.”

They speed-marched toward the center of the effect.  One hand on another cape’s arm for support and guidance, Typhlosis directed us toward the nearest surviving cape.

“Three,” she said, as we got close enough to see him.

He was a man, mid-twenties.  His legs and stomach were buried in a writhing mass of something very similar to the origami road I’d seen earlier, materials made thin, folded many times over, until they didn’t quite seem to be three dimensions anymore.  Some of those materials were the pieces of the twenty or so people in his immediate vicinity.

A lone figure, standing on a hill of the fallen citizen workers, caught up in the broken trigger’s effect.

“Don’t move!” Rocketround shouted.  “Alright!?”

“Not moving,” was the response, quiet.

“No using powers.  Stay put, stay calm.  We’re going to find out a way to help you.”

“I don’t think I can be helped,” the man said.  His head was bowed, and he couldn’t seem to move it.  His hair was long, tied back into a low ponytail, and it covered much of his face.

“We can figure something out,” Rocketround said.

“Two,” Typhlosis said, quiet.

Two parahumans left.

The effect had caught over ninety over what couldn’t have been more than fifteen minutes.  Now there were two.

“I’m worried,” the man in the clearing’s center said.  “I can feel all the others.”

He moved his hand.

Every body in the vicinity moved.  A matching movement of hands, limp arms rolling off of sides or fingers digging into powdered sidewalk.

“Don’t move!” Rocketround called out.

“I’m on a brink, and I can’t see it, but I can feel it,” the man said.

“Try not to think about it,” Rocketround said.  “Okay?”

“I can feel it,” the man said.  He wasn’t paying much attention to Rocketround.  “All the way down to this vast well, partially filled with potential energy.  Like I’m on the lip of a volcano and it’s an impossibly long fall with only magma at the bottom.  I don’t know if I’m better off throwing myself down into that or leaving it alone.”

“Leave it alone,” I said, my voice joining more than one other person’s.

“What if my thoughts and brain get made into a part of that?  One piece in that thing’s construction.  What if it makes me immortal, forever a part of this thing?  A recording of me in there, how I think, how I do things.”

“We’ve studied parahumans, powers and power sources a lot,” Roadblock said.  “We’re pretty sure that’s not a thing.”

“Yeah,” the guy in the clearing’s center said.  “But…”

He trailed off.

“It’s not a thing,” Rocketround’s voice joined Roadblock’s.

“But I’m standing closer to it than you are,” the man said.  “And from where I stand, I feel like it might be.”

Nobody had a ready response to that.

“One,” Typhlosis murmured.

“I’m the last one standing on the brink now,” the man said.  “I don’t think I can do this much longer.  Do I embrace it or turn away?  I wish I could see you, to-”

He reached up, to move his hair out of his eyes.

“Don’t!” I called out.  My voice wasn’t the only voice of protest, but it might have been the first.  Perhaps because I was most mindful of arms that weren’t mine, in my immediate vicinity.

The arms of people all around him operated as extensions of him.  A matching, reaching movement, up and out.  Some disintegrated as they moved, but one lying next to him reached up, out, and into the finely spun construction of road that cocooned the man’s legs.

As I’d done to the altered road, the reaching arm broke the construction like it was sugar crystal or a snow globe.  There was a spray of blood, and the man dropped, jerking as his Corona Pollentia remained in place, briefly suspending him.  He was dead in that instant, well before he sprawled to the ground, shattered from the waist down.

My hand held Laserdream’s tight.

I was thankful that Typhlosis didn’t give us an updated count.

Crystal had backed me up for a good while.  She’d been a friend, a support.

She had performed during the event.  She’d been focused, she’d done what she needed to do.  It had been after that she faltered.  Hearing that the people who’d been touched by the broken trigger weren’t doing well, then hearing that only four remained.  Hearing and seeing those four drop away.

It had been that way for Leviathan, too.

It had probably been that way after I went to the hospital.

Fine during, not so fine after.

It had been ten days, now.  Ten days after the broken trigger with the citizen workers.  One of the worst we’d seen for citizen casualties and damage.

I landed on the balcony, letting myself in.  I took the carton out of the plastic bag and popped it into the microwave, lid ajar.  Eighteen seconds.

“Vic?” Crystal called out.

“I’m here.  One second.”

“That had better not be what I think it is.”

“It is.”

Crystal groaned audibly.

I pulled the carton free, grabbed some spoons, and walked over to the living room.  Crystal was sitting in the armchair, watching TV, a blanket on her lap.

She glared at me, but it was a mock glare, and it softened considerably as she saw the carton.

“Slightly melted brownie caramel ice cream,” I said.  I collapsed onto the couch, reaching high overhead to hold the carton and a spoon out to her.  “I’ll share it with you.”

“Well, if you’re sharing it…”

“I’ll exercise with you too, to work it off.  For now, though, it’s comfort food, staying cozy, and keeping each other company.”

“Okay.  You’re mostly forgiven.”

“And a stupid-in-a-good-way movie to watch,” I said, pulling the movie case out of the pocket I’d wedged it into.  “Because it turns out TV sucks after the world ends, and I can’t watch you subject yourself to it.”

“Okay,” she said.  “You’re forgiven.”

I popped the movie in, then settled on the couch, pulling a blanket over my legs, arranging a cushion to sit up against.  I fetched my phone and checked my messages.  A second cancellation from Jessica.

After a disaster like that, too many people needed looking after.

I twisted my head around to look at Crystal, as she ate a spoonful of icecream from the carton.  She passed it to me and I took a bite for myself, from the side she hadn’t dug into.  I passed it back, watching as the movie started.

My turn to look after Crystal.

The lights were off in the coffee shop, though it wasn’t dark with the light coming in through the windows.  The majority of the customers were sitting on the outside patio, and the interior was quiet, empty, and cool.

It was eerie, to go from the disaster to the more or less quiet period after.  To be back on this street, where the car had hit the pillar, and where I’d seen so much grief from one person, and to try and reconcile that with the broken trigger, the ninety dead, the fact that so many were dealing by ignoring it.  Moving on a matter of two weeks after the fact.

“Victoria?” the barista asked me.

My first thought was that she’d recognized me.  “Yes?”

“Your friend stepped into the back.  She said she’d be right out, but she asked us to keep an eye out for you so you didn’t think she was late.”

“Got it.  Thank you.”

“Can I get you anything?”

I looked outside.  Sunny, warm.  The summer and its heat lingered in the daytime.  “I can’t bring myself to drink anything hot when the weather’s like this.  Do you have any suggestions?”

“Ice coffee?  Iced tea?  Pop?”

“Iced tea, please,” I said, noting the use of ‘pop’.  A lot of people from a lot of regions had gathered in the megalopolis.

I didn’t have to sit down and wait for her to bring it to me.  It was in my hands within a matter of seconds, and I took it to the seat furthest from the door, where Jessica and I would have some privacy.

She was out of the washroom before I’d fully settled in.  Her blouse had buttons at the front and a collar, but was sleeveless, tucked into shorts.  I wondered if she looked less at ease in casual clothing because she was a professional at heart, or if it was personal bias and years of knowing her as the therapist in the office that colored my perceptions.  Her hair was damp, and she had what might’ve been a folded paper towel, soaked with water, resting on the back of her neck.  She collected a drink she must have ordered and paid for earlier.

“Doing alright?” I asked.

Jessica smiled.  “I was cooling down.  I’ll be glad when the weather is more comfortably cool.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “It’s not that I mind the heat.  It’s that I worry about how it affects people.  I get antsy when the weather is like this.”

Jessica nodded.  She glanced out the window.  “It doesn’t help.”

“Brockton Bay was always nice, weather-wise.  It didn’t have a lot going for it, but it did have mild weather.  Once upon a time.”

Jessica smiled.  “It’s good to remember the good things.  At the risk of slipping into habit, I’ll ask: how are you doing?  You’re okay, after the broken trigger incident?”

“I’m okay.  My cousin wasn’t, but she’s bounced back.  I think it was a wake-up call.”

“How so?”

“She might be reconsidering if she wants to be with the PRTCJ.  She might aim for something lower-key.  Her mom did, after things went bad in Brockton Bay.”

“I hope she’s happy and comfortable, wherever she ends up.  I did like her, when she and I crossed paths.”

At the hospital.  That fragment went unspoken.

“How’s the girl I found?” I asked.

“She’s managing.  We’re getting her stabilized and figuring out her power.  She wants to meet you at some point, to thank you.”

“She’s good, though?”

“Far better than she was.”

I nodded.

“The broken trigger aside, how have you managed since we last talked?  You talked about joining a team.”

I gave her a one-shoulder shrug.  “Pitched myself to a few.  It didn’t take.  I lost my job, the volunteer stuff feels empty.  I’ll survive in the meantime.”

“I find it very interesting that you asked about Hunter, and you wanted to clarify that she wasn’t just managing, she was good.  Then I ask you, and your response is that you’re surviving.  You’re managing.”

“You’re going therapist mode on me,” I remarked, smiling.

She smiled back.

“How are you?” I asked, before she could ask me the same.

“I’m settling into my new role, trying to wrap things up and make sure there are no loose ends as I transition.  Are you-”

“You said-” I said, inadvertently interrupting her.

“Go ahead.”

“You said you were busy.  Is busy a good thing, in Jessica-Yamada-land?”

It took her a second to answer.  Not our usual one-sided dialogue, this, her talking, me waiting for a chance to communicate, already plotting how I could say what I wanted to say as efficiently as possible.  I smiled at the observation, and I was left pretty sure she caught it, because she smiled again.

She replied, “I’m looking forward to when I have more time.  Right now, it’s balancing out.  Any exhaustion on my part is easier to deal with because the things I’m doing are new, exciting, a little terrifying, but positive overall.”

“Terrifying?  Because of the people you’re dealing with, or…?”

“When working with patients, the first and last meetings are the hardest, with the stakes greatest, and I’m having an awful lot of first and last meetings these days.  Maintaining course after the initial connections have been made is easier.  I know who I’m talking to and what I’m doing, there will be peaks, plateaus and valleys, but I can generally feel like there’s progress being made.  The first meetings and the goodbyes?  They’re critically important.”

“You want to make sure you’re laying good groundwork.”

“It’s not just that.  The wrong kind of connection or break can do a lot of damage.  Failing to realize you’re hurting a patient when you say something or take an approach, failing to be strong enough from the outset with patients who need a hard line, being too hard on patients who need a soft touch…”

I nodded.  I started to think about which I’d been, back then, but thinking back was hard and unpleasant.

“I…”  She’d started to say something, and then stopped.

“You?”

She sighed, leaning back in her seat.

“I’ve put myself in an awkward position here,” she said.  “Actually a few, including you and me sitting here having this conversation.  I want to get right to it so you’re not talking to me under the wrong pretenses, but I’m not sure how to navigate this, either.”

“Is there anything I can do to help?”

“That’s just it,” she said.  She frowned.  “I wanted to have a conversation with you for another reason.”

That stung, in a way.  That we weren’t meeting up for the sake of meeting up.

“Okay,” I said.

“I might have made a mistake,” she said.  “And I was thinking you might be able to help.”

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